Nouvelle Non-Fiction

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. For France 2 director of docs Yves Jeanneau, a successful documentary production requires the same kind of legwork.
June 1, 2003

Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. For France 2 director of docs Yves Jeanneau, a successful documentary production requires the same kind of legwork. Making a doc is often a long, tough process and, as Jeanneau explains with a Gallic flourish, producers and directors ‘have to walk on two legs – one is the story and the other is the storytelling. I need both, not just one.’

A number of French docs have recently gone the distance powered by their own two legs, reaching large audiences, earning media coverage for their creativity or controversy, and triggering industry chatter around the world. Three in particular stand out: L’Odyssée de l’espèce (Odyssey of the Species), which premiered to nine million primetime viewers on pub-channel France 3 in January; 2001 Oscar winner for best doc Murder on a Sunday Morning, by Paris-based prodco Maha Productions; and Etre et avoir (To Be and To Have), by Nicolas Philibert, which had its theatrical debut in France last summer and continues to collect festival awards and ticket sales around the world.

On the surface, the three films bear little resemblance. One is about humanity’s earliest ancestors, one follows the trial of an American youth accused of killing a Florida tourist, and one looks inside a rural French school. Dig deeper, however, and common threads emerge, including strong narratives and high production values. Moreover, they broke the traditional mold of French docs. Clearly, the French non-fiction industry is shifting toward a new style of filmmaking, and international audiences are enjoying the results.

Essential ingredients

Jeanneau observes that today’s domestically made features are distinctly different from the classic French documentary. Earlier docs were ‘didactic’ and earnest, more concerned with recording the facts than presenting an entertaining story. Now, French doc-makers are energizing their films with elements more commonly associated with drama, namely compelling stories and strong characters (in the case of L’Odyssée, fictionalized protagonists). Jeanneau uses Murder on a Sunday Morning to back up his claim. ‘People who watched it forgot it was a documentary,’ he says.

As a result, the US$425,000 doc earned ratings more common to a fiction film, its French premiere netting approximately four million viewers on France 2. Murder’s producer Denis Poncet concedes even he was surprised by the film’s standout performance. He says documentaries should be increasingly made to mirror fictional films, an approach Maha Productions employs when developing factual film concepts. ‘We look for a story, and then we look for the characters as if we were looking for the actors to be behind that story,’ says Poncet.

Serge Lalou, head of Paris-based prodco Les Films d’Ici, also sees a growing departure from the more traditional, ‘cinema-direct approach of classical French documentaries.’ He says novelistic narrative styles and new technologies, such as computer-generated imaging, are becoming increasingly common tools employed by French doc-makers.

Producers, he continues, must capitalize on the opportunity recent high-profile hits represent. ‘The challenge is to develop ideas for primetime documentary series, which need a lot of development money and use traditional tools of fiction and technology…like 3-D and animation.’ One idea now in development at Les Films d’Ici is a 1 million euro (US$1.2 million) doc on the history of the Palace of Versailles. It will use fictional segments and 3-D reconstruction to trace the building’s renovations.

Jeanneau suggests the new style is partly the result of new players being drawn into the realm of doc-making, mainly dramatic film directors and producers. He cites Paris-based TelFrance as an example. After 50 years of producing only fiction, the prodco established a doc department in 2000. Says Jeanneau, ‘This is new energy. They understand what international coproduction entails… They may not be experienced in documentaries, but they are experienced in telling stories.’

A growing appetite

Docs such as L’Odyssée, Murder and Etre et avoir are blazing new trails, but it was Paris-based Canal+’s feature documentary agenda that cleared the way. Led by Catherine Lamour and Anna Glogowski, the high-profile pay-TV channel demonstrated to the French TV industry that docs could work in primetime (both women have since left the company). The direct fallout of Canal+’s exit from the realm of ‘event-style’ feature docs last fall, however, has been surprisingly small. Doc-makers attribute this in part to the fact that the channel didn’t financially support a high volume of projects. Says Lalou, ‘They made a lot of noise, but they weren’t the major producer of docs.’

Still, the generous budgets (Canal+’s average investment for French broadcast rights for an original production was about $110,000) and ‘noise’ afforded by Canal+ may have helped doc-makers in France to reevaluate the importance of TV. ‘Many in the [doc] industry used to say they were making cinema on television. Now they consider television an important medium,’ says Lalou.

