Hot Docs’ TDF is AOK

On April 28 and 29, the doc world's deepest pockets descended on Toronto for the fifth edition of the Toronto Documentary Forum. Hobbled last year by SARS, Hot Docs organizers pursued an aggressive marketing initiative to pull global buyers back to the event, and it worked. Over the two days, 84 commissioning editors from 14 countries heard 38 projects pitched in a room so full, not every buyer could fit around the table. What follows is a list of the projects that elicited the most response, even if it had to be shouted down from the observation deck.
May 1, 2004

On April 28 and 29, the doc world’s deepest pockets descended on Toronto for the fifth edition of the Toronto Documentary Forum. Hobbled last year by SARS, Hot Docs organizers pursued an aggressive marketing initiative to pull global buyers back to the event, and it worked. Over the two days, 84 commissioning editors from 14 countries heard 38 projects pitched in a room so full, not every buyer could fit around the table. What follows is a list of the projects that elicited the most response, even if it had to be shouted down from the observation deck.

Mother Egypt

Filmmaker Sherine Salama, whose 2002 doc A Wedding in Ramallah was a surprise hit around the world, pitched another rare work. ‘This will be a humorous film about love and identity in the Arab World,’ said Salama. ‘When did you last see that?’

Enta Omri: You are my beloved, is a feature doc from Habibi Films in Rose Bay, Australia, that will contemplate contemporary Cairo and its diverse population though the songs of Omm Kalthum. Egypt’s legendary singer died 30 years ago, but she still influences her country’s culture. Salama plans to abandon the traditional trappings of a biographical film – narration, talking heads, etc. – and instead will speak to ordinary Egyptians about what Kalthum’s music means to them. In the process, their stories as well as the story of Kalthum will be revealed. The doc is budgeted for about US$520,000.

Sabine Bubeck-Paaz, a CE for Germany’s ZDF/ARTE, said the music ‘was strange to my ears’, but was impressed with Salama’s footage and asked the filmmaker to speak to her further. Rudy Buttignol, creative head of network programming at Toronto-based tvo, said he liked the idea of exploring ordinary people’s lives in contemporary Cairo, but questioned whether the film used too obscure a subject through which to do this. Diane Weyermann, director of The Sundance Doc Fund, will help finance the project. KB

Target Practice

Israel’s government made headlines when it assassinated Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin in March. A few weeks later, Yassin’s successor was the victim of another targeted killing. Publicly, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has said: ‘Every senior member of Hamas is marked for death.’

Toronto-based prodco Storyline Entertainment will take an intimate look at Israel’s assassination policy by capturing every stage of a hit for the one-hour Marked for Death. Producer Tim Wolochatiuk assured unprecedented access to both the Israeli Defense Forces and senior Israeli political officials as well as Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his top security advisors. Canada’s History Television is backing the US$400,000 doc, which the channel’s vp of original factual production Cindy Witten described as relevant and timely.

Jennifer Hyde, director of development for CNN Productions asked if the producers would be present for the actual ‘operation’ (they will be). Andrea Meditch, director of development for Discovery Channel u.s., wondered whether the film would be an anatomy of a hit, and Pierre Merle, ce of arte France, was concerned that the filmmakers might be manipulated by Israeli officials. The ethical dilemmas the film raises were privately debated for the duration of the TDF. KB

Sticks and stories

Writer, performer and sports enthusiast Dave Bidini will travel from one Great White North to the other for The Hockey Nomad – Into Russia, a one-hour doc from Toronto’s Mercury Films. Referencing Soviet-era hockey legends, the film will explore Russia’s passion for the puck and examine the state of hockey there today. Trekking through cities such as Moscow and St. Petersburg to remote outposts like Siberia, the film will reveal modern Russia and try to understand the seismic changes happening there.

Budgeted for about US$300,000, the doc is backed by Canada’s cbc, which will contribute about $72,000. Catherine Olsen, CE for CBC Newsworld, who admitted she’s blasé about hockey, acknowledged that the film is a departure from the serious fare found on ‘The Passionate Eye,’ but noted the doc’s unique exploration of contemporary Russia eventually won her support.

