Vue Sur le Doc Festival and Sunny Side of the Doc Market
By Owen Levy
Increasingly becoming one of Europe's more closely watched international documentary festival, France's Vue Sur le Doc and its companion market Sunny Side of the Doc convened June 17-22 in a converted 19th Century chateau set high on rocky cliffs overlooking Marseille's majestic old harbor. For the first time since its inception in 1989, the festival and market were housed at the same location. Strategies for achieving successful international co-production was the dominant theme of this seventh edition of the annual event.
The festival and market screenings focus exclusively on non-fiction films, an international selection that was not top heavy with American entries. ln fact of the 20 films screened for the competition, only two were American produced independents—and one picked up an audience prize. On the market side, U.S. representation was—to put it mildly meager.
There were several sidebars, including retrospectives for English director Ken Loach and French national Agnes Varda, who also headed the competition jury. As well, there were tributes to Cuban director Santiago Alvarez, whom the festival brought in from Cuba, and French director Alain Cavalier. Smaller programs were dedicated to clusters of French, Israeli And Ukrainian films. There was also a "Filmography of French Documentary" presented by the French National Film Institute.
Highlights of the market included a number of conferences, workshops and seminars, all devoted to aspects of documentary filmmaking. At a breakfast session on the European market for documentaries, French independent Denis Freyd (Archipel 33) pointed out that "currently some 4,000 European producers are creating about 3,500 hours of programming for European television annually.... Besides the known buyers like the state run networks, private and cable and satellite channels are emerging into the market."
There were also seminars on technological advancements highlighting the changes in the educational use of technological information in France and the world, a roundtable on navigating the sometimes unfathomable terrain of German co-production, plus case study of a successful international co-production for the making of The Seventh Wonder of the World, on the discovery of classical ruins in the Egyptian harbor of Alexandria, a co-production between France 2, Gedeon, the BBC, PBS-affiliate Nova/WGBH -Boston, the Louvre Museum and Elf Aquitaine. As a result of the deal, the original budget of 300,000 ($60,000) French francs expanded to two million (approx. $400,000).
A major issue for the U.S. partner was the fact that the documentary was filmed in letter box format. Speaking on an international telephone hook up from Boston, PBS Nova producer Melanie Wallace pointed out that for U.S. airing, the format would have to be readjusted; but she was optimistic that U.S. television in the future will be adapting the format.
At a panel discussion on distribution, Mary Barlow, TV sales director for London-based Jane Balfour Films Ltd., suggested that filmmakers do some research in pre-production so as to satisfy certain potential international market needs; and Kerstin Hagerup of Denmark's Filmkontakt Nord discouraged independents from distributing their own material simply because they were often not knowledgeable enough about the market to target the right outlets.
Also popular were the co-production workshops which gave directors a chance to pitch their latest ideas to a panel of programmers, producers and other industry insiders. Though closed to all but participants, gossip had it that the sessions are often gruelling with many an idea being carefully raked over the coals.
Generally, the American presence in the market was minuscule with the tiny American corner boasting less than a half dozen participants. American buyers scouting potential product included Jonathan Moss of Home Box Office, Lisa Grossman of National Geographic, reps of ITVS and the Discovery Channel. French television and production entities dominated the market with Scandinavia, Germany, Holland, Belgium and Canada making strong presences.
A small group of South Africans brought a short list of representative films, the country's emerging industry's first presence as a group at an international market. Not officially represented by the group was The Land is White, the Seed is Black, a French-South African co-production conceived and directed by Koto Bolofo, which picked up one of the festival's main prizes, the Images of Culture Award.
And what would a documentary festival be without some kind of controversy to keep bar tabs growing. There was a great deal of strang and drang over the recent demise of the support organization DOCUMENTARY, originally set up and administered by the European Union's Media Programme, which under its new manifestation, Media Two, was abolished. In an attempt to replace the invaluable technical and co-production support to independents which DOCUMENTARY provided, a group of independents from 18 countries established the European Documentary Network in March. At a hastily called roundtable of international directors, filmmakers grappled to come up with effective methods of expanding the organization's potential for independent in Europe.
On the festival side, of some twenty films in the competition, the grand prize winner was Krzysztof Kieslowski: I'm So So, an endearing series of autobiographical interviews with the celebrated Polish director, filmed by his one time assistant Krzysztof Wierzbicki and Kieslowski's longtime camera team. Though the Danish-Polish co-production is essentially one long talking head, the director on camera is thorough highly engaging as he provides generous anecdotes about his early life and career. The revelation that he failed the entrance exam for the Polish Film Academy is perhaps heartening news for many a struggling newcomer.
Thierry Knauff's Baku, the most expensive documentary ever made in Belgium at just under a million dollars, is a meditation on a primitive tribe of pygmies Living in the Equatorial forest of South-East Cameroon; the film picked up the Public's Award. And twenty three-year-old American Joanna Lipper snared the Young Public of La Cinquieme award for her first feature Inside Out: Portraits of Children, a perceptive series of interviews with preadolescents. The other U.S. entry was Synthetic Pleasures, made by Korean born Iara Lee, about the emergence of artificial reality in our daily lives.
Director Ken Loach was on hand for his retrospective. The beleaguered Englishman, whose documentaries and features have been the brunt of a great deal of criticism in his native Great Britain—while winning him accolades around the world—was philosophical during a brief press conference. He lamented the fact that there are so few theater in England and Europe that show documentary films, his included. "Most are filled with Hollywood blockbusters," he said, "films made to go with the popcorn."
Some reservation as: many of the smaller panel discussions were conducted in French without benefit of translations; and non-French films, that did not come with English subtitles, were usually simultaneously translated only into French over headsets. The bulk of the published material outside of the main catalogues was available only in French. For those who do not speak or read French, the festival was that much harder to navigate. Even the closing ceremony was conducted in French without benefit of simultaneous translations. Also note that of the ten films to receive some sort of recognition, five were wholly or partly French produced.
OWEN LEVY is a freelancer who divides his free Time between New York and Berlin.