The complete Hot Docs Forum report, part three: Return of the commissioner

In the final installment of a three-part comprehensive report, realscreen reviews the 19th annual Hot Docs Forum's entire second day, identifying the projects that left commissioners salivating, and those which left them cold.
May 13, 2011

In the final installment of a three-part comprehensive report, realscreen reviews the 19th annual Hot Docs Forum’s entire second day, identifying the projects that left commissioners salivating, and those which left them cold.

Part one of this report can be found here.

Part two of this report can be found here.


Gideon’s Army

Production company: Trilogy Films (United States), director: Dawn Porter.

Budget: USD$220,000 already in place (Ford Foundation, Tribeca Film Institute), $148,000 sought.

Dawn Porter’s pitch for Gideon’s Army was by some stretch the most impressive of all 28 received over the course of the two-day Hot Docs Forum, and immediately set up what was a considerably stronger second day of the event.

The project sees Porter, a former ABC News and A&E exec, following a number of young public defenders working in the Deep South. Charged with defending those too poor to afford a lawyer, the defenders face long hours, low pay, staggering caseloads and – in some cases – death threats, with many dropping out after less than a year. However, help is also at hand in the form of legal advocate Jonathan Rapping, founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, who is training and mentoring the lawyers.

“The film is about 75% shot,” Porter told commissioners. “It’s a three year program and I’ve been following them for two years.”

Reaction to the pitch was immediate and overwhelmingly positive. POV’s Simon Kilmurry said: “We think it’s absolutely fantastic – this is definitely right for POV.” ITVS’ Claire Aguilar was similarly effusive, adding: “There hasn’t been this kind of story in terms of covering public defenders.”

Ed Hersh, senior VP of strategic planning for Discovery’s ID, Military Channel and HD Theatre  said: “We think it’s a pretty important project,” while Sue Turley, president of ro*co Productions– whose indie oversees acquisitions for OWN: The Oprah Winfrey Network’s ‘Doc Club’ strand – said, “This is right up Oprah’s street.”

Impact Partners’ Dan Cogan added that he would join the “clusterf**k of Americans [circling] around the project,” to laughs from the hall, while CBC’s Olsen and Murray Battle both said they would be keen to get involved. Olsen added that Porter should “talk to us before you sign your U.S. deal,” as a Canadian deal first would still leave the door open to a U.S. deal, whereas doing a U.S. deal first would likely involve giving away all North American rights.

And from the UK, BBC ‘Storyville’ editor Nick Fraser weighed in, saying that although the strand is already airing a season of justice-related films at the moment, it would not be a problem to take Porter’s film.

Porter’s project has excellent access, great footage, huge interest and does not demand a particularly large budget to complete. Of all the projects pitched at the Forum, expect to see this one on screens in the coming years.

Gaza Doctor

Production Company: Paperny Films (Canada); director/exec producer: David Paperny; producer: Cal Shumiatcher, Trevor Hodgson; executive producer: Audrey Mehler.

Budget: $165,000 already in place, $575,000 sought.

Porter’s project was followed by an equally strong pitch from Canadian indie Paperny Films, which delivered on of the hardest hitting proposals of the Forum. Gaza Doctor follows Izzeldin Abuelaish, who rose from the refugee camps of Gaza to become a fertility expert in Israel, only to watch Israeli mortar fire destroy his family. In the moments after his daughters are killed, Abuelaish’s cries of anguish are broadcast live by phone on Israeli TV, sending shockwaves around the world.

The doc follows two tracks, firstly retracing the past of Abuelaish and the horror that led to his life’s defining moment, and the second looks at his efforts to spread peace through the Middle East, while seeking meaningful justice for his daughters and vowing to not hate those who ended their lives.

Channel 1 Israel’s Neil Weisbrod said he would “do his best” to support the project. “It’s a very important film and a very important project,” he offered. Meanwhile Guy Lavie, channel manager for Israeli net Yes Docu, had questions about the narrative of the film. “My question is what will be the ratio between this past story, which every Israeli knows, and what’s happening now,” he asked.

