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The last time Cannes saw documentary-makers walking up the red carpet was 1956, when Jacques-Yves Cousteau and Louis Malle brought “The Silent World,” and Henri-Georges Clouzot had “The Mystery of Picasso.”

(The two films won, respectively, the Palme d’Or and the Special Jury Prize.)

Now, 36 years later, docus are back in a big way, including one in a Competition slot: Michael Moore’s exploration of America’s gun culture, “Bowling for Columbine.” And there are seven other high-profile docus here in festival slots, with subjects ranging from Hollywood icon Robert Evans to WWII Hungary to overcrowded nursery schools.

Some Cannes watchers attribute the new emphasis on non-fiction cinema to artistic director Thierry Fremaux, who has hardly concealed his desire to diversify programming in the various sections. But, particularly in the case of the Evans docu and Rosanna Arquette’s “Searching for Debra Winger” — both looks at aspects of Hollywood showbiz — there’s some added movie glitz that made these pics hard to ignore.

Aside from Moore’s pic, an unprecedented seven other docus are sprinkled through the fest’s various sections, from Directors Fortnight (Peter Forgacs’ “Istvan Bibo, Fragments” and D.A. Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus’ “Only the Strong Survive”) to Critics’ Week (Roberto Torelli’s & Marco Giusti’s “Bella Ciao”).

Of the eight pics receiving special screenings, fully half are docus: Brett Morgen & Nanette Burstein’s portrait of producer Evans, “The Kid Stays in the Picture”; Arquette’s “Winger”; Gallic documaker Nicolas Philibert’s study of overcrowded nursery school classrooms, “To Be and to Have”; and Francesca Comencini’s account of the violent 2001 protests in Genoa against globalization, “Carlo Giuliani, Boy.”

Though not strictly a docu, Jean-Luc Godard & Anne-Marie Mieville’s Museum of Modern Art-commissioned “essay” on fine arts, “The Old Place,” is another non-fiction entry in the special screenings group.

Says Morgen, “The American documentary has evolved tremendously in the past 15 years. It isn’t just about reporting anymore, but the more adventurous approaches Michael (Moore) and other filmmakers are employing. It’s really inspiring for the entire docu community that he’s in competition.”

Aside from the sheer number of non-fiction pics here this year, their range of themes and approaches is impressive.

On one hand, the Hungarian Forgacs applies his unique technique of culling found footage, much of it lensed by amateurs in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe before and during Wold War II, and reassembling it with an added soundtrack mix to explore aspects of 20th century European history.

Like his U.S. counterpart Frederick Wiseman, Philibert frequently fixes his lens on institutions, whether it’s an insane asylum (“Every Little Thing”) or, in the case of “To Be and to Have,” a pre-school under stress.

Arquette says she simply wanted to find out how her peers –women actors in the movies nearing or over 40 — are coping. “I didn’t think of myself as a filmmaker, trying to get the perfect shot,” she says. “I did it in a verite kind of way, asking these women how they balance family and career, managing to get interesting roles as they get older.”

Her subjects belong on any producer’s wish list of thesps, including Patricia Arquette, Laura Dern, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Frances McDormand, Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlotte Rampling, Vanessa Redgrave, Meg Ryan, Sharon Stone, Robin Wright Penn and Winger.

“I just called them up,” says Arquette. “There’s no way this movie could have been made if I had gone through the handlers.”

Pennebaker’s and Hegedus’ “Only the Strong Survive,” like “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” is a study of showbiz figures who have proven their resilience.

Approached by journalist-producer Roger Friedman to make a pic about R&B artists, Hegedus says that it was a natural subject for her and Pennebaker, a vet of profiling music artists (such as Bob Dylan in “Don’t Look Back”).

Unlike “Down From the Mountain” (their recent project tied in with the Coen brothers’ “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”), “We didn’t want to make a concert film so much as get to know what made these musicians so durable, and so able to remain vital performers.”

As for Evans, appearing for the first time on the Croisette repping a pic he’s involved with (previous visits were strictly deal-making affairs), “I feel like I’m going to Cannes with my ass on the line.

“Even though I wanted Brett and Nanette to hold things back and soften the down-and-dirties about my life, when I finally saw it with an audience at Sundance, I realized that they were right and I was wrong. It’s getting the best reviews I’ve had since ‘Chinatown.’ “