20 years of sunlight

As Sunny Side of the Doc celebrates its 20th year, co-founder Yves Jeanneau reflects on its history and its future.
May 1, 2009

‘It is not because things are difficult that we dare not, it is because we dare not that they are difficult’ – Seneca, Letter to Lucilius

This epigram closely reflects our experience 20 years ago, when we founded Sunny Side of the Doc with Olivier Masson.

The original idea was to organize a fixed, recurring event completely devoted to documentaries (‘true’ documentaries and documentaries only); to create a place and forum to professionalize, internationalize and diversify documentaries; to bring together producers, directors and distributors, along with aid and funding bodies; and in this way, improve documentaries.

Twenty years ago, the vast majority of documentary-makers thought of this idea, or this challenge, as crazy, or at least unrealistic and doomed to failure. TV channels told us that documentaries had no future as a genre and were only good for film libraries. They said that the magazine-program format was the new way of showing the real world; much faster, more economical and journalistic. Any attempt to support the documentary genre was indicative of a pointless, backward-looking approach.

We took up the challenge though. Year by year, little by little, adapting to changes in the profession and sector, we have helped to develop the genre and also refresh it, partly by responding to the demands of the international market. The main conclusion we’ve been led to from 20 years of Sunny Side of the Doc and documentaries is that good projects do move! Today, documentaries are still a minor genre in the world television economy; a minor genre for television channels, which still believe these programs are rarely popular with viewers, although they do enhance the image of the channels that broadcast them. It is not a lame duck, but a respected genre; it has acquired a strong reputation both on the world’s television screens (sometimes in primetime, which is important) and on our cinema screens, with increased focus on the prizes and honors documentaries win, both at the Oscars and at other great international festivals.

For the past two decades, we have been saying that ‘the documentary is a kind of public service.’ At the very heart of the documentary approach, there is the desire to know, share and understand; an effort of intelligence. That is undoubtedly why the documentary genre is seen as too serious, dry and demanding…. It is thought to require too much effort from tired viewers. As a general rule, the values endorsed by documentaries are humanist, anti-racist, anti-xenophobic values: universal values, reflecting the world and what is happening elsewhere, getting viewers out of their ruts and removing their blinkers. The documentary genre also unconsciously serves to create a sort of collective memory, building up kaleidoscopic archives of the century fragment by fragment. It is these memory, understanding and ‘lighthouse’ functions (to a certain extent helping us find our bearings in the dark) that Sunny Side of the Doc has been promoting for 20 years.

The issue of international coproduction is continually re-examined; each crisis leads to a regression, a turning in on oneself and concentration on more ‘domestic’ programming. (Supposedly) familiar fields and a shared language are said to guarantee higher viewer figures. Looking back over our 20 years and the successes that have been achieved during this time leads us to at least question this norm. Stories with an emotional impact and that examine universal issues – whether they take place in Chile or Algiers, or whether they take us back in time or are happening here and now – satisfy an appetite, a curiosity, that is far more common than one might think. If TV is a window open on the world, especially for those not fortunate enough to be able to go and see for themselves, then, in a very real sense, documentaries offer a public service.

Basically, great projects with genuinely universal content and form always find a producer, international co-funding and distribution in a number of countries. It is this sunny side of the documentary that we’ve always sought to showcase. That is why we must continue – and Sunny Side of the Doc will continue – to organize meetings, help to structure the market and make sure that these projects, whether they come from Latin America, Asia, Europe or (tomorrow, I hope) Africa, can gain access to a market that must be helped to grow broader, deeper and stronger today.

Yves Jeanneau is co-founder and director of France’s Sunny Side of the Doc, taking place this year from June 23 to 26 in La Rochelle. This is excerpted from an essay Jeanneau has written for the Sunny Side of the Doc program.

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