CBC News Network’s Catherine Olsen remarked that Abuelaish was “truly an inspirational man,” while POV’s Simon Kilmurry said, “The material’s very strong – I’d like to see more.” NHK’s Tomoko Okutsu was also interested. “Stories from Israel work quite well on my slot,” she said.

Also encouraging was DRTV’s Mette Hoffmann Meyer. “We have shown these kinds of films in the past and we can’t buy enough of them,” she said.

At the BBC, Fraser was interested, suggesting that the project might work for the BBC’s ‘This World’ strand. However, he said the proposed February 2012 deliver date was too far away. “You should get this film finished earlier – you don’t need all this editing time,” he said. “You should get it out as soon as possible.”

He also added that the film should be called I Shall Not Hate (which is the title of the book Abuelaish is writing), since the most remarkable aspect of the story was the father’s determination to not hate the people responsible for the death of his children. “If you call it Gaza Doctor the audience drops by 75%,” he said.

The Light In Her Eyes

Production company: Proaction Film (Syria); producer-directors: Laura Nix, Julia Meltzer; Producer: Orwa Nyrabia.

Budget: $290,000 already in place, $199,000 sought.

The Light In Her Eyes looks at Houda al-Habash, a teacher who attempts to empower women at her Qur’an school in Damascus, Syria, by telling them they should pursue education and not be wasteful with their time. With Syria in the news, the doc has timeliness, with the pitch team promising to show how al-Habash has transformed her mosque into the center of a vital and inspiring social network, and why women are choosing Islam in a rapidly changing world.

The project had a strong trailer, compensating for a paper pitch that did not convey how interesting the project really was.

ITVS’ Aguilar called it “a fantastic project and it hits marks for us in many ways,” adding that she liked the way it addresses “contradictions” in culture. POV’s Kilmurry said he would be keen in seeing more, while Joan Jenkinson, VisionTV’s director of independent production, said a women’s perspective was “something we rarely see or get” with Syrian projects, adding that she had “questions about where you will take us on this journey.”

CBC’s Olsen identified the pitch as “one of the surprises” of the Forum, adding that it was a “very powerful trailer.” She said, however, that “a lot of my interest is based around what’s happening in Syria now,” and queried how much the film would shine a light on the ongoing revolution in the Arab would.

The pitch team assured that they will be using “contextual interviews, but keeping them sparse.”

Production company: Stanford University’s Department of Art and Art History (United States); director: Jamie Meltzer; Producer: George M. Rush.

Budget: $51,000 already in place (Cinereach), $156,000 sought.

Billed as a “psychological thriller” by the pitch team, Informant explores Brandon Darby’s dual life as revolutionary activist and FBI informant. In 2005, Darby became an overnight hero, traveling to Katrina-devastated New Orleans, risking his life to rescue a stranded friend, and co-founding Common Ground, a hugely successful relief organization.

However, in 2008, after two young activists were arrested for possessing Molotov cocktails at the Republican National Convention, Darby shocked close friends and activists nationwide by revealing he was an FBI informant. The doc promises to shine a light on this divisive character.

Among those paying praise to the doc was ID’s Hersh, who said he could see it working for the network’s ID Films imprint.

However, he said that only some aspects of the doc would appeal to the ID audience. “Since we’re focused on the criminal justice system, the Common Ground aspect for us doesn’t deserve equal weight,” he explained.

One problem facing the pitch was that several commissioners remarked that they had already seen, or in some cases already picked up, Kelly Duane de la Vega and Katie Galloway’s Better This World, a doc which has considerable overlap with Meltzer’s and has already won awards on the festival circuit this year.

Anna Miralis, editor of UK net More4, said: “Better This World gives you such a strong sense of who he [Darby] is and what he does.”

Nevertheless, there was interest from the table. DRTV’s Hoffmann Meyer identified with Meltzer’s line that the film would make audiences “grapple” with how they feel about Darby. “My audience likes not being told what to think exactly,” she said. “I’m very intrigued by it and would like to see more.”

