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Sex in Afghanistan, Religion in China and Debunking Goldman Sachs at the Sunnyside Documentary Festival

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If there is one reason to attend the French documentary market and festival Sunnyside, it is because it is held in the gorgeous port city of La Rochelle. In contrast to other markets, it is not dominated by docs from the Anglo-Saxon world, but by a real mix of European, Latin American and Asian films. The decision makers at Sunnyside make deals in a more relaxed way, and we are reminded that other points of view, co-productions and collaborations are at the heart of what making international documentaries is all about and what brings filmmakers and funders back year after year. Attending such a market in France is also important in that it reminds us that there are different ways of telling stories, and that franchising formats is not always the best way to serve the story itself.

Yves Jeanneau, a kind of father figure of documentary in France, has spread his reach to other parts of the world, curating and growing both the Latin side of the docs and Asian side of the docs, resulting in a strong presence of buyers and content from regions that are often under-represented at other markets. The approximately 1.700 participants at Sunnyside come from France, Germany, Japan, China, Norway, Mexico, the U.S., the U.K. and many more, and are the result of Jeanneau's work to attract potential co-producers and buyers. Asia, for example, does not pay a great deal for acquisitions, yet can come in with a good portion of a co-production budget.

The delegation from China had a strong showing this year. The doc The Chinese Hajj, screened to the public, presented a face of China we know little about: the minority Muslim population. One of the most interesting announcements coming out of China regarding documentaries is the "industrialization" of the field with strong political backing. In 2011, China even created a new bilingual documentary channel, CCTV9, which shows documentaries in both Mandarin and English. The channel is co-producing films with the likes of the National Geographic Channel and the BBC. In 2011 they programmed over 1000 hours of international programs, as well as their own co-productions with these major players in the documentary world. This opening up to international co-productions and the inclusion of non-Chinese subject matter, as well as their own rich heritage, is promising for the future.

A second documentary to screen publicly at Sunnyside was Crimes d'Amour a Kaboul by Tanaz Eshaghian, which had audience members standing and sitting in the aisles as we witnessed what can only be called the absurdly surreal situations of three young women in Afghanistan telling their tales of young love (sex and pregnancy) from inside prison walls, as crimes of love can bring up to 15 years in jail. The film is moving, sad, funny and honest. One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the role of the fathers defending their daughters' honor, or, in the case of one girl, the absence of her parents. There are forced marriages, failed marriages, a pregnancy, doubtful virginity, love stories, both doomed and not. Almost anywhere else, these kinds of stories would live themselves out, outside of prison walls. In Afghanistan, these strong-willed women are also the future. As we hear them speak out and defend their love, and why they do not deserve to be in prison, we realize the personalities behind these stories have a voice, which is amplified through the crafted telling of their tales through this very moving film.

France is an important locale for documentary films in that it is increasingly supporting these factual films, both through new programs at the channels such as the French-German Arte and France Television's France O, as well as through the private pay channel Canal+ which along with Arte is one of the few French buyers present at major documentary festivals such as Sundance. Christine Cauquelin is head of documentaries at Canal+ and is behind acquisitions such as Inside Job. She also champions these international films that find a home at Canal+, and she has increased awareness of issues dealt with in some of these docs by linking Canal+ to NGOs such as UNICEF, so that each time a Canal+ subscriber donates, Canal+ matches the donation.

It is also important in that France provides a balance to more Anglo Saxon content, with the inclusion of renewed focus on culture, the arts and literature as themes in local docs and co-productions. This helps balance the somewhat disturbing tendency of programs classified as documentaries, some of which receive state subsidies, but which in fact are not truly docs at all. The push towards less expensive formatted documentaries, while at times entertaining, has also imposed a way of storytelling which is not always homegrown, thereby threatening the expression of ways of seeing which cannot be easily forced into a format.

Some of the important decision makers in the French broadcast world for documentary include Dana Hastier, who runs France 3 television's history documentaries, including one entitled The World of Obama, which will air in time for the election and which promises to be less than admiring of the President who created such hope almost four years ago. Another project on Obama, which demonstrated a more positive link between his "world" and the man and president he has become, ended up not being funded by French television. France 3 also co-produced a doc focusing on the anniversary of 9/11 which screened last year, The Day That Changed the World. A third doc proposed to the channel focuses on the Anglo-American bombing of France in 1944 and the approximately 11,000 civilians who were killed as a result. As approximately 8 to 11 million French watch one documentary every week, these programs do indeed have an impact. There seems to be no decrease in the audience's appetite for documentary.

Arte has an extremely exciting and forward-thinking lineup of documentaries, both productions and acquisitions. One much anticipated doc is director Tony Gatlif's Time for Outrage, based on the book by French Resistance fighter Stephen Hessel (Indignez-vous). The reflection of the "We are fed up and will not take it anymore" movements such as Occupy, the Arab Spring and others have made the book a best-seller. Gatlif commented,

This is urgent. The disorder of financial capitalism is throwing the world and its population into a crisis that is increasingly tough for millions of people, reduced to unemployment and plunged into poverty. These dark times in which we live may lead to worse still, a surge in xenophobic and racist violence, a war of civilization, pitting nations against other nations in the name of God, the incompatibility of cultures, or quite simply hatred of the other. Cinema, like literature, music and the other arts, must fight against this terrible outcome.

And while on the subject of outrage, one cannot forget the fraud and manipulation by banks which have rigged the system. As more information comes out of the UK, US and elsewhere about the disturbing behavior of those who profit the most in our financial markets, the head of the Arte channel's Society and Geopolitics documentary programming, Alex Szalat, handed me a DVD of a CAPA Productions co-prod with Arte and Canal+ entitled Goldman Sachs: The Bank That Runs the World, by Jerome Fritel and Marc Roche, which will air September 4. I had already read Marc Roche's book of the same name and discovered the financial industry insiders, whistleblowers and outraged politcos who began speaking out against Goldman Sachs early on. The most disturbing part of the story is the borderline legal, but morally corrupt, approach to hiding Greece's debt, which in fact created a Trojan Horse effect for Europe. Is this economic warfare ? How can it not be ?

The refreshing reminder that French filmmakers and funders defend auteur-driven works, finance documentaries that ask tough questions, and fight back against a mainstreaming of factual filmmaking, is one of the strong suits of Sunnyside. For those documentaries that make it to the big screen, playing in cinemas, as well as those that find a home on broadcast television, documentaries are reaching new audiences around the world. And the world is better for it!

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