The 2006 Toronto Documentary Forum at Hot Docs offered a strong field of 30 pitches this year. The sometimes stand-offish commissioners responded with – dare we say it – enthusiasm about several films, occasionally despite the pitch itself.
The first hit with the CEs was Saddam on Trial, a 90-minute special from Copenhagen’s Team Productions, made with the help of TV2 in Denmark and the BBC. The US$971,000 film will focus on the drama surrounding the former dictator’s trial. Neutrality won’t be easy in such a politically charged environment, but the producers aim to walk the line.
The commissioners were unanimous in their praise – Court TV’s Ed Hersh dubbed the film a perfect compliment to the net’s trial coverage, and CNN’s Jennifer Hyde said it was exactly the kind of story ‘CNN Presents’ should be doing. Hyde wondered about exclusivity of access, however, as well as the film’s timing, given that the trial continues. (The producers pointed out they have been the only crew on site for the entire trial, and that they’ll be able to wrap immediately after.) For her part, Cara Mertes from ‘POV’ said she liked the integrity of the project enough to join ‘the boxing match’ she saw brewing for us rights.
Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm found favor with its Basement Tapes, a 90-minute feature tackling the future of music and copyright. Produced with the help of The Documentary Channel and the NFB in Canada, the $972,000 film documents the struggle between corporations and the ‘Free Culture’ movement, with lawyers and activists weighing in on both sides. Interestingly, it’s being billed as the first open-source film, and will be made in collaboration with contributors from the Web.
Basement‘s copyright-questioning message was well received by CNN’s Hyde (who observed, ‘That screaming you hear is the Time Warner lawyers’) and several others, including Sundance, ARTE and SBS. Axel Arnö from SVT in Sweden said he’d be interested, as his channel was ‘obsessed with 20- to 44-year olds,’ but he wanted to know if it was available in a 60-minute format. (Of course, noted producer Daniel Cross, ‘It’s open source…’) Wolter Braamhorst from AVRO in the Netherlands initiated a murmur of general agreement when he noted that copyright issues should be foremost on the minds of the community, as it is an issue that threatens documentary itself.
EyeSteelFilm pitched another project which was equally well received. Up The Yangtze! is a 90/60-minute effort about the flooding caused by the Three Gorges Dam project, as told by villagers who live along the river and who have chosen to work the Victoria Star cruise ship’s ‘Farewell to the Three Gorges’ tour. Filmed with the support of the NFB and Canadian pubcaster CBC, as well as other funding bodies, producer Mila Aung-Thwin described the $673,000 film as ‘Heart of Darkness meets The Love Boat.’ ARD’s Quibeldey admitted he loved the project so much he could ‘even broadcast the trailer.’ His one question: what will the area look like in 2008 when he’d broadcast the film? Underwater, was the answer. By then, the river will be flooded to a depth of 175 meters.
Equally well received but less understood was a pitch for Ghost Stories. A $350,000, 90-minute film from LA-based Plug In Inc and the NHK, the film delves into the 1,000 years of classic Japanese literature and folklore that have spawned a horror genre so unlike that of the West. The film uses animation to introduce and demystify the tales.
SBS Australia’s Mark Atkin admitted that he ‘didn’t have a clue what the pitch was about,’ but promised to sell the film to his colleagues based on the visuals. AVRO’s Braamhorst concurred: the genre has ‘scared the hell out of the Japanese for the last 1,000 years,’ he said. ‘It’s time it scared the hell out of us too.’