What Will Win the New Documentary Prize at Cannes?

Cannes Film Festival

The Cannes Film Festival is trying to address its documentary problem. Since 1976, only five nonfiction features have been selected for the official competition. This drought came after decades of prominently featured documentaries, frequently two or more in a single year. As I argued in an article this time last year, this recent drought is more than likely an unfortunate side effect of the festival’s vehement auteurism. It’s also the sort of problem that will only get more and more embarrassing as the current nonfiction renaissance keeps gathering momentum.

But things are looking up! The first sign of the festival acknowledging the problem was the announcement that Luc Jacquet’s new environmental documentary, Ice and the Sky, would be this year’s closing night film. More exciting, however, was the announcement of the festival’s first-ever documentary award, the Oeil d’Or (Golden Eye). It comes with a prize of 5,000 euro, awarded by a jury presided over by legendary Cambodian filmmaker Rithy Panh. There are 14 films eligible, spread across the entire breadth of the Cannes selection.

Well, not quite the entire breadth. While ostensibly any film in the official festival program is eligible, the vast majority are in the Cannes Classics section. Begun in 2004, this portion of the festival began as an opportunity to celebrate the best of the festival’s past, featuring anniversary screenings and lifetime achievement tributes. Last year, for example, had a special event for Sophia Loren and a 30th anniversary screening of Paris, Texas. There are usually a scant few documentary screenings as well. 2014’s slate included Life Itself and The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films. This year’s grand total of 10 nonfiction features is unprecedented. With the introduction of the Golden Eye, Cannes Classics has suddenly become a documentary competition.

The 10 projects in question are all profiles of filmmakers and actors. There are two 50-minute films on Orson Welles, one of which was produced by Turner Classic Movies. There’s one about actor Steve McQueen’s love of auto racing, another about pioneering African filmmaker Ousmane Sembène, and a profile of Gérard Depardieu. There’s even a documentary about the history of the Palme d’Or itself. Kent Jones’s Hitchcock/Truffaut is an inevitable highlight, as well as Stig Björkman’s Ingrid Bergman, in Her Own Words. Daniel Raim, Oscar-nominated for his short profile of art director Robert Doyle, is back with Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story. Finally, the one I’m most looking forward to is By Sidney Lumet, a new American Masters film from Afternoon of a Faun director Nancy Buirski.

Some are likely to criticize the dominance of this genre in the competition pool, profiles of cinematic legends whose reputations tower over their mostly unknown documentarians. There’s an air of the Criterion Collection bonus feature to the list. At the same time, however, this is oddly fitting with Cannes’s documentary history. Before the auteurist nonfiction drought that struck the Croisette in the 1970s, the festival frequently programmed what might be called “genre” nonfiction. There were travelogues, a number of artist profiles, and a great many nature films. It seems appropriate that a 21st century Cannes, embracing its position as an institution of cinema history, would double down on this particular genre of nonfiction.

All of that said, it is entirely possible that none of the 10 films in the Cannes Classics section stand a chance at the award. The problem with the inaugural Golden Eye is that it pits filmmaker profiles against a smaller handful of what are likely to be much more artistically adventurous films. And, given the likelihood that Cannes created this award in response to the boom in creative nonfiction, a term that rarely includes television-oriented biography, this is suddenly a very confusing gesture.

Cannes Film Festival

The other four films eligible for the Golden Eye begin with Amy, Asif Kapadia’s biography of Amy Winehouse. His last feature documentary, Senna, was as far afield from the American Masters model as seems possible for a nonfiction biopic. The new film may very well be the same, another gripping story built entirely out of expertly edited archival material. Alongside Amy is OKA, a personal project by longtime Cannes favorite Souleymane Cissé. The legendary African filmmaker has not, to my knowledge, directed a nonfiction feature before. Then there’s a wildcard entry by a first time filmmaker, Marcia Tambutti Allende. Niece of deposed Chilean president Salvador Allende, her film is a portrait of her family.

My money, however, is on the only nonfiction film in the Un Certain Regard section. Roberto Minervini’s The Other Side appears to be another American pastoral, following his trilogy of films set in Texas. Last year’s Stop the Pounding Heart (review) was a triumph of empathy and narrative creativity, a coming of age story set in a devout rural community. His new film jumps just one state over to Louisiana. The trailer (watch it here) features some beautiful images of the lush landscape and hints at love, guns and addiction as major themes. If it’s even half as good as his previous work, it should be a major contender.

So which way will the jury swing? Panh is not the only juror who has made some truly remarkable nonfiction films. Alongside him are Nicolas Philibert (To Be and to Have) and Diana El Jeiroudi, who produced the first feature from Oscar-nominated director Sara Ishaq, as well as Sundance winner Return to Homs. Filling out the jury are critic Scott Foundas and French actress Irène Jacob (The Double Life of Veronique). That hints at a commitment to the more artistically adventurous films, at least if the three filmmakers involved are partial to work that resembles their own (which is frequently misguided logic, to be sure). Whatever happens, however, let’s hope this is only the first year of an renewed commitment by the Cannes Film Festival to nonfiction cinema.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.