Closing the Gap

Pitching a project in front of fellow filmmakers and a table full of broadcast executives is an unavoidable right of passage in the documentary industry. Yet, for the majority of Brazil-based producers, the formal pitch session remains a foreign concept. With the launch of Brasil Documenta by doc pay TV channel GNT (owned by Globo Organizations) in Rio de Janeiro last November, this is set to change.
May 1, 2002

Pitching a project in front of fellow filmmakers and a table full of broadcast executives is an unavoidable rite of passage in the documentary industry. Yet, for the majority of Brazil-based producers, the formal pitch session remains a foreign concept. With the launch of Brasil Documenta by doc pay TV channel GNT (owned by Globo Organizations) in Rio de Janeiro last November, this is set to change.

One part festival and two parts market, Brasil Documenta worked to establish relationships between Brazilian filmmakers and potential international partners, as well as promote Brazilian documentary talent abroad. More importantly, it exposed Brazil’s filmmakers to the machinations of the international television market. In addition to screening films and hosting panels that discussed doc-related issues ranging from coproduction strategies to digital technology, Brasil Documenta featured a pitch lab for 10 selected projects. Six months later, most of the films still need funding.

Losing control

‘The production system in Brazil is totally different than anywhere else that we know,’ explains Anna Glogowski, director of documentaries for Canal+ in Paris, France, and a native Brazilian. ‘Documentaries are not primarily funded by television, so it’s hard to compare what went on there with what goes on anywhere else.’

While television does play a role in the funding process, continues Glogowski, the majority of Brazilian docs are financed by private companies that receive public exposure for their name and a tax break for donating to the arts. Since feature films usually earn a higher profile than TV programs, theatrical docs are the primary focus of most producers. ‘It’s the opposite of the situation in other countries,’ says Glogowski. ‘Because Brazilian filmmakers are used to being financed to do a theatrical film, they don’t know what it means to work under a ‘controlled freedom’. They were quite amazed to see that the broadcasters had some requirements about what the film could be like.’

Producer Ailton Franco Jr. of AR Producoes in Rio de Janeiro, and partners Flávia Lins e Silva and Eduardo Vaisman were among the filmmakers who pitched at Brasil Documenta. Following their participation in the lab, they changed the focus of their film. Originally a portrait of Evandro Lins e Silva, the director’s grandfather and one of Brazil’s most historically potent lawyers, The Vice of Liberty now focuses on the country’s ongoing fight for justice whilst examining Lins e Silva’s role in that fight.

‘He’s a 90-year-old man,’ says the younger Lins e Silva. ‘At first we were looking at his whole life, but after Brasil Documenta, we decided to focus on the last 40 years. It’s more interesting to start the story from the 1960s, when the dictatorship started in Brazil.’

Adds Franco, ‘We didn’t take all the broadcasters’ suggestions, but they helped a lot. We needed somebody with a different point of view. The international commissioning editors didn’t know anything about Evandro Lins e Silva, so they could see what was more or less important for the documentary.’

The filmmakers are in early discussions with the BBC for a single, 54-minute version of the US$152,000 film. About $80,000 has already been found, thanks to a grant from Brazil’s state government. An agreement is also in the works with gnt that will guarantee the filmmakers’ access to the channel’s valuable archive footage. In exchange, the pay TV outlet will air the program on November 15, 2002 – the date of Brazil’s upcoming presidential elections.

Filmmaker Paola Barreto also broadened the scope of her doc, Me Erra (Miss Me), following the pitch session at Brasil Documenta. The modest $50,000 film looks at the impact of a boxing school on a lower-income community. ‘When I started shooting, I met lots of people in the boxing world,’ explains Barretto. ‘Because of this, the film had a strong boxing element – about the sport itself and the approaching Olympic games. After the meeting, I concentrated on the social angle and gave up a little of this boxing world. I was also able to give the female characters a stronger role than I had before. Now, it’s not only a film about boxing, but about the struggle of life itself.’

Barreto has raised $35,000 from private sources, but is still looking for a broadcast commitment.

The digital way

Jess Search, an editor with the Independent Film and Video department at Channel 4 in the U.K., notes that another consequence of Brazil’s focus on theatrical docs is its delayed take-up of digital technologies. Says Search, ‘I was blown away by how many docs in Brazil are still shot on film. It’s getting harder to find the budgets to support that. But, that seems to be the expected approach in Brazil. As a result, the films were extraordinarily expensive.’

Search points to Cao Guimaraes as the exception, since he was the only filmmaker to show footage shot on DV. Nonetheless, his film Eremirtas (The Hermits), carries a budget of about $100,000. Search invited Guimaraes to contact her for further discussions, but admits she is more likely to acquire the film than to finance it up front.

‘I was really excited by him, because his outlook felt in tune with the kind of documentaries we’re doing here in Britain,’ she explains. ‘There was a lateral thinking to the project and there was an experimentation in the way he wanted to author it. He wanted to make a film about hermits, but not in a traditional, observational fashion. He wanted to live that experience to see what it would feel like. That’s just the kind of stuff we’re doing in this department.’

Guimaraes hasn’t yet raised any funding for The Hermits, but he plans to take an English-language synopsis of the doc to Input in Rotterdam, where his previous film The End of the Endless will screen later this month. ‘I will try to make some contacts,’ he says, ‘but I don’t exactly know how it works. I don’t know how to make the correct contacts or how to start negotiations with Channel 4. To be sincere, I didn’t know much about Brasil Documenta either, and I had never heard of a ‘pitch’ in my life. I thought it was an opportunity to make contacts to get funding, but I didn’t know what to expect. It was very interesting to meet people and to know how to proceed in the international market.’

Glogowski says Guimaraes is not alone in his inexperience. ‘Brazil’s producers don’t travel, because it’s very expensive to go to a market and make your tapes in pal and translate all your materials,’ she explains. This is one reason a home-based event is important. ‘I think foreign broadcasters discovered there was an energy in Brazil,’ she continues. ‘There were a lot of years where Brazil was estranged and nothing was going on. Now, the problem is to find places where its filmmakers can show their work and find out that there is a market with requirements and obligations.’

Among the projects Glogowski felt showed international potential were Wet Paint, by Ricardo Van Steen and Paula Alzugaray, and Soy Cuba, from producer Clélia Bessa and director Vincente Ferraz. The first looks at Brazil’s graffiti or popular art and carries a budget of about $180,000, although the filmmakers are considering shooting on DV, which would drastically reduce expenses. The latter tells the story of a Soviet film shot in Cuba in 1963 and costs $160,000. ‘If it had been some years ago, I could have taken that project,’ says Glogowski wistfully. Recent upheavals within Canal+ have significantly curbed the outlet’s coproduction activity.

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