On the Slate

The third annual Toronto Documentary Forum (May 1 and 2), which runs alongside the Hot Docs International Film Festival, was all about variety. Among the 39 projects pitched were stories about brave women in Afghanistan, the origins of Ska music, a geneticist who wants to clone his girlfriend and experts on sex. Reaction from commissioning editors was generally positive, and a handful offered up commitments on the spot. Moderators Mark Johnston (Toronto-based Nomad Films), Karolina Lidin (Filmkontakt Nord), Jan Rofekamp (Films Transit in Montreal) and Louise Rosen (Boston-based Louise Rosen Ltd.) encouraged the positive vibes, but cracked the whip when necessary. The following is a sampling of the TDF's 2002 offerings.
June 1, 2002

The third annual Toronto Documentary Forum (May 1 and 2), which runs alongside the Hot Docs International Film Festival, was all about variety. Among the 39 projects pitched were stories about brave women in Afghanistan, the origins of Ska music, a geneticist who wants to clone his girlfriend and experts on sex. Reaction from commissioning editors was generally positive, and a handful offered up commitments on the spot. Moderators Mark Johnston (Toronto-based Nomad Films), Karolina Lidin (Filmkontakt Nord), Jan Rofekamp (Films Transit in Montreal) and Louise Rosen (Boston-based Louise Rosen Ltd.) encouraged the positive vibes, but cracked the whip when necessary. The following is a sampling of the TDF’s 2002 offerings.


Seven card stud

When playing poker, the psychological upperhand is key. Some players bring attractive ladies to the table to distract competitors, while others use drugs to tone down tensions. In Lucky Kings, a one-hour doc, Australia’s Handmade Films will trace the history and language of the game by following poker afficionados Arthur Reber, Carlo Citrone and Mike Caro as they play their hearts out to make it to the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas in 2003. The prize for World Champion: a gold bracelet and a shoebox filled with up to US$2 million. The film has confirmed 77% of its US$270,000 budget.

Mette Hoffmann Meyer, commissioning editor and head of sales and coproduction for TV2 Denmark, said she has seen a lot of films about casinos and found them superficial, but wants to talk more about Lucky Kings, since she found it amusing. Laura Fleury, director of doc programming for A&E, wanted to be sure that most of the film will take place in the U.S., and asked to discuss the project further as a potential subject for Investigative Reports. Rudy Buttignol, director of docs, drama and network for Canadian regional channel TV Ontario, said he was also interested in talking further about the project. Directed by Maciek Wszelaki (Original Schtick), Lucky Kings has a delivery date of November 2003.


Hear her roar

Dr. Sima Samar is a remarkable woman. During the Taliban’s reign of terror in her home country of Afghanistan, she risked her life daily to help other Afghan women – sheltering a girl who became pregnant after being raped, then giving the baby to a woman about to be stoned for her inability to conceive; keeping a Taliban’s mother in a hospital until he provided the institution with power generators; and operating clandestine schools for young girls. Now that the oppressive regime has been deposed, Samar is the deputy prime minister of Afghanistan’s new government.

In Daughters of Afghanistan, director Robin Benger will tell Samar’s story and, through her, those of other Afghan women. Unprecedented access has been secured through Sally Armstrong, a Canadian journalist who has covered the plight of women in Afghanistan for five years and has a close relationship with Samar. Several Canadian broadcasters have already signed on, led by CBC Newsworld.

Moderator Mark Johnston congratulated producer Barbara Barde, Armstrong and CBC Newsworld commissioning editor Catherine Olsen on a ‘slam-dunk pitch’. Jennifer Hyde, CNN’s director of development, praised the production team and promised to consider the project, while Bjorn Arvas, head of doc acquisitions for Sweden’s SVT, said he thinks the film will do well on his channel. ARTE commissioning editor Pierre Merle was interested, but wanted to know more about the story structure. Both Danny Cohen, editor of docs for Channel 4, and Fiona Murch, editor of BBC2′s ‘Correspondent’ strand, expressed admiration for the program but not interest, since they have each done similar projects.

Daughters of Afghanistan, a one-hour one-off from Toronto-based Take 3 Productions, needs about 45% of its US$148,000 budget. The project is slated for delivery in September.


A view from within

Over the past 30 years, Afghanistan has endured 10 heads of state, four systems of government and more than two million casualties. Throughout most of this time, the rest of the world knew little, if anything, about this land that once belonged to the Persian Empire. Now, the international spotlight has turned on Afghanistan and everyone is curious.

