Sarajevo Film Festival 2024

«I think there’s a real need to see new faces»

SUNNY SIDE OF THE DOC: Director of Strategy & Development Mathieu Béjot on the La Rochelle market's 33rd edition.

After a mostly online experience over the past two years, The 33rd Sunny Side of the Doc returns to La Rochelle from 20 to 23 June 2022. Though a fully physical event, in the name of accessibility, this year’s Sunny Side of the Doc will keeps a selection of online offerings.

Established in La Rochelle, France in 1990, Sunny Side of the Doc is a major international marketplace for coproduction, buying and selling of high-quality documentary projects, programmes and new narrative experiences. Its establishment follows a threefold mission approach to foster the European and international circulation of documentary programmes, encourage international coproduction and the development of projects around networking opportunities, inform and train professionals on key market trends, media economics, technological changes, content creation in the streaming era, and more.

For 2022, Modern Times Review spoke with its Director of Strategy & Development Mathieu Béjot on the history of La Rochelle, lessons learned from the pandemic editions, a strong focus on Ukrainian productions, and its overarching NewVoices theme.

© Jean-François Augé – Studio Ouest

Can you speak a little bit about what makes the town and the infrastructure of La Rochelle conducive to an event like Sunny Side of the Doc?
You don’t want to be in a nondescript exhibition hall for a market like Sunny Side. The venue is an old wholesale fish market. It’s right by the docks. It’s a building that was built in the 1950s. They sold fish wholesale there, not really for retail. And therefore, it’s a building with a lot of character. It is a very long building with high ceilings. As it overlooks the docks, some of the stands have a small terrace with lounge chairs. I believe the venue is conducive to holding a more informal market. You’re not stuck in a basement somewhere.

The whole city is also very nice, and everything can be done within walking distance. It’s a very lively city with students and lots of bars. It’s a very touristic city as well. So there are lots of places to have dinner.

The setting of the city itself is absolutely beautiful. You have two towers at the entrance of the old harbour. The whole thing is so picturesque that once you’re there, you already feel great. So in June, you’re in a beautiful city with specialty seafood, oysters, and nice local wine. This is all conducive to a very business-oriented yet casual event.

You don’t want to be in a nondescript exhibition hall for a market like Sunny Side.

And what about the history of the city itself? It must go back to the Middle Ages…
The real development might be a bit later, especially with trade. I have to admit that they were famous for the triangular trade. A lot of fortunes were made on that. But that’s interesting because documentary explores these issues. That left the city with some incredible architecture. Many streets have an arcade, so even when it’s pouring rain (not in June, of course), you can walk and still be very dry.

On top of that, Tuesday 21 June is music day in France. The town turns crazy where everyone can go out on the street and play music. The whole city turns wild, making for an atmosphere that is like a holiday.

La Rochelle is also one of the cities in France that is the most advanced in terms of turning green. So they’ve had bicycle sharing schemes for many years. They restrict cars in the city center, and they have electric buses. A lot of things there run on electricity. This is part of the beauty as well. That it fits within the values of Sunny Side. We didn’t choose La Rochelle for that, but it helps that the city is very much in favour of renewable energies and trying to be as green as possible.

In terms of venue, location, and concept, La Rochelle and Sunny Side are a perfect match…
Yes. Obviously, you always want more but, as I said, the venue is convenient and has the character. And, in big cities, you lose people, whereas, in La Rochelle, it’s easy to bump into people who have a badge. And because it’s a very focused market, anybody who has a badge is someone you want to talk to. You may not do business with 2000 plus participants, but everybody’s part of the same community. So that creates a very special atmosphere.

© Jean-François Augé – Studio Ouest

I’ve been following the Cannes Film Festival, and having the first full physical event in two years, the crowds, energy, and enthusiasm seem to have come back with a vengeance. So what sort of expectations do you see for Sunny Side in this regard? And what sort of lessons were learned during the pandemic years?
The expectations are pretty high, as are the energy levels and enthusiasm. People need to get together. Over the last few months, there have been a few events, but this is our first Sunny Side in 3 years. We all know the limitations of online events. People need to sit down and talk about new projects and what broadcasters are looking for. If you need to find production partners, you have to meet them in person. It’s very hard to find the right one on Zoom, although it had to happen for a while during the pandemic. From what I hear, not just from Sunny Side, but every single market, even seasoned industry, producers, and distributors, have had a tough time meeting new contacts. It seems like during the pandemic, everybody did business with existing contacts. I think there’s a real need to see new faces, people you don’t know, including in well-known companies. I’ve heard so many stories of one buyer changing in one company, and although you’ve been selling for 20 years, the new person doesn’t know you. All of a sudden, things are much more complicated. So the need to put a name on the face, introduce yourself and break the ice physically instead of just on Zoom is very important. This is why we will have some sessions with traditional players, but also new faces coming. For instance, for the RTBF in Belgium, not everybody has met the new head for documentary. Likewise, with RAI in Italy.

