The 2012 Hot Docs Forum report, part two: Gore, Birds and Spacemen

In the second installment of realscreen's comprehensive review of the 13th annual Hot Docs Forum, the focus falls on Indian astronomers, Chinese Internet addicts and an historic clash of ideological intellectuals.
May 18, 2012

In the second installment of realscreen‘s comprehensive review of the 13th annual Hot Docs Forum, the focus falls on Indian astronomers, Chinese Internet addicts and an historic clash of ideological intellectuals.

Part one of this report can be found here.


Production company: Momento Film, Adomeit Films (Sweden); director: Frida Kempff, producer: David Herdies.
Budget: US$101,000 already in place (Swedish Film Institute), $400,000 sought.

Continuing the Forum’s first day pitches was the latest offering from Frida Kempff, the director behind the Cannes Prix de Jury-winning Bathing Micky. Humania looks at Susanna Eriksson, a 35-year-old flying doctor working on her first mission at a field hospital in the Central African Republic (CAR).

At the center of the film is the paradox that, in the run down hospital in the middle of a dangerous jungle where many children die, Eriksson feels at her happiest. Back home in her beautiful apartment in her native Sweden, she feels trapped and empty.

For Lorenzo Hendel, commissioning editor for Italian broadcaster RAI’s DOC3 strand, the film was a little too meditative, with not enough happening onscreen. “In documentary, thoughts must be interwoven with actions,” he said. “I fear that a person who is just wondering about what to do with her life is not enough for a documentary.”

More positive however was NHK’s producer for international coproduction and acquisition Tomoko Okutsu. “It’s a universal story,” she said, “that might work for the Japanese audience as well.” Okutsu also questioned whether there might be a character in the CAR that would form a relationship with Eriksson as the film progresses.

Indian Spacemen

Production company: Sequoia Films (UK); director: Ruhi Hamid, producer: Sue Sudbury.
Budget: $40,000 already in place (SBS, NRK, First Hand Films), $260,000 sought.

Indian Spacemen promises to go behind the scenes of India’s controversial space program as it prepares to launch its first ever astronomy satellite this year, to examine black holes. It shows a quirky band of misfit scientists battling against the odds to fulfill a nine-year dream, and comes laden with plenty of humor and insight. The trailer produced chuckles from the Toronto audience.

Among the more enthusiastic supporters for the doc was Nick Fraser, editor of BBC ‘Storyville.’ “It could work with us,” said Fraser. “We haven’t enough shows from India. I like the fact that this is funny, and not in a patronizing way – we like this very much.”

Meanwhile, commissioning editor Jane Jankovic had questions for the pitch team: “How are you going to balance the story and the science with the characters?” 

The sentiment was echoed by Mette Hoffmann Meyer, head of documentaries at Denmark’s DR TV. “I like the humor,” she offered. “I hope you keep that. I also want to know about the balance between the science and the stories.”

These Birds Walk

Production company: Paperbag Rider Films (U.S.); directors: Omar Mullick, Bassam Tariq, producer: Rieke Brendel.
Budget: $75,000 already in place (Sundance Institute, private donors), $233,000 sought.

Billed by the filmmakers as being “a film set in Pakistan that features no guns and no turbans,” These Birds Walk looks at the relationship between a 10-year-old boy from the Edhi home for runaways in Karachi and a 20-something ambulance driver who befriends him. The film promises to explore the relationships between “children, men and elders who soar in a time of crisis by navigating on the ground the gritty reality of their daily lives.”

Tribeca Film Institute director of documentary programming Ryan Harrington was among those impressed by the pitch. “I’m quite taken with these filmmakers – I think what you’re doing is really fascinating,” he said.

Also impressed was ARTE France commissioning editor Nathalie Verdier, who offered: “I think the cinematic approach is really beautiful. But for the moment, we don’t have slots for this type of film.”

Jennifer Hyde, senior producer for U.S. net CNN, added that she found the project “really beautiful,” and Knowledge Network’s Murray Battle echoed the sentiment, but added: “The question is always how much there is [actually] is there. But I’d love to see a rough cut.”

Men’s Choice

Production company: Ethnogeographic Research Foundation (Russia); director: Elena Demidova, producer: Vladislav Ketkovich.
Budget: $86,000 already in place (Filmcamp AS, Ministry of Culture of Russian Federation), $101,000 sought.

The next project offered a dark portrait of life in Russia. Men’s Choice focuses on workers who leave their small villages to travel thousands of kilometers north to work producing gas and oil in the black sea.

While the film initially sees the men becoming depressed, drinking too much, and quarreling with their wives, the filmmakers promise a redemptive story arc that will see them changing and developing over time.

NHK’s Okutsu was among those expressing some interest in the project. “I’d like to continue the conversation – we’ll have to see how the story will unfold,” she said.

Also weighing in was a new commissioning face at this year’s Hot Docs Forum: Claudia Rodriguez Valencia, international sales, coproductions and alliances exec for Colombia’s RTVC (Radio Television Nacional de Colombia).

Rodriguez Valencia also expressed some interest in the project. “I don’t think that it could be a coproduction for us, but I feel like it could be an acquisition for my channel,” she said.

On the Canadian side, Knowledge’s Battle said “the problem is I have a project like this in development,” while TVO’s Jankovic said that Canadians had already seen stories about men going away for long periods for oil-related jobs. “I’m not sure how much interest there will be for our audience because they’re already familiar with that environment,” she said.

