The complete Hot Docs Forum report, part two: Pitch harder

In the second installment of realscreen's comprehensive review of the 19th annual Hot Docs Forum, the focus falls on uranium mining in the U.S., Japan's Comfort Women, the battle to cure AIDS, and a remote community in Greenland.
May 11, 2011

In the second installment of realscreen‘s comprehensive review of the 19th annual Hot Docs Forum, the focus falls on uranium mining in the U.S., Japan’s Comfort Women, the battle to cure AIDS, and a remote community in Greenland.

Part one of this report can be found here.

Uranium Drive-In
Production company: Reel Thing Productions (United States); director: Suzan Beraza; producer: Michelle Hill; exec producer: Judith Kohin.

Budget: USD$63,000 already in place, $315,000 sought.

Day one of the 19th annual Hot Docs Forum continued with a project from U.S. indie Reel Thing Productions, looking at the proposed Pinon Ridge Uranium Mill in southwestern Colorado, which has created a fierce debate among local residents in the region.

On the one hand, the mill – which would be America’s first in 25 years – promises to bring jobs and a stable economy to a region still struggling with financial insecurity in the wake of the uranium industry’s last bust. On the other, it presents radical health risks for the local populace, many of whom lost family members to illnesses the last time the town had a mine.

Given current affairs in the East, the project – which is beautifully shot – has timeliness, something HBO’s documentary acquisitions manager Greg Rhem picked up on. “Given what’s happened in Japan, we obviously have our fears [about uranium and nuclear energy] here,” he said.

CBC News Network’s Catherine Olsen was highly impressed with the project, but ruled out taking it because of its financing structure. “It would be really hard for us to touch it given that you’ve got foundations and individual contributions,” she said, “which is really sad because Canada is the world’s second largest miner of uranium.”

Naomi Boxer, documentary programmer at Canadian net TVO, had no such qualms, however. “It could work on our social issue POV strand,” she said. Simon Kilmurry, executive director of America’s ‘POV’, added: “I’m glad to see you’re taking the perspective of the people in the town and not outside experts. It’s also a story about rural America and we don’t see that many of those.”

Further positivity came from Iikka Vehkalahti, documentary commissioning editor for Finland’s YLE TV2, who described the “visual language” of the doc as “fascinating.”

Also weighing in was NHK’s Tomoko Okutsu, who said the issue naturally had parallels with the nuclear crisis facing Japan. “It’s very difficult for us to compare this, but in the coming months it’s going to be a very big issue for Japan to decide how we are going to address this issue,” she said. “We would like to hear more.”

NHK’s special presentation

Following Reel Thing’s pitch, NHK’s exec producer of international programming Takahiro Hamano took to the table for a special presentation of ‘Project Civilization’, showing a short trailer for the proposed initiative featuring footage of the disasters in Japan. “This is not a pitch,” he told his fellow commissioners, as much as a call to arms for some kind of forthcoming collaboration, exploring mankind’s relationship with the environment.

“I was so depressed after the disasters [in Japan] that I thought, ‘What can I do as a public broadcaster?’” said Hamano. He admitted that the theme was still somewhat vague for the initiative, but said the Japanese pubcaster would be looking to collaborate with five or six “commissioning editors, producers and directors” on the project.

He added that many of NHK’s factual projects had been halted following the environmental crisis, with it likely to be several months before things settle down and commissioning to resume as normal.

How to Survive a Plague (aka Brightness Falls)

Production Company: How To Survive A Plague (United States); director: David France; producer: Michael Solomon; exec producer: Joy Tomchin.

Budget: $549,000 already in place (Impact Partners, various AIDS funds), $435,000 sought.

NHK’s special presentation was followed by the strongest pitch of the Forum’s first day, provoking immediate interest and competition among commissioners. How To Survive A Plague looks at the story of a group of mostly HIV-positive gay activists whose intensive efforts turned AIDS from being a death sentence into a manageable condition.

The trailer featured energetic, emotional and interesting archive and talking heads, showing an improbable group of young men and women who, with no scientific training, infiltrated the pharmaceutical industry and helped identify promising new compounds, moving them through experimental trials and into drugstores in record time.

“These drugs ended the darkest days of the epidemic and virtually emptied AIDS wards in American hospitals,” the pitch team said. “Along the way, their efforts permanently transformed the way drugs are researched and regulated in America.”

DRTV’s commissioning editor for documentaries Mette Hoffmann Meyer captured the mood of the table perfectly. “It looks amazing and it’s a very important story,” she said.

Representing the UK, BBC ‘Storyville’ editor Nick Fraser and More4 editor Anna Miralis both had the same straight-forward reaction: “I think it’s fantastic.” And behind the scenes, both are hoping to commandeer the project for their respective channels – it will be interesting to see who wins out.

