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A Tale of Two Festivals: Visions Du Réel & Sunny Side of the Doc

By Henry Lewes

The two events could not be more different. Visions du Réel was a small relaxed Swiss lakeside festival, showing a selection of some 100 documentary films from 25 countries in four theatres. Sunny Side, which is purely a market, took place in the bustling French city of Marseille, and ressembled a mini Cannes MIP, with filmmakers roaming the corridors in search of co-producers and commissioning editors.

A good festival needs to be efficient, friendly and have good meeting areas, and in all of these Visions du Réel scored high marks. The centre was in a chalet-like building which housed both offices and informal cafes and bars. Screenings ran from 9 in the morning till late in the evening, with a welcome pause at half past five, to discuss the previous days‚ films, often with the directors present, and with English language translations. One "pause" was made up of clips entitled "Images of Resistance," which consisted of a protest at Austria‚s right wing political tendencies. The debate that followed was a powerful reminder of how many documentarists are concerned with social and political questions.

The philosophy of Visions du Réel's director Jean Perret is "freedom to dream‚" and his open minded and adventerous attitude was demonstrated again and again in the bold choice of films. The totally silent Elefanten (Karl Kels, Germany) ran for an hour and consisted of about a dozen fixed set-ups in a zoo, with the animals roaming in and out of the picture, so that sometimes only half an elephant was in the frame. Decribed by its maker as, "an attempt to break with conventional film language," it proved too challenging for about a quarter of its audience, who left before the end.

Mysterious Object at Noon (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Thailand), contained elements of fiction, documentary and pseudo-documentary. While shooting it the filmmakers travelled across Thailand, inviting various individuals, such as a boxer, a rubber tree peeler, and a woman police officer, to add to a story which the film had already begun. The additions were then illustrated. Although difficult, because of its lack of "logical‚ development, it clearly absorbed its audience" with its sense of a country viewed from inside.

From the USA came Rats, (James M.Felter) set in Washington DC, where there are apparently 14 rodents to every human resident. Felter‚s camera observes, often with humour, how one reacts to the other. A man shoots at them; a PRO woman, working for the city, tries to explain them away; a couple of black tramps appear to live happily among them. Felter‚s method of detached obervation is extremely succesful in drawing the viewer inside both the rodent and the human psyche.

Visions du Réel's small size makes it is an excellent spot for contacting European co-producers and buyers, who are much more accessible than at larger festivals. Moreover, this is a truly outward looking event, as was evidenced by prizes being awarded not only to the Switzerland, but to Holland, Germany, Poland, Finland, Russia, France and Taiwan.

Sunny Side of the Doc lasts only four days, yet its range of activities and events is remarkable. There were daily "Information Breakfasts‚" at which broadcasters such as Channel Four and Discovery Channel, spoke on "How to Sell to Theme Channels" or "What to invest in the development of a project." There were forums and conferences ranging from "Documentaries in Japan" to "How to approach the South American Market." Under the title of "30 Minutes to Understand" senior representatives from SBS Australia, HBO and BBC devoted half an hour to outlining their needs, along with hints on how to assault their apparently impregnable fortresses.

There were dozens of stands representing broadcasters, but the majority were French and the USA was little in evidence. Sunny Side was clearly a buyers market and it would be unwise to attend without having set up meetings in advance. What it lacked, moreover, was the sort of vicacity that goes with a film festival, with exciting discussions far into the night. The centre is set in its own grounds and has no cafes near by, and this was frustrating when the market closed at 7 p.m.

In previous years the Festival International du Documentaire has been run at the same time. On this occasion it opened the day the market closed, to the great impoverishment of both. The good news is that next year both will be run together again.


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