As they have rarely been given a leading role at the Cannes Festival, it is not surprising that no documentary film competed this year. Documentaries were shown during special sessions as part of the official selection or the International Critics Week, while the Directors’ Fortnight skipped documentary films entirely.

“Fahrenheit-9-11’s” winning of the prize in 2004 is therefore more the exception that proves the rule. Box office figures, however, seem to tilt towards the documentary genre. The scathing attack by Michael Moore was overwhelmingly ahead of the other prize-winners in terms of ticket sales. The film recorded a record-setting ticket sales of 2,378,455, compared to 1,587,292 for Polanski’s “The Pianis” or 1,400,007 for Mike Leigh’s “Secrets and Lies”, its most serious competitors, while the box-office figures of most winners of the Palme d’Or do not exceed 700,000. Yet even if the Cannes Festival is linked to one of the most important film markets, it is not all about the big bucks here.

Glancing at the documentary selections this century, it seems that the emphasis has been on their committed, even controversial or at least historical nature when the selectors made their choice. Thus, Patricio Guzman’s “The Pinochet Case” was screened during the Critics Week in 2001 and was included in the official out-of-competition selection in 2004 with “Salvador Allende”. Since 2000, Arturo Ripstein’s “Heroes and Time”, Chantal Akerman’s “From the Other Side”, Raymond Depardon’s “10th Room”, Rithy Panh’s “S-21: the Khmer Rouge Death Machine”, or even “Sobibor, 14th October 1943” by Claude Lanzmann have also been screened on the Croisette.

Let’s now take a brief look at the outstanding films of 2006.

Kigali, des images contre un massacre

This year, following its established line, the International Critics Week accepted a first film, “Kigali, images contre un massacre” by Jean-Christophe Klotz. As a young reporter, Klotz accompanied Bernard Kouchner (a former French socialist minister) to Rwanda in 1994 on a last-chance mission when the massacres had just begun. Kouchner’s impotence while relating his interviews with François Mitterrand, the then president of France, is striking: “Jean-Christophe and I were two stupid jerks trying to warn the world… And the bastards did nothing.”

Wounded by a bullet, Jean-Christophe Klotz was evacuated to France several days later and watched the inevitable take place from his hospital bed. Ten years later, he decided to return to where he had been attacked to show how his profession had failed: the work of the journalists had no impact on the Rwanda tragedy. The film alternates between images shot in the past and those in the present. The work of a reporter in the process of becoming a documentary maker emerges in that space around a nagging question: “How can it become part of television? The beast cannot be shot head on. We can only film its tracks.”

The strong emotion sparked by the film came from this individual, but also collective awareness. In addition, during the round table that followed the debate, Bernard Kouchner drove the point home: “The leaders did nothing, but you,” he says pointing at the audience, “also did nothing.” In three months, one million Tutsi were killed by machetes. “There was some point to the red berets being there, as they were looking after things. But the journalists?” wondered Jean-Christophe Klotz.

I Only Wanted to Live

Mimmo Calopresti

Mimmo Calopresti, selected from the out-of-competition films at the Cannes Festival, was also interested in genocide in “I Only Wanted to Live”the genocide of Jews in the Second World War. Witnesses. Archive footage. Photos. An established formula. Nor is there anything new about the subject, the memory of the camps. However, Mimmo Calopresti’s film makes us hear a new voice. The director has managed to extract an incarnate tone in the choice of these witnesses, drawn from the archives of the Shoah Foundation set up by Steven Spielberg, and throughout the editing. The sounds. The smells. The material. The emotions. Each shot recalls the reality of the experience of being in the camps. Cartoons provide us with background information. When the Germans invaded Italy, the Jews, already in the sights of Mussolini’s regime, were deported to Auschwitz. Only 387 of the 6806 sent there came back alive. We listen to nine of these survivors.

The Inconvenient Truth

Another serious subject screened at Cannes this year was “The Inconvenient Truth”, directed by David Guggenheim. He was assisted by Al Gore, Bill Clinton’s vice president from 1993 to 2001, and the unfortunate candidate facing George W. Bush to follow Clinton in 2000. Gore criss-crosses the United States to reveal the risks of climate warming to his fellow citizens. The film is mainly based around this conference with several breaks, during which Gore reveals his commitment to this subject in his private life. The formula may seem simple, of course, and sometimes the spectator feels more as if he is at a conference than at the cinema, but it is worth the effort. Extremely didactic in the most positive sense of the word, adding touches of humour to the scientific demonstrations, Al Gore is extremely convincing as he focuses on the most recent scientific data in this area. Mainly aimed at the US audience, “The Inconvenient Truth” is noteworthy as a very effective way of reaching all those who have not fully grasped the scope of the environmental catastrophe waiting for us. It also depicts the failed career of a politician committed to this cause for 40 years, but who failed to get his own country to ratify the Kyoto agreement.

In the light of “The Inconvenient Truth”, as is the case with the majority of documentaries screened at Cannes in 2006, the audience is mainly faced with important subjects that must be addressed. The positive aspect is that Cannes provides an opportunity to see powerful films that are often absent from the documentary festival circuits as they seem to be too traditional in their form and not personal enough in their approach. The only reservation regarding this selection choice is that it risks reinforcing the idea among audiences who prefer fiction that the documentary is mainly an educational genre, rather than looking at the world through a deciphering tool. But there are also beautiful exceptions…

Najac Calling, Over to You Earth

Another documentary screened out of competition at the Cannes Festival, this is an unusual film where an aesthetic form is used for a documentary in a strict filmmaking sense of the term. “Najac Calling, Over to You Earth” is first of all a truculent gallery of vivid characters. The line is clearly forced, but there is nothing smooth about these characters. During the first third of the film, small details reveal the day-to-day routine of a village in the south of France – a little like a fly buzzing from room to room, pausing for only a few minutes on the threshold, before slipping away to a new place. This fragmented editing puts together a symphony of personalities with a certain shared taste for leisure, but the film progressively becomes more far-reaching when a widely shared environmental awareness comes into play.

This documentary is not a blatantly militant film, but rather a quality of life that results in positions being taken along a path. An eco baker-farmer tells us that only a small business in his field can guarantee quality, as the wheat has to be adapted to each terrain. If Najac’s residents, which Jean-Henri Meunier filmed with great affection, often appear to be from the past, they are certainly the most futurist among us, as they have understood and implemented an idea of self-sufficiency. It would be interesting to know what Al Gore thinks about it.


Modern Times Review