Tribeca Film Institute director of documentary programming Ryan Harrington said the project “gives him goosebumps,” while commissioners from CBC, YLE, and ARTE Germany were queuing up to give praise. “People have forgotten about this story,” said POV’s Kilmurry, referring to the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s.

With the high interest in this project, chances are that won’t remain the case for long.

When Two Worlds Collide

Production company: Yachaywasi Films (Peru); directors:  Mathew Orzel, Heidi Brandenburg; producer: Taira Akbar; exec producer: Jeffrey Morris

Budget: $119,000 already in place (Cinereach, Sundance Institute, Tribeca Institute), $463,000 sought.

Against the backdrop of global recession and the climate crisis, When Two Worlds Collide promises to trace the journey of Alberto Pizango, a young indigenous leader who is forced into exile for resisting the sale and commercial exploitation of Amazonian lands by big business. Accused of insurrection and sedition by the Peruvian Government, he faces 20 years in prison. However, after almost a year in exile, Pizango returns to Peru to face trial and discovers himself nominated to lead the first ever Amazonian political party.

“It’s a great story,” enthused ITVS’ VP of programming Claire Aguilar. “I’d like to see more material about how you’re going to chronicle the outcome – it’s a really complex story.” Adella Ladjevardi from Cinereach also told the table she was a major supporter of the project. “They have remarkable access to this one man,” she said. “They just need a really strong editor to come onboard and help them shape the story.”

However, the BBC’s Fraser advised a little distance between filmmaker and subject. “You should try and stand back a bit from the material,” he warned.

Fierce Green Fire
Production Company: A Fierce Green Fire (United States); director: Mark Kitchell; producer: Mark Kitchell; exec producers: Peter Belsito, Jim Angelo, Jill Angelo, Sydney Levine

Budget: $303,000 already in place (Sundance Institute, various foundations and funds), $201,000 sought.

A Fierce Green Fire attempts to tell the broad story of the history of environmental activism via an interesting five-act structure. It promises to show “people trying to save the planet, their homes, their lives, [and] the future,” chronicling grassroots global movements over five decades.

Commissioner reaction was harder to read for this project, and while the tone of the responses seemed positive enough, it was difficult to separate the genuine interest from ambivalent politeness. Most execs were mute following the pitch.

YLE’s Vehkalahti wanted to know “How much is this a film about the history of the environmental movement?,” while Ed Hersh, senior VP of strategic planning for Discovery’s ID, Military Channel and HD Theatre, said he would pass the project to his colleagues at Planet Green for inspection.

ITVS’ Aguliar said the project “seems really ambitious,” adding: “If you’re at a second rough cut I’d really like to see some of the clips you’ve made.” Murray Battle, director of independent production and presentation for British Columbia-based Knowledge Network, added: “I too would like to see a rough cut.”


Within Every Woman
Production Company: Golden Nugget Productions (Canada); director: Tiffany Hsiung; producer: Chris Kang; exec producers: Judy Cho, Flora Chong, Joseph Wong.

Budget: $100,000 already in place, $310,000 sought

The most emotional pitch of the Forum’s first day came from Japanese director Tiffany Hsiung and Canada’s Golden Nugget Productions. Within Every Woman explores the controversial story of Japan’s ‘Comfort Women,’ – girls who were abducted during the Second World War and used as sex slaves by Japanese forces – by way of Hsiung’s personal story as a victim of sexual abuse.

Using her own experience as a starting point, the director attempts to connect with survivors and explores their stories. The project featured an extremely hard-hitting trailer which left many in the Hart Hall audience misty-eyed. Yet despite its emotional impact, commissioners were kind but non-committal.

Sundance Institute’s Bruni Burres had questions about the structure of the film, while Tribeca’s Harrington told Hsiung he was “definitely quite taken by your story,” without committing further.

NHK’s Okutsu added: “It’s a big story in Japan – we’ve been covering it a lot, it’s a difficult thing to talk about. In Japan we’ve never been able to dig into this issue as a personal POV because it’s a very political story. I’d like to see it when it’s complete.”

The BBC’s Fraser said a film looking at Comfort Women from a healing angle could be interesting, but added: “Somehow the two [the Comfort Women story and a modern-day survivor's story] don’t fit together in my mind.”


Production Company: 64th St. Media (United States); producer/director: Mohammed Ali Naqvi; producers: Vajih Khan, Jared Goldman.

Budget: $100,000 already in place, $473,800 sought.

Billed as a project offering “unprecedented access,” Pride is a fly-on-the-wall exploration of one of the world’s most polarizing political figures – former Pakistan leader Pervez Musharraf. Now living in self-exile in Dubai and longing to return to his home country, the film promises to look at the controversial politician’s past and his attempt at returning to Pakistani politics.

