Sunny Side ’15: Canal+ wants to shake up French doc scene

Following his presentation at Sunny Side of the Doc on Wednesday (June 24), Canal+'s new head of docs Diego Buñuel (pictured) tells realscreen about his plans to make the French pay-TV channel a player on the international documentary scene.
June 25, 2015

Canal+ is pushing to become a bigger player on the international documentary scene through more coproductions with British and American producers.

During a presentation outlining the French pay-TV channel’s documentary strategy at Sunny Side of the Doc in La Rochelle, France on Wednesday (June 24), head of documentaries Diego Buñuel (pictured) promised to focus on docs with more ambitious, non-linear narrative arcs that employ an array of storytelling devices such as cliffhangers and flashbacks.

“There is one field in which we don’t do well enough and that’s storytelling,” he told the audience. “French films should tell a story. They should be in competition at Sundance.”

Buñuel, a former journalist, producer and host of the National Geographic Channel series Don’t Tell My Mother, joined Canal+ last September. His inaugural slate for the network aims to shift the commissioning emphasis away from big-picture, social-issue docs heavy on talking heads toward more diverse fare that could have legs on the international festival circuit.

“Most documentaries in France are big, feature-length reportage – we take an issue like unemployment or racism and we talk about that issue,” he said in a later interview with realscreen. “Here’s an issue, here’s the A, B, C, D of it, we put a bow on it and it’s a documentary.

“My goal as the head of docs for Canal+ is to accompany French producers who have the capacity to work abroad and meet the right international broadcasters and producers who can come in with us to make good, strong movies,” he added.

Canal+ commissions eight to 10 primetime, 90-minute documentaries as well as 10 52-minute docs that air at 10:30 p.m. It also has an investigation strand that amounts to 40 hours per year and airs primarily original commissions, plus a ‘Best of the Fest’ strand for festival acquisitions such as Cartel Land and Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief.

Buñuel’s first doc slate for the network includes Daft Punk Unchained, which screened to a capacity crowd on Tuesday in La Rochelle one day before its broadcast premiere in France; French Bashing, a comedic look at less-than-flattering French portrayals in Hollywood; Terror Studios: Inside the ISIS Propaganda Machine, a coproduction with Alex Gibney‘s Jigsaw Productions about the head of propaganda for the Islamic State militant group; and Break Into Europe, a coproduction with Keo Films and BBC2 about immigration, self-shot by 150 immigrants.

To ensure Canal+ documentaries reach the level of authorship that would attract top filmmaking talent and broadcast partners, his budgets for primetime docs range from €250,000 to €500,000 (US$280,000 to $560,000).

“What’s important for me with a copro is it has to look like Canal+,” he explains. “I want to make sure they’re our shows and our ways of telling stories. We’re not just coming in to put money into other people’s shows.”

Daft Punk Unchained

Daft Punk Unchained, the first doc about the Grammy-winning dance duo, is indicative of the lighter tone Buñuel wants to take with Canal+ stylistically.

Originally greenlit as a 52-minute doc for the later slot, he bumped it up to a 90-minute primetime feature after he came on board the network and saw that the producers at BBC France and director Hervé Martin-Delpierre had received the notoriously secretive dance duo’s blessing to make the film.

Although Daft Punk’s Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo would not sit down for interviews, they allowed the production to use their personal archives and music. Their authorization also made it easier to secure interviews with big-name collaborators such as Kanye West, Pharrell Williams, Giorgio Moroder and Nile Rodgers.

The resulting film spans their entire career, from their early days in the band Darlin’ to the production of their three studio albums and their now-famous pyramid tour from 2007. All the while, the pair has managed to remain relatively anonymous by dressing up in robot costumes with special helmets customized to fit their heads.

“Knowing Daft Punk and how specific and perfectionist they are it was certainly a lot of pressure on the producers to make sure they did the best possible film,” says Buñuel.

What does Daft Punk think of the finished film?

“I was talking with the manager the other day and they haven’t seen anything,” he says. “It’s an authorized documentary but they never asked to see any images. It’s authorized because they gave us permission to use all their music but they never asked for editorial input.”

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