On the Slate

Despite the conspicuous absence of non-Canadian participants at the Toronto Documentary Forum, the one-day version of the normally two-day event can be hailed as a qualified success. Held April 30 during the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (April 25 to May 4), the pitch-a-palooza was severely undermined when many of the international broadcasters and producers canceled at the last minute.
June 1, 2003

Despite the conspicuous absence of non-Canadian participants at the Toronto Documentary Forum, the one-day version of the normally two-day event can be hailed as a qualified success. Held April 30 during the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival (April 25 to May 4), the pitch-a-palooza was severely undermined when many of the international broadcasters and producers canceled at the last minute. Their reaction was to the World Health Organization advisory against travel to Toronto, because of an outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). Event organizers responded by arranging a live webcast of the proceedings that allowed faraway commissioning editors to participate via phone teleconferencing. The technology worked, and with the help of moderators Mary Ellen Armstrong (former RealScreen publisher), Steve Seidenberg (London, U.K.-based Café Productions), Mark Johnston (Toronto-based Nomad Films) and Michaelle McLean (TDF director) a number of projects are on their way to being richer for it. The following is a sampling of the TDF’s 2003 offerings.


A dad by many other names

Everyone, at some point in their life, has taken a calculated look at the family members gathered around a holiday feast, and wondered how it’s possible they were born from the same genetic pool as the people surrounding them. Unlike Oren Siedler, however, few would be willing to explore their troubled relationships, especially not on film.

Siedler’s relationship with her father provides the focus for Bruce and Me, a feature film from Suffolk Park, Australia and Toronto, Canada-based Bruce and Me Pictures. Siedler’s father, Bruce, is a con artist. When the producer/director was eight years old, Bruce drove her family around Australia, robbing and conning the unsuspecting. But, when his crimes paid well, he gave to those in need. As a child, Siedler admired her father’s rule-breaking ways. However, respect soon morphed into resentment, as Siedler struggled to remember her father’s countless aliases and lived in fear of his arrest.

During the pitch Siedler noted, ‘As I get older I realize, with some discomfort, that I’m more like my father than I’d like to admit.’ The film investigates this commonality and also looks into why Bruce chose the life he did.

Canada’s Life Network and The Independent Film Channel are already behind the approximately US$210,000 doc, as is Australian pubcaster ABC. Films Transit in Montreal, Canada, is distributing. An hour-long version will also be made, with delivery scheduled for December 2003.

John Lindsay, executive VP of Carlton Productions in the U.S., advised the pitch team to approach a&e, noting that the U.S. cablecaster is looking for this type of program. Cara Mertes, executive producer of PBS strand ‘POV’, called in over the phone lines to ask Siedler and partner Ed Barreveld to get in touch with her about the film. Catherine Olsen, a commissioning editor for Canada’s CBC Newsworld, liked the footage that was shown and said she too was interested, if any Canadian rights were still available. KB


Old lives’ tales

As the calendar moves toward its midway point, the sun creeps higher over the frozen arctic horizon. It stays there, tall in the sky, for the entire month of June, bathing the icy tundra in sunlight 24 hours a day, until the land begins to melt. This year, the Kunuk clan – an Inuit family whose ancestors extend back four millennia – will meet during the prolonged daylight for a family reunion. Vivi and Enooki, the clan’s patriarch, and their nine sons and daughters will travel across Canada’s Nunavut territory (their own nuclear families in tow) to convene in Siorajuk, a traditional campsite and Enooki’s birthplace.

Montreal, Canada-based Igloolik Isuma Productions plan to film this gathering for Kunuk Family Reunion, a 48-minute documentary that’s already attracted support from Canada’s History Television and Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN). The film will be helmed by Zacharias Kunuk, director of the 2001 Cannes festival favorite Atanarjuat (The Fast Runner) and the second eldest of Vivi and Enooki’s sons. The doc carries a budget of around US$200,000, about 60% of which is already in place, with delivery set for January 2004.

