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Europe’s Major Film Festivals Are Finally Taking Documentary Seriously

Courtesy of Neon

Laura Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Steve James’ “A Compassionate Spy” and Evgeny Afineevsky’s “Freedom on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom” are among 11 documentaries making their world premieres at the Venice Film Festival this year, with Poitras’ competition title vying for a Golden Lion — a rare feat for a doc at a major international film festival.

The growing number of high-profile non-fiction films in and out of competition at Venice suggests that major European film festivals have finally accepted documentaries as viable, cinematic art. While docs at the Toronto International Film Festival and major U.S. fests, including Sundance, Telluride and South by Southwest, have long been the belles of the ball, the most prominent international festivals, including Venice, Cannes and Berlin, have been slow to embrace non-fiction content, especially in competition.

“There had been what I would only characterize as an illogical resistance to thinking that documentaries could compete in the main competition slate in places like Cannes, Venice and Berlin,” says sales agent Josh Braun of Submarine Entertainment. “But that’s all shifting. I think when we see Laura’s film in Venice, it is just a natural progression of recognizing that these documentarians are often world-class filmmakers, who can stand the heat of that kitchen and compete in an international film festival.”

Braun is repping the Participant-produced “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” and recently sold the film’s North American distribution rights to Neon. Centred on photographer Nan Goldin’s battle against the notorious big-pharma Sackler family — recently the subject of Hulu series “Dopesick” — Poitras’ “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” is the Oscar-winning director’s first time at the Lido.

It also marks James’ maiden voyage to Venice with a film.

“I have heard nothing but great things about Venice,” says James. “It’s a great launch for the film. I hope it will generate distribution interest, because we don’t have a distributor.”

Cinetic Media’s Jason Ishikawa is repping “A Compassionate Spy.” He attributes the international festival’s shifting attitude towards docs to a growing awareness that nonfiction films are theatrically viable works.

“There’s still this belief in Europe, that’s going away, that documentaries are television, or financed by television or created for television, and they don’t belong in the main selection, which consists of cinema designed to be screened in theaters,” says Ishikawa.

“The more documentaries that have screened in theaters and have worked commercially in movie theaters have eliminated that notion.”

Alberto Barbera, director of the Venice Film Festival, adds that the “quality of documentaries is growing rapidly as viewers reveal a growing interest in them, especially thanks to the investments of Netflix, Amazon, and Apple.”

In addition to “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed” and “A Compassionate Spy,” several other documentaries are making their world premieres out of competition at the Lido, including Oliver Stone’s “Nuclear,” Guy Davidi’s “Innocence” and Gianfranco Rosi’s “In Viaggio.”

“Documentaries are gradually becoming more and more engaging, narratively exciting, and spectacular,” says Barbera. “Festivals, in general, are devoting more and more space to these documentaries.”

The 70th edition of the Venice Film Festival in 2013 marked the first year that docs were included in the main competition. That year, Gianfranco Rosi’s “Sacro GRA,” about people living on the fringe along the ring road around Rome, won the Golden Lion.

“It’s only in the last decade that documentaries have become a regular presence in Venice, with some of them being invited to the competition,” says Barbera. “Every year since 2012, around 15% of the world premieres are documentaries.”

Like Venice, in recent years, the Berlinale has also considered documentaries to be an art form instead of a programming afterthought. All told, the February 2022 Berlinale featured 50 documentaries, though only one, Rithy Panh’s “Everything Will Be Ok,” was eligible to compete for the Golden and Silver Bears.

“Documentaries are films,” says Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrian. “Thus, we try to include a non-fiction movie in every section of the festival, even in competition. That has been the case in the last three years. For our [competition], we are looking for films with a distinctive voice. ‘Everything Will Be Ok’ is a very unique movie, at the edge of different genre forms. It is very hard to label it. It may be closer to a science fiction tale than a documentary. But in the end, what matters is the emotional power that the film – either fiction or documentary – can sparkle.”

In 2017, the Berlinale Documentary Award was created, with films in all eight sections of the festival able to qualify for the Documentary Award.

“The festival wanted to intensify the commitment to documentary film at the Berlinale with the Documentary Award,” explains Michael Stütz, head of Berlinale’s Panorama section. “The award is an important signal for the field of documentary film and, at the same time, a sign of respect and appreciation.”

Of “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Barbera says it’s “one the best works of this genre I have seen in recent years,” adding that the doc is “more exciting than a fictional story.”

Like Barbera, Chatrian considers aesthetics often to be more critical than story when it comes to docs.

“In Europe, we have a slightly different take on documentaries,” says Chatrian. “We pay more attention to the style, and the narrative than to the content. It is always, of course, about relevant topics, but in order to be selected for an international film festival, we are also looking, and I’d say primarily, at the way these true stories are told.”

While Venice and Berlin have come to embrace documentaries, Cannes has yet to join the non-fiction bandwagon in recent years despite programming a number of non-fiction titles in its early days.

In the last 46 years, Cannes has reportedly selected only five documentaries for its main competition: Victor Erice’s “Dream of Light” (1992), Jonathan Nossiter’s “Mondovino” (2004), Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” (2002) and “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004), which won the Palme d’Or, and Ari Folman’s “Waltz With Bashir” (2008).

At Cannes 2022, Shaunak Sen’s HBO doc “All That Breathes” wasn’t part of the competition but garnered the fest’s l’Oeil d’Or (“Golden Eye”) for best documentary. The award was created in 2015. Previous winners of the award include “Faces Places” (2017) and “For Sama” (2019), both of which went on to earn Academy Award nominations.

“Cannes’ position on non-fiction hasn’t changed dramatically,” says Ishikawa.” However, I’ve noticed there have been incursions of non-fiction in other sections that historically never played non-fiction.

He cites Asif Kapadia’s “Amy” screening in Cannes’ Midnight section in 2015. Meanwhile, this year, Brett Morgen’s David Bowie documentary “Moonage Daydream” also screened in the Midnight section, while Ethan Hawkes’ “The Last Movie Stars” appeared in the Cannes Classics program, the sidebar dedicated to cinema history.

Cannes is the last holdout,” says Braun. “I think Cannes needs to take a step forward and really think about competition docs not solely being Michael Moore films, which has been the tradition.“

Cannes did not respond to several requests for comment.

Variety's Addie Morfoot contributed to this post.


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