On the Slate

The second annual Toronto Documentary Forum took place on May 2 and 3, marking the mid-way point of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. Over the two days, 65 commissioning editors heard 39 producers pitch their projects. Norm Bolen of Canada's Alliance Atlantis, Ina Fichman of Productions La Fete in Canada, The Danish Film Institute's Karolina Lidin, Canada's Jan Rofekamp of Films Transit, and Muriel Rosilio of Filmoption International in Canada took turns moderating. In this month's 'On the Slate', KIMBERLEY BROWN reports on some of the projects pitched.
June 1, 2001


Bombs over Beethoven

In 1965, Hanoi, the former capital of North Vietnam, was the home of the National Conservatory of Music. But, when the city became a prime target for American B-52s, the government decided it was time to relocate. Several hundred instruments were loaded onto a train and later reloaded onto carts en route to the village of Xuan Phu. About 800 students and teachers accompanied them.

Using rare footage from the Vietnamese archives, Vietnam Symphony, a 52-minute single by producers Kerry Herman and Tom Zubrycki of Stonebridge/Jotz Productions in Leichhardt, Australia, tells the story of how these men and women pursued their music studies in underground caverns throughout the war, and brings us up to speed with what they’re doing today. A reunion concert performed in Xuan Phu to mark the lunar New Year will help tie together past and present. The film carries a budget of about US$195,000 and the producers attended the Forum seeking pre-sale financing. SBS Australia is on board for about 25% of the budget. Delivery is planned for February 2002.

BBC editors Nick Fraser and Ruth Pitt announced they were willing to fight each other for this project, although Fraser thought the budget was enormous and was concerned the links between past and present might be awkward. Marie Natanson of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) thought the film was a natural fit for the pubcaster and invited the panelists to chat later. Diane Weyermann of the Soros Documentary Fund was interested in the film’s contemporary storyline, and noted that humanizing the Vietnam conflict, especially in the U.S., is very important. John Lindsay revealed that PBS was already interested in the project, which would be reviewed for funding consideration the week following the Forum.


Bait and switch

RealScreen has long known that fact is better than fiction, but Tinsel Town has been a little harder to convince, even when it’s tackling films that are ‘based on a true story’. Focusing on three or four recent and upcoming films, producer Alan Handel of Alan Handel Productions in Montreal, Canada, will examine what happens when Hollywood makes a film with a narrative that is steeped in reality. Among the movies up for consideration are Boys Don’t Cry, which Handel says director Kimberly Peirce describes as emotionally true but factually changed, and Erin Brockovich, the Hollywood version of which has caused the starring town to consider suing its co-starring law firm. Based on a True Story seeks to learn if reality needs to be rewritten in order to make compelling viewing (absolutely not!), and if so, what the consequences are. At 50 minutes long it has a US$360,000 budget and will be delivered in September 2002. CBC Newsworld has invested $35,000 and the Canadian Documentary Channel has given development funds.

Despite moderator Norm Bolen’s suggestion that the commissioning editors bring the pitch to a happy, Hollywood ending, reactions from around the table were mixed. Both Julie Anderson of HBO in the U.S. and Laurence Rees of the BBC showed interest, but cautioned about the difficulty of clearing clips. Bryan Smith of National Geographic Channels International passed, explaining that Nat Geo tackles this subject in another manner, citing Pearl Harbor as an example. The BBC’s Nick Fraser said he didn’t think there was a trend towards rewriting and asked Handel if he planned to repeatedly remind us that Hollywood lies. However, colleague Ruth Pitt said the idea was valid, but was concerned the film would imply that docs always tell the truth…

News to me

Ever wonder if the news tells the whole story? Peter Wintonick (of Montreal-based Necessary Illusions) and Katerina Cizek do. They presented Seeing is Believing, a one-hour one-off documenting human rights violations captured by the personal videocams of activists and non-governmental organizations, as compared to the media’s coverage of the same events.

Budgeted at US$164,000 the film will wrap in July, with delivery in December. SODEC, the Soros Documentary Fund, CBC Newsworld and SRC/RDI have collectively contributed $80,000 to the film’s budget.

HBO’s Julie Anderson said she was having a hard time envisioning what the film would look like. Nick Fraser said it was too much like a teaching aid, noting that he was more interested in films, than in films about films. Christoph Jorg of ARTE France joked, ‘For once, I agree with Nick.’ Afterward, Jorg admitted he wanted to meet with the production team.

Mark Atkin from SBS expressed interest, as did YLE TV2′s Iikka Vehkalahti, who said he liked the testimonial aspect of the project. JH


Road blocks

Hvidovre’s Zentropa Productions has coupled Danish feature filmmaker Lars Von Trier with one of the country’s high profile documentarians, Jorgen Leth, to make a film about making a doc. Budgeted for around US$335,000, The Five Obstructions will witness Leth trying to make a film that upholds his beliefs about the art of docs, while Von Trier places five different cinematographical road blocks in his path. (Footage used during the pitch showed Von Trier telling Leth he couldn’t go to Cuba to make a film about Cuba; he also couldn’t film on a set.) The film will be one hour long and has secured 25% of its financing from the Danish Film Institute. Carsten Holst and Kerstin Allroth are the producers. Delivery is set for June 2002.

