The complete Hot Docs Forum report: Part one

In the first part of a comprehensive three-part review, realscreen reports on the 19th annual Hot Docs Forum, detailing the first batch of projects unveiled during the first day of the Canadian pitch-fest extravaganza.
May 9, 2011

In the first part of a comprehensive three-part review, realscreen reports on the 19th annual Hot Docs Forum, detailing the first batch of projects unveiled during the first day of the Canadian pitch-fest extravaganza.

The 19th annual Hot Docs Forum – formerly known as the Toronto Documentary Forum – took place last week, with pitch teams from across the globe descending on Toronto’s stately Hart House in an effort to get funding for their factual passion projects.

Over the course of two days, 28 projects – selected from 193 submissions and representing 14 different countries – were pitched to a table of commissioning editors, distributors and funding bodies from around the world.

The event kicked off with Forum director Elizabeth Radshaw unveiling details of a production fund partnership with Blue Ice Entertainment, which will provide CAD$1 million in financial support for African filmmakers over the next five years. From there, it was onto the first pitch, as Germany’s FlorianFilm took to the table with…

The World According To Irving
Production company: FlorianFilm (Germany); director: André Schäfer, producer: Rieke Brendel.
Budget: USD$322,000 already in place (from ARTE, NRW, AVRO, YLE and ORF), $233,000 sought.

The first project of the day focused on internationally renowned American author John Irving, exploring the inspiration and working methods that fuel the writer, who has sold more than 10 million copies of his 12 novels worldwide. Irving celebrates his 70th birthday in 2012, providing a peg for the film.

Among the first giving feedback for the doc was High Fidelity HDTV’s director of production Craig Colby, who suggested that the project could work very well for Treasure TV, which plays arts, movies and music programming.

Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand, added that the doc might work for UK terrestrial BBC1, and suggested that the pitch team seek out BBC commissioning editor Greg Sanderson. However, he warned that the project “looks incredibly normal” and expressed concerns that the tone of the doc would not match the craziness of Irving’s books.

Elsewhere, POV’s executive director Simon Kilmurry said the project was “probably a good film for ‘American Masters’ on PBS,” while HBO’s documentary acquisitions manager Greg Rhem praised the project, saying that “the vérité stuff that was in there was really intriguing – you feel that you’re in his life.” He stopped short, however, of fully committing to the project, adding: “I have to definitely see more – it’s hard to determine from this.”

Doc Pomus
Production company: Clear Lake Historical Productions (Canada); director: Peter Miller; producer: William Hechter.
Budget: $420,000 already in place, $475,000 sought.

The second pitch of the day, Doc Pomus, promised a window into “one of American music’s great untold stories.” It focused on the legendary Brooklyn-born songwriter who, after overcoming a childhood stricken with polio, went on to write scores of classic 20th Century songs, including Save the Last Dance for Me, This Magic Moment, Teenager In Love and Viva Las Vegas. The project features onscreen contributions from friends and collaborators including Lou Reed, Ben E. King, Joan Osborne, Shawn Colvin, and Dr. John.

Among those expressing interest was Naomi Boxer, documentary programmer at Canadian net TVO. “It would be perfect for us,” she said of the documentary. “It’s an amazing personal story.” Also expressing support was Fraser. “I think it would be a good purchase for BBC4,” he said, “as they purchase a lot of music documentaries.” Shaw Media’s Sarah Jane Flynn said she could see the project working on the IFC channel, while Channel 1 Israel’s Neil Weisbrod said the project “sounds like a great story.”

HDTV’s Colby, however said he was “concerned about how much HD footage there would be,” with such a heavy reliance on archive footage, while for ARTE/ZDF’s Susanne Mertens, the main concern was that “you have to tell the story through [Doc Pomus'] music, because the name is not so well known.”

Despite some reservations, the pitch was well received and went on to win the CAD$40,000 Shaw Media-Hot Docs Pitch Prize at the close of the two-day event.

Unstable Elements

Production Company: Great Curve Films (United States); director/producer: Madeleine Sackler; Producer: James Lawler; exec producer: Tom Stoppard.
Budget: $50,000 already in place, $701,000 sought.

Unstable Elements tracks an underground resistance group fighting for human rights in Belarus, by way of a provocative theatre movement, called the Belarus Free Theater. The doc looks at the group’s political struggle, meeting with figures such as Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, as well as its performances, which are laden with high drama. The interspersing of clashes with police and onstage performance gives the project a highly dramatic, Black Swan-esque feel.

Tribeca Film Institute director of documentary programming Ryan Harrington was among the first to praise the effort, telling the pitch team: “I’m such a fan of this project, I think it’s fascinating.” ITVS’s VP of programming Claire Aguilar also weighed in, adding: “It’s really great to weave the story of Belarus with theatre.”

The BBC’s Fraser was also impressed, saying: “I thought it was great and I’d love to talk about it,” while HBO’s Rhem said: “The material is very intriguing – that blend between the stage and real life is going to work really well for you. Keep us abreast of the project.”

However, More4′s editor Anna Miralis – who oversees the UK network’s ‘True Stories’ strand – had questions about the structure of the film, while Barbara Truyen, commissioning editor for documentaries at Holland’s VPRO, said she was “a little confused” by the project and unsure of what she could do with it.

Catherine Olsen, exec producer of documentaries for CBC Newsworld, said that “subtitles are becoming a big challenge for us – as our audience is becoming younger we’re being more selective.” Chatter among the table about the relative merits of the project continued, before a sudden, impassioned outburst from Fraser brought silence to the hall.

“Look, this is a f***ing great project,” he declared, slapping palms on the table. “These people are nearly getting themselves f***ing killed making this story. We should try and get this film made somehow.”

Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls
Production company: Iris Pictures (Australia); director: Juliet Lamont; producer: Jessica Douglas-Henry
Budget: $377,000 already in place (ITVS, Screen Australia), $165,000 sought

The next pitch turned to Burma, focusing on the Tiger Girls – the country’s first all-girl pop group, who  bill themselves as “Myanmar’s answer to 90′s British pop sensation The Spice Girls.” The project follows the band and its trainer – Australian expat ‘Miss Nikki’ – as they struggle to forge a career in a country ruled by a highly oppressive regime that censors anything which does not conform to party ideals. The film had previously been tipped for realscreen as one to watch by Forum director Radshaw, and has funding from ITVS in the U.S. and Screen Australia.

Among those interested was CBC’s Olsen; however, she informed the pitch team that “the challenge for us is that since you’ve done a deal with ITVS, this will probably come into the country through PBS.” Murray Battle, director of independent production and presentation for British Columbia-based Knowledge Network, also reacted favorably, telling the team: “This is an interesting story for us.”

Esther van Messel, head of Zurich-based distributor First Hand Films said that although she had “some reservations” about the project, “the presence on the screen is unmistakable.” She added that First Hand – which previously handled Oscar-nominated feature doc Burma VJ – would be in interested in taking the project on.

Elsewhere, Guy Lavie, channel manager for Israeli net Yes Docu, was unequivocal in his support, saying simply: “We’re in.” VPRO’s Truyen also added that she loved “all the elements” of the pitch, including “the way human rights came into it.” However she questioned what the main dramatic arc of the story would be.

Finally, RAI commissioning editor Lorenzo Hendel said the film was “an intimate documentary that resists the temptation to become reportage – the focus is always on the characters,” while SVT commissioning editor Hjalmar Palmgren added, “I really like this story and we really like to see society through culture – I like that they are not activists themselves, they just want to do their thing.”

Buffalo Bill and the Conquest of the East

Production company: Ere Production (France); director: Vincent Froehly; Producer:  Christian Monzinger, Horst Brandenburg.
Budget: $379,000 already in place (France Televisions, ARTE), $235,000 sought.

One of the less impactful pitches of the day was Ere’s Buffalo Bill and the Conquest of the East, which was met with a rather lukewarm reception from the table.

The project looks at Buffalo Bill, the Western legend who travelled all over Europe with his infamous ‘Wild West Show,’ arguing that while he is best known for his adventure in the U.S., “the greatest adventure of his life was to take place in the East.”

HDTV’s Colby gave some support to the project. “I personally would like to watch it – Buffalo Bill is a compelling character,” he said. DR TV’s commissioning editor Mette Hoffmann Meyer, however, was more dismissive. “I was not interested at all,” she said – a sentiment echoed by More4′s Miralis.

VPRO’s Truyen hinted that the project “could work” for her net, while Iikka Vehkalahti, documentary commissioning editor for Finland’s YLE TV2, said that the tone and content of the trailer meant it looked “like it’s something for a history slot,” without explaining further. Unfortunately, the overall reaction to the project was one of tepid ambivalence.

Pyongyang Express: Escape on the Underground Railroad

Production company: Fathom Film Group (Canada); director/exec producer: Ann Shin.
Budget: $70,000 already in place (Canada’s TVO, NFB and Bell New Media), $647,000 sought.

Pyongyang Express follows the lives of several people attempting to defect from the oppressive regime of North Korea by way of a Civil War-style ‘Underground Railroad,’ which spans across Asia into Canada and the U.S. The doc also focuses on the people risking their lives to help said defectors, and is billed as a multi-platform project combining vérité and animation to create “a unique POV aesthetic in film and online.”

ARTE France commissioning editor Christilla Huillard-Kann said that while she found the project “really interesting, I’m still wondering about the relevancy” for the channel’s audience, while POV’s Kilmurry said: “I don’t get a sense of what I’m actually going to see in the film yet – I really need to see some more.”

Also weighing in was Ed Hersh, senior VP of Strategic planning for Discovery’s ID, Military Channel and HD Theatre. “I’d love to pass it onto Discovery Networks International,” he said, adding as a caveat: “You have to get the storytelling together – the execution is brilliant.”

He also added that he’d like to talk to the team “offline about other projects,” which sounded promising. The BBC’s Fraser was a little more skeptical, stating that there are “lots of good films about people getting out of North Korea” that have already been made, and adding that he found the animated element of the project “a bit distracting.”

HBO’s Rhem suggested to the team that while there were a wealth of angles that could be explored with the characters, the big focus of the doc had to be on “following them into the Underground Railroad.”

Under The City
Production company: Catbird Productions (Canada); director: Caroline Bâcle; producer: Katarina Soukup.
Budget: $215,000 in place (Canada Media Fund, NFB Canada); $360,000 sought.

The seventh project of the first day was a slow-paced but interesting project from Canada’s Catbird Productions, looking at the hundreds of rivers that once flowed beneath every major world city. The doc asks how and why they’ve disappeared, introducing us to Danielle Plamondon, a Lara Croft-style flamenco teacher by day who turns underground explorer by night.

The pitch was for a cross-platform documentary project which would include an iPhone app, containing local content for various cities. The pitch team said that roughly 70% of the project’s funding was in place, and what they were really looking for were pre-sales and a partner for English-speaking Canada.

The project left some commissioners perplexed, with both Fraser and Miralis ruling it out; however, Channel 1 Israel’s Neil Weisbrod said he found the idea “very interesting.”

Bruce Cowley, CBC’s creative head for digital channels, also spoke out in support. “I really like this project – I think there’s a nice renaissance quality to it,” he said. “There’s some work to do on identifying some of the characters – which ones will provide a sense of adventure, for example.”

– Stay tuned to realscreen throughout the week for parts two and three of this report.

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