On the Slate

Doc-makers are a hearty bunch, and at the recent Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries in Amsterdam (November 26 to 28, 2001), 47 of them proved it. The group gamely agreed to pitch their projects to a panel of commissioning editors from around the globe and accept the consequences, whether praise or criticism. For many, the returns were worth the risk of putting themselves on display, as promises of talks and even serious commitments emerged - an encouraging sign in our recession-racked economy.
January 1, 2002

Doc-makers are a hearty bunch, and at the recent Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries in Amsterdam (November 26 to 28, 2001), 47 of them proved it. The group gamely agreed to pitch their projects to a panel of commissioning editors from around the globe and accept the consequences, whether praise or criticism. For many, the returns were worth the risk of putting themselves on display, as promises of talks and even serious commitments emerged – an encouraging sign in our recession-racked economy.

Forum moderators Karolina Lidin (Danish Film Institute), Jan Rofekamp (Montreal’s Films Transit), Krishan Arora (BBC), Paul Pauwels (Flemish Film Institute) and Steven Seidenberg (Alliance Atlantis’ Café Productions) ably ensured that everyone kept to the clock – seven minutes for pitching, eight minutes for responses, per project. (Getting the program started each morning was a greater challenge, however.)

Much to the disappointment of observers, the heated debates between English and French commissioning editors that had characterized past Forums never sparked. Polite silences signalled disagreement instead, with few exceptions. The following is a taste of the ninth annual Forum.



Mary Poppins is the quintessential English nanny, loved as much for her cheerful disposition as her magical abilities. While the popular fictional character is recognized all over the world, little is known about her creator, Pamela Travers.

Born in Maryborough, a small town on Australia’s northern coast, Travers had a childhood tinged with sadness. Her father was an alcoholic who died when she was seven; her mother attempted to drown herself in the local creek. The idea for Mary Poppins evolved from a tale Travers told her sisters to comfort them the night their mother tried to commit suicide. In the 55-minute The Shadow of Mary Poppins, director Lisa Matthews works with Australian prodco Hilton Cordell & Associates to shed light on Travers’ complex and troubled life.

Jacques Laurent, commissioning editor with ARTE G.E.I.E. in France, said the film might work as part of a thematic evening for his channel. Burgl Czeitschner, of Discovery Channel Germany, considered it a possibility for Discovery International, which has a strand for literary masterpieces, and promised to speak to her colleagues. Stephen Segaller, director of news and public affairs for Thirteen/WNET (PBS’ New York affiliate), liked the pitch though he has no slot for the project, and suggested that a smart North American distributor would do well to pick it up, hinting broadly at moderator Jan Rofekamp.

The Shadow of Mary Poppins, budgeted at US$230,000, is scheduled for release in June. Broadcasters on board include AVRO in the Netherlands, Australia’s ABC (and ABC International), Ireland’s RTE and U.K. digicaster Artsworld. Hilton Cordell is looking for about $150,000.


Eye on Nicaragua

In 1987, Canadian producer/director Peter Raymont (of Toronto-based White Pine Films) followed four international journalists to Nicaragua while they reported on then-U.S. supported Contra war against the Sandinistas. The result was an award-winning film, The World is Watching.

In The World Stopped Watching, Raymont will again accompany the journalists to Nicaragua, to reveal what has become of this territory since it fell off the media radar. The 58-minute one-off will also consider what the reporters have learned about their profession in the 14 years since they first boarded a plane for Central America. Delivery is set for October.

Thirteen/WNET’s Stephen Segaller said the program looked like a good fit for a new pbs strand he is developing called ‘Forgotten Areas of the World’ (w/t) and wanted to keep in touch. Bjorn Arvas, head of doc acquisitions for Sweden’s svt, promised to push the proposal to his colleagues back home.

Peter Dale, head of docs at the U.K.’s Channel 4, was unsure whether this project would have as much energy as the 1987 film, but said he would still have a look (the inclusion of ITN TV reporter Jon Snow seemed to be a key selling point). Jacques Laurent of ARTE G.E.I.E. voiced concern about tackling so many issues over the course of one hour.

Budgeted at US$223,000, The World Stopped Watching still needs about $90,000. The Canadian Television Fund, the Canadian International Development Agency and TV Ontario have collectively contributed over half of the total budget.


Room with a view

For Isabel, Nicole and Marlene – three young Puerto Rican-American women living in Brooklyn, New York’s lower-income Bushwich projects – the Williamsburg Bridge represents both a real and a symbolic path to a happier life. Each girl dreams of crossing the bridge to Manhattan, which they can see from their windows, leaving behind the hardships of their lives.

