Every year, the Cannes Film Festival program offers its riches. And each year documentaries are held in the side sections of the selection, with the exception of just three over the years, two of which have won the Palme d’Or: “The Silent World,” co-directed by Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle in 1956, and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 in 2004.
This year, out of 16 documentaries in the Official Selection, two are in competition, and it’s the first time non-fiction titles have joined that legendary list since Moore’s inclusion.
That’s progress, but a quick look at the latest Palme d’Or forecast reveals that Wang Bing’s “Youth” (marking the first 3.5 hours of a possible 10-hour triptych) and Kaouther Ben’s “Olfa’s Daughters” Hania fall short on the list of likely winners. Both are recognized by critics as examples that push the boundaries of the form, but it seems unlikely that they will become consensus prizes chosen by Ruben Östlund’s eclectic competition jury.
What took so long for the selection committee, chaired by festival director Thierry Fremaux since 2007? One theory is that the brass at Cannes weren’t thrilled when “Fahrenheit 9/11” jumped out of the lineup of 18 contenders and walked away with the festival’s biggest prize. It is more likely that over the years it has been difficult for Fremaux to snatch a place in the Competition from a great French auteur or director in favor of a documentary.
It was more cost-effective to book stellar entries like Brett Morgen’s “Moonage Daydream,” Kevin Macdonald’s “Whitney,” and Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” and “Maradona” as midnight movie events, or schedule them in side sections like Un Certain Regard (the second film of Wang Bing’s Cannes 2023 film, “Man in Black” and Morocco’s Un Certain Regard Best Director Award winner “Mother of All Lies”) or as special screenings (Steve McQueen’s four and a half hours “Occupied City” and the 3D “Anselm” by Wim Wenders ”) or even Cannes Classics (“Anita”). This year, the Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs) and Critics’ Week have no papers.
Over the years, well-reviewed documentaries such as Charles Ferguson’s “Inside Job” and Errol Morris’s “Fog of War” had their world premieres at Cannes out of Competition and still managed to win an Oscar. “We’ve had a very good experience with documentaries at Cannes,” said Sony Pictures Classics co-president Michael Barker, who did not apply for any films in competition. “There are so few doctors, is this the right house for this? I always prefer that he has his own space”.
Veteran documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival and DOC NYC, Thom Powers, served on the Cannes documentary judging panel that awarded Agnès Varda and JR’s “Faces, Places” their top honor, L’Œil d ‘Or. The film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary.
“It still puzzles me that ‘Faces, Places’ didn’t play in competition in 2017,” Powers said by phone. “It seemed bizarre that an author of his stature should not have played in the main competition when so many people of his generation seemed to enter the competition with much lesser work.”
Alas, L’Œil d’Or is not an award that people pay much attention to.
Last year, documentaries made a lot of noise when two took home the Golden Bear and Lion respectively in Berlin and Venice: Nicolas Philibert’s mental health exhibit ‘On the Adamant’ and portrait by activist artist Nan Goldin’s Laura Poitras, “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” which led to an eventual Oscar nomination.
Another Oscar nominee, “All That Breathes” (HBO), played in Cannes, out of competition as a special Cannes screening. “It’s indecipherable,” said salesman Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment, who hopes the Berlin and Venice documentary winners will make a difference in how documentaries are perceived by festival programmers. “It seems that institutional resistance can be broken,” he said, “by giving documents the promise they deserve. Cannes is difficult to understand”.