In terms of the lessons learned in the digital age, I think we’ll try to keep some of the positive aspects of being online this year and probably in the years to come. One of them is to attract people who may not be able to travel to La Rochelle for health reasons, not just the pandemic, but it could be another pandemic, which is coming, unfortunately. It could be economic reasons as well. Let’s face it; it’s a tough time for many people in the documentary industry. So the amount of traveling that was done before may not be an option these days. And also the sustainable consideration. Can we still fly every week to a different market? I think some people are reconsidering how many markets and events they will attend every year. We are, after all, an industry that’s taking climate change very seriously, and people have to adapt. So offering some online extensions is an answer to that. Our pitching sessions, for instance, will be pre-recorded. And we will have live Q&A sessions. We’re doing this for several reasons as we weren’t sure if everybody would be in a position to travel. We thought we needed to create a kind of a level playing field. It’s also a way of improving the quality of the pitch. Some people don’t necessarily like to stand on a stage and speak in front of a huge auditorium.

We will have live Q&A sessions with producers and decision-makers and attend on-site or remotely. So it’s a way of ensuring that everybody can participate in the pitching sessions, both producers and decision-makers, without having to travel. Obviously, the impact is not the same. And we know that people who will be here will benefit more from the pitches than people who work remotely. But we feel it’s very important for us to make sure that we are as inclusive as possible. And going online is a way of doing it.

I think another important takeaway we’ve learned from the pandemic is the need to engage the community throughout the year, and not just four days a year, which is why we set up our Global Pitch in February this year, and why we’re doing our before event on June 1 and 2.

You mentioned the market options and the limitations people may have travelling these days. With that in mind, what position does Sunny Side hold in this wider documentary market ecosystem?
It’s a unique role. Every industry event has its advantages and tradition, etc. I think we’re pretty unique in a couple of senses because we are a market-only event. There are no screenings attached to it, which sometimes people think might be a little dry. But at the same time, everybody needs to talk about co-financing, co-production, distribution, sales, etc. And we think this is better done at a market where you don’t have anything else to do but focus on the industry side of the event.

I also think one of our unique characteristics is to talk to broadcasters and platforms by having the main genres of documentaries represented. When you look at several industry events, they are much more geared towards social issues, human interests, and creative documentaries. Our pitching sessions are very clear—wildlife history, science, arts, and culture. The boundaries between these genres are getting more and more blurred. And I think we cater to an audience that will find everything under the same roof. You do have specialized events for science only, for wildlife. We bring all the main genres of documentary that are represented on television and platforms together. This is quite unique.

We are expanding gradually, especially since we’ve been working a lot with Central and Eastern Europe in the last couple of years, where projects tend to be much more side on the creative feature side than on the television side. But we know we don’t necessarily have the same crowd as Cannes, for instance. Having said that, we do have a lot of distributors who have feature docs as well. So we are all-inclusive with a very strong DNA in what I call docs for television. And I think that makes us pretty unique.

I’ve been thinking a bit about this over the years. What if I wanted to make a doc that isn’t on a social or political issue? How would I even go about finding funding or other things for that? It seems like so much of the documentary infrastructure is geared toward those kinds of stories and not, say, a simple doc on a pop culture phenomenon or something. Of course, human interest stories are extremely important, but they are not absolute in terms of what a documentary can cover. Sometimes I think the industry status quo tends to forget that…
Definitely, if you look at the selections, I’m thinking of a pop-science documentary on Dopamine as a good example.

So, what would you say to a Sunny Side first-timer? How should they navigate the event and not be like a deer in the headlights?
Well, first of all, join us on June 1. We have a session for newcomers precisely to give some tips on how to prepare the market and what to do.

There are a few other things that we would recommend. First of all, following some sessions is a way of identifying who’s who and who does what. I often find that newcomers don’t necessarily have the thing they have. I’m sorry for the generalization. Sometimes people think they have a great idea, and it should naturally interest the rest of the world. You have to understand the people you’re going to pitch to, their point of view, where they come from, etc. I think following some of the pitching sessions; you can see what kind of documentaries are being pitched. And through the reactions of the commissioning editors, you can start to understand what makes them tick, what they are interested in, and what they’re not interested in.

The second tip is not to be obsessed with meeting the big broadcasters. You come to Sunny Side, not necessarily to 15 emails and phone calls to Netflix, BBC, or PBS. Remember that most of these broadcasters will almost always work with a local producer. So start by finding a local producer as a production partner. Also, go and see sales agents who can give you some great feedback about the potential for your project and might help you find some pre-sales, Co-production money, or equity. Position yourself and try to narrow down the people you want to see. Don’t try to meet everyone!

Lastly, speak to people but don’t bother them. Introduce yourself, have your quick presentation pitch ready to introduce yourself in 30 seconds or two minutes, depending on the situation. And that’s how you’re going to learn the network. At some point, something will click. So be open, listen, and meet as many people as possible.

© Jean-François Augé – Studio Ouest

It’s not a profound observation, but I always tell people to target their projects, especially when unfamiliar with such markets. This idea to meet the biggest names in the industry is quite strong, but at the end of the day can yield an unproductive amount of time spent…
It’s true. We do have a few umbrella stands representing delegations from different countries. We have a massive delegation from Canada. We have delegations from Italy and Spain. So many, I can’t name them all. Go and see these people and talk to them. They are very helpful and can guide you in ways you may not even have expected.