Adam Barker of Channel 4 in the U.K. described the film as enticing yet puzzling, but thought there was potential for modest financing and a late night slot. Mette Hoffmann Meyer of TV2 Denmark echoed Barker’s sentiment and inquired if a 90-minute version was possible, as her one-hour slots are for primetime. Nick Fraser thought the forced conditions imposed by Von Trier could be inspiring, and Bjorn Arvas of Swedish pubcaster SVT confirmed he was interested. SBS Australia’s Mark Atkin said the film was a perfect fit for his channel’s mandate, and praised the filmmakers for pushing the envelope and making people think about what they’re watching.


Henrik Veileborg and Mette Zeruneith from Danish film studio Magic Hour Films presented the 80-minute one-off A Survivor’s Tale. The film documents the story of an Ugandan refugee in Copenhagen struggling to retrieve his son from a military camp in the Congo, where he has been forced to serve as a child soldier for the Ugandan army.

Budgeted at around US$275,000, the film has received $69,000 from The Danish Film Institute and $12,500 from DRTV.

Rudy Buttignol from TVO was intrigued by Steven, the main character, but wouldn’t commit up front. Mark Atkin suggested producers make a one-hour international version; Bill Binnemans of Belgium’s RTBF concurred, but was also concerned that subtitling might reduce the story’s emotional impact.

Tom Koch of WGBH agreed to consult his colleagues at PBS, saying the film should definitely find a home there. ARTE’s Christoph Jorg loved the pitch and said the film would be perfect for Thierry Garrel’s ‘La Vie en France.’ Nick Fraser said the BBC had done many African stories of late, but he wanted to see what direction the project takes.

Producers expect a resolution to the story this summer, with a delivery date in July 2002. JH


On thin ice

Beijing is a city full of illegal residents. Without permits, these individuals cannot access social services and risk imprisonment in deportation camps should they be discovered. They take these risks in the hope of finding employment. One such resident is Zhang JingTao, the owner of an unlicensed restaurant and the subject of a one-hour doc by Helsinki-based Making Movies Oy.

Director Mika Koskinen has lived in Beijing for four years and has followed Zhang and his family since June 2000. With Zhang’s Diner, he hopes to show the realities faced by Beijing’s illegal residents, including frequent police raids and heavy ‘taxes’ imposed by swindlers who profit from these people’s vulnerable circumstances. Koskinen will also tell Zhang’s personal story, revealing how he dreams of returning to his home province a rich man so he can care for the eight-year-old daughter he left behind, and how his marriage suffers under the weight of business failures and the advances of a flirtatious customer. The film will be subtitled and carries a budget of about US$172,000. Delivery is expected for next May.

Responses from around the table were positive. Bill Bennemans of RTBF in Belgium invited the filmmakers to talk later, but wondered how Koskinen was able to follow the family undetected (he’s been arrested once during production). Considering that Chinese immigrants are becoming Toronto’s largest minority, TV Ontario’s Rudy Buttignol thought it was important to show Canadians the life these new residents were coming from. Mark Atkin confirmed he would like to be involved in the project, but Jennifer Hyde of CNN Productions explained that the newscaster had to approach subjects in a more straightforward manner.


The perfect storm

The 1997 financial crisis in Asia was witnessed, inflamed, and weathered by the numerous bankers, finance

ministers and heads of state who work within Asia’s finance system. In Bubble and Crash, producer Christine Camdessus of French prodco Tetra Media sheds light on the human angle of this event by investigating the stories of those on the financial front lines. Running 60 minutes in length, the doc is budgeted at US$335,000 and is planned for delivery in February 2002. Commitments from ARTE, La Cinquiéme, and the Centre National de la Cinematographie comprise 72% of the budget.

Nick Fraser thought the project had potential but encouraged the filmmakers to pursue a narrative approach, not a journalistic one, as he was more interested in how the crisis reflects on the capitalist system. Dasha Ross of ABC Australia said she was looking for business docs to augment primetime programming, but echoed Fraser, stating she is more intrigued with how the event effects us today than she is with what happened in the past. Bryan Smith of Nat Geo said he would present the proposal to their Asian channel.

Ghost Writers

In mid-1944, the Vichy government in France released one of the last groups of deportees to the Nazis. This group of 850 resistance fighters, Jews, communists, and Spanish republicans were transported by train across France to Germany where they were placed in concentration camps until the end of the war. During this time, the Allies stormed Normandy and were steadily liberating western Europe. Allied air attacks often altered the course of the deportees, forcing them to switch trains, walking 20 miles or more between towns to do so.

Aubagne, France-based Same Films/Stalker Films plan to use the letters of the deportees alongside interviews with both witnesses and survivors to produce a one-hour doc on the journey titled Letters from the Ghost Train. Reenactments and present day shots of locations the trains passed through will substitute for archive footage. France 3 Sud and ZDF/ARTE are already involved with the film, which has a budget of about US$235,000. Delivery is expected for November 2001.

