Even as outside circumstances forced Sunny Side of the Doc to pare down elements of this year’s edition, event programmers never jettisoned the theme they envisioned for 2020.
“We wanted to maintain our original framework,” says Sunny Side director of strategy and development Mathieu Béjot. “We had planned for many more sessions and different activities that we subsequently had to cancel, but we were certainly going to stick with our original idea to focus on history.”
Every year, the La Rochelle-based rendezvous has sought to spotlight trends and formats influencing the documentary landscape, creating thematic sections around genres like science, culture and human affairs. While the doc marketplace had already covered this particular subject before, recent developments have made history a natural fit for this year’ rather unique edition.
“There are so many events reshaping the world right now, it felt like the right moment to focus on history,” says Béjot. “We couldn’t have known before we chose the theme, but [the current context] makes it all the more relevant. If you consider the pandemic’s impact on production, historical and archival films are simply easier to produce during lockdown. You don’t have to go out and travel around the world to produce them.”
And so this year’s edition will present a sidebar called History Inside/Out that explores new opportunities and approaches in the genre. Alongside workshops on sourcing, restoration, and filmmaking techniques, the program will also host a presentation focused on drawing in younger audiences.
The latter subject is of marked importance to Béjot. “We think youth is a key issue to address,” he adds. “Studies have shown that millennials are keen on docs, even more so than people in those in older generations. In a complex world, people want to understand what’s going on around them, and I think younger audiences put a lot of trust in docs.”
He continues: “There’s been a shift, especially in Europe, where traditionally, public broadcasters made contained, one-hour docs focused on a particular subject. There might have been a time a few years ago when the audience for docs was aging and dwindling. Now, everyone’s talking about the golden age of documentary… and you see younger audiences becoming more interested.”
What’s more, Béjot sees real overlap between tried and true documentary practices and popular forms of new media. “If you compare the talking head format to what YouTubers are doing, they’re pretty similar,” he says. “So the genre may not be as foreign to younger audiences as we might have thought at some point.”
Reflecting on industry trends, Béjot underlines the growing importance of serialized narratives that can be packaged as limited series on streaming platforms. He cites Lagardère Studios’ French-language true crime series “Who Killed Little Gregory?” as an example of an international hit that fused local authenticity to a popular and exportable format, noting that such projects are in high demand at the moment.
He also points towards a perennial, if nevertheless growing and relevant, desire to frame success beyond commercial terms. “We’re flooded with so much content on a daily basis that filmmakers want to be sure their work doesn’t disappear into the catalog of an online platform,” Béjot explains.
“They want to have an impact, to affect change. This is true of all genres, not just social issue films. We have a panel devoted to this idea of impact campaigns this year, and it is is a key issue we’ll [continue to] focus on in the coming years.”