Sundance, HBO programming more int'l fare

After being ignored for years in favor of domestic fare, docs from far-flung countries are finally starting to get their place in the sun.

The Sundance Film Festival is adding an international documentary component to the World Cinema section, while the Sundance Channel, which launches its Doc Day programming block in March, will consistently program international docs on the new Monday segment.

Over at HBO, exec VP Sheila Nevins thinks Americans have become interested in learning more about other countries and is programming more internationally minded fare such as the recent “Uncle Saddam.”

Worldwide, audiences are increasingly interested in reality of any kind, and not just “Survivor.” France’s “Etre et avoir,” winner of the European Film Award for documentary, has pulled in more than 1.3 million filmgoers in France alone, while “Bowling for Columbine” has done boffo biz in the U.S., France and the U.K, among others.

But beyond the lofty heights of HBO and Sundance, acceptance of foreign docs in the U.S. is an uphill battle.

“It’s still amazingly conservative,” says Jan Rofekamp, who has been selling docs worldwide through Montreal-based Films Transit for 20 years. “The other cable stations think their audience doesn’t want it. They don’t venture outside of U.S. programming. I find that a little sad.”

Rofekamp applauds the Sundance initiatives, but says he just doesn’t see other broadcasters following suit. Part of the problem is subtitles. “In the U.S. there is no tradition of reading subtitles, whereas in Europe they’ve been used to them for 50 years,” Rofekamp points out, although much of his international programming is in English.

The Sundance Channel is one of the few outlets that will show subtitled fare, such as Agnes Varda’s “The Gleaners and I.” Paola Freccero, senior VP of film programming for the cabler, says her main consideration is whether the storytelling is compelling. “If they have managed to tell a story in a very unusual way, with cultural themes or stories that would connect our viewers to a world they wouldn’t ordinarily have a connection to, then that’s what we’re interested in.”

Sundance Channel recently picked up “The Inner Tour,” about a group of Palestinians’ three-day bus trip to Israel, which Freccero selected for its distinctive and balanced view of the political situation.

“Docs are an amazing way to become more culturally and globally aware,” she says, pointing out that the channel has more freedom than some other outlets because it doesn’t fund, it just acquires. However, funding is available from the Sundance Documentary Fund, which gave out 23 grants for international docs this year.

Sherine Salama’s “A Wedding in Ramallah,” about the arranged marriage of a Palestinian living in the U.S., won the doc prize at the recent AFI Fest. “I think the broadcasters in the U.S. have made quite an effort to try and educate their population a lot more,” the Australian docmaker says.

“What I wanted to do was make a film for a Western audience that put a human face behind the crisis in the Middle East — people are sick of politics, they’re sick of being preached at.”

But the precarious nature of doc sales makes it hard for some international docs to find a wider audience.

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