In Afghanistan, An Impossible State?, director Atiq Rahimi will offer a perspective rarely considered – that of Afghans. Rahimi plans to interview Afghani politicians, past and present, about the evolution of their country since July 1973, when King Zaher Shah was forced into exile.

With more than 70% of its financing secured (from ARTE France and NMO in the Netherlands, among others), Afghanistan, An Impossible State? seemed like a sure bet for support. However, the pitch – led by producer Mahmoud Chokrollahi and ARTE France’s Pierre Merle – got a lukewarm reception. Nick Fraser, commissioning editor for the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ slot, said the project will be a tough sell unless it addresses the upheavals caused by international players, such as Russia. SVT’s Bjorn Arvas said he might consider the program as an acquisition, but added that he thinks it will be hard to place in the schedule. Christoph Jorg of ARTE France countered that he cannot understand why the film would be a tough sell, since broadcasters are pouring money into other projects that relate to the fallout from the September 11 tragedies.

Afghanistan, An Impossible State? is being produced by Paris-based Play Film and carries a budget of about US$207,000. The film is scheduled for delivery later this year.


Concrete blonde

In the year 2201, Paivi Kärismätti will be the last blonde baby born. Not really, but that’s the faux futuristic tableau The Colour Blonde humorously employs to examine what it means to be flaxen-haired in modern-day society.

Real-life hairstylist Christophe Robin, who has lightened the tresses of Madonna, Claudia Schiffer and Catherine Deneuve, takes us on a cultural history of the color blonde. Produced by Rilana Film in Germany, The Colour Blonde will use interviews, commercial archives and movie extracts to relate the story of natural and peroxided blondes in this 52-minute one-off. So far, ZDF/ARTE’s Olaf Grunnert has contributed US$110,000 to the project, which has a total budget of $345,000.

The BBC’s Nick Fraser said, ‘I desperately want this project,’ but wanted to know whether the film would address the dark side of blondes, such as Adolf Hitler’s desire to create a perfect race of Aryans. TVO’s Rudy Buttignol said that if an Aryan undertone were included in the film, it would be something he might be interested in. Nancy Abraham, HBO’s VP of original programming, said the film might work for Cinemax ‘Reel Life’, but added that it’s unlikely she would offer money upfront. CBC Newsworld’s Catherine Olsen expressed confidence in filmmaker Albert Knechtel and was interested in talking further, while CHUM Television’s Charlotte Engel said she will consider the film for the Fashion Television Channel.

The proposed delivery date for The Colour Blonde is December 2002.

Rhythm and music

A group of Catholic nuns living in Jamaica founded the Alpha Boy School in 1880. Over the years, they not only taught discipline, but also music. The sisters emphasized wind and percussion instruments and the boys caught on fast, with many learning to play jazz by the age of eight. It wasn’t long before former Alpha students started experimenting with new sounds. By the early ’60s, their tinkering gave birth to Jamaica’s first original music: Ska.

In Alpha Boy School, producer Marieke Schroeder of Munich, Germany-based Pars Media will tell the story of Ska and the men behind its creation. The 90-minute film will culminate with a concert in Jamaica, organized by the production company, that will coincide with the country’s 40th year of independence. Record companies Virgin and EMG have both expressed interest in producing a compilation CD. The doc’s budget is about US$423,000. Walter Greifenstein of BR (a regional channel of German pubcaster ARD) pitched the project with Schroeder and promised the film will be better than Wim Wenders’ Buena Vista Social Club.

C4′s Danny Cohen worried the program would be too niche, and David Rabinovitch of Seattle pub channel KCTS was interested in spinning-off the concert as a stand-alone program. TVO’s Rudy Buttignol said he liked the music and thought the project spoke to an audience that’s not addressed often enough, but was concerned that the cash-strong music companies would try to steer the project. Outi Saarikoski of YLE TV2 in Finland spoke up from her seat in the audience to say she was interested in the project and wanted to speak with the filmmakers. Norway’s NRK and Sweden’s SVT are already on board.

Alpha Boy School will be ready for air by February 2003.


State brutality

A Fight For Justice – el Caso Turra is the story of Sisto Turra’s efforts to expose the real cause of his son Giacomo’s death: murder at the hands of five police officers on the streets of Colombia.

In September 1995, Turra received a phone call at his home in Padua, Italy, notifying him that his 24-year-old son, a university student, had died of a cocaine overdose in Cartagena. Shocked and disbelieving, Turra flew to Colombia. After examining Giacomo’s black-and-blue body, Turra – an orthopaedic surgeon – knew his son’s death wasn’t caused by drugs. Since then, he has lobbied the Colombian government for justice, becoming a hero in Colombia for taking on the system.

