Entering film festivals:
what does it take for a documentary to make the cut?

Filmmakers often spend months or even years toiling over a documentary project, but how do they ensure it's seen by as many people as possible? Canon Ambassador Marcel Mettelsiefen shares what he's learned navigating the festival circuit with his Academy Award-nominated short, Watani: My Homeland.
A man standing on a hillside with a Canon camera on a tripod. A sprawling city stretches into the distance behind him.

Filmmaker Marcel Mettelsiefen's short documentary about a family fleeing the war in Syria earned him an Oscar nomination in 2016. His latest project focuses on the Taliban in Afghanistan. © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Every year, festivals large and small showcase work by many talented new filmmakers and cinematographers. From Cannes and Sundance to Berlin and Toronto, festivals introduce audiences to hundreds of new stories and characters that entertain us as well as shape how we understand the world.

German documentary filmmaker and Canon Ambassador Marcel Mettelsiefen was working on his film, Watani: My Homeland, when he discovered the existence of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short. Having received a number of TV awards already for documenting the conflict in Syria, Marcel was keen to see if he could replicate this success in the cinema industry.

In order to be eligible for the award, though, swift work was required, as a film needs to have either had a commercial run in a qualifying US cinema or won a qualifying award at one of a list of specific film festivals (or have won a medal in the Academy's student awards). "You either go through festivals or you apply and have a cinema run for a couple of weeks," explains Marcel. "I got shortlisted and from there people started to approach me and to help financially to organise screenings. People come on board in exchange for having a credit as a producer," he adds. "It's a smart thing [for them] to do because then you get an Oscar nomination!" Indeed, Marcel's film about a Syrian family on the frontline in Aleppo would go on to receive an Academy Award nomination in 2016 for Best Documentary (Short Subject).

"It doesn't really matter who you are or your experience, it's all about the story," says Marcel. "If you are thinking about entering a festival, you need to ask yourself if you have picked the right topic. Does it have the potential to become big? If it does, if you have unique access, if the story is universal, then believe in it and persevere."

Six years after his nomination, Marcel's latest labour of love, yet to be named at time of writing, will premiere at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) 2022 in the first week of September and is set to hit the global stage on Netflix.

Here, Marcel shares what he learnt navigating the festival circuit with Watani: My Homeland. In particular, he and Aron Randhawa, Product Specialist at Canon Europe, discuss the key practical and technical elements of filmmaking that underpin every story bound for festivals, not least the entry requirements that documentary filmmakers must adhere to.

Hear more from Marcel in this episode of Canon's Shutter Stories podcast:

A girl kneels by an open window looking out, holding a patterned pillow.

Watani: My Homeland followed a Syrian family as they escaped the bombings in Aleppo and found a new life in Germany. © Marcel Mettelsiefen

A woman cradling her young child as they sit in the back of a car, a rainy motorway moving past out of the window.

Marcel had already been working with the family of Commander Abu Ali when the war escalated and the eyes of the world turned to Syria. After Ali was captured by ISIS, his wife and children made the difficult decision to leave. © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Finding a topical story

Story is king, but to make the cut at festivals there needs to be a demand for that story, which usually means an issue that's currently in the global news. Marcel had been embedded with the Syrian family that features in his documentary for 18 months before the war in the country escalated and had already filmed hundreds of hours of frontline footage.

His film won the Pare Lorentz Award at the IDA Documentary Awards and Best Documentary at the Deutscher Fernsehpreis (German Television Awards), as well as receiving a nomination at the IDFA: International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, which ultimately led to the Academy Award nomination.

"An Oscar nomination opens doors to be on the big stage for the stories you are making," says Marcel. "We are in a time when there is a huge push for documentary filmmaking. Budgets are bigger, people watch more documentaries today and it's possible for a solo shooter like me to tell stories in a more cinematic way, thanks to camera gear like the Canon EOS C300 Mark III."

Still, it took five years to find his next big project. "I started it in 2020 and came back from Afghanistan with access to the Taliban and a strong female lead. I thought, 'This story will be big', but then the global [Covid-19] pandemic started and no one cared.

"But I believed in the story, kept working on it, and in 2022 Kabul has fallen and it's the next big story," he continues. "There are very short windows of interest. You have to understand what works and what doesn't, then choose the right project and persist [with it]."

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Read the small print first

If finding a universally engaging story that aligns with a moment of global interest is not hard enough already, filmmakers need to be strategic about getting their film into a packed festival calendar. Adhering to practical and technical requirements is paramount, and you need to do your research before sharing publicly. "Each category has a basic requirement and conditions to qualify," says Marcel. "Short documentaries cannot be longer than 40 minutes, so we did 39 minutes and 30 seconds! Also, you can't use more than 15% of footage that has already been broadcast somewhere else."

