Sundance 2012: Spotlight on Canadian docs

In conversation from Park City, the filmmakers behind Indie Game: The Movie and China Heavyweight (pictured) talk about developing their festival projects.
January 26, 2012

Canadians are making their mark at Sundance 2012.

This year, three Canadian titles are among the 12 documentaries selected for the World Cinema Documentary Competition – Jennifer Baichwal’s Payback, James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot’s Indie Game: The Movie, and Yung Chang’s China Heavyweight (pictured above).

As Carolle Brabant, executive director of Telefilm Canada, noted in a conference call with the filmmakers earlier this week, 2007 and 2008 are the only other years in which Canada has had three documentaries in competition at Park City.

Baichwal’s Payback has been sold to Zeitgeist Films for distribution in the U.S.; New York-based Zeitgeist also distributed Baichwal’s Act of God (2009) and Manufactured Landscapes (2006).

Director Scott Rudin and HBO have optioned Indie Game: The Movie for TV, which was announced Sunday. During the call, Pajot clarified that the project will not be a comedy.

“Our film is a thoughtful, mature look at video games, and that’s what Scott Rudin’s team was attracted to in terms of the premise of the film, so it will definitely not be a sitcom,” she said.

Chang’s boxing film China Heavyweight premiered on Saturday to a standing ovation, and the emotional impact was compounded by the fact that Chang brought Qi Moxiang, the coach who is the focus of his film, as a special guest to the screening.

During the conference call, Swirsky, Pajot, Chang and China Heavyweight producer Bob Moore talked about the origins of their films’ subject matter. While the films cover completely unrelated topics, there are common threads. The filmmakers were drawn into their particular subjects – literally travelling to follow their trails – and compelled to uncover important stories that they felt would otherwise remain untold. Both films also explore a theme of struggle in very different ways.

China Heavyweight producer Peter Wintonick first brought boxing in China to Chang’s attention, having read up on the subject in articles – such as Evan Osnos’s piece  in The New Yorker – that indicated that there was something brewing in China’s boxing world.

“It was very apparent that there was something, a burgeoning sport of boxing, happening in China, and that there was an interest around the world in terms of looking at China as the next potential bastion of heavyweight boxing champions,” Chang said.

From there, Chang said after doing some research with their Chinese film crew, they discovered a small town (with a population of approximately 300,000) in south central China with a boxing school.

“[The school] was very rough, with a concrete courtyard for training, and no boxing equipment, just some cheap gloves,” said Chang. “And that was the setting. There was this master, and the master had a coach, and they would recruit in the countryside to look for potential athletes, and for me, that was very interesting, this kind of arbitrary process of recruitment,” he said.

“I found it interesting to invert a sport like boxing, which was banned in China up until 1987, [because it was] a very American sport that… was considered too capitalist, too Western, too violent. To put it in a story about China seemed quite relevant, in terms of what China is dealing with today,” Chang said.

Swirsky and Pajot came across their subject matter when a glimpse into the life of an indie gamer set the stage for a greater project.

They were commissioned by the Manitoba government to do a series of five-minute portrait documentaries, one of which was on Alex Holowka, who made a game called Aquaria. The game went on to win the prestigious Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival and the directors watched Holowka go on to achieve rock star status in the gaming community.

“We found it extremely compelling, so much so that it could have easily been 20 or 30 minutes,” said Swirsky. “What was so neat about it was the struggle and the perseverance that went into the game.”

Shortly after, he and Pajot went to the Independent Games Summit at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, where they found a whole new world of rock star gamers.

“[There were] all these fantastic stories of heartbreak and inspiration and we thought, ‘These stories need to be told.’ We looked around in the [documentary] landscape and it blew us away that no one was talking about video game design at all, because video games are massive; they form our culture in a very strong way, but no one [was] really taking a more serious, thoughtful look at them,” he said.

“What struck us was that [these indie game developers] were reaching the world through the internet, and they were in this ecosystem where games made by one or two people were starting to reach mass amounts of people and making a ton of money, millions of dollars,” added Pajot.

The importance of Sundance in getting Canadian docs out in the world can’t be underestimated, Moore summed up.

“It’s the biggest stage to launch a film in the world for documentaries, even though there are so few international documentaries; it’s such a big important market. We’ve done it a couple of times before, and it’s made a huge difference in the trajectory of a film. Everything rolls out from it. Whether you like it or not, it’s definitely the place.”

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