Leena Pasanen, CE of culture and docs for pubcaster YLE Teema, agreed. Noting Finland’s shared fascination with hockey, she said she liked the concept and wondered only if viewers will be able to connect with the characters Bidini encounters on his travels. Ed Hersh, svp of docs and specials at Court TV in New York, lamented his inability to fit the film into his schedule, but recommended the producers approach espn, as the all-sports channel is increasing its doc output. David Rabinovitch, the national production exec at pbs’ Detroit Public TV, said he was interested in this film and the filmmakers’ previous, similarly titled work Hockey Nomad. So too was Keith Brown, vp of news and docs for New York-based Spike TV and Christoph Jörg, CE at ARTE France, who said both films fit the channel’s sports slot. ‘P.O.V.’ exec director Cara Mertes congratulated the filmmakers for discovering a new genre – hockey films for the non-hockey fan – and echoed Olsen, saying the doc was a departure for the pbs strand, but she was nonetheless interested. ‘This seems like a great essay film with strong writers,’ she explained. KB

Detective work

In November 1995, Chicago filmmaker Allen Ross disappeared. In Missing Allen, director Christian Bauer (The Ritchie Boys), Ross’s colleague, told the story of the search for his friend, whose body was eventually found buried in the basement of a house in Wyoming where he lived with members of a religious cult. Bauer’s next doc, Finding Allen, picks up where the first film left off and follows up on the conspiracy theories it raised – including a connection to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing – while searching for Ross’s killer. The one-hour film has a budget of US$639,000 and is backed by Germany’s ard br.

Alberta Nokes, director of independent production for Toronto-based Vision TV, was interested in the film, possibly as a Canadian copro, but wondered if the story could stand on its own without the first doc. Paola Freccero, svp of film programming for the Sundance Channel in New York, had acquired Missing Allen and said that the film had done very well for the channel. Noting that Court TV’s Hersh had also shown interest in the film (though he wasn’t present for the pitch), Freccero said jokingly, ‘I’ll battle Ed Hersh to the death!’ TVO’s Buttignol had also shown Missing Allen, but was unsure about the new project, wondering what more there was to tell.

Nick Fraser, CE for the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand, said he would like to see both films together as a package deal. Michael Burns, director of programming and acquisitions for The Documentary Channel in Toronto said he would like to show both films once tvo’s license was over. Jill Offman, VP of programming for Discovery Channel Canada, was also interested, but Nokes piped in: ‘I’d like to remind the Canadians that I’m in this!’ KV

Fame and misfortune

In July 2003, members of Edinburgh’s literary elite received a manuscript for a novel called Jacob’s Ladder. A suicide letter in the guise of a diary, the book would be the last author Colin MacKay would ever write. The Man Who Wasn’t Famous, a one-hour doc by director Paul Berczeller of London’s October Films, will tell the chilling tale of the doomed writer, who took his own life because he could no longer live with his lack of literary talent. Mixing drama and doc techniques, The Man will follow the narrative of Jacob’s Ladder and piece together MacKay’s last days. Backed by Channel 4 in the U.K., the film’s budget is US$324,000.

tvo’s Buttignol said he liked the technique of the film, but wasn’t sure where it would fit on tvo. Denmark’s Flemming Grenz, exec producer of copros for drtv, wasn’t convinced, however, that the approach worked. Mary Carlin, manager of programming at trio/Universal Television in the u.s., admired the film’s investigative style and was interested in hearing more. The Documentary Channel’s Burns said, ‘If it qualifies as a documentary, then I’m interested.’ Freccero of the Sundance Channel said The Man ‘screams Sundance’ and wanted to talk more. Bill Reilly, VP of TV production and programming for Faith & Values Media in New York would consider acquiring the film if it included a suicide hotline number. Pasanen of YLE Finland, whose country has one of the highest suicide rates, liked the film’s style but lamented: ‘He wasn’t even that famous.’ KV

The Terminator’s Tinseltown

Many openly political stars – think Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon – are of the left-wing, ‘actor-vist’ ilk. But with Bush in the White House and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California gubernatorial win, might Hollywood take a swing to the right? In Right Wing Hollywood, political journalist Jesse Moss examines Tinseltown’s conservative class, from Ronald Reagan to newer faces like Schwarzenegger. Produced in association with amc in Hollywood, the one-hour doc is budgeted for about US$400,000 and has a proposed release date of October.

The CBC’s Olsen said she’s always interested in stories that look at how politics and media are linked, but wanted to know how much of the film would focus on Arnold’s election campaign – to which Moss had ring-side access – as she already had a film called The Governator (other conservatives will be chronicled). Walter Braamhorst, ce of public broadcaster avro in The Netherlands, also had a similar program, called Hollywood Pentagon, but wanted to see a rough cut to compare. C4′s Jess Search said the program ‘looks really fun,’ and wanted to know how much humor was in the film, claiming ‘the more humor the better.’

Merle of arte France asked whether Moss would be a character in the film, since he liked this aspect, and if the film could be longer. Court TV’s Hersh admitted the doc didn’t fit his mandate, but noted that a trend for the filmmaker-as-guide had surfaced in Right Wing Hollywood and The Hockey Nomad. ‘What everybody is reacting to is the figure who is your guide. That’s what breaks through, [and] that’s what I’ll take away from this event.’ KV

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.