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The Documentaries of Cannes 2013

The Last of the Unjust

There are not a large number of documentaries at the Cannes Film Festival, but what they lack in numbers, they make up for in style and seriousness of purpose. Since Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 won the Palme d'or in 2004 (and that was a documentary win almost 50 years in the making), there has not been a documentary that has even come close. It won't happen this year, either - there are no documentaries in the competition.

seducedWhich is not to say the festival doesn't include documentaries in the roster; this year among the different sections you will find a dozen feature length documentaries: Iconic documentarians Marcel Ophuls and Claude Lanzmann are both here with long form works. In the Directors Fortnight section, with his first film in almost twenty years,  Ophuls presents Un Voyageur, a memoir of film and filmmakers. Based on interviews he conducted in 1975, Lanzmann presents The Last of the Unjust, a 3 1/2 hour film on Benjamin Murmelstein, an Austrian Rabbi who saved more than 100,000 Jews during the Holocaust. This formidable film is shown out of competition in the main section.

The Cannes Classics section presents more than just older films; many documentaries about the history of cinema and cinema artists, can be found here, including Treva Wurmfeld's penetrating Shepard & Dark, about Sam Shepard's 40 year friendship with Johnny Dark. To work on a book project, the two men come together to sift through piles of correspondence and mull the meaning of it all.

Another out of competition documentary is Seduced and Abandoned, in which director James Toback roams the Croisette in 2012 with actor Alex Baldwin in tow, trying to get financial support for a new narrative feature. Whether the feature will ever be made is anyone's guess, but they talk with some of those powerful money men that you've never heard of, but who may be behind some of the big money making movies of the past few years. They also converse with stars who are in Cannes with their own films - a highlight of the film is Ryan Gosling's description of the audition process for an actor. That is one film sequence not to be missed.

unjustThe most powerful documentary, in my opinion, to be shown in Cannes this year is Cambodian director Rithy Panh's The Missing Picture. The film won the best film award in the Certain Regard section of the festival, and the honor is well-deserved. Panh has been exploring the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the atrocities and killings committed during their rule of that country. Just when you think he has nothing more to say about it, or that you are over depressing archival footage and eyewitness testimonies, Panh uses all of these methods, but incorporates them all into a series of beautiful dioramas made with small hand-carved and painted wooden dolls. The innocence of these creations as well as the painstaking work that went into making them, along with restoration of the Khmer Rouge's own filmic documentation, adds a much needed chapter to the story of the ravaging of Panh's homeland.

shepardFor almost ten years the Marché du Film (Cannes' film market, where films are bought and sold and rights to exhibit films in international territories are brokered) has tried to take the lead in documentary filmmaking in general, keeping it as a vital part of the market itself. To that end they have a "doc corner" in the Marché where panels are held and one can watch documentaries from around the world as well as meet with the films' makers. In addition, the festival hosts a brunch to celebrate documentary cinema. This brunch is a great moment to meet documentary filmmakers and programmers from around the globe and to take the temperature of the critical issues being studied by filmmakers. now. From these meetings will come the documentary films of the future - perhaps to win awards at next year's Festival de Cannes.

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