Application deadlines are typically three months before each festival begins, and if you want to be considered for big prizes like the Academy Awards, you'll need to know which festival prizes do and don't qualify your film for entry. Of the 7,000+ listed film festivals across the world, around 100 are on the qualifying list, published on the Academy Awards website. Otherwise, you'll need a week-long theatrical run in cinemas which can cost a lot of money.

You can't sit on your project too long, either. There's usually a stipulation that the application needs to be submitted within two years of the project's completion. Consequently, being proactive is crucial. "If you realise that you have an extraordinary and universal topic and are able to strategise a marketing package around it, plan an impactful campaign, create noise, then you might have a good chance of getting into the top festivals," explains Marcel.

A man in a khaki jacket and scarf standing behind a Canon cinema camera on a tripod.

"In a world that's overloaded with information, I think what I'm able to do with speciality documentary filmmaking is create something that people can relate to and understand," explains Marcel. "Although people might feel very removed from war zones, we connect through global themes, and that's what I want to show." © Marcel Mettelsiefen

Meeting the technical requirements

Despite what you may think, technical requirements are attainable for most filmmakers, even for the prestigious Academy Awards, which require files to be submitted as a Digital Cinema Package (DCP) with a minimum image resolution of 1920x1080 pixels and three-channel audio (left, right and centre). Most festivals are more open. All Canon Cinema EOS cameras and the majority of Canon hybrid cameras shoot 4K video, which gives plenty of room to meet the requirements.

"Back in the day, festivals would specify 24fps, but these days it's so open – entries can vary from digital HD screeners to physical formats such as analogue film, DVDs or even VHS," says Aron. "Many festivals don't tend to require 4K because of the increasing volume of entrants and the large data storage requirements needed to process them."

Creatives should bear in mind, however, that playing at a festival can open up other opportunities for their film, such as the attention of broadcasters and streaming services, and these might have different technical requirements. If Marcel's output was solely high definition with festival awards in mind, he might not then be able to licence his film to a streaming service which demands 4K, for instance. Edits can be exported at a lower resolution, but it's much harder to do the other way round.

"A documentary could be shot at 25p to adhere to the PAL video standard for TV in the EMEA region, while for a different region such as the US, the video standard is NTSC format of 30p," says Aron. "Because of that, plus the digital age we're in, most festivals are now more relaxed on the frame rate. However, 24fps is still the industry standard for traditional filmmaking and theatrical release, whether it is a short or feature-length production.

A group of basketball players gather together on a court, standing around their coach. To the side, three filmmakers stand with cameras and a microphone, filming them.

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"Unlike many other brands, 24p is something that Canon cameras now offer, regardless whether it's a cinema camera or the majority of our mirrorless cameras. There are still some festivals out there that have that strict requirement."

Making the most of Canon quality

Canon Cinema EOS cameras and most Canon hybrid cameras exceed the technical demands for festival entry. Creatives can make use of the extra resolution afforded to them at the capture stage and then export the edit at the required resolution.

"Even if the majority of film festivals still only require Full HD or less, 4K gives more freedom as to how you use that resolution for high-definition productions," explains Aron. "A digital zoom is possible for a cinematic effect, or to get in closer without losing any resolution. Or maybe you're on a tight budget and not using a gimbal. 4K gives more space to crop into HD productions to do image stabilisation in post."

Marcel agrees, especially since he is working solo again on his latest project shot with the Canon EOS C300 Mark III. "The personal ambition I had between Watani and now was to improve and work on my cinematography," he says. "I filmed in 4K RAW and Canon Log for the highest quality possible from the EOS C300 Mark III because I come from photography and I'm filming by myself and trying to create a visual language that is cinematic.

"Canon is so reliable in such extreme conditions," he adds. "You can shoot 4K with huge data and proxies at the same time – and handle this data efficiently after 14 hours in the field. The huge dynamic range is tremendously helpful in countries in the Middle East where contrast in summer is so strong. And with the built-in ND filters I have the possibility of being cinematic without a huge setup. It's amazing."

Marcel believes that documentaries play a crucial role in breaking down complicated stories and enabling the viewer to engage with an issue on an emotional level. "The viewers realise that people aren't that different," he explains. "Watani is the story of one family but it touches on the bigger context. As a solo shooter working with my EOS C300 Mark III I am able to tell stories in a cinematic way and that's the reason why documentaries are reaching bigger audiences."

Tim Coleman

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