Also, in terms of first-timers, we have a programme called Meet the Experts. We will have experts focusing on territories, people talking about Impact campaign production and sustainable documentaries, international distribution, financing, etc. You can ask for a number of half-hour meetings, so it’s a good way to broaden your horizons and get some feedback from the industry. Since our focus is on New Voices, we also pay attention to mentoring. Many of these new voices are also first-timers, so you can’t expect them to get a registration and have a great market. You need to show them how to go about it, to make sure that they belong in the industry and that they are welcome.

I’m curious how you are defining “new voices”? Is it specifically around social demographics?
We have a pretty broad view of new voices. To be honest with you, we thought of focusing on diversity and inclusion. But I was very much against using these words because this is a North American and Western European idea. When you talk about diversity and inclusion to people in Romania, Hungary, China, Japan, Mexico, or Brazil, it doesn’t mean the same thing. But of course, it’s part and parcel of new voices for us.

The way we define new voices is emerging talents, particularly from underrepresented communities and countries. So for us, the idea of being underrepresented, whether it’s communities within traditional documentary territories or from new countries as well. We’ll have a delegation from South Africa, which we’re hoping to open to other African countries. We’ve been continuing to do a lot of partnerships and scouting in Central and Eastern Europe. But we’ve I was just DocEdge, Calcutta for the last few days, trying to scout for Indian projects. Our Global Pitch was on women’s voices, which was very much linked to new voices as well for us. Not that women are new but listening more than just hearing voices is pretty new. For instance, we had half a dozen projects from Iran, and they were just spectacular. So this is really the idea of broadening the horizon. Why? Because it’s very much requested from us by podcasters platform producers as well. Everybody wants to have new talents. It’s obviously starting from North America that the industry has to be more inclusive to reflect more on regressing, which is true of all kinds of documentaries. These days, you cannot shoot a wildlife documentary by just sending a UK or a French crew to an African country. All the commissioners will ask you to have local talents, both on-screen and behind the camera as well.

There’s a movement not shared by everybody in the industry, and it doesn’t mean the same everywhere. But I think it’s kind of general movements that we have to pay attention to. Interestingly, I found that COVID has really accelerated that movement. With all the traveling restrictions, a lot of people manage to have to work with local partners to have a kind of remote operation to be able to shoot in countries without signing anybody. This will certainly leave a trace post COVID. I think people are learning to work differently. And what’s very interesting is that at first, people might have found a production partner just to be able to complete the documentary, as per imagine. But very soon, you realize that by bringing local talents, you bring different ways of narrating stories and bring different subjects to the table. You bring different angles, and you bring fresh voices. Not just the talents, but the stories being told and how they are being told. And this is very much part and parcel of what we’re trying to do. We’ll have a session on decolonizing archives, on both how you make sure that countries that have been deprived of their archives can access them and use them, but also how you tell a different story by accessing different archives or by having a fresh look at the archives with this incredible project called Black Quest. During the rush to the West Indies in America, they realized that more than 25% of the people who conquered the West were actually black. They were from all walks of life at different levels of society. And it’s very interesting because when you look at Western films from Hollywood, a lot of figures were inspired by black people, but they were talking white on screen. So decolonizing archives is also a way of making sure that you look at history from a different perspective, not necessarily the perspective of the “winner”.

How does this all translate tangibly across the projects that have been submitted to Sunny Side for 2022? Have you noticed any thematic threads?
It’s hard because we have so many sessions, so many different things are happening. But what we noticed is that 40% of the submissions are first or second-time filmmakers. We were talking about submissions. I think that’s interesting because it resonates with the idea of new voices. And, in terms of the selection, we have a perfect gender balance. I know it’s not a theme, but we are really happy to see that.

In terms of some of the takeaways on all the themes that we found, and because I was talking about gender parity, many films deal with women, the role of women, both behind the camera and on-screen, revisiting stories and history through the lens of women.

Obviously, a lot of projects deal with climate as well. And we will have a specific session on oceans in XR.

Of course, what’s going on in the world is very, very important. We have a few projects on Russia, directly or indirectly. When I say indirectly, there’s one which we love called a Shaman vs. Putin. It’s a real story of a shaman in the east of Russia who had a vision that Putin has as a demon inside him. He thinks he needs to travel across Russia to exorcise it. In the beginning, people say no, who’s this crazy guy, but he walks all across Russia to get to Moscow. We have another one on how Russia uses poison as a tool to defeat opponents. There’s also an incredible VR story called Traveling with Trotsky. Trotsky wakes up to travel to Ukraine with an African Italian student who wants to shoot a film. He goes to Ukraine with the same message that 80 years later, Ukraine is still fighting against a dictator.

We will also have a showcase of Ukrainian projects which really need to reach out to the international community. We are working with several partners to be able to bring producers and or directors from Ukraine. And that’s going to be very important to us.

Steve Rickinson
Steve Rickinson
Steve lives in Bucharest, Romania. He is Communications Manager and Industry Editor of MTR.

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