The BBC’s Fraser told Ali Naqvi, the project’s director, “I really liked your last film, Shame, I thought it was wonderful.” However, he warned of this project that Musharraf is “like any old politician trying to get back into power,” adding that the key problem he found with the trailer was that the former Pakistani leader was simply “not very interesting” in the footage shown.

Steve Harris, A&E’s director of non-fiction and alternative programming, added that he was concerned about objectivity, warning that the project could end up becoming “one big infomercial” for Musharraf. He added that on seeing the trailer, he was getting “flashbacks of Mark Burnett and TLC trying to humanize Sarah Palin,” to much laughter from the hall.

The pitch team assured, however, that they would have final cut on the project, despite Musharraf’s involvement. One vocal supporter of the doc was Channel 1 Israel’s Neil Weisbrod, who said simply: “It really worked,” while DR’s Hoffmann Meyer said: “I’m very interested, I’d like to see more of your footage.”

Garden of Eden

Production Company: Lama Films (Israel); director: Ran Tal; producers: Amir Harel, Ayelet Kait.

Budget: $97,000 already in place (Israel’s Yes Docu), $123,000 sought.

Garden of Eden is a slow, meditative project looking at The Sahkne – one of the most popular and beautiful National Parks in Israel – and quite unlike most of the other projects pitched at the Forum. The doc promises to look at “all the elements of Israeli identity – kibbutz members, Arab families, religious people, former Soviet Union immigrants and tourists from all over the world,” by way of several personal stories. The film will document the changes in the park throughout the year, presenting “a critical, empathic observation of Israeli society’s culture in 2010/11.”

Initial reaction was flat, with ARTE/ZDF’s Susanne Mertens saying her network would not have a slot for the film, and DRTV’s Hoffmann Meyer also unconvinced. “I think I should see a rough cut on this one because I can’t see the story,” she said.

YLE’s Vehkalahti was more positive, however. “I like how well you’ve done it,” he said. “It was a really great example of really profound filmmaking. There are so many great films coming out of Israel.”

The BBC’s Fraser was also encouraging. “It’s a lot of tiny bits of stories strung together, but it was sort of quite beautiful,” he said. He added, however, that audiences’ ever-dwindling attention spans meant “it’s quite difficult to get people to watch that now.”

POV’s Kilmurry added: “There’s something peaceful and beautiful about it. You need to do a 60-minute version,” adding that it could work for ‘POV’ as an acquisition.


On The Edge

Production company: Met Film Production (UK); director: Sarah Gavron; producer: Al Morrow; exec producer: Jonny Persey.

Budget: $88,000 already in place (NRK, DRTV, Film Four/Channel 4), $306,000 sought.

Told over the course of one year, On The Edge offers the story of a community living in Niaqornat, in Northwest Greenland, one of the most remote spots on earth. The town consists of just 59 people and 100 dogs, and faces a constant threat owing to its population sparsity – if the number of inhabitants falls beneath 50, the government could relocate the remaining residents to the nearest major town.

Despite the bleak synopsis, the trailer revealed a witty and entertaining project, with the producers stressing that this would be a “feel-good portrait” of an isolated community.

Reaction to the project was upbeat. “It’s very good,” said YLE’s Vehkalahti, joking that the remote, sparsely populated community was “similar to how normal Finns are living every day.”

Among those interested in the project were TVO’s Jane Jankovic, who said, “We have a lot of communities in Canada where this is a big issue.” Also positive was ITVS’ Aguilar. “I’ve seen a lot of stories like this but they’re usually with a tone of doom and gloom,” she said, “but this had a really different tone.”

Moderator Axel Arno, from SVT Sweden, summed up the positive response: “Great pitch, fantastic responses, congratulations.”

Seven Days, Seven Nights

Production company: Filmico Productions (Colombia); director: German Piffano; exec producer: Heidi Rojas

Budget: $283,000 already in place, $100,000 sought.

Last minute visa issues meant that the final pitch of the Hot Docs Forum’s first day had to be delivered via a Skype video link. In addition, a translator was needed for the director, and no trailer was available for the project, stacking the chips against it from the start.

Nevertheless, the commissioners responded as positively as they could given the circumstances, with several asking to see more.

Seven Days, Seven Nights looks at Jose Iglesias, an automotive engineer and crack addict from the Colombian capital of Bogota who, after spending 11 years as a homeless person, struggles to quit his drug addiction and start a new family. The filmmakers promise a visual journey “spanning 10 years in Columbia, Venezuela and Spain.”

TVO’s Jankovic said she would really like to see more of the project, while Knowledge’s Battle questioned whether there would be an hour-long version made (the director assured there would be both a 52-minute and a 79-minute).

ARTE/ZDF’s Mertens summed the situation up best, however. “The story is interesting but it’s really difficult to judge it without seeing a trailer,” she said.

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