Joanna Paul, acting GM of programs, productions and acquisitions for New Zealand’s Maori TV, said that she liked Kunuk’s fiction films, but was less impressed with his doc work and questioned whether listening to people talk about their life experiences would sustain for the duration of the film. BBC ‘Storyville’ commissioning editor Nick Fraser also hesitated over the film’s focus on the campsite gathering, saying he thought the idea sounded interesting, but challenging. Kim Peat, controller of daytime, arts and religion for U.K. broadcaster Five, concurred and admitted that the film was probably too challenging for Five’s audience. KB

Free to fear

Last October, 700 people were held hostage for 57 hours when a group of Chechens stormed a theater in Moscow and demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian troops from their country. Irina Filipova and Vesselin Nedkov were among those who survived both the horrors wrought by their captors and the deadly gas used by Russian authorities to end the siege. They are still recovering.

Theatre of War, a feature-length film from Acqua Film in Toronto, Canada, follows the continuing story of this tragic event. Although Nedkov later immigrated to Toronto, he recently reunited with Filipova in Moscow to search for answers from Russian authorities and to gather the insights of those who also survived the ordeal. Shot as a POV doc, the film tracks Nedkov’s personal mission to understand the psychological, personal and political implications of the traumatic experience. Carrying a budget of about US$280,000, the doc is scheduled for delivery in October.

Cindy Witten, vp of original production for Toronto, Canada-based Alliance Atlantis’s factual and BBC Channels, revealed that she had spoken about the project with producer Peter Lynch prior to the pitch and was considering the film for History Television. She added that in the current political climate, ‘Yesterday now seems far enough back for us.’ Stephen Segaller, director of news and public affairs programming for New York, U.S.-based pubcaster Thirteen/WNET, heard the pitch over the phone lines. He noted that the story was perfect for the channel’s ‘Wide Angle’ strand, but since a film on Chechnya was included last season, he couldn’t justify another so soon. Hans-Robert Eisenhauer of ARTE GEIE in Paris, France, also dialed in to say he was interested in the project, but needed more info. Canadian pubcasters the cbc and Société Radio-Canada (src) are already on board. KB

Boot camp bloopers

Be all that you can be, in the U.S. army – or so the slogan goes. Build Me Up, Break Me Down, a 52-minute film from Vancouver, Canada-based Red Storm Productions, shows that the reality of army life can be something altogether different than what’s promised in the commercials.

Shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., producer/director Sarah Goodman gained the trust of three young adults who decided to join the army, and was subsequently allowed to follow them through the recruitment process and beyond. Sara, 22, does well and is eventually selected for the elite 82nd Airborne division, but struggles with the army’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy. Thaddeus, 22, quits his job as a junior stockbroker to join the fight against terrorism, but ends up on latrine duty. Nelson, 19, is a high-school dropout. He rebukes the military’s authority and eventually goes AWOL. All three stories provide the basis for a critical examination of the U.S. military’s recruitment and training methods.

Budgeted for about US$285,000, the doc is scheduled to deliver in November 2003. CBC Newsworld and SRC have joined the production, which was at the tdf looking for 64% of the budget.

Cara Mertes of ‘POV’ thought Goodman’s footage was excellent – very intimate – and said she was interested in the film, although she wondered how the story would end. Mertes also wanted to know whether Goodman’s point of view would be worked into the film, or if it would rely strictly on the thoughts of her protagonists. Sundance Documentary Program director Diane Weyermann doubted that three characters could be properly explored in one hour, but said she would be responsive to a longer version. Mark Atkin of SBS in Australia also liked the doc, saying it was ‘right up our alley.’ Johanna Lunn Montgomery, director of programming for The Independent Film Channel in Halifax, Canada, was interested in the film, although she noted that current affairs topics are difficult for the channel to program. KB


Messengers of war

Extensive television coverage of the Vietnam conflict lay the groundwork for the myriad of war images that have since beamed into living rooms around the globe. Among the correspondents who flocked to the war-torn country were independent journalists Roger Pic and Wilfred Burchett. Together, they filmed life in the Vietcong-controlled regions of South Vietnam, as well as North Vietnam, and are credited with putting a face to the often faceless enemy.