The Waiting Room

Production Company: Peripheria Productions (Canada); director/producer: Alexandra Sicotte-Lévesque; Producer: Yanick Létourneau.

Budget: $194,000 already in place, $71,000 sought.

The Waiting Room focuses on Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, where referendum on self-determination this year will likely separate the Muslim North and the Christian South into two countries. According to the pitch team, Khartoum is currently a haven of peace and stability where Sudanese from different regions, ethnicity and religion coexist.

The film follows young people aged 8-30 whom all live in Khartoum, promising to give a voice to Sudanese youth from different origins and offering “an intimate portrait of a society that remains unknown to most and misunderstood by many.” The pitch team said it was looking for “TV presales, distribution and completion funds.”

Among those most impressed with the film was Channel 1′s Weisbrod, who said simply, “This film looks incredible.”

Bruce Cowley, CBC’s creative head for digital channels added that the doc represented “a very complex situation” and was “a very important story,” adding that the filmmaking was “very impressive.”

TVO’s Jane Jankovic was less sure. “I need to see more about these characters to be convinced,” she said. Knowledge’s Battle was less equivocal. “I am convinced and I’d love to talk to you afterwards,” he said. CBC’s Olsen, meanwhile, said the film’s cinematography was “stunning,” but echoed Jankovich. “Now I need to hear more from the characters,” she said.

Finally, ARTE France commissioning editor Christilla Huillard-Kann said: “Unfortunately we are already committed to a documentary looking at the balance of the state.”

TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard

Production Company: Nonami (Sweden); director: Simon Klose; producer: Signe Byrge Sørensen, Anne Köhncke, Martin Persson.

Budget: $342,000 already in place (SVT), $373,000 sought.

One of the most anticipated projects of the Forum looked at the founders of controversial file-sharing website The Pirate Bay, which is credited by some with almost single-handedly crippling the music industry. The doc looks at “Tiamo, a beer crazy hardware fanatic; Brokep, a tree-hugging eco activist and Anakata, a paranoid hacker libertarian,” following their trials and tribulations as they face multiple lawsuits and international pressure.

The film had been tipped by Forum director Elizabeth Radshaw for realscreen previously, with a suggestion that it would appeal for the dark side of the Internet season that the BBC’s Fraser was building.

And sure enough, the doc snagged Fraser’s interest. “This fits in very well and we’d probably want an hour-long version,” he said, although he expressed concern that the tone of the doc “still sounds a bit like ‘hanging out with cool people,’” and was not detached enough.

Meanwhile, ARTE/ZDF’s Susanne Mertens questioned what the team’s plans were for the Internet, to which the pitchers replied that they plan to release the film for free, via BitTorrent, under a Creative Commons license, which would allow downloaders to edit and adapt the film as they wished. The statement prompted some raised eyebrows from the table.

Iikka Vehkalahti, documentary commissioning editor for Finland’s YLE TV2 said he was very keen to see a feature length rough cut of the project, yet admitted that he was having trouble seeing what “the backbone of the film” was. DRTV’s Hoffmann Meyer, meanwhile, said that it was a “fascinating story,” while Yes Docu’s Lavie said the project was too controversial for him. “Piracy is very, very big in Israel,” he said. “If I broadcast this I could lose my job.”

I Am A Girl

Production Company: Testify Media (Australia); director/producer: Rebecca Barry; exec producer: Nial Fulton.

Budget: $240,000 already in place (Screen Australia), $354,000 sought.

One of the less enthusiastically received pitches of the second day was Testify Media’s I Am A Girl, which asserted that girls and women form “a group of people in the world today more persecuted than anyone else.” The project examines the claim that “being born a girl means you are more likely to be subjected to violence, disease, poverty and disadvantage than any other group on the planet” by way of 10 personal stories, including women struggling to escape from prostitution in developing countries.

Screen Australia’s Julia Overton, who is backing the project and has invested in it, presented it as a documentary and online project which already has considerable support online via Facebook.

