Non-Fiction to go

The Amsterdam Forum...
January 1, 2000

The Amsterdam Forum

December began with the seventh annual Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries, a three-day-long highlight of the IDFA doc festival in Amsterdam. Out of 132 entries, 55 projects were selected to pitch before a panel of commissioning editors, who represented broadcasters from across Europe and parts of North America.

The responses from the commissioning editors present at the pitch sessions (more than 80 over the three days), ranged from overwhelmingly muted to silently enthusiastic – perhaps more a reflection of Amsterdam’s December climate and the heat of the Paradiso than the content of the pitches. The sessions were ably moderated by Nicholas Fraser (BBC), Patrick Horl (Discovery Germany), Karolina Lidin (Danish Film Institute), Hille Molenaar (independent director), Jan Rofekamp (Films Transit), and Serge Siritzky (journalist).

This month’s Non-Fiction To Go section features a selection of those projects and producers who won the opportunity to pitch before the commissioning editors:


Dying for power

During the ascendancy of General Suharto in Indonesia, over half a million people were killed and an equal number incarcerated. Although the atrocities in Indonesia have already made news, what is not widely known is how involved some Western nations were in the coup. In order to keep a communist regime out of Indonesia, Western powers may have unwittingly aided and abetted in the mass murders.

A 90-minute examination of the bloody revolution is being undertaken by Bondi’s Hilton Cordell & Associates. Shadow Play will be completed by November 2000, and will cost in the neighborhood of US$500,000. About 20% of the film’s funding has come from SBS Australia, and 40% more from the Australian Film Finance Corporation.

After the pitch, ARTE’s documentary director Thierry Garrel showed some interest in the program, but had reservations about the dark and controversial content. Many of the commissioning editors were more enthusiastic, however. Denmark’s TV2, and the CBC showed

definite interest, and although the BBC’s Nick Fraser claimed to be approaching ‘atrocity overload,’ he said that the BBC should take the project, and deemed the pitch a solid one.


Sheep stories

Begun with a loud (and somewhat startling) song from co-scriptwriter Anastasia Lapsui, the pitch for The Good Shepherd left many commissioning editors scratching their heads. The project is a 52-minute observation of the life of Ludo Van Alphen, a shepherd who tends a flock of sheep (the largest in Belgium) in the industrial lands around the port of Antwerp. An ex-school teacher, Van Alphen left it all behind for the simpler life of a traditional semi-nomad, but his new life has him in conflict with port officials and ecologists, both of whom want him removed.

Produced by Inti Films and Millennium Films in Brussels, the project will be completed by April 2001, at a budget of over US$200,000. So far, Finland’s YLE TV2 is in for about 25%.

While even many of the Euros were dubious as to whether or not there was a story behind the production, some like DR TV’s (Denmark) Flemming Grenz, executive producer, factual programs, left the door open, saying the producer ‘will have to convince me later – which he has done before.’ Representatives from Norway and the Netherlands wanted to know more before they committed a place in their schedules. TV2 Denmark’s head of sales and coproduction, Mette Hoffmann Meyer, wondered aloud why the video for the pitch didn’t include any shots or commentary from the main character, which would be integral in her decision to take on the project.


Aussie evolution

Last November, Australians voted against cutting their constitutional ties to Britain, and in the process becoming an independent republic. Although defeated, the vote was representative of a general change in Australian society, one which has seen the country shift from closed-minded conservatism to multi-cultural tolerance, reflecting the face of the Pacific Rim more than that of Europe or North America.

In Search of the Black Stump is the name given to a 55-minute exploration into the new Australian landscape being undertaken by Paris-based Dominant 7. Ready for August 2000, the production comes with a budget of about US$250,000, of which France’s La Sept/ARTE has come up with almost half. French funding body, the CNC, has added almost 20% more. ABC Australia also recently added an extra $40,000 to the production.

The BBC’s Nick Fraser had the most to say about the project, wondering good-naturedly (but quite out loud) beforehand if the pitch was going to contain more of the ‘gay aggi-prop’ the filmmaker’s previous films contained. Although Fraser said he liked the project, he was forced to turn it down, as the Beeb has a similar one being undertaken by Bob Hughes. (Although that project is in limbo, the filmmaker having suffered a serious car accident.) Regarding the content of the pitch, Fraser added: ‘I think in Australian, vulgar is genial.’

TV2′s Mette Hoffmann Meyer said she liked the pitch, and in the Netherlands, AVRO was also quite interested, although they wanted to see more of the film to get a better feel for the style.

Stranger in a strange land

Faced with a life of autistic near-isolation, Temple Grandin has chosen to overcome her handicap through the development of tools and skills to help her explore a world which her senses can’t properly interpret. Although faced with a potentially debilitating disease, Grandin has become a professor at the University of Colorado and also works as a designer of livestock equipment.