The Other Side, a feature-length doc by Paris, France-based prodco MFP, will use Pic and Burchett’s archival footage as a jumping-off point for investigating the nature of war reporting, the effect it has on viewers, and the responsibility of journalists on the front lines – not just in Vietnam, but for conflicts as recent as last year’s war in Afghanistan. The doc will also look at what’s missing from the graphic images captured on film using insights from such esteemed news people as Walter Cronkite, Morley Safer and Peter Jennings. Budgeted for about US$700,000, the film is set for completion in December 2003.

Catherine Olsen announced that the CBC had joined French pubcaster France 2 and Australia’s SBS in backing the project. The BBC’s Nick Fraser spoke up through the telephone lines to question whether the film had too broad a focus. Isabel Hardy, the commissioning editor for the SRC, expressed concern over how the filmmakers would weave together past and present wars, and OPB consultant Chris Haws cautioned that although viewers might have an appetite for the topic now, they could be sated by the time the film is delivered in December. KB


Unsung heroes

Given the number of World War II docs that have been made since the conflict’s end in 1945, it’s hard to believe any story has been left untold. But according to Munich, Germany-based Tangram Film, at least one significant chapter was left out of the history books.

In the 1940s in the U.S., soldiers at Camp Ritchie Maryland were different from those in any other unit, as they were trained for a different purpose. Camp Ritchie was the birthplace of modern psychological warfare. The men – European intellectuals who had fled the Nazi regime – were taught how to draft flyers and produce radio broadcasts that would play on the minds of the enemy, and were schooled in special interrogation techniques. They were then sent back to Europe, where they sometimes faced the task of fighting old friends.

After the war ended, the members of this secret unit were received back in the U.S. not as heroes, but under a veil of suspicion spurred by McCarthy-era paranoia. Many of these veterans ultimately emigrated, either by choice or force, taking the knowledge of their achievements with them. The Ritchie Boys is their story.

Michael Kot, a production exec with AAC’s factual and BBC Channels, stated that the project is perfect for History Television. He was assured he wouldn’t get any competition for Canadian rights from TVOntario’s Rudy Buttignol, creative head of docs, drama and networks, who said he’s taken a private oath to avoid WWII. Peter Worsley, the London, U.K.-based MS of AAC Fact International, said the market for WWII programs is becoming saturated, but with the war’s 60th anniversary pending, he would consider distributing the film.

The Ritchie Boys carries a budget of about 400,000 euros (US$460,000) and is slated to wrap in early to mid-2004. German channels WDR and MDR have already signed up. Tangram will produce 60 and 90-minute versions. SZ


Broken Buddhas and the kid

Since 9/11, the world has turned its attention to Afghanistan’s many misfortunes. Lives and limbs lost to land mines, the suppression of women and the poverty of an entire people are only a few atrocities in a long list of problems now on the global radar. Perhaps more than any of these, the destroyed Buddhas of Bamiyan symbolize the countless losses suffered by a country that’s seen war for more than 25 years. Before they were reduced to rubble by the Taliban in March 2001, the 1,600-year-old Buddhas were the tallest standing stones ever built, and were considered wonders of the world.

Inhabiting the caves near the ruins of what were once Afghanistan’s biggest tourist attraction are the country’s lesser-known stories – the everyday tales of people who have weathered the violence of Soviet, Mujahadeen and Taliban armed forces. Among them is Mir Hussain,

a mischievous nine-year-old and the focus of U.K. producer Phil Grabsky’s latest doc, The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Through Mir’s eyes, the film will reveal the daily realities of the boy’s family, friends and neighbors, while also giving audiences a sense of what his own future holds.

The doc is being produced by Grabsky’s Seventh Art Productions and is budgeted for US$475,000, about $65,000 of which is already secured from Five in the U.K. Delivery is scheduled for September.