Over the past five years, Danish director Camilla Hjelm Knudsen gradually established a trust with these girls, first photographing them and later filming them. The Bridge, a one-hour one-off produced by Copenhagen’s cosmo Filmproduktion, documents who Isabel, Nicole and Marlene are and how they live, offering an intimate look into their worlds.

Julie Anderson, director of doc programming for HBO, was impressed by the access Knudsen achieved and expressed interest in following up later. Marie Natanson, exec producer of independent docs for Canadian pubcaster the CBC, said she liked the pitch, but hesitated to sign on as a coproducer, noting that the subject matter isn’t exotic enough for her channel. TV Ontario’s Rudy Buttignol, creative head of docs, drama, network branding and membership, countered that it’s exotic enough for his Canadian provincial station and asked to see a rough cut. Mette Hoffmann Meyer, head of sales and coproduction for TV2 Denmark, praised the project for its strength and intimacy, adding that she bought into the project as soon as she heard about it.

The Bridge is scheduled to wrap in February. The Danish Film Institute has contributed about 40% of the project’s US$98,000 budget.



At the height of the Cold War, confrontations between Americans and Soviets played out in arenas large and small, but none so compact as the chess board.

The 1972 Reykjavik match between the U.S.S.R.’s Boris Spassky and the U.S.’s Robert Fischer was the pivotal chess game of that era, attracting the attention of both the KGB and the U.S. State Department. Paris-based Les Films d’Ici, will use the Spassky-Fischer match as the guiding principle in The Chess War, a 52-minute single that will illustrate the feverish intensity of this seemingly sedate game, as well as the political intrigue that sometimes accompanies it. The film, which is slated to wrap by the summer, will include interviews with Spassky, former members of the Soviet hierarchy and U.S. State Department officials, but not Fischer, who is now a recluse. The budget is US$252,000.

Christiane Philippe, of RTBF in Belgium, showered the project with kudos, adding that a deal was just about guaranteed following the pitch. TVO’s Rudy Buttignol passed, noting that the subject matter left him cold. Iikka Vehkalahti, of Finland’s YLE TV2, said that as both a Communist and a chess player, he was very interested, though the program might be a better fit for the history slot on YLE TV1. John Lindsay, senior vice president of national/international productions for pbs affiliate Oregon Public Broadcasting, liked the proposal but confessed that he is unlikely to get on board since the focus is more concentrated on the Soviet players.

ARTE France has committed to about one third of the budget and French funding bodies Procirep and CNC have kicked in an additional $45,000, leaving about $118,000 outstanding.


Love thine enemies

My Terrorist is filmmaker Yulie Gerstel’s personal story. It begins in August 1978, when she was a flight attendant with Israel’s El Al airline. Gerstel and her crew had just arrived in central London when they were suddenly confronted by Fahad Mihyi, a machine- gun-wielding member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and his partner. One crew member was shot and killed; three others were wounded, including Gerstel.

Twenty-two years later, Gerstel decided to seek out ‘her’ terrorist and found Mihyi in an English prison. They began a dialogue in which Gerstel not only came to believe Mihyi’s deep regret for his actions, she became determined to help him get released. My Terrorist, a one-hour one-off, will document the Israeli filmmaker’s efforts to achieve reconciliation.

Entering the Forum, the US$223,000 project (produced by Gerstel Aviad Productions), had secured support from the BBC, Israel’s Channel 8, TV Ontario and the Soros Documentary Fund (now the Sundance Documentary Fund), which left only $69,000 of the budget to be covered. Following the pitch, there was no shortage of additional broadcasters expressing interest.

Yves Jeanneau, director of docs for France 2, said it is exactly the kind of film he’s looking for. Olaf Grunert of ZDF/ARTE was also keen and asked to accelerate discussions. HBO’s Julie Anderson joined the chorus of praise, saying she loved the idea. Christoph Jorg, from ARTE France, seemed underwhelmed, questioning the merits of Gerstel’s on-air presence in the film. My Terrorist is scheduled for release in December.

United Kingdom

Caught in the crossfire

London-based Café Productions (part of Canada’s Alliance Atlantis) pitched one of the few series accepted by the ninth Forum. Inspired by Michael Apted’s ‘Seven-Up’ series, Children of War will depict the long-term effects of armed conflicts on kids, returning to film the same children over a span of 10 years (ideally every second year). Café will include victims and perpetrators of war from such areas as Cambodia and Kosovo, with a focus on what happens to the kids after the shooting stops.

