On the Slate

Viewing all 44 pitches at the 11th Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries (November 24 to 26, 2003) is like watching a globe-trotting relay race or a marathon session of the u.n. Held as an industry component of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (idfa), the forum has become firmly established as a key stop in the global doc-financing circuit. Indeed, prodcos from 18 countries - including China, for the first time - proffered their doc projects, which touched on a bewildering number of topics and issues. Keeping the panel discussions flowing at the Paradiso Theatre were four veteran moderators - Jan Röfekamp of Montreal's Films Transit; Karolina Lidin
January 1, 2004

Viewing all 44 pitches at the 11th Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries (November 24 to 26, 2003) is like watching a globe-trotting relay race or a marathon session of the U.N. Held as an industry component of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam (IDFA), the forum has become firmly established as a key stop in the global doc-financing circuit. Indeed, prodcos from 18 countries – including China, for the first time – proffered their doc projects, which touched on a bewildering number of topics and issues. Keeping the panel discussions flowing at the Paradiso Theatre were four veteran moderators – Jan Röfekamp of Montreal’s Films Transit; Karolina Lidin


Crisis in Asia’s biggest Islamic nation

In Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, young men receive their education at religious boarding schools called pesantren. In the wake of the 2002 terrorist attacks in Bali, the knowledge and values imparted at these academies have come under close scrutiny, especially at the Javanese city of Solo, formerly run by Abu Bakar Basyir – the mastermind of the bombing that killed 200 tourists.

In Onward Muslim Soldiers, a 52-minute one-off budgeted at approximately 380,000 euros (US$457,000), Sydney-based Hilton Cordell & Associates will take a close look at these cultural and education centers. For the story, the filmmakers intend to infiltrate a school to expose their extremist curriculum. For a broader view, the doc will also look at the increasing tensions in Indonesia’s Muslim community, especially in the run-up to national elections in April.

Olaf Grunert, a commissioning editor at ZDF/ARTE, thought it was a strong pitch, but noted there is an oversupply of war-on-terror-related docs at the moment. Pat van Heerden, a commissioning editor at the Johannesburg-based South African Broadcasting Corporation, questioned how the story’s drama will be presented on-screen, as well as worried about the film crew’s access to the pesantren. However, Soldiers could be a candidate for the ‘Independent Lens’ strand on ITVS, according to Claire Aguilar, the San Francisco-based service’s director of programming.

As of the forum, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. and the Australian Film Finance Corporation backed the project, which carries a late-summer delivery date; their pledges total 152,000 euros ($183,000).


A truly united nation

In the 60-minute, 390,000 euros ($469,000) one-off We Want to Rule the World, the makers of the quirky 2001 doc Offspring (director Barry Stevens and producer Sydney Suissa) examine a provocative idea: what if the population of the entire planet were united as citizens of one big mega-democracy?

In a story blending Stevens’ humorous observations with an examination of historical incidents where idealists such as Albert Einstein worked to change the modern world, Toronto-based Barna-Alper Productions will show how apparent oddballs – such as Garry Davis, an 81-year-old former bomber pilot who is running to be the first world president – may be onto something. Increasingly, global organizations such as the World Bank and the International Criminal Court are pointing the way to a more integrated – and hopefully peaceful – future, even if the ultrapowerful U.S. government regularly turns its back on groups such as the U.N.

Nick Fraser, commissioning editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand, observed that in order to work the film has to be really funny. ‘And Barry has to play dumb,’ he quipped. ‘Very dumb.’ YLE TV2 commissioning editor Iikka Vehkalahti thought the producer’s timing was good, considering the current challenges to democratic principles. He was, however, confused about the doc’s narrative line. Lisa Heller, VP of original programming at New York-based HBO, agreed that the focus was unclear. She believed that to be successful the story would need to be closely pegged to Stevens’ run-ins with the colorful characters he meets (such as militant U.S. ‘militias’).

The project, backed by the CBC with a pledge of about 80,000 euros ($96,000), is working toward a January 2005 release.


The truth hides in the dark

In Night in China, Beijing-based Trench Film Group’s producer and director An Qi Ju presents a novel view of his homeland: what ordinary Chinese do and say under the cloak of darkness, when both the pressures of society – and the surveillance of the state – ease.

The third installment of an experimental, cinema-verité trilogy (the first two docs are There’s a Strong Wind in Beijing and Quilt), Night will provide an intimate portrait of how the population copes with the tremendous change under way as the communist government steers the country toward a market-based economy. On a more prosaic level, the 30,000 euros ($36,000), 40-minute doc will rely on scenes captured entirely using a DV camera between dusk and dawn and in numerous urban and rural locations, to provide a multidimensional view.

