Visions du Réel: Swiss timing

Visions du Réel: Swiss timing

Swiss Films’ Catherine Ann Berger and Emilie Bujès of Visions du Réel


On the eve of Visions du Réel 2020, Swiss Films Managing Director Catherine Ann Berger talks docs, disruption and the benefits that can be derived from the enforced switch to digital.


“There is a difference between the fiction festivals and the documentary festivals,” points out Swiss Films Managing Director Catherine Ann Berger just after reading of the Munich Film Festival decision to cancel outright this year, largely due to rights concerns. 


“Why should it be any easier to renegotiate the rights to the 200 films you have showing at your documentary festival?” she asks.


The doc fests and/or markets, as evidenced by the likes of Thessaloniki, CPH:DOX, Zagreb, East Doc Platform and this week’s Visions du Réel (as well as  Hot Docs in May), seem to indicate a greater resilience and hardiness in the face of the pandemic, she observes.


And it isn’t just about serving the needs of discerning documentary audiences, whom Berger points out are well used to seeking out fascinating and entertaining doc fare, “because they are just a different kind of community.”


There is also a spirit of camaraderie within the doc industry itself, even within its higher echelons, that determines that the sector is being given every chance to battle through the pandemic  crisis.


“I’m on the board of directors of EFP, and we have these weekly calls,” she says. “And one of the first calls we did – we call them the crisis committee calls – was with Tine Fischer at CPH:DOX, Emilie Bujès at Visions, Laurence Herszberg at Séries Mania and Yianni Sarri from Thessaloniki [Agora Market], and it was very interesting how all of those women were so open to exchanging their experiences and their knowledge and the learning curves [they have undergone]. It was very co-operative.”


“My feeling is that I am not sensing this so much from the fiction festivals. On the contrary,” she stresses.


What, then, is Berger’s preliminary assessment of the forced move to digital within the doc fest sector? “Even with all this uncertainty, Tine said that CPH:DOX was able  to reach out to audiences that they had never reached out to before, and that the face of her festival has changed for good. And I’m sure that it will be the same for Visions du Réel”. 


“Now these festivals are able to reach out to audiences that traditionally they would not have found so easily online, and I find that really encouraging,” Berger continues. 


“It is a very hard time for cinemas, it’s a very difficult time for distributors, and of course for filmmakers, but on the other hand we must see that this is a huge digital disruption that is in line with a lot of people who are thinking they don’t want to travel that much anymore. They can do their market a different way. Maybe they will see their clients once or twice a year, and maybe that’s enough. And there are the ecological reasons too.”


Berger notes her surprise that the bigger VOD players haven’t made a move to partner with the festivals, not just during lockdown but going forward. “Day and date. You have the festival for your physical audience and you have your digital audience. You might have a small market but then you have your digital market. I find that hugely exciting.”


She also stresses how a difficult and painstaking shift to digital within her own organisation a few years ago paved the way for future professional online developments.


“Smaller organisations are much fitter for this digital change than large ones,” she says. “We re-did our whole database online and now we are able to track and monitor films and their international release strategies.” 


“Going through digital change really disrupts you, it turns you upside down, because suddenly other things matter. You work in different teams, you have to rethink processes, you have to be very exact because it has to be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ because there is nothing else in the digital world, and also you have to include all kinds of different perspectives, but I think that this whole process that we went through made us really fit to manage this crisis.”


“In the same way, smaller documentary festivals are much more agile in this respect,” she adds.


Visions du Réel will be a good testing ground ahead of Cannes in the event of a digital market replacing sales activity on the Croisette, Berger notes. A core activity will be the Swiss Films Preview of upcoming documentary film projects, to be presented online by production teams to selected agents, international distributors and festival delegates.

“Switzerland has always been extremely strong in documentaries because we are a nation that likes to observe, taking in all kinds of different perspectives,” Berger underlines. “And we are one of those rare countries where documentaries really run a long time in cinemas as well.”


“That is why Visions du Réel has always been very important for us, and also for the documentary filmmakers, and there is a strong audience that follows the films and is interested in the films and in the subjects.”


“I offer my heartfelt thank-you to Emilie for going forward with the festival, and the other doc fests like CPH and Thessaloniki who have been incredibly courageous and very supportive. I find all this hugely encouraging for the future,” Berger concludes.