What’s Really the Matter with Cannes and Documentaries?

Fahrenheit 911

The Cannes Film Festival does not embrace documentaries. Just look at the lineup over the last few years for proof. There may be a growing movement within the film community to recognize nonfiction cinema as art but it has yet to arrive on the Croisette. The usual explanation given for this is that Cannes is an old and conservative institution. It only makes sense that they would drag their feet even as other European festivals push forward. Last year’s first-ever documentary to win the Golden Lion, Gianfranco Rosi’s Sacro GRA, is a brilliant and perceptive work that would still look out of place on a Cannes Official Competition lineup.

Why is that? Last week Indiewire published an article by Anthony Kaufman on the problem, including interviews with filmmakers and programmers regarding the stubbornness of the festival on this particular point. Cannes is the “last domino to fall for documentaries to be accepted as art,” says Impact Partners executive director Dan Cogan, as quoted in the piece. Kaufman opens with an assertion that only three documentaries have been shown in the Official Competition at Cannes since 1956, when Jacques Cousteau and Louis Malle’s oceanography doc The Silent World won the Palme d’Or. It’s a dramatic number, one that happens to be completely false. It’s not always easy to get information on films in the Cannes lineup in early years, but by my count it’s actually 22. If you go further back to the birth of the festival in 1946, it rises above 30.

That’s still not much overall, but it does paint a brighter picture. It also allows us to completely re-frame the debate. The Official Competition almost never includes documentaries nowadays, but back in the 1950s and 1960s they popped up all the time. To have two or three documentaries in competition in a single year was not unheard of. There was a particular fondness for nature films, like Disney’s The Living Desert. And Fang and Claw, a French film about lions in East Africa, won a technical prize for sound. Documentaries about artists also fared well, including Henri-George Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso. Then the Canadian ethnographic masterpiece Pour la Suite Du Monde played the festival in 1963 and Malle’s travelogue Calcutta in 1969. Even though many, if not most, of these 30-odd films have been forgotten by mainstream film culture, their number is hard to ignore.

So the characterization of Cannes as the final frontier for the “documentary as art” movement isn’t exactly accurate. On the one hand, it is clear that Cannes programmers have trouble with the idea of nonfiction cinema as art today. The number of total docs to screen in the Official Competition may be more than 30, but the number since 1976 is only five. There was a 16-year gap between Fang and Claw and Victor Erice’s Dream of Light, a film about Spanish artist Antonio López García. The dates help confirm something that may seem obvious in hindsight. The problem is auteur theory, which wasn’t around during the heyday of nonfiction at the festival.

Cannes is nothing if not the physical manifestation of the resilience of the idea of the auteur in European cinema. Filmmakers like Ken Loach come back year after year, even if their recent work isn’t particularly impressive. Meanwhile, few Official Competition slots are given to directors who haven’t competed before. It sends a message that the filmmaker is much more important in the selection process than the film itself. Yet that alone doesn’t explain the absence of documentaries. There are nonfiction auteurs, certainly. Cannes has responded to exactly one of them, entering two of Michael Moore’s films in competition and awarding one of them the Palme d’Or.

The victory of Fahrenheit 9/11, as the exception to the rule, is an interesting test case. The problem is not so much auteur theory itself but rather the dumb things that it makes us think. The side effects, if you will. I don’t think it is too much of a slight to Moore to claim that his Palme d’Or came just as much as a result of the surrounding political climate as it did from the artistic merit of his film. One of the unfortunate logical fallacies to follow auteur theory seems to be that a documentary cannot be an auteurist project.

If the collaborative nature of a narrative film is collapsed down to the authorship of a single director, from mise-en-scène to cinematography and editing, a potential corollary to this is that because a nonfiction filmmaker controls much less of the image, it is less of an auteurist project. This seems to imply that the subject of the documentary is just as much an author as the filmmaker. If Fahrenheit 9/11 won because of widespread anger at the Bush administration instead of the artistic merits of Moore’s authorship, that actually hurts the chances of more documentaries being programmed. One could cynically attribute the Official Competition berth of Mondovino, a documentary about wine-making, to the tastes of the South of France. Waltz with Bashir, meanwhile, is much more evidently an auteurist project because it is animated, giving the director almost complete control over the image.

The other, equally frustrating side effect of auteurism is the way that the filmography of an individual director is addressed. On the one hand, it’s often a good thing that the less immediately acclaimed films by good filmmakers get re-examined down the road. On the other hand, the division of a director’s work into “major” and “minor” opuses almost always ends with any nonfiction films getting relegated. It’s significant that Jia Zhangke is an Official Competition regular but never for his documentaries. The only one of his nonfiction works to play the Croisette, I Wish I Knew, screened in Un Certain Regard.

So what is the solution? Before the widespread acceptance of auteur theory, Cannes put documentaries in its Official Competition all the time. Now most of those films are hard to find and in their place the Official Competition features narrative films by the same men (and almost entirely men) ad nauseam. This new movement to redefine documentaries as art is in an interesting place, even more so when we remember that they were thought of as such once before. Do we simply try folding nonfiction cinema into a mainstream understanding of cinema built around auteurs, or do we try dismantling auteur theory instead?

The right answer is likely a combination of the two, the advocacy for both the nonfiction projects of established auteurs as well as new nonfiction projects from collaborators like the Sensory Ethnography Lab. Cannes shouldn’t be let off the hook simply because it’s become an established fact that they don’t like documentaries. Remind the festival of its history.

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