Leena Pasanen, commissioning editor for YLE’s Teema channel, joked her Finnish audience would relate to the life-in-the-dark theme. She also took to Ju’s humor, as revealed in his pitch clip. Pasanen, however, doubted viewers could stomach 40 minutes of ‘the DV experience.’

Michael Burns, director of programming and acquisitions at Toronto-based Documentary Channel, enjoyed Night’s experimental edge. ‘This is right up our alley,’ he said, advising the filmmaker to ‘keep in touch.’ Carla Mertes, executive director of the PBS’s ‘POV’ strand, noted that story-wise it was ‘perfect’ for her needs, but added she was torn, since its obvious low-production value would make it a challenge to secure carriage on the nationwide PBS network.

Rudy Buttignol, head of docs at Toronto-based pubcaster TVOntario, said he applauded Ju’s daring and noted the international community needs more Chinese-made documentaries. SABC’s van Heerden, however, had concerns about how the doc would unfold; she noted it nevertheless sounded like ‘a beautiful film.’

Delivery is set for the summer 2005; Beijing-based Tong Zhou Wired TV is backing the project with 7,500 euros ($9,000).


Everyone on the Baltic Bus

When historians look back upon the years spanning the fall of the Iron Curtain and the spread of the European Union to the east, they will barely stop to examine the events of the intervening decade and a half. In part to touch upon that twilight era and also commemorate the entry of the Baltic states into the EU later this year, Tallinn, Estonia-based ‘U Acuba Film is documenting one day in the life of northeast Europe, as experienced on The Bus. The first doc coproduction among Estonia, Lithuania and Russia, the 52-minute one-off takes an irreverent look at the transient life found on the regular Tallinn-Riga-Saulai-Kaliningrad overnight run.

Pasanen noted she liked director Laila Pakalnina’s previous work, and said the film will help introduce the Baltic countries to European viewers. But Philippe van Meerbeeck, commissioning editor for Belgium’s news and culture channel VRT-Canvas, who liked the premise, thought it was a bit cryptic ‘for my little French[-speaking] audience.’ Norwegian broadcaster NRK’s head of docs Tore Tomter feared the film would simply be too slow, but he encouraged the doc-makers to persuade him otherwise. DRTV commissioning editor Henrik Grunnet liked the evident humor in the pitch clip, and Mark Atkin, Sydney-based SBS’s acquisition and development consultant in Europe, believed the film’s success hinges on its humorous elements.

SABC2 commissioning editor Elize Viljoen, when asked her opinion, flatly said it wouldn’t be suitable for her African audience. ‘They wouldn’t even know where those countries are,’ she said.

Shot in 16mm, this production has the backing of the Estonian Film Foundation, Lithuanian Radio and Television, and Estonian Television to the tune of 42,000 euros ($50,500). A further 90,000 euros ($108,000) is needed to make the May release date.


Lock, stock and 20 million smoking barrels

In the fall of 1999, at the height of the dot-com bubble, Helsinki-based producer Jan Wellmann was approached with a can’t-lose proposition. Take an initial $20 million and start a company to distribute entertainment content over mobile phones. The investors ranged from phone-maker Nokia to media giant News Corp., and by February 2000, Wellmann, his friend John Hakalax and four buddies – all fast-talkers under the age of 35 – had kicked off RIOT Entertainment with grand visions of getting filthy rich…fast. There is one hitch: no one had a clue what to do.

By early 2002, RIOT was bankrupt, and the company founders had made fools of themselves and everyone who believed (and invested) in them. In the 52-minute doc RIOT On!, scheduled to wrap in May, Helsinki-based Hakalax Productions will tell the story of the company’s rise and fall in the manner of a madcap heist movie. They underlined that point with a pitch tape that looked like an outtake from a Guy Ritchie movie.

The commissioning editors were wary, due to Hakalax’s role as both producer and subject (and perhaps RIOT’s record in managing money).

‘I have a lot of questions about this project,’ said Channel 4 commissioning editor Jess Search. In particular, she was concerned by Hakalax’s editorial role (Hakalax says he wants the unvarnished truth to be told; director Peter Dey added he had no prior relationship with the Finn). ARTE France’s head of docs Thierry Garrel said the clip was a very good tease of the documentary, but said he was unclear about the narrative line. Marie Natanson, the executive producer of independent docs at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), said she found the story intriguing and wanted a sense of how the film might end. Kris Slava, VP of acquisitions and scheduling at New York-based Trio, pointed out that tales of dot-com excess have been done before, and so wanted to know what made this story distinct.