An Anthropologist on Mars is a 52-minute production from Gloria Films Production in Paris. Ready for May 2000, the hour comes with a US$230,000 price tag, although almost half of the cost is being underwritten by a license fee from La Sept/ARTE.

Although most of the editors were intrigued by the pitch and excellent accompanying clips, Nancy Abraham, VP of original programming and documentaries at HBO, cautioned that the filmmaker was in for a bit of a rough ride, considering Errol Morris has just completed a film on a similar topic. The CBC’s commissioning editor for Newsworld, Catherine Olsen, suggested that the producers might have a sale with the pubcaster’s Passionate Eye strand, but that Morris’ film was going to be a factor. Rudy Buttignol at TVOntario declined the use of his slots, but suggested TVO’s 7:00 p.m. science slot as a possibility. The BBC’s Fraser suggested Channel 4′s Witness strand as a suitable outlet. In the Netherlands, the producers stirred some interest with NPS’ Frank Peijnenburg, as they also did in Australia with SBS’ Mark Atkin (who confessed that he absolutely hated the title).

Is there a question here?

Paris-based Movimento Production is hard at work on 1+1 – The Natural History of Sexuality. Examining the origins and history of sex in a scientific way, the production endeavors to find out why humans prefer to reproduce the old, unreliable way, rather than take advantage of the advances and certainties of modern scientific methods. Two versions, a 52-minute and a 90-minute, will be the end result of the producer’s efforts, with both aiming for a September 2000 wrap. The budget for the productions will be US$550,000, of which 25% is being covered by La Sept/ARTE.

The approach seemed to be the sticking point with the editors at the Forum. Patrick Horl, head of programming for Discovery Germany, suggested taking the project to TLC, providing the visual style was compelling. Canal+ editor Anna Glogowski suggested Docstar, with the likelihood of their acceptance also hinging on what the project looked like. In the U.K., Channel 4′s Richard Life said the project wasn’t straight-forward enough for Equinox. Jan Rofekamp from Films Transit in Montreal wondered how the producers were going to avoid a long series of talking heads, and recommended they put serious thought into turning the production away from science and towards pop TV instead.


The emperor needs some clothes

I Was the King of Porn is the name given to a 60-minute film from Berlin’s Filmvergnuegen. Ready for October of next year, the hour considers the life and influence of sixties European porn producer Lasse Braun. Known for his freedom-of-speech activism, Braun worked at challenging international pornography laws, while he broke them with his own films. Leaving the porn industry in the ’70s (because of what he saw as a loss of the ideals in the movement), he retired to the West Coast of the U.S.

With a budget of US$250,000, a quarter of which is being underwritten by ARTE in Germany, the pitch didn’t raise the interest it might have at the Forum. Richard Life of C4 wondered if he would have a slot for this sort of program, (although his channel had no problem showing the first free-to-air ejaculation two months ago), and asked the producers for a fuller treatment.

The problem most of the editors had with the project was that they had porn of their own on the go. There were also worries about clearing the archival material, but the producers – who explained that they have Braun’s co-operation on the project – said clearances were not an issue.

Wolter Braamhorst from AVRO in The Netherlands said the pitch interested him, but seeing as he has a 7:00 p.m. Sunday family slot to program for, he’d have to pass.

That sinking feeling

In 1989, the most modern Soviet attack sub in the fleet sank in over 5,000 feet of water. Felled by a fatal fire, the sinking craft claimed the lives of 42 out of a crew of 69.

The disaster which befell the Komsomolets (nato code-named `Mike’), is a mystery which will be explored in the film Missing Mike, a production of Neue Berliner Filmgesellschaft of Berlin. Along with feature interviews with Cold War figureheads such as Mikhail Gorbachev and Henry Kissinger, the film will also feature a dive to the sunken sub. The film is centered around the story of one of the survivors, Victor Slusarenko, who will return to the scene of his near-death over a decade after the event took place.

Cut for both a 52-minute and 90-minute version, the film should be completed by September of 2000, with a budget of about US$1.5 million. Berlin-based distributor Athos Films Distribution has taken on 25% of that amount, and announced that they were close to a deal with public television in the U.S., which would see another 20% of the budget accounted for.

Olaf Grunert of ARTE in Germany was shocked by the size of the budget, but suggested the producers try their luck with ZDF’s international affairs and entertainment department. TVO’s Buttignol suggested the project might have a home on History Television or Discovery in Canada. TV2′s Mette Hoffmann Meyer expressed concern over the fact that there were going to be a significant number of dramatizations in the project, and said the producers had drastically under-estimated the amount they would need to pay actors. John Marshall, who assisted in the pitch, suggested in the producer’s defense that, ‘for $5,000, you can rent the entire Russian Navy.’