And the trickle-down doesn’t end there. Anne Roder-Botbol, sales executive for France and Germany at U.K. distrib Channel 4 International, says, ‘Traditionally, the French have less of a culture for docs than the Anglo-Saxon world or Scandinavia. They are more Latin in that matter; their audience is most interested in entertainment.’ However, Roder-Botbol, who is negotiating several French copros with C4′s commissioning editors, notes that recent successes indicate an evolution of French viewing habits – not only as regards the small screen, but the big screen too.

Audience buzz, which helps attract foreign doc buyers and festival programmers, was key to the box office success of Etre et avoir, which has sold 1.8 million tickets in France. Says Ann Julienne, head of acquisitions and coproductions at Paris-based pubcaster France 5, ‘When that was released theatrically, its success was a huge surprise to everyone. It was really by word of mouth; it wasn’t because it was well marketed.’

Julienne says audiences are also growing for her own all-doc channel. In 2002, France 5 recorded a 24% ratings jump after an overhaul of its schedule gave viewers a better understanding of the pubcaster’s regular (and increased) 52-minute doc slots. ‘I shouldn’t say this,’ she says, ‘but we never thought we would progress that much in one year.’

France 5′s ratings show viewers favor docs with stories about everyday issues, says Julienne. ‘But, they don’t want it treated as ‘social issues’ – they want to see how people live in other countries,’ she explains. ‘Communication is so easy now. People are aware of what’s going on, so they want to know what’s really happening, and don’t want to just watch fiction.’

Recipe for success

Despite feeling upbeat about the French doc scene, industry folk concede there are still changes that need to occur if the sector is to continue to move forward. For starters, some producers say getting French broadcasters to back non-domestic topics is still difficult. That is a problem for producers, explains Poncet.

As a businessman, Poncet doesn’t want to walk the shorter path to the screen offered by an overtly French-themed doc. ‘When I domestically produce films, I can sell them in France, and possibly get a second sale in Switzerland, another in Belgium and a fourth in Quebec [Canada]. But that is about it,’ he says. Those docs don’t interest viewers elsewhere in Europe or the U.S. ‘Therefore, I have a limited potential international sale,’ he says. Like Julienne, he argues that French audiences are acquiring a taste for foreign stories. ‘I think the idea that people [in France] aren’t ready to watch what’s going on abroad is false.’

Poncet believes that in order to more closely align commissioning practices with viewer tastes, producers and broadcasters need to work at overhauling the way docs are funded in France. Under the current system, indies are assured of a reasonably steady flow of funding from broadcasters governed by content rules and industry-support agencies such as the Centre national de la cinématographie (CNC). Indeed, the CNC estimates that doc productions received roughly 112 million euros ($131 million) in funding support in 2002, up about 14% from 96 million euros ($112 million) in 2001.

While the industry supports ensure money is invested in docs, Poncet contends they are holding back the evolution of French non-fiction makers by offering incentives that reinforce the status quo. In other words, funds that could be invested in docs that will perform competitively in both the domestic and international marketplace are being siphoned off to less relevant fare. ‘On the whole, in France, too many documentaries are being made and too many slots are being opened,’ he says. ‘It’s funny for a producer to say that, but the ratings show that certain docs don’t get the viewers they should.’ Audiences are offered too many to choose from, he argues.

Jeanneau agrees: ‘We have too many films. It would be better to have fewer docs, but better financing and exposure. It is the dialectic between quality and quantity.’

An appreciation of the marketplace beyond the country’s borders is also key to the new French doc esthetic. ‘When a director knows he has to address [non-French audiences], he has to be more careful about how he tells the story,’ Jeanneau explains. ‘It’s storytelling that can travel – that can reach audiences from different cultures.’


All of this is not to suggest that French documentaries were once the film equivalent of health food – for the greater good, but never satisfying. ‘Some Germans I know tend to think of French documentaries as poetic,’ says Andrew Solomon, director of Germany’s Studio Hamburg Documentaries and the former commissioning editor at Paris-based distrib Docstar. But, he adds, ‘That can either be a good thing or it can mean they’re a bit vague and slow.’

It’s also not to suggest that today’s French docs have been reduced to international pudding, absent of domestic flavor. Even as producers move away from the classic French documentary, they remain confident of their unique film sensibility. Says Doris Weitzel, head of sales and development at Paris-based production company and distributor Point du Jour: ‘[Producers] are adamant about keeping their own individual style. Yes, we admire BBC-style docs and know they travel well, but we don’t want to copy them. We want to develop an international documentary French style.’ It seems France’s non-fiction filmmakers are getting there – by the power of their own two legs.

About The Author