The doc, budgeted at 200,000 euros ($241,000), needs 86,000 euros ($184,000). Already on board are Helsinki-based YLE TV2 and the Finnish Film Foundation, Stockholm-based TV4 and Copenhagen-based TV 2 Denmark.


A dance is worth a thousand words

For the Europeans who had immigrated to Argentina in the last century, the tango developed as a channel through which they expressed their emotions and dreams. 12 Tangos: Return Ticket to Buenos Aires, a feature-length project by Cologne-based Tradewind Pictures budgeted at 400,000 euros ($482,000), will show how – in light of Argentina’s economic collapse in 2001 – this discipline expresses a range of themes, especially the dancer’s yearning for a better life.

The doc will use the Catedral, an 1880s-era granary turned dance hall, as the main backdrop for the profiles of four Argentine dancers. It will document their struggle to maintain their dignity in the face of a heartbreaking situation.

YLE Teema’s Pasanen stated bluntly she would have liked the proposal better without tango. SABC2′s Viljoen criticized the pitch for its dryness – slides were used, but no moving images – and said the point of the treatment was unclear. The doc’s bleak topic ‘may be a heavy go,’ said SBS’s Aitken. The BBC’s Fraser warned the producers ‘to be careful of putting too much sociological freight on tango. The tango is just the tango.’ TVO’s Buttignol said the premise was innovative, but that the lack of a pitch clip left him with no sense of how the non-fiction story would be told in what amounts to a music doc.

The feature-length doc has the backing of ZDF/ARTE to the tune of 110,000 euros ($132,000); completion is set for the fall.


The Mafia’s war against a country

Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino are two of the most important figures in post-World War II Italy. Throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the author Alexander Stille recounts in his 1994 book Excellent Cadavers, these two brave Sicilian prosecutors pursued the most successful fight against organized crime in Italian history, culminating in the conviction of hundreds of Mafiosi in 1992. But the triumph of good over evil was short lived, as both men were assassinated in separate hits later that year.

Excellent Cadavers, a 90-minute feature by Rome-based DocLab Productions, revisits the triumph and the tragedy of their lives, as well as explores the wider political implications of organized crime in Italy. The doc will use archival footage of Mafia killings, reconstructions of key events, as well as follow Stille as he continues to investigate the violence.

While saying that it was clearly a good story, Buttignol hypothesized that the producers faced a conflict between form and content - because it is an epic story with such great sweep, perhaps it would be better packaged as a two-part mini-series for a regular history slot. PBS’s Mertes wanted to find out more, but noted to work for ‘POV’ it would need a stronger current-events peg and a U.S. angle.

The project has raised about 125,000 euros ($151,000); its backers include ZDF/ARTE, the BBC (‘Storyville’), YLE Teema, Rai Tre, France 2 and the Media program. The budget is approximately 450,000 euros ($545,000).


A place called home

The Kirghiz are an ethnic group who once roamed Central Asia. For centuries, they lived with barely a glance toward the outside world. The 20th century would see their pastoral quiet shattered. Throughout the century, Russia and the Soviet Union, China, the British (in Afghanistan) and the U.S. exerted their power by marking and enforcing their international boundaries in one of the world’s most remote regions – the Kirghiz’ homeland. As a result, the Kirghiz were pushed (or fled) from one country to another, and the larger community splintered into isolated sub-groups.

In The Flying Tribe of Afghanistan (w/t), London-based Tigerlily Productions will recount the story of one sub-group (that today calls Turkey home) as they explore their own recent past by embarking on a reenactment of key turning points in their history. The process of planning and executing the reenactments – for instance, debating which stories to tell and how, and the impact they hope to impart on audiences – will then become part of the doc.

VRT-Canvas’s van Meerbeeck said having the doc subjects reenact their own meta-stories was fascinating. Aitken concurred, adding ethnic stories are sbs’s mandate. History TV’s Cindy Witten, VP of original factual production, said this is true ‘living history,’ and that she wanted to join the copro. The ITVS’s Aguilar agreed; she wanted to know how much screen time Flying Tribe‘s own crew would get (not much, she was told).

The doc will be ready in the fall in 60 and 85-minute versions. The BBC (‘Storyville’) is in for 106,500 euros ($128,000) of the budget [245,000 euros ($295,000)].

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