Tribeca Film Institute director of documentary programming Ryan Harrington said Tribeca was launching a fund for women’s films. However, he was somewhat cool on Barry’s pitch. “I just wonder if this is too soft,” he said. “It’s left me with lots of questions but I am interested.”

Elsewhere, Cinereach’s Adella Ladjevardi had concerns about the number of characters featured in the film. “Structurally, I have a query about how you’re going to incorporate 10 stories into a feature-length doc,” she said. The pitch team replied that they would probably only use five of the 10 they were filming, with the remainder saved for online use and promotion.

Sundance Institute’s Bruni Burres picked up on this, remarking: “In a way you sort of have a worthwhile campaign and an activity without the need for a film.” The BBC’s Fraser added, “I actually don’t think this is a film – I don’t see it on the BBC, but I think it would make a really good Facebook site.” Probably not what the pitch team wanted to hear.

Nevertheless, HBO’s Greg Rhem had some praise. “The visuals are very compelling but I agree, it needs a focus,” he said. “It’s a good start.”

The Dark Matter of Love

Production company: Met Film Production (UK); director: Sarah McCarthy; producer: Al Morrow.

Budget: $80,000 already in place (VPRO), $494,000 sought.

The Dark Matter Of Love explores two storylines. In the first, it looks at the Diaz family – an American couple with a 14-year-old daughter – and their plans to adopt three Russian children. The second, more interesting storyline looks at the universality of mother-child love, and the effect not having it can have on a child.

The trailer featured archive footage from the 1950s, showing cruel scientific experiments in which children were deprived of their parents’ affection, and the film will consist of about 70% dramatic narrative and 30% archive, the pitch team said.

Harrington said that it was a little early in the project for him to commit, but that he was “definitely interested” and keen to see the project when it was further along. He joked that he could relate to it because “my parents always told me I was adopted growing up.”

Burres said that it was “a fascinating story,” while Impact Partner’s Dan Cogan was concerned that the archive footage “gets in the way” and “makes the film smaller than it could be.”

The BBC’s Fraser also had concerns about the archive footage, which he described as “caricature.” TVO’s Jankovich added she was “not convinced that the science is the most interesting thing about this film.” However, CBC’s Olsen disagreed, telling the pitch team “the fact that you are incorporating the science… is what makes it a fantastic film.”

While there was definite interest in the project, the table seemed split between those who were interested in the science behind love and nurturing, and those who thought the doc would work as a straight portrait of an American family adopting Russian children.

eOne Mountie Hat Pitch: The Jungle Prescription

Production company: Nomad Films (Canada); filmmaker: Robin McKenna

Following Met Film’s pitch came the Forum’s special ‘wildcard’ selection – a business card chosen at random the previous day from an eOne-backed Mountie Hat allowed the selected producer an opportunity to pitch their passion project to the table.

The Jungle Prescription looks at French doctor Jacques Mabit and his controversial use of psychotropic plant preparation ‘Ayahuasca’ – an Amazonian drug which the doctor claims, when used as part of a ritualistic ceremony, can unlock emotional memory and help struggling drug addicts break free from abusing substances such as crack.

Shot over a year in the Amazon, with footage showing the treatment of addicts in Vancouver, the trailer looked sharp. The pitch-team said they were about a month away from a rough cut and about 75% financed, with CBC onboard for Canada.

ARTE/ZDF’s Mertens was among those impressed by the project, telling the team: “The cinematography is amazing,” although she said it would not work for her network’s science slot as it was “too character driven.” Also reacting favorably was More4′s Miralis, who said it “looks fascinating” and added: “I’d really be keen to see more.”

PBS WGBH International’s Tom Koch was more reserved, telling the team that although the characters are strong, the project “probably isn’t really scientific enough” for Nova. VPRO commissioning editor Barbara Truyen echoed the concerns. “It really depends on how the science fits in with the experience,” she said.