The commissioning editors were impressed with Grabsky’s striking footage. Pam Hogan, an editor for Thirteen/WNET’s ‘Wide Angle’ strand, hesitated over the program’s 80-minute length, but expressed interested in programming the doc as a 9/11 special once she learned a shorter version would be made available for international TV sales. HBO VP of original programming Lisa Heller said the doc was a candidate for completion funding, and the CBC’s Catherine Olsen asked Grabsky to call her once wnet’s interest was settled. Sundance’s Diane Weyermann remarked that the film was a perfect fit with her funding mandate, and announced that she would love to add the project to her roster. KB


Hey, is that guy about to sing?

Is the world ready for a ‘dramatic-documentary-musical hybrid’ starring a stodgy magazine editor and a wet-behind-the-ears Ivy League college graduate? Producer Libby Handros and director John Kirby are banking on it, and judging by the buzz and laughter that greeted their pitch, they could be right.

New York, U.S.-based The Press and the Public Project hopes to expand the doc form in Lewis Lapham’s The American Ruling Class, a 90-minute feature that employs elements unusual to the genre. Using an ongoing dialog between a young man and Lewis Lapham – the well-known editor of Harper’s Magazine – as the narrative thread, the filmmakers follow along as Lapham introduces the young man to real-life powerbrokers and celebrities: CEOs, ex-presidents, intellectuals and even the Dalai Lama. As Lapham and his young charge explore career possibilities, their conversations are punctuated by animated bits, ‘dreamscapes’ and the occasional musical number.

TVO’s Rudy Buttignol loved the ‘style and the verve’ of the clip and wanted to talk further. The CBC’s executive producer of independent docs, Marie Natanson, also enjoyed ‘the look and wit’ of it, and felt the subject matter was important. Carlton Productions’ John Lindsay said, ‘I thought this film would be too American,’ but indicated that the tape is much stronger than the pitch on paper. Still, he wondered which outlets outside of HBO and PBS’s ‘POV’ would have the courage to run it. OPB’s Chris Haws shared Lindsay’s concern that U.S. broadcasters may not be brave enough to sign on, but felt ‘it would be brilliant to make something like this happen.’

Budgeted at US$300,000, the film so far has the support of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand. Delivery is slated for January 2004. DW

Wild Card Pitch

Lost Secrets of Ancient Medicine

In the quest to find a cure for everything from the common cold to cancer, most of the modern medical establishment is firmly focused on new research and theories. There are some, however, who see promise in traditional practices. For this latter group, the rediscovery of the 300-year-old Tibetan Medical Atlas of the Blue Buddha is a find of infinite possibility.

The atlas – which was lost in the early 1900s and found again 90 years later in Russia – consists of 8,000 illustrations of ancient medical secrets from Asia, Greece and Persia. Included are advanced drawings of complex human anatomy, sketches of medicinal plants and depictions of disease symptoms.

In Lost Secrets of Ancient Medicine, Vancouver, Canada-based Producers on Davie/Face to Face Media will follow a young Western doctor as he journeys to the East to learn more about Tibetan medicine. Along the way, the doctor meets the Dalai Lama and his physician, who help explain both the history of the atlas and what the illustrations mean. Budgeted at US$400,000, the 60-minute doc is scheduled for delivery in fall 2004, and already has a commitment from Japanese pubcaster NHK (which has opted for a two-hour version), as well as strong interest from Germany’s ZDF.

Alberta Nokes, director of independent production for Canada’s Vision TV and One: the Body, Mind & Spirit channel, didn’t hesitate: ‘We’re in,’ she declared, noting that the project has every element she looks for: history, mystery and spirituality. Other interested Canadians were CBC’s ‘Nature of Things’ strand,

History Television and Discovery Health Canada. Chris Haws, international programming consultant for Oregon Public Broadcasting, asked whether the program would fall under the ZDF/Discovery copro deal (the producers said this has not yet been discussed), and urged them to approach OPB before Discovery. SZ

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.