As the boundaries in cinema become increasingly fluid, emerging filmmakers whose films have been selected at the Cannes Film Festival have been discussing their journey from documentary to fiction at the Cannes Market’s Cannes Docs sidebar.
Curated by the Documentary Assn. of Europe, the panel on Sunday brought together Ukrainian director Maksym Nakonechnyi, the director of Un Certain Regard title “Butterfly Vision,” and Erige Sehiri (“Railway Men”), the Tunisian director of “Under the Fig Leaves,” which had its world premiere in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar.
The titles are fiction debuts for Nakonechnyi and Sehiri, who are both experienced documentary filmmakers.
Inspired by the conflict in Ukraine’s Eastern Donbas region that has been ongoing since 2014, “Butterfly Vision” is the story of a young Ukrainian soldier who returns home after being held captive for months and discovers she is pregnant after being raped by her Russian warden.
Nakonechnyi, whose credits include Alina Gorlova’s acclaimed doc “This Rain Will Never Stop” as writer and producer, co-wrote the script together with doc filmmaker Iryna Tsilyk (“The Earth Is Blue as an Orange”). “Butterfly Vision” was produced by Tabor, the company he set up with a group of Ukrainian filmmakers in 2015.
“When we started making films we were not certain whether we should make fiction or doc,” he explained. “It was back in 2015 and events in our country started evolving, and we bumped into these stories that needed to be told and shown. The one principle in both fiction and doc is that both begin with a story that you feel you must tell.”
While Nakonechnyi was formally trained at film school, Sehiri’s path to filmmaking was a different one: starting out as a journalist, she experimented with cameras during the Tunisian revolution in 2011 and naturally moved into documentaries. She appealed to Palestinian filmmaker Raed Andoni (“Ghosthunters,” “Fix Me”), who became her mentor. But, she said, the desire for making fiction films was never far off.
“I always dreamt of doing fiction, right from the beginning. When I started in documentary, it was more accessible: all you need is a camera and yourself. Making documentaries was important to build my vision, train my vision [of filmmaking],” she said.
“Under the Fig Tree” may be her fiction debut but the border between fiction and documentary is blurred. The story of young fruit pickers working the summer harvest in rural Tunisia, it was shot with a non-professional cast on what Sehiri describes as a documentary budget.
“I was worried [the low budget] would be visible. I thought maybe my film won’t go to big festivals because it will look like a documentary,” she said.
Her answer to this was to seek as much professional advice and support as possible.
“From early on in the process, I showed the images to a sales agent – I had never done that before: it’s about communicating with people in the industry. The sales agent at Luxbox liked it. Then we did a rough cut, secured the deal with the sales agent and the co-producers: it helps not to be alone.”
Throughout the post-production process, film festivals also provided Sehiri with the help and visibility she needed, including Venice Film Festival’s Final Cut event where she picked up eight post-production awards in 2021.
A supportive environment nurtured within the documentary filmmaking industry also helped Nakonechnyi get his debut fiction film off the ground: “I met all of my film’s co-producers at Eurodoc [a training program for producers with documentary projects in the development stage]. I knew they would take care of the project, submissions were done by a Croatian team, the mastering by the Swedes, and I just knew there would be good exposure for the film,” he said.
Cannes Docs runs as part of the Cannes Film Market through to May 25.