Café plans to offer broadcasters the chance to ‘opt-in’ to each production (buying in to the first installment will not obligate them to invest in subsequent episodes) so they don’t get locked into a decade-long project. The first program is budgeted at US$308,000 and is scheduled for delivery in September. Versions running 60, 90 and 120 minutes will be available.

Diane Weyermann, director of international programs at the Sundance Institute (and the Sundance Documentary Fund), said she is drawn to the idea but hesitated to sign on to a series. Dasha Ross, a commissioning editor with Australia’s ABC, said she had signed on to a similar project, which likely precludes involvement with this one. Jerry McIntosh, exec producer of docs for Canada’s CBC Newsworld, had a hard time envisioning the one-off possibility. He was concerned the program will end up being a survey piece and suggested narrowing the focus.

Israel Cable Programming is on board Children of War, kicking in $175,000 towards the budget.

In the wake of terror September 11, 2001, is a day most people will never forget. The image of the World Trade Center’s collapsing Twin Towers is burned into the memories of everyone who owns a TV. But, the nightmare didn’t end there. In addition to the immediate destruction and loss of life, the terrorist attacks on the U.S. set in motion a chain reaction of war, the end result of which we cannot yet foresee.

With Twin Towers Reaction, a 120-minute single, London-based Brook Lapping Productions will offer a means to reflect on the tragedy and its aftermath. The story will begin with the the destruction of the Twin Towers and continue through to the fall of Kandahar, including the tale of high level policy-making and coalition-building. Budgeted at US$1.3 million, the project has the support of the U.K.’s C4, which has contributed $321,000. The program will be ready for broadcast by September 11, 2002.

Anna Glogowski, director of docs for Canal+, observed Twin Towers Reaction could help viewers understand what might happen as well as what has happened, adding that Canal+ France and International will likely sign on. SVT Sweden’s Olaf Dahlberg said he couldn’t think of a more interesting project for this year. ABC Australia’s Dasha Ross described the film as a standout project and confirmed her broadcaster’s interest. Tore Tomter, head of docs for Norway’s NRK, said it looked perfect for broadcast one year later. Flemming Grenz, of Denmark’s DR TV, couldn’t think of an excuse not to join.

United States

Searching for Neverland

Lost Boys of Sudan – the latest project from Peter Gilbert (producer of Hoop Dreams) and Molly Bradford – brought commissioning editors close to a bidding war. The film focuses on a select few of the thousands of Sudanese boys (aged eight to 18) who fled their homes over the past decade, survived years in the wilderness and a Kenyan refugee camp, and ultimately relocated to the U.S.

Nick Fraser, commissioning editor for the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ slot, immediately asserted that the project was perfect for him. Mark Atkin, SBS Australia’s preview manager, likewise deemed it a good fit for his channel and wanted to talk after the pitch. Thirteen/WNET’s Stephen Segaller expressed ‘serious interest’, again citing his new strand ‘Forgotten Areas of the World’. Marie Natanson of Canada’s CBC said she would be willing to work out a window with pbs, if the U.S. pubcaster signs on. HBO’s Julie Anderson muscled into the discussion and said she’d be delighted to discuss the project in more detail. Sundance’s Diane Weyermann added that if the filmmakers didn’t have enough support, her organization would be interested in the project.

Slated to wrap by August, Lost Boys of Sudan has funding from NRK and financier Michael Paxton, but is still on the lookout for over half of its US$498,000 budget. New York-based Lost Boys of Sudan will offer 60 and 90-minute versions of the one-off.


There’s no place like home

Belgrade’s Zoran and Svetlana Popovic, of the Centre for Visual Communciations KVADRAT, managed to score a contribution to their film Return before they sat down to deliver their pitch. Moderator Paul Pauwels (of the Flemish Film Institute) announced he was so certain of the merits of the project and the talents of the filmmakers that he wished to donate his moderator’s fee to them.

Return, a one-hour one-off, is the story of three Serb families who attempt to return to Croatia after spending six years in Serbian refugee camps. Shot in observational style, the modestly budgeted film (US$51,000) will explore the political, social and psychological problems associated with displacement.

Despite Pauwels’ boost, commissioning editors were lukewarm towards the project. Thierry Garrel, head of docs at arte France, acknowledged the importance of the topic, but said he had recently committed to a similar program. ZDF/ARTE’s Sabine Bubeck-Paaz questioned whether three families won’t be too many to cover in an hour. Flemming Grenz, of DR TV Denmark, and Tore Tomter, of NRK Norway, both politely skirted an upfront commitment by asking the filmmakers to send a tape.

Return has secured just under half of its budget from Radio TV Serbia and see ran, a Denmark-based Balkan refugee assistance network. A release date is scheduled for June.

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.