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'Fahrenheit' Fallout? Cannes Competition Disses Docs

By Josh Slates

From Frederick Baker's 'Shadowing The Third Man,' which screened in the Cannes Classics sidebar. Courtesy of Media Europe

Amidst the announcement of the line-up of the 58th Cannes Film Festival, Thierry Frémaux, the event's artistic director, used ambiguous language to address the fact that no documentary films had been selected to compete for its coveted awards. "This year, we are under the sign of cinema d'auteur," Frémaux explained, "Whereas in 2004, we were under the sign of eclecticism."

This was perhaps a polite way of stating that this year's competition roster was almost entirely comprised of films from such established narrative filmmakers as Gus Van Sant, Lars von Trier and David Cronenberg.

It goes without saying that such a quintessentially French institution might dole out a pinch of favoritism to maverick auteur filmmakers. But is it fair to dismiss the entire documentary form as an "eclectic" interest of the world's most prestigious film festival? "If, in 2005, there are no animated or documentary films in competition, then it will be because the right opportunities were simply not there," Frémaux rationalized.

Then again, more cynical observers might point out that after Michael Moore walked home with the Palme d'Or for Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004, the festival jury was besieged with repeated accusations that the distribution of its awards was politically motivated. It stands to reason, then, that festival officials would have simply preferred to avoid any possibility of two consecutive agitprop nonfiction films winning its top prize.

Even festival president Gilles Jacob was quoted in London 's Daily Telegraph as stating that Fahrenheit 9/11 won the Palme d'Or "for political rather than cinematographical [sic] reasons, no matter what the jury said."

Such sentiment among the Cannes brass carried consequences for two highly anticipated but politically caustic documentaries, The Power of Nightmares by Adam Curtis and Avenge But One of My Two Eyes by Avi Mograbi. Both titles were presented as part of the Official Selection, yet both were conspicuously absent from the competition roll call.

However, this was a year in which not even the festival's most raucously crowd-pleasing film could resist imbuing its subject matter with an informed geopolitical relevance. Wünderkind Fatih Akin's Crossing the Bridge, borrowing a cue from Wim Wenders' Buena Vista Social Club (1999), accompanies German industrial rock band Einstürzende Neubauten bassist Alexander Hacke on an aural search for "the sound of Istanbul." Refreshingly, Akin posits that Turkey's Bosphorous Bridge , which connects Europe and Asia, serves as a cultural link between "l'Occident" and "Moyen-Orient" and not a divide. Instead, the resulting exchange of popular music has seemingly transformed Istanbul into something of a cultural sponge. The city is shown to cultivate such off-the-wall performers as Ceza, a troupe of hip-hop artists who bill themselves as a Turkish response to Public Enemy.

One might beg the question as to why Crossing the Bridge was not in competition. As Frémaux would explain in a statement that preceded the film's premiere, Akin accepted a position on this year's jury with the understanding that Crossing the Bridge would be screened out of competition as a result.

Aside from such cross-cultural travelogues, the most ubiquitous documentaries featured at Cannes are often the ones that detail the realization of beloved classic films.

Shadowing The Third Man, directed by Frederick Baker and screening in the Cannes Classics sidebar, concerns the arduous production of Carol Reed's The Third Man. Yet Baker's film also displays an unusual visual design that sets it apart from more otherwise routine "making of" features. Using a technique he calls "projectionism," Baker utilizes digital technology to project the ravaged post-war Vienna of The Third Man upon the city's reconstructed modern-day veneer.

Given Baker's background in archeology, it's not surprising that Shadowing The Third Man is just as fascinated by the evolution of the city's architecture as the effort that went into the making of an enduring classic of British cinema. "It started as a boast or a dare," Baker explains. "I said, 'I'm going to take The Third Man back down into the sewers and shoot it back into the filth and grime.'"

Another noteworthy title in the Cannes Classics program was Al'Leessi... (An African Actress). Journalist Rahmatou Keita made her feature directorial debut with this equally edifying and harrowing account of the glory days of Niger 's film industry. Keita opens her piece with archival footage of Zalika Souley, once Africa 's foremost screen personality, receiving an honorary award for her accomplishments. Souley's credits include leading roles in such films as Moustapha Alassane's off-the-wall 1966 western Le Retour d'un aventurier ( The Return of an Adventurer) and Omarou Ganda's 1973 social satire Seitane.

But when Keita visits Souley to document her contemporary travails, she finds the retired actress living in poverty and wistfully recounting a time in which she was "swimming in happiness." The heartbreaking closing crawl of the film informs the audience that Souley has since emigrated from Niger to seek work as a maid.

Sub-Saharan Africa also provided the setting for Sisters in Law, which was selected for a slot in the Directors Fortnight. This fascinating film represents the collaboration of Kim Longinotto, a veteran documentary filmmaker, and Florence Ayisi, a native of Cameroon.

The title Sisters in Law does not refer to women who have been brought together by marriage. Rather, the filmmakers narrow their focus upon the female legal personnel who practice and interpret law in Kumba Town, Cameroon. In a country where domestic violence is not recognized as legitimate grounds for divorce, state prosecutor Vera Ngassa is seen achieving remarkable success in charging abusive husbands with misconduct and sending them to trial. The presiding judge in these proceedings is Beatrice Ntuba, a brash magistrate who displays no patience for crocodile tears. In fact, Ntuba's no-nonsense demeanor suggests that she could find great renown and success as a syndicated television personality in the US.

Given the wealth of quality documentary programming that screened outside of competition, maybe we should pause to consider exactly who would benefit the most from an invitation to compete at the Cannes Film Festival. Are they our time-honored filmmakers, for whom international prominence and financing is a foregone conclusion? Or are they our emerging realisateurs et realisatrices, for whom even an honorable mention could embolden and cement their fledgling careers?

In response, festival representatives would likely argue that such sidebars as the International Critics Week serve just this purpose, nurturing young directors and lending them the cachet to land their next film in the Official Selection.

But then again, is competition in the Grand Theatre Lumiere all that really matters? Documentary aficionados can take solace in the fact that at least one nonfiction title went home from the festival with a prize. Alain Cavalier won this year's Prix d'Intimit é for Le Filmheur, a cozy piece of diarist filmmaking that screened as part of the Un Certain Regard sidebar.


Josh Slates is an independent producer and director and is also the editor of Travels Through Elsewhere Cinema, a journal of below-radar foreign and cult cinema that is distributed through Atomic Books.