A Whole Lott More

Production company: Flying V Films (UK); director/producer: Victor Buhler; producer: Angel Vasquez

Budget: $77,000 already in place (Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation), $232,000 sought.

One of the more unusual projects at this year’s Forum was a project focusing on Lott Industries in Toledo, Ohio, which employs more than 1,200 workers with developmental disabilities. For decades the company has excelled in assembling car parts; however, with the decline of the auto industry in neighboring Detroit, the firm is now threatened with closure, with a year to reinvent itself and to save the livelihoods of its disabled employees, during which time Flying V will follow the firm and several of its staff.

The project was clearly one of the most charming of the two days and the sense of goodwill from the commissioners was palpable, making it unsurprising that it picked up The Cuban Hat award.

Sue Turley from ro*co Productions said she was “very interested in the project” and would love to see a rough cut. Tribeca’s Harrington was also supportive. “I don’t think there are enough films being made about this subject,” he said. Meanwhile, More4′s Miralis said, “I’m very excited about this project – I can’t wait.”

Sundance’s Bruni said it was a “beautiful trailer,” adding that she particularly liked the way it “combines two issues – disability and the closure of the automotive industry.” PBS WGBH International’s Tom Koch, meanwhile, said it could work as a companion piece to an upcoming project on the Paralympics which WGBH has planned.

ARTE/ZDF’s Mertens captured the mood at the table perfectly: “You’d have to have a heart made of stone not to like this.”


Production Company: Start in Morocco Films (UK); director: Jonathan Howells; producer: Rob Fletcher.

Budget: $102,000 already in place, $271,000 sought.

Driven offered the story of two newlyweds who drove around the world in a 1934 London taxi during the 1950s, starting in Africa and ending in Japan.

The project introduced us to a now 83-year-old Alfred, who is attempting to restore the taxi and take it 2,500 miles across America, accompanied by the son he abandoned, in a bid to surprise the woman he walked out on and apologize for past deeds. The trailer tugged on the heart-strings without being too syrupy.

The BBC’s Fraser was among those supporting the doc, half-joking that he is “extremely keen on films that are extremely manipulative and have a happy ending,” while VPRO’s Barbara Truyen also weighed in, saying: “This is a very sweet and lovely story – it’s very endearing.”

ARTE/ZDF’s Mertens praised the project as “a great story,” while TVO’s Jankovich was also supportive, although she added: “I do wonder how much of the doc is going to be on the road and how much is the background and archival footage.”

Finding Vivian Maier

Production company: Tone-Loof Productions (United States); producer: John Maloof, Anthony Rydzon.

Budget: $115,000 already in place (crowdfunding, SVT), $230,000 sought.

The final pitch of the day came under complicated circumstances. The project was due to be presented by Tone-Loof producers Anthony Rydzon and John Maloof – in conjunction with Denmark’s Mortensen Film, which is helmed by director Lars Oxfeldt Mortensen.

However, last minute creative differences between the two parties saw Mortensen exit the project, leaving it without a director or exec producer. As such, Forum director Radshaw allowed the pitch to continue as a sort of “creative call out” to the industry, but ruled to not allow public questions or feedback from the commissioners after the pitch.

The move was a smart one, since the project had been one of the most anticipated of the two days: Tone-Loof has already raised more than $105,000 for the documentary from online crowdfunding, with more than 1,000 investors backing the project.

The film looks at the life of Vivian Maier, a mid-20th Century nanny who, unbeknownst to her friends and employers, was also an extremely gifted photographer of street life. Maloof, a real estate agent, purchased several boxes at an auction containing thousands of negatives of Maier’s photos, soon realizing that he had uncovered a treasure trove of 20th Century history.

Maier’s works are already being exhibited in galleries across the globe, and Maloof is now setting out to share the story of her work with the world and uncover the mystery of her life. Interest is likely to be high, in spite of the project’s recent backwards step.

realscreen‘s Top 5 Forum picks:

1)     Gideon’s Army

2)     How To Survive A Plague

3)     TPB AFK

4)     A Whole Lott More

5)     Unstable Elements

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