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Sunny Side Of The Doc and Festival International Du Documentaire

By Henry Lewes

From <em>ABC Africa</em>. Photo courtesy of Festival International du Documentaire

Good meeting places are an essential element to successful festivals. In Marseille, France, a harbor-side marquee welcomed visitors to both Sunny Side of the Doc and the Festival International du Documentaire. It was the perfect spot to reflect on a Discovery Channel seminar or discuss the lessons to be learned from a film that mixed 16mm, DV, Super 8mm and vide while, sipping a glass of white wine and gazing out on the yachts sailing in the Mediterranean.

Artistic Director Laurence Roth believes that today’s cinema “is an interplay between fiction and documentary.” This philosophy is clearly supported by the festival selection, which ranged from the self-questioning Always a Bridesmaid, (Nina Davenport, USA), in which the director shares her fear of ending up unmarried, through the extremely experimental I Love the Sound of Kalachnikov, It Reminds Me of Tchaikovsky (Philippe Vartan Khazarian, United Kingdom) to Letters from after Apartheid, (Corinne Moutout, France), an optimistic look at race relations in present day South Africa, shot in traditional Grierson style.

Although Sunny Side is a market, and quite separate from the Festival du Documentaire, they shared several events -- most notably opening night, which took place at Sunny Side’s headquarters in the magnificent Palais du Pharo, where ABC Africa (Abbas Kiarostami, Iran) was screened. Shot in Uganda at the request of the United Nations, it movingly records the life of thousands of orphan children whose parents have died of AIDS. Astonishingly, it is full of laughter, dancing and song, while also discreetly observing patients dieing in impoverished hospitals.

The main festival screenings, which ran in two cinemas located within Marseille’s National Theatre, consisted of some 30 films from 16 countries, the majority being from France. They were divided into three categories: Competition Internationale, Competition Francaise and Competition Premiers. The last group was not necessarily comprised of “first works,” as indicated by the title, but were often second or third films from young directors, dealing with unusual subjects in original ways. For example, From Salariiman to Superman (JunYang, Austria) employs a mixture of fiction and reality to consider the identity problems of a Chinese living in Austria. In My Own Private Green Island (Hsu Juei-Ian ,Taiwan,), three characters describe their conflicting attitudes toward Green Island, a former political prison, now a popular tourist attraction. In Zaman Al-Akbar (News Time) (Azza El-Hassan, Palestine), a Palestinian woman, turns her back on the war to record the ordinary daily life of children at play, home and school.

Screenings started at 9:30 a.m. and finished about midnight, with a break at 6:30 for directors to talk about their films. In addition, there were a number of seminars, at which filmmakers discussed such subjects as contemporary ethics in documentary, the aesthetics of interactivity and the webcam, and the decision-making process and division of power in documentary filmmaking.

However, it was down on the quay, in a specially darkened part of the Marquee, where the really experimental work was shown. In Rac (Volker Schreiner, Germany), three cameras were placed on three landings of a staircase to provide a methodical examination of a space/time relationship. In Here, (Marco Poloni, Switzerland),a young man is questioned about his experiences of the here and now, while the pictures are post-synchronised to give a very slight time lag to his voice. In The Reflecting Pool (Bill Viola, USA,), a man stands by a lake and we can see his reflection. He jumps and his body remains frozen in mid-air while his reflection disappears. Viola suggests a reality that is never directly perceived.

Meanwhile, in the Palais du Pharo, Sunny Side of the Doc blazed with commercial action. There were some 230 stands representing television organizations interested in selling their programs and making contact with co-producers. In the video library, prospective buyers watched films on 50 monitors and every morning, “information breakfasts” gave an opportunity for broadcasters, distributors and producers to talk informally. Under the heading of What’s New, organizations such as BBC Knowledge, Germany’s ZDF and Discovery Channel gave talks explaining their program requirements, often with much hard-hitting responses from frustrated filmmakers. And there were workshops with titles like Which Original Programming For Speciality Channels?, What Documentaries Should We Produce With Latin America? and Documentary and Interactivity.

There were also a number of interesting case studies that revealed the pitfalls encountered in putting together international co-productions, on subjects as varied as Fellini: A Life in Film and Venice: Sinking City. One, entitled Steps for the Future, dealt with the production problems overcome in financing and making 33 documentaries for the Southern African region dealing with HIV and AIDS. This endeavor involved nearly 30 partners, including SABC, BBC, Arte, UNICEF, SACOD and the Soros Documentary Fund. In summary, Sunny Side is a mini-Cannes, with seminars and workshops that visitors generally praised. However, anyone planning to attend—and wanting to sell program ideas or find co-producers—needs to have clear strategies: Set up meetings well in advance, and don’t rely on running into the right people after you arrive. A British producer summarized the problem: “The difficulty is how to meet broadcasters you have not met before. There is no way of finding them except either leaving messages in their pigeon holes (mostly ignored), or making contact, if you can find them, at cocktails.”

The Sunny Side catalog is very helpful in providing information on who wants what, based on a survey of buyers and commissioning editors. However, details and clarity vary widely. For example, CBC Canada states “Acquisition 15%. Co-production 75% .In House 5%. Pre-buy 5%.” Czech TV goes into a bit more detail: “Acquisition foreign 29.4% Acquisition domestic 5.5%. Co-productions 3.2%. In house 55.8% .Is looking for History, Social Daily Life, Education, Arts Culture, Science and Travel. Not interested in Wild Life and Music.” Channel Four International offered the following information: “Strands - ‘Cutting Edge’: Social Contemporary Observational - 49’-60’. 9 pm - 12 per year. True Stories: observational -76’ - 90’ - 6 per year.’

Another interesting way of taking the pulse of the documentary world was to wander among the booths and chat with the buyers, just a few of whom were looking for co-producers. The most useful booth of all was that of the European Documentary Network, whose TV Guide is remarkably detailed, and includes a block of information describing each broadcaster’s size, how it is funded, its total annual hours and methods of transmission, as well as the titles of strands, time slots, program themes, notes on methods of acquisition and names of commissioning editors and buyers. Any documentarian planning a working trip to Europe would be well advised to consider joining EDN. It already has 25 USA members.

Sunny Side showed a few films as examples of “special excellence,” including Diana, Story of a Princess; Fashion Victim: The Life and Killing of Gianni Versace; and O Fim Do Sem Fim (The End of the Endless) (Ralph Arlick, Brazil), which movingly observes the disappearance of traditional trades in Brazil. It was awarded the top International Prize. Another US success was Always a Bridesmaid, selected for its “cinematographic sensibility and humor.” How anyone found the time to watch any films is a mystery, with so many meetings, seminars, workshops and case studies. For in truth, if a momentary break did arrive, the first temptation was to sit outside on the sunny terrace, with its magnificent views of old Marseille, and refresh oneself with a cool drink.

For more further information, contact Sunny Side of the Doc at and Festival International du Documentaire at


For over 30 years, Henry Lewes has researched, written and directed documentaries for the BBC, CBC Canada, Film Australia and the United Nations.