A-List Festivals on How Documentaries Can Play in the Big League

A-List Festivals on How Documentaries Can Play in the Big League

April 12, 2022

A panel composed of representatives from A-list festivals got together on Sunday for an online talk staged by documentary film festival Visions du Réel to discuss the place of documentary films at their events.

The speakers were Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, U.S. programmer and selection committee member of the Venice Film Festival, Cristina Nord, head of the Berlinale Forum, Eva Sangiorgi, director of the Viennale, and Frédéric Boyer, artistic director of the Tribeca Film Festival.

Asked to outline their selection criteria, most panelists agreed theirs was a director-driven approach based on individual submissions.

“It’s first and foremost about inviting films that are truly inspiring and ground-breaking: it’s always interesting when you discover something that you haven’t seen before,” said Nord, adding that documentaries hold a significant place in the Berlinale’s independently curated, experimental Forum section, where they represent roughly half of the films selected.

“Our objective is to give an impression of what’s going on in documentary filmmaking in its broadest sense. We explore all types, from very classical, observational approaches like in Constantin Wulff’s ‘Chamber of Labor,’ which premiered this year, to more experimental films like the Canadian doc debut by Myriam Charles, ‘Cette Maison,’ ” she said.

The fact that there is no specific section dedicated to documentaries at the Venice Film Festival empowers nonfiction filmmaking, according to D’Agnolo Vallan: “It encourages the idea that docs can participate in the same space as traditional feature films. The presence of documentary films is growing and is peppered throughout [the lineup],” she said, adding that part of the special relationship Venice has with doc filmmaking is due to its vibrant association with the Venice Art Biennale.

“One of the defining moments was in 2013 when Gianfranco Rosi’s ‘Sacro GRA’ won the main competition, because it was not easy to agree on that film, that was a big step for us in terms of the way we perceive documentary,” she said, further citing the example of Frederick Wiseman, whose last six films have all been selected in or out of competition in Venice – the only A-list fest to do so. “A further step was to give him a career award because a Golden Lion has never been awarded to a documentarian before,” she said.

When she arrived at the Viennale, Sangiorgi said one of her first moves was to eliminate the different categories. At first, she said the idea of mixing fiction and documentary didn’t arouse sympathy, but today the audience appreciates it. “It’s a way of giving another position to documentaries, on the same level as other films.”

Asked about the changes brought about by streamers offering higher visibility to documentary films, Boyer said that while working with them was inescapable for a festival like Tribeca, it was essential to give smaller “gems” a platform at A-list festivals, citing the example of Oscar-nominated films like “Honeyland” by Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov, which premiered in Sundance, or Alexandre Nanau’s “Collective,” which had its world premiere in Venice.

“[‘Collective’] is an extremely small, simple film – but what a wonderful film – and it wasn’t brought by Netflix or Apple TV, it was just the new Nanau film, so I think it’s really important for us to keep our autonomy from the platforms,” he said.

Regarding the Viennale, Sangiorgi was uncompromising, “I’m kind of orthodox. I have always been against collaborating with platforms because a festival is something different. Our mission is completely physical and plays a social role. Our dialogue with the audience is based on the fact that we meet in theaters,” she said.

While she said it was unlikely there would be a Netflix doc in a Forum lineup, Nord welcomed specialized platforms like MUBI or Tënk for her films. “It’s not an antagonistic relationship: it’s good to know this type of distribution exists for Forum films, because when it comes to regular cinema releases, most of the docs we show – especially the hybrid, more essayistic films – won’t have a big cinema release, so it’s great that they can have a life on such a platform.”

Forum also provides an attractive offer for festival programmers, she added. “Look at ‘Art of the Real’ in New York. They had eight films from Forum this year. What we provide is precisely this opportunity to have a film meet with people who will program it in another context – that’s what we can do to strengthen this type of filmmaking.”

Speaking for Venice, D’Agnolo Vallan said that while the fest doesn’t discriminate against streamers – citing the recent selection of Netflix films “Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” and “Hopper/Welles” – the big challenge lies in “making people understanding the difference between an informative doc and something that’s more like a movie: in that sense, our selection is more strict,” she said.

When it comes to the selection process, both Nord and Boyer said they actively scout for new talent around the world, thanks to a selection committee spread out across the globe in Tribeca’s case, and to consultants around the world in the case of Berlin, “people who not only make geographic but also aesthetic recommendations on films in specific fields, such as queer filmmaking for instance,” explained Nord.

Questioned on whether the role of festivals is to reflect current affairs by selecting films on Ukraine, there was a general consensus among panelists that the urgency shouldn’t trump the quest for quality filmmaking. With regard to boycotting Russian-funded films, Sangiorgi said it was a complex question: “I will be open to having Russian movies in my selection, otherwise the same criteria should be applied to many other governments, for example from the Philippines or Brazil – government funding doesn’t necessarily mean the film is affiliated to these governments.”

Visions du Réel will be hosting another online talk on April 14 entitled “Filming in Resistance,” where Ukrainian filmmakers and producers currently shooting in Ukraine will be invited to debate on the possibility of resisting the war with images.

The festival runs until April 17.

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