Fallow fellows

Ready for November, American Dream plots the decline of independent farmers in the U.S. and around the world. Produced by Christoph Corves Filmproduktion in Kiel, the 52-minute film will run to about US$100,000, of which about a quarter is being covered by money from the Cultural Film Fund Schleswig-Holstein. American Dream follows the life of a German immigrant who came to the U.S. to farm in 1955, and who has since been struggling to save his livelihood. His problems are exacerbated by the big corporations that control both the channels of distribution and supply, and by the fact that they have fixed prices so low that farmers can’t break even.

Most of the commissioning editors thought the clip the producers brought with them was interesting, but wondered what new information the producers were going to bring to the table. TVO’s Buttignol declined to jump on board, having just finished airing The Farmer’s Wife. Mark Atkin from SBS and Diane Weyermann from the Soros Documentary Fund also commented on how they had seen a number of similar films recently, and declined further involvement until they could see a rough cut.

Lost: One cameraman

Allen Ross, an American cameraman, had just finished a film on the Mississippi River when he disappeared, his pay left untouched in his account and no clues to suggest where he may have gone.

Allen Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a 90-minute film (there will also be a 50-minute version) from Tangram Christian Bauer Filmproduktion in Munich. The film is being undertaken by Christian Bauer, a producer/director who had worked with Ross annually since 1987. Bauer began digging into his friend’s disappearance only to discover Ross may have been leading a secret life, having married the leader of a mysterious religious sect without anyone’s knowledge. However, there is neither hard evidence of foul play, nor anything to suggest Ross simply walked away. The film will follow the trail of the missing man with the help of experts in the field.

Ready for the fall of 2000, the film has a budget of approximately US$350,000 and has the support of both Bayerisches Fernsehen (30%), and Saarlandischer Rundfunk (just over 10%).

HBO’s Nancy Abraham said she was intrigued by the story, but many, including the BBC’s Fraser and Garrel of La Sept/ARTE, said they would have to see a rough cut to judge how the story was being told before they could commit. Likka Vehkalahti from Finland’s YLE TV2 wondered how it was possible to tell an objective tale about the disappearance of a friend, and TV4 Sweden’s Goran Ellung wondered aloud what would happen to the production if the cameraman showed up.


Irish Reichpublic Army?

It is not widely known that during the Second World War, the IRA conspired with elements of the Nazi party in Germany. While the Irish hoped to rid themselves of the English presence in Ireland, the Nazis hoped for a fifth column in the United Kingdom to distract the Allies. The Nazis even produced extensive propaganda material, showing the Irish as misunderstood freedom fighters. What they didn’t realize was that at the time, the IRA was only a small band of men with few weapons and very little influence.

Shamrock and Swastika is a 52 or 45-minute film from Dublin-based production company Akajava, which will be ready for September 2000. Budgeted at US$120,000, the Irish Film Board has already committed to covering $30,000 of the costs, and talks have begun with Irish broadcaster RTE.

At the Forum, Richard Life of C4 wondered if there would be anything new in the production, and expressed his concern over its timing, given the recent peace efforts. Many of the editors were impressed with the propaganda films which accompanied the pitch, however.


Lost: One sister

One of the Moderator’s Hat picks (a random draw done several times per session which allows a producer in the audience to pitch), went to Israel’s David Fisher (from Muse Productions). A Sister With No Name is a one-hour film about his own family’s experience losing a sister to government-forced adoption. Fisher’s parents, both Holocaust survivors, fled to Israel after the Second World War. When his mother gave birth to the filmmaker’s oldest sister, the government took the baby and adopted it out, believing that the couple were neither in the proper physical nor mental condition to care for a child. The film will concentrate on the internal struggle within the family to decide whether or not to begin the search, and will then follow the search itself.

The US$165,000 film has a $90,000 commitment from Channel 8 in Israel. C8 commissioning editor Amit Breuer said he bought into the project from a one sheet, and hadn’t seen any of the footage himself until the pitch. Other editors were not so easily impressed, and all wanted to see more before they would commit.

The Netherlands

Editors at gun point

Perhaps it was director Coco Schrijber’s comment that she ‘used to shoot an Uzi to relax, which I could do with now,’ that threw the commissioning editors off, but the pitch for Laws of Mars (w/t) was not especially well received. The 70-minute production from Amsterdam’s Lemming Film will be wrapped by November 2000, at a budget of about US$420,000. Almost 75% of the budget is in place, and includes commitments from broadcasters IKON ($40,000) and Lichtpunt ($15,000), and funding bodies Dutch Film Fund ($150,000) and CoBo ($115,000).

The film tackles humanity’s dualistic disposition towards war, and was spurred by Schrijber’s own experiences. After moving to Israel, she joined the army herself, but quit after only three months, claiming she could no longer tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. It raised questions which will be answered in the film: Is war really the natural state of humanity? Is war in our genes? Why do we deny our fascination for it?

