Sunnyside of the Doc: Cultural Exception Also Applies to Documentary

What differentiates the annual French documentary festival, Sunnyside of the Doc, which takes place each June in the beautiful port city of La Rochelle, from other festivals and markets, is its international reach. Two sister festivals, Latin Side of the Doc, and Asian Side of the Doc, guarantee the presence of both Asian and Latin American, as well as European broadcasters, documentary filmmakers and producers. This is important for many reasons, one is that it highlights works made in languages other than English, and underlines what is currently being debated, that of "l'exception culturelle." This year, Festival Director, Yves Jeanneau, brought together a wide range of filmmakers and new support from places such as Qatar, more Chinese co-production possibilities, and highlighted several Mexican and Brazilian projects.

The EU-U.S. Trade talks were recently forced yet again to accept the cultural exception petitioned for by several thousand European film professionals, as "non-negotiable." Film and documentary would be left out of any attempt to qualify them as simply yet another economic product. During the Cannes film festival this year, American producer, Harvey Weinstein also stood by the European decision to protect European films.

I would assert that the broadcasters, which have the most interesting documentaries and the healthiest budgets, are also those that do not try to copy U.S. models of filmmaking and support. The French/German television channel, Arte, is expanding its documentary programming. The French national broadcasters, France Televisions, are also finding that documentaries fit well into prime time slots. One extremely interesting example of a growing, outward-looking, collaborative channel is France's overseas network, France O. Because it focuses on works and cultures outside of mainland France, and because the areas it encompasses lie next to many growing economies, the ability to co-produce with neighbors has created a positive outlook for the future of this channel. The special Mix Docs session allowed for Asian and Latin American projects aligned with France O to be pitched to international broadcasters and producers.

Yet some areas of the industry were obviously suffering, and both the Independent Producers as well as the press agencies were finding funding to be harder to come by, with more competition in place as well. One of the risks of decreasing aide to private TNT channels is that they will simply purchase inexpensive American documentaries as opposed to producing local fare. Investigative documentaries made by journalists and reporters working with press agencies also risk having some state support cut, thus putting at risk the quality of these extremely important investigative works. The union of press agencies in France also called for a meeting to discuss any possible cuts to aid for documentaries, as well as explaining how they work, at times for months without being paid, in order to make sure a story is researched and told properly. It is in fact this passion for truly investigating and telling important stories that allows many of these works to exist at all.

If there is one lesson to be taken away from the Sunnyside of the Doc market, it would have to be that documentary films which do not fit the mold of the at times, dominant Anglo-American models, also have an important role to play. These films are often educational, informing both local and international audiences about cultures, people, languages, places, which may not be highlighted in purely commercial fare. They also allow for different approaches to storytelling, different rhythms and timing. As I watched a French documentary made by a Japanese filmmaker, on the aftermath of Fukushima, I realized it was slower, more poetic than most American documentaries. And that slower pace fit the story that was being told, allowing me as the viewer to enter into another reality where I could actually pay close attention to details which rendered the fragility of both human life and nature more apparent. Not having to fit a mold, or battle against standards set by a dominant culture, allows for each voice to be heard and each documentary to be viewed in a more independent way.

There is no assumption that all audiences want the same kind of documentary. There is still a freedom to allow the story to unfold, as it needs to both visually and thematically. And though most documentaries are not poetic, they do have a right to be supported without fears that the languages used, the subject matter revealed, does not fit a mold. Award-winning documentary Searching for Sugarman showed us a combination of a Swedish filmmaker with a forgotten American subject shot in South Africa, coming together to tell an international story. Perhaps if such a project had been pitched in the U.S., in a more commercial arena, unlike Sweden where there is state support for documentaries, this film would never have been made. Yet it won the highest honor the U.S. film industry can give, an Oscar. This is perhaps the best reason to always allow for a cultural exception, because you never know from where genius and a good story may come.