The 32nd Sunny Side of the Doc is set to take place from 21 to 24 June 2021 as a mostly online market experience.
Established in La Rochelle, France, Sunny Side of the Doc has become a major international marketplace for coproduction, buying and selling of high-quality documentary projects, programmes and new narrative experiences.
Modern Times Review spoke with its Director of Strategy & Development Mathieu Béjot on the challenges, themes, and focuses of the 2021 Sunny Side of the Doc, alongside its overarching StorytellingMatters theme.
Can you speak a little bit about Sunny Side of the Doc’s role in the broader documentary industry?
We tried to remain true to our DNA because we believe that’s where our strength lies. I’ve talked to many markets or festival organisers, and faced with a pandemic, you’re going to wonder how we should react, so we’re not the only one. But for sure, we decided to stick to our DNA and stick to what people expect, to where we think we can help the industry. Obviously, it’s changing with the pandemic, but the bottom line is, let’s do what we know we can do well and where we know we can help the industry.
By saying that, definitely content collaboration, co-production is our primary focus. The distribution of finished programmes as well. But being 100% market, not a festival, we’re pretty unique in that. And I think this is the positioning that we’ve always had for the last thirty years. We felt there’s no reason to change the pandemic. There is still a considerable need for producers and broadcasters to look at a project early on. And we had a confirmation of that with the global pitch we did in February, which was dedicated to global issues, investigation, and current affairs. And quite frankly, we had a feeling that there was a demand for that when we launched it. But we had no idea how it would turn out because it was the first time we did it. And we were amazed by the results, with the number of submissions we had, with the quality of the projects, with the commitment of decision-makers to both follow the pitching sessions and have one-on-one meetings with producers. And we felt confident in our approach thinking even though we’re online, we know we could help them because we add we act as a kind of a filter. So we’ve saved time for everybody filtering through dozens and dozens of projects. It was heartbreaking because out of the 12 we selected. We could have kept probably 80 of them because the quality was so high.
I think being curated and focused was a key to our success. We’ve tried to apply the same kind of recipe to Sunny Side with the online edition, making sure people find the right information and projects.
What sort of themes have you seen presented across the past year in the projects pitched? How have those themes carried over to the featured projects, either at the Global Pitch or Sunny Side? In fact, what makes a project something that could potentially be selected?
Our criteria as are pretty flexible. There’s one thing we do keep in mind is that we need projects that need international partners. It has to be relevant to the international market and relevant as an international co-production.
Apart from that, we try to find a balance between the big projects expected at the market like Sunny Side. Still, we also always try to keep in mind that we need some more small projects or projects that may be more fragile and benefit from the exposure. It’s a tough call because we know that some projects are just fantastic, but we have the feeling that they will get done no matter what.
We’re paying more and more attention to projects with an impact, whether there is an impact campaign attached to them or just impactful by themselves. These days, there are so many sources with many platforms and broadcasters specialised in documentaries that we try to make sure the projects we select stand out and impact.
We tried to remain true to our DNA because we believe that’s where our strength lies.
Can you talk about how the central theme, StorytellingMatters, came to be? How did the final programme fit within this overarching theme?
Sunny Side usually has one particular genre in focus every year. When we started planning, the industry had been turned upside down for a year. Can we ignore that, especially if we look at arts and culture; museums have closed, cultural institutions have been closed. But, gradually, the reflection grew wider. This is an unusual time, and we need to address that. All that we believe in has been turning completely topsy turvy.
We also strongly believe that the documentary industry has a particular responsibility to address some of the issues that have been either created or strengthened by the pandemic. Namely, calling into question models of developments from economic, social, sanitary, and PR points of view. We thought that the first step would be to have this Global Pitch, dealing with global issues. Trying to see what the state of the world is and what problems need to be addressed. That focused on investigation and current affairs to try and point out all the other flaws in the world. We didn’t want to stick with the gloom and doom scenario, though. We thought there’s a special responsibility of the documentary industry to look at the world as it should be and tomorrow. Many broadcasters are also asking for that, too, not just to pinpoint what’s wrong but also to bring some solutions.
I’m not trying to sound too naive, but we think the industry is responsible for shedding light on what the world could be or should be aiming at tomorrow. So we felt that by having Storytellingmatters, we could present the vision we have of the documentaries we would like to see represented at Sunny Side this year. Documentaries that shed light on the changes and the solutions to build a better future.
…and why the geo focus on Central and Eastern Europe this year?
It’s a result of two or three years of really focusing on Central and Eastern Europe. It’s a region of the world that’s of great interest to us. I mean, we are European. We have support from the media programme. We believe that this is one of the strengths of the sunny side of the Doc to be European based. But, of course, we aim at being much broader. We have participants from Asia, and we’ve done a few Asian Side of the Docs. We also have participants from North and Latin America. So, we think we can bridge Europe and the rest of the world with our market-based approach. We do believe that some incredible stories are coming out of Central and Eastern Europe. They don’t necessarily have enough of a voice outside of the region. And we thought this is an excellent opportunity for Sunny Side to become a bridge between central and Eastern Europe and our traditional community coming from Western Europe, or the Americas, Asia.
We’re not as strong right now in terms of the Middle East and Africa, but we’re also hoping to develop these regions. So instead of choosing one country or a particular group of countries, we preferred to redevelop relationships. We decided the best way of focusing on these countries would be to highlight talents.
We are also pleased to have to welcome the first workshop of Ex Oriente Film. This indicates the way we want to work, not only established producers but also these regional talents of tomorrow.
How is Sunny Side of the Doc appealing to the youth generation interested in documentary film?
We have a specific session dedicated to producing with mobile phones, especially for social networks. We’ll have TikTok and others attending because we believe that that’s changing storytelling and who’s behind the camera.
This year we may not have been as ambitious as we were hoping for because, once again, the pandemic has complicated things. And in a way, the younger generations are easy to reach on social networks and online. At the same time, we find that the population is much less structured than the old, traditional industry. We know how to reach out to producer associations to relay the message regarding calls for projects, etc. However, sometimes, with these new players, they are not very well organised and therefore it’s sometimes hard to reach them, especially when you don’t have direct eye contact.
This is something we are looking into for the future because we know we need to have a different kind of crowd attending Sunny Side, not just the producers you’ve seen for the last 30 years. I’m a white male, over 50 years old, so I’m part of that group, but we know we need to find new talents. This is probably just the beginning, but it’s undoubtedly a key priority to make sure that we can reach out to these people. Hopefully, it will be easier next year. We are looking at partnership with training institutions because we feel the need to reach out to younger talents.
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