France 3′s Elisabeth Couturier said the production presented problems for broadcasters, in that it suggests that there are things such as good wars. The pitch was not generally well received, as most editors considered that the film might excuse war, and therefore create a negative viewer backlash.

South Africa

Go ahead, make my day

Bulelane Ngcuka is the man who has been given the responsibility of wiping out organized crime in South Africa. He’s a smartly-dressed John Wayne-figure, with both a sense of humor and intense dedication. In the 52-minute film Skop, Skiet, and a Little Less Donner, Cape Town producers Day Zero Film and Video will follow Ngcuka on two or three cases, exploring the man and the unique criminal condition in the area.

The budget for the hour is US$100,000. (According to director Don Edkins: ‘we are cheap people – easily bought, and easily sold.’) South African broadcaster E-TV is already in for almost $30,000. The project will be ready for December of next year.

Anna Glogowski from Canal+ expressed her interest in a 30-minute version of the film. Norway-based NRK’s Tore Tomter was happy about the price, and added that he thought all the projects at the Forum were too expensive. SBS Australia’s Mark Atkin wasn’t interested in the project, as he has similar ones in the works, but was impressed enough with the pitch to say he wanted to hear about the other efforts the producers had on the go.

United Kingdom

What’s that in your mouth?

Mutant food has been in the news a lot lately. Although science has found ways to grow faster, bigger and more abundantly, consumers have been left wondering if more is better – or safer. London’s Brook Lapping Productions has begun work on a 4 x 60-minute series entitled The Politics of Food. The series will examine all the alarmist ideas, digging deep into the matter to find out what is true and what is false. The focus of the four episodes will fall into four main areas: grains, meats, fruits and vegetables, and fish.

Ready for September of 2001, the budget for the series comes to about US$2 million, a quarter of which is already in place thanks to a commitment from Canal+ France. Olaf Grunert suggested the producers should get in touch with ZDF’s current affairs department.

United States

Playing with dolls

New York’s Smoking Mirrors Productions is working on a 75-minute special for all the amateur hobbyists out there. Sex in a Box looks at the history and development of artificial sex dolls. It is the story of man’s quest for the perfect (and perfectly passive) woman, and traces the thread from ancient times, through the story of Casanova and Descartes (who had his ‘friend’ thrown overboard during a sea voyage by a puritan captain), up to modern times. It even includes the work of U.S. special effects guru Matt McMullen, who fashions the world’s most expensive love dolls at $5,000 apiece. Ready for Autumn of 2000, this US$310,000 special has backing from Canal+ Poland (about 15%), and Films Transit in Montreal (just under 10%).

During the pitch, director Thomasz Magierski noted that most new inventions come about for the military, and are then applied to the sex industry. The producers also gave away suspicious-looking cans, which only a few of the editors dared open. (No one commented on the contents.)

Olaf Grunert of ARTE echoed most of the editor’s concerns that the project would not work in primetime, but suggested that it might be good for a thematic night. Most editors preferred to see a rough cut to see what they might be getting themselves into.

Cruel constructions

PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is a synthetic material produced by the millions of tons each year, for products as diverse as children’s toys, IV bags and building materials. It has long been considered a miracle product, but recent evidence suggests that its production may be accompanied by a steep price. The components used in PVC production are killing the workers who manufacture it, and making those living around the giant plants sick from air and water pollution. Currently in Italy, 31 vinyl executives are up on manslaughter charges brought about because of the deaths of 150 vinyl workers. As coproducer/director Judith Helfand (A Healthy Baby Girl) quips, it gives new meaning to the marketing phrase: `Vinyl is Final.’

Blue Vinyl – A Toxic Comedy is a quirky, 90-minute (and 60-minute) look at the PVC issue, beginning near the filmmaker’s home and spreading over the globe. The production company, New York’s Toxic Comedy Pictures should have the project wrapped up by the fall or winter of 2001, at a budget of about US$730,000 (down from the original $950,000 price tag). HBO has come aboard for about $150,000.

Although HBO got involved in the project early (which commissioning editor Nancy Abraham says is a rarity), the project didn’t get much sympathy around the table. Although Britain subjected the world to Benny Hill, the BBC’s Fraser shot the project down with: ‘What’s funny? This is tragic.’ Even with the Brit’s love for dark humor, said Fraser, this project would be too much for them.

The sentiment was not completely shared around the table. Planete’s Michel Badinter called the film a ‘necessary project’, and TVO’s Rudy Buttignol said he was definitely interested (even though he termed vinyl ‘an aesthetic abomination’). TV2′s Mette Hoffmann Meyer wondered why the film was so expensive, even though it had been reduced more than $200,000 since the pitch package was originally put together.

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.