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Even Without 'Fahrenheit 9/11,' Temperatures Rise for Documentaries at Cannes

By Michael Donaldson

From Jonathan Nossiter's 'Mondovino'

For the documentary community, the big news from the 2004 Cannes International Film Festival this past May would seem to be Michael Moore, right? The story of Fahrenheit 9/11 and the desperate race to find distribution was the lead story in the trades almost every day of the festival. The press hounded Moore as though he were the hottest pop star on earth. And to have this documentary win the Palm d'Or on top of all that...  Well, this story must be the big news from Cannes, right?


The significant story from Cannes for the documentary community is the acceptance—across the board—of documentary as simply another genre of film, to be judged on its merits, with no special obstacles to overcome. There were more documentaries selected for the festival, bought and sold in the market and talked about along the Croisette than ever before in the history of the festival.

So let's talk about all those other documentaries that enriched the Cannes experience this year. Patricio Guzman's Salvadore Allende, screening out of competition, tells of the terrible consequences when America, decades ago, meddled in the affairs of another nation—in this case, Chile. This film is highly relevant today.

Jonathan Mossiter's Mondovino, which screened in competition, is ostensibly about wine, but it's also the story of the dynastic families who make the wine. The Hollywood Reporter described the post-screening party as the most elegant event of that evening. There was no editorial question raised about such a lavish party for a documentary; in fact, the only comment was how appropriate it was, given the subject of the film.

The 10th District Court: Moments for Trial, by Raymond Depardon, is a surprisingly moving film about one day in the life of a French court that hears misdemeanors. There's never a dull moment in this court—nor in this film.

Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, screening out of competition, had such an enthusiastic reception at its first screening by the cinephiles in attendance that Thierry Fremaux, the artistic director of the festival, jumped back to the stage for a second time to gush enthusiastically. Directed by Xan Cassavetes and produced by Marshall Persinger and Rick Ross, the film tells the story of the world's first all-movie cable channel, which helped to shape film careers in the 1970s. The party for that documentary was hosted by Academy Award-winner Sofia Coppola, aboard a yacht.

Of this festival line-up, Variety said, "These films reflect a robust documentary field at Cannes, part of a burgeoning international market for hard-hitting, topical films." And everyone took the shift in stride. The fact that documentaries were coming into their own at the festival was a given, a natural occurrence that did not draw comment.

Mirroring the festival, documentaries played a much more important role in the festival's sales arena—the Marché du Film—than in past years. The Marché saw an increase in the number of companies with one or more documentaries among the films they had to offer. Even companies such as Fortissimo, long a home for quality features, was selling Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me right along with its fictional wares. The stigma attached to the word "documentary" seems to have melted away. Undoubtedly, the recent box office performance of documentaries like Moore's Bowling for Columbine, Jacques Perrin's Winged Migration and Jeff Blitz's Spellbound provided the jolt that convinced buyers from around the world that a good film is a good film is a good film, without regard for genre.

Marché Director Jerome Palliard and his US representative, Edith Grant, launched a series of breakfasts for producers from around the world in connection with the Marché. They called it the Producers Network and anchored it at the Plage de Palm adjacent to the Palais des Festivals. Jacques Bensimon, head of the National Film Board of Canada, and several producers of documentary films from outside the United States expressed interest in building bridges to American producers for possible co-productions. Europeans, with their access to various government-backed funds, and Americans, with their access to granting agencies, could form a potent force in the production of feature documentaries. 

With documentaries coming of age, producers should be alert to the possibilities of reaching across borders to finance films. Many new possibilities are presented internationally by the new wave of documentary filmmaking that is taking place. IDA could play an important role in brokering such new relationships.


Entertainment attorney and former IDA president, Michael C. Donaldson is the author of Clearance and Copyright. He has been attending Cannes for nearly 20 years.