Editors around the table agreed the film was interesting, but many declined due to the volume of material already produced on the Holocaust. Sydney Suissa of History Television in Canada was one dissenter, inviting the

filmmakers to speak with him later. He liked that the project deals with the power of imagery and memory, and was intrigued that it will be made without archive footage. Julie Anderson of HBO said the cable outlet has had repeated success with the theme and asked to see the film at the rough-cut stage.


Passing the buck

London-based Urban Films’ current project, The Deported, is a 70-minute doc that will follow three refugees after their applications for asylum have been rejected by the country they have struggled to reach. According to director Nick Danziger, refugee numbers are increasing, forcing Western governments to tackle the issue of deportation. He points out that Britain received 97,900 asylum applications last year alone, the highest number in all of Europe. This year, the British government hopes to deport up to 400,000 refugees – a target Danziger fears will cause life and death decisions to be made arbitrarily. By following asylum seekers refused entry to the U.K., Australia and North America, the film will compare the policies of each country and show the impact their decisions have on refugees forced to return to the countries they have fled. The project has a budget of approximately US$330,000 and the prodco has already secured 13% of the financing from the BBC. Delivery is expected for October 2002.

WGBH’s Tom Koch, Catherine Olsen of CBC Newsworld’s ‘Passionate Eye,’ and Dasha Ross showed interest in the project, provided a story originated in their respective nations. Jennifer Hyde of CNN Productions in the U.S. said the doc would be a great companion piece to another program scheduled to air at the end of May that

follows refugees from arrival to deportation. She warned, however, that the stories of the people selected would need to involve struggle and conflict for the doc to be effective. Diane Weyermann of the Soros Documentary Fund also showed interest in the project.


Waking sleeping dogs

In 1992 and 1994, terrorist attacks on Jews in Buenos Aires killed 115 civilians. To this day, the attacks remain unsolved. Ton Vriens of New York-based Vriens International Productions aims to exert diplomatic pressure on the Argentinean government by producing To Live with Terror, a 52-minute one-off involving the victims’ relatives and friends, who oppose the way the government has handled the investigation. Annet Betsalel of the Netherlands’ NIK Media, who believes they have an obligation to bring the story to the media, has given US$45,000 toward the $135,000 budget.

Tom Koch of WGBH said that although the project was intriguing, it might be too far away to garner appeal with U.S. audiences. Christine Olsen from the CBC agreed, but expressed interest in seeing the film on completion. Adam Barker of Channel 4 in the U.K. said it might be suitable for the ‘Dispatches’ strand, while Nick Fraser said the film was too investigative for the BBC.

Bolen suggested CNN as a possibility, and Mary Ellen Iwata at TLC thought Discovery Latin America might be interested. Diane Weyermann, said Soros had a similar project on the go, but was interested in seeing the film at rough-cut. The project will deliver this June. JH

Prison politics

With The Celluloid Closet and Paragraph 175 under their belts, Jeffrey Friedman and Rob Epstein of San Francisco-based Telling Pictures pitched their new project to a keen panel. Hooked Up is a one-hour doc examining the sexual culture that develops behind the bars of all-male prisons. The prodco has already picked up $145,000 of the $460,000 budget from Channel 4.

After a clip that introduced one of the main characters – an inmate at Utah State Prison, who spoke candidly about his homosexual experiences – Mary Ellen Iwata thought the project might be too graphic for TLC, but noted she was interested due to the producers’ previous work. Tamar Hacker said A&E’s audience was probably too middle American for such a project. David Davis of Oregon Public Broadcasting and Tom Koch of WGBH agreed the project was perfect for PBS. So too thought Rudy Buttignol of TVO. Christoph Jorg commented that all of the producers’ films ended up on ARTE somehow, and he expected that Hooked Up would be no exception. Dasha Ross at the abc was also interested in discussing the project further, but said she would probably not get involved until after completion.

On the other side of the table, Cilian Fennell from TG4 in Ireland questioned whether the producers were exploiting inmates and playing to the lowest common denominator, à la Jerry Springer. Production will wrap in October, with delivery in July 2002. JH

A black and white issue

On June 7, 1998, James Byrd, an African American living in Jasper, Texas, was chained behind a pick-up truck by white supremacists and dragged for three miles until he died. Two Towns of Jasper is a collaborative effort between a black and a white filmmaker – Whitney Dow and Marco Williams, of New York-based Two Tone Productions – who recorded the divergent perspectives of the white and black residents of Jasper, using two racially separate crews.

The 90-minute film has a $950,000 budget, with 70% coming from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, ITVS, the National Black Programming Consortium, the Wellspring Foundation, the Driehaus Foundation, and HBO.

Iikka Vehkalahti of YLE TV2 in Finland summed up reactions around the table: ‘I think almost everybody would say they want to see the rough cut.’ Diane Weyermann at the Soros Fund, and Adam Barker from Channel 4, concurred. Mette Hoffmann Meyer and Christoph Jorg both expressed hesitation to fill their slots with too much American content, but wanted to see the rough cut. Nick Fraser suggested audiences may feel alienated by the race-specific filming technique, but wanted to see the rough-cut. Delivery is expected for January 2002. JH

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.