Produced by Vanni Gandolfo of Rome-based Doclab S.R.L. and directed by Fabrizio Lazzaretti (Jung – War in the Land of the Mujaheddin), A Fight For Justice garnered positive reaction. TVO’s Rudy Buttignol expressed faith in Lazzaretti as a filmmaker and said he would sign on. CBC Newsworld’s Catherine Olsen was also interested. HBO’s Nancy Abraham thought it might work for HBO sister channel Cinemax. ARTE’s Christoph Jorg noted the film’s US$315,000 budget is reasonable and encouraged supporting Italian filmmakers.

The 52-minute film will wrap by April 2003. Italy’s Tele+ and U.K. digicaster BBC4 have signed on.

South Africa

In the mind’s dark corners

John Schlapobersky holds the unfortunate distinction of being the first white person arrested under South Africa’s Terrorism Act. The year was 1969 and Schlapobersky was a 21-year-old psychology student. He was beaten and tortured, and at one point was kept awake for five days, standing on a brick, while interrogators questioned him incessantly. Schlapobersky was eventually deported to the U.K., where he became a psychotherapist and founder of The Medical Foundation for the Care of Torture Victims.

The 52-minute doc You Will Hear Thunder And Remember Me, from Johannesburg-based Angel Films, seeks to shed light on the mind of a torturer, with input from Schlapobersky.

The CBC’s Marie Natanson, executive producer of independent docs, recognized the idea as timely and important, but said the shape of the story was not made clear. Cara Mertes, of PBS’ ‘POV’ strand, concurred that the story is interesting, but said she couldn’t envision what will appear on the screen. CNN’s Jennifer Hyde suggested adding a post-9/11 angle, but ARTE’s Christoph Jorg advised the opposite, urging the filmmakers to stick to the main story about Schlapobersky. The BBC’s Fiona Murch asked to hear more about how the project will be carried out.

South African pubcaster SABC3 has already committed to about 25% of Thunder’s US$66,000 budget. The proposed delivery date is March 2003.


Virile virtuosos

From producer Thom Powers comes the 55-minute film Sexperts, which will blend humor, wit and the risqué to follow people who make their living discussing and studying sex.

There’s Kristen Hefley, who did a study on women who sell their underwear online; Mitch Tepper, a paraplegic who has made it his life’s work to study the dynamics of sex among the disabled; and Peter Lehmann, a professor at Arizona State University who lectures about hard-core porn. Sexperts will use the voices of these people to provide a backdrop to a wider understanding of sex as it relates to technology, religion and history. The film will also peek into the lives of these brazen mavens to find out whether their randy research has affected their own sexual escapades.

TVO’s Rudy Buttignol wanted to talk more after the pitch, particularly since Powers’ film Breasts received high audience acclaim after it aired on the provincial outlet. TV2 Denmark’s Mette Hoffmann Meyer and Olaf Grunert of ZDF/ARTE, also expressed interest in Sexperts, while Erica Benson of Discovery Health Channel in Canada quipped that her network is always looking for good sex-related programming.

The US$300,000 project, produced by New York-based prodco Sugar Pictures, is set to deliver in January 2003.


Ray and his girlfriend Stacie want to have a baby, but not the traditional way. Ray, a geneticist, is trying to clone Stacie. If they succeed, she will be the first human ever cloned.

You Again: A Human Cloning Love Story will follow Ray and Stacie as they travel to a secret lab in Asia to work with OB/GYN Dr. Soto to create the clone. While Ray is involved mainly for his interest in science, Stacie, a 37-year-old former stripper, hopes to create the family she has always wanted. This 90-minute doc, produced by Women Fly Films of New York, chronicles Ray and Stacie’s offbeat relationship and the scientific progress of genetic experiments.

The pitch for You Again baffled many of the delegates, and some, such as the BBC’s Nick Fraser, questioned the sanity of the people in the film. C4′s Danny Cohen said he is interested and will talk to his boss Peter Dale about the film for the channel’s ‘True Stories’ strand. The CBC’s Marie Natanson said it would be interesting to follow the process, but questioned what would happen if the couple broke up. You Again director Sara Scully responded that the couple is bound together for the procedure, regardless.

HBO/Cinemax has put up US$160,000 for the project, which still needs close to $500,000 to reach the total budget of $650,000. You Again has a delivery date of June 2003.

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.