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Documentaries at Cannes

polanski cannesDocumentaries are coming into their own at this years’ Cannes. In 2004, when Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 won the French festival's Palme d'Or, it was big news. Since then, very few, if any, documentaries have been shown in the official competition. In fact, most are shown as special screenings, out of competition.

This year is no exception, with a passel of titles premiering here out of competition. The topics vary, but many of the documentaries deal with filmmaking and filmmakers: We've already spoken about Katrine Boorman's film Me and Me Dad about her father, director John Boorman.

That monograph is joined by documentaries about Roman Polanski (Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, by Laurent Bouzereau), Jerry Lewis (Gregg Barson's Method to the Madness of Jerry Lewis) and Woody Allen (a film with the obvious title Woody Allen: A Documentary by Robert Weide).

Festival director Gilles Jacob has a documentary in the festival (not his first time), A Special Day, one of a number of festival anniversary films he has presented on the Croisette. This one follows 34 Cannes veterans on the anniversary of his film, To Each His Own Cinema, shown at the 60th Festival de Cannes, back in 2007.

While not a study of individual filmmakers, it is a who's who of Cannes veterans, with appearances by Abbas Kiarostami, Gus van Sant, Aki Kaurismäki, Wong Kar-Wai, Zhang Yimou and others too numerous to mention (although we won't forget to mention Jane Campion, the only woman to win the coveted Palme d'Or, reminding us that there are no films by women in this year's competition).

Two docs deal with the theme of environmentalism: Fatih Akin's Polluting Paradise, which has already been picked up for U.S. distribution by Strand Releasing, and Candida Brady's Trashed, which is produced by actor Jeremy Irons, who also appears in the film.

Ken Burns takes on a politically charged topic with his The Central Park Five, about a now infamous New York City crime and the rush to judgment that ensued. Sébastien Lifshitz takes a smart and loving look at French gays and lesbian pioneers and examines their lives in small provinces as they discuss their lives lived before there was anything like a French Stonewall in The Invisibles.

meekong cannes

Visionary filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won the Palme d'Or in 2010 for his dream-like narrative feature Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives, is here with a documentary, Mekong Hotel, that mixes fact and fiction as he rehearses a film at a hotel near a flooding river. This work is more of an essay film, as is Claudine Nougaret and Raymond Depardon's Journal de France, which has been described as a voyage through time.

One documentary, Sofia's Last Ambulance, about overworked EMTs in Bulgaria's capital, is playing in Critics' Week, a section selected by a group of film critics. Semaine de la Critique, as it is called in French, has its own juries, and at last night's closing ceremonies they singled out Sofia's Last Ambulence for the Critics' Week Visionary Award. The film is director Ilian Metev's first feature length film, so it is also eligible for the Camera d'Or prize for first features, to be given Sunday night.

That's what's happening with documentaries in the official sections. However, in the Cannes Market -- where the business of film takes place, documentaries have gained a larger presence.

About five years ago the market started hosting a brunch, inviting documentary filmmakers as well as programmers and documentary festival heads. This has turned into a hot ticket at the elegant Carlton Hotel on the Croisette, where valuable networking takes place.

Documentary festivals are everywhere now, and here you can sit at a table and dine with representatives of the many documentary programs throughout Europe - Visions du Réel in Nyon, Switzerland, FIDMarseille in Marseille, France (naturally),and CPH:DOX-Copenhagen in Denmark.

This year the market featured a "Doc Corner," where you could hear Philipp Engelhorn from Cinereach talk about funding or catch doc programmer and former doc producer Thom Powers discuss the ins and outs of documentary festivals.

Programmer Nicole Guillemet, who has been working with the market's documentary project since the beginning, told me she hopes that in a few years documentary film will have its own pavilion on the beach, alongside national cinema pavilions.

[Marian Masone is Director, Festivals/Associate Program Director at the Film Society of Lincoln Center]

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