Event Preview: Sunny Side of the Doc

Sunny Side of the Doc is returning to La Rochelle for its 35th edition from June 24 to 27, providing an in-person space for international documentary makers and buyers to link up and discuss what’s going on in the industry. Mathieu Béjot, director of strategy and development at Sunny Side of the Doc, tells TV Real about what is planned for the upcoming four-day market.

Despite it being the event’s 35th anniversary, the central theme of this year’s market is all about looking ahead and “mapping the future,” Béjot says. “Everybody loves anniversaries, but we didn’t want to have a retrospective. It’s boring. And if we don’t look backward, then we have to look forward.”

“Nobody has a crystal ball, of course, but we want to take the time to pause, think and try to see where the industry is going,” he says. “If you do look back 35 years ago, the world was kind of simple, with free TV and pay TV. Producers were producing, distributors were distributing, broadcasters were broadcasting. Now, all the boundaries are blurred. AI is coming to topple everything up again. It’s a good time to see what’s going on in the industry, but do it in an inspiring way. Let’s face it, we are going through choppy waters, to say the least.”

In order to help attendees reflect on and navigate the current climate, for the first time, there will be daily keynotes to address how the documentary sector can come together to transform change into opportunity. There will also be multiple Industry Talks regarding AI and innovation, including AI in Docs—A New Era of (Space) Storytelling: The Planetary Defense App; Archives, AI & Ethics; and Harnessing AI for Docs: Practical Uses and Insights.

Also, for the second year in a row, Australia will be honored as a country of focus. “For us, we don’t really like the idea of focusing on one country and then forgetting about them for the next five or ten years until it’s their turn again,” Béjot notes. But “we’ve had a long-standing relationship with Australia. With Covid, when Sunny Side returned in person in 2022, the Australian presence was underwhelming because they still had travel restrictions. So, we decided to focus on Australia and have an in-depth approach to Australia, reach out to producers, reach out to the state funders as well. The idea was not necessarily to have one big event, but to make sure we have a long-term impact.”

Last year, “we laid the foundations of the Australian focus by having a pretty general session on how to work with Australia, with some of the institutions like Screen Australia and the state funding agencies,” he says. “This year, the key focus is on talent and producers.

This includes two Industry Talks sessions, titled Stuff Australians Make, a riff on Stuff the British Stole. Part one, Seeing Behind the Kangaroos!, will feature some of Australia’s internationally recognized filmmakers bringing the audience up-to-date on the diversity of Australian productions. Part two, Follow the Money Honey, will see representatives from Australian funding bodies speaking with filmmakers about the opportunities to co-produce with the country.

Though Australia is a focus, there are plenty of international buyers and producers signed up to attend, and the agenda includes various Industry Talks, Networking Times and Showcases highlighting other countries. This includes Meet NHK, Matchmaking Canada, China Hour, Co-Production Opportunities in Brazil and so many more. Many international programs are represented in the pitching sessions as well.

Regarding the seven pitching sessions, Sunny Side received over 320 submissions from 60 countries, with 42 selected from 21 countries to compete at the market. Across the five specialist factual sessions (History, Science, Arts and Culture, Nature and Conservation, and Global Issues) and the two non-thematic sessions (New Voices and Impact Campaigns), “it’s amazing to see how documentary-makers can revisit things you thought you knew but bring a new, fresh angle,” Béjot remarks. “It’s amazing as well to see stories that are totally unheard, especially in the history category.”

This includes Germany’s Our Sister Angela—Black Power in the GDR, about how Angela Davis and the Black movement influenced eastern Germany, as well as Brazil’s Letters from Iraq, telling the stories of Brazilians who worked on infrastructure projects in Iraq in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. “It’s always very interesting to see how there are still so many untold stories,” Béjot says.

Among the selected projects across all of the categories, “one of the trends is more and more complex and multilayered stories,” he adds. “It’s not new, but if you look at the arts and culture sessions, for instance, instead of just one biopic on one particular artist, usually different layers are mingled with some social background. It’s much broader than just being an arts and culture program. You’ll see the same in nature and conservation. It’s no longer just—I’m sorry for putting it this way—hyenas eating giraffes. You have conservation, you have social aspects, you have climate change.”

Through these pitching sessions and the event’s various keynotes, networking opportunities and showcases, the main goal is “to make sure that we bring some keys and answers on how to survive till 2025, without sounding too depressing,” Béjot says. “We are going through a tough time, so we want to make sure that we are not just inspiring in terms of, ‘oh, it’d be great to do this,’ but bringing solutions to the table.”

“We need to bring as much inspiration as possible, as many contacts as possible,” he continues. “We would love participants to go home with more ideas, more partners, more projects and more financing.”