Sands of the Skei Queen

Production company: Marie-Vérité Films (South Africa); director/producer: Ryley Gruenwald, producer: Pascal Schmitz.
Budget: $275,000 already in place (Industrial Development Corporation – equity loan), $186,000 sought.

The second sand-themed pitch of the Forum focused on the titanium-rich mineral sands of South Africa’s Wild Coast.

The project looks at the South African government approving a massive highway project which will cut through the ancient ancestral lands of the amaMpondomise people, in order to benefit an Australian mining company that needs the road to access the lucrative sand dunes, and the protests which ensue.

Tribeca’s Harrington reflected that stories of tribal lands being displaced for urban development were commonplace. “On the negative side, there are a number of films out there submitted to me that deal with the same issues,” he said. “However, that doesn’t make this film any less interesting – I’m interested, and I think that we should talk.”

Also positive was Lois Vossen, senior series producer for PBS’s ‘Independent Lens.’ “The footage looks really beautiful and compelling,” she said. Also positive was the BBC’s Fraser, who maintained his quota of ensuring he tells at least one project per Forum that they should change the title of their film.

“I loved the pitch but I think you should change the title of the film at once,” he said. “We’re awash with fake do-gooder films about people standing up to corporations, but actually I think your film is much more interesting than that. It was really a moving pitch.”

Caught in the Net

Production company: kNow Productions (U.S.); directors/producers: Hilla Medalia, Shosh Shlam, producer: Neta Zwebner-Zaibert.
Budget: $307,000 already in place (YES Israel, Impact Partners, Gucci Tribeca fund, New Foundation for Cinema and Television, Chicken & Egg), $192,000 sought.

With China being the first country in the world to classify Internet addiction as a clinical disorder, Caught in the Net looks at a treatment centre in Beijing where Chinese teenagers are sent to be weaned off their web addition.

Locked in prison-like cells with no access to the Internet, we see footage of teenagers crying and throwing fits – raising questions about whether what we are really seeing is a necessary step of intervention, or another example of China’s brutal system clamping down on the youth.

The pitch stirred more debate among commissioners than any other over the event’s two days, and buyers were still asking questions of the team as the timer ran out for the pitch team.

The BBC’s Fraser chipped in first: “When you look at the trailer you don’t know what to think about this method of getting people off Internet addiction,” he said. “And I still don’t know what your take on this is.”

His comment was echoed by many around the table. “Do you think that it helps?” asked DRTV’s Hoffmann Meyer.

The filmmakers’ response was that they did not want to force a viewpoint down the viewers’ throats while looking at the treatment center. “These are our questions too,” said Medalia. “Are these kids addicted?”

One commissioner expressing somewhat frustrated interest was Jason Spingarn-Koff, the series producer and curator for The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ strand.

“I’m really interested in this personally and I feel like our viewers would be interested,” he said. “What troubles me is I worry you might not be looking at this critically enough.”

Other commissioners voiced similar concerns and as such, it was difficult to judge whether the pitch was a success or not. However, Hoffmann Meyer’s closing remark to the team that “we’re only critical because we’re interested” left the filmmakers with a note of positivity, along with a lot to consider.

Vidal V. Buckley

Production company: Tremolo Productions/Media Ranch Productions (U.S.); directors/producers: Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville.
Budget: $300,000 already in place (Isis Capital Ventures), $300,000 sought.

One of the highlights of this year’s Hot Docs Forum saw the audience transported back to the presidential election year of 1968. Vidal V. Buckley revisits the series of 10 nationally televised debates that took place between intellectual rivals Gore Vidal and William F Buckley for ABC News, a broadcaster which at the time was looking to boost its election coverage ratings.

The two jousting commentators could not be more ideologically opposed, and the footage is remarkable – not only for the heights of intellectualism the conversation reaches, but also for the depths it plumbs: the sniping, insults and name-calling.

The filmmakers will seek to use the debates as an entry point to the devolution in modern day politics, and the polarization currently present in American electioneering.

The pitch won universal acclaim from the commissioning table. “I think this is great,” said Tribeca’s Harrington. “I love projects that look into the past and bring them into the contemporary – that really hits our sweet spot.”

Meanwhile Kathryn Lo, PBS’s director of program development, Independent Film and PBS Plus, joined in the praise, telling the team, “I think this is very relevant for PBS.”

The BBC’s Fraser added that he thinks the film can travel, despite its American focus. “Frost/Nixon was a big success in our country,” he said, adding: “Gore Vidal once said you should never pass up the opportunity to have sex or appear on TV.

“Well, I think you should never pass up the opportunity to put Gore Vidal on television. It’s a great project.”


Production company: A Dopest Ethiopian Productions (Germany); director: Sosena Solomon.
Budget: $14,700 already in place (Kickstarter), $135,000 sought.

The second pitch of the Forum’s second day focused on one of the oldest and largest open-air markets in Africa.

The documentary will focus on the lives of several regulars at the titular Ethiopian market, and the filmmaker, Solomon, has raised initial money for the project via crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

Reaction to the pitch was rather muted, with Guy Lavie at Israel’s Yes Docu among those unconvinced by the project. “I’m not sure it stands out enough for us,” he said. Tribeca’s Harrington was more encouraging, telling the young filmmaker: “I think this is very promising.”

NHK’s Okutsu added: “I don’t quite see what the structure is, but I find the characters very interesting.”

In the end, it seemed to fall to the BBC’s Fraser to speak frankly: “I think what people around the table are being too polite or cowardly to tell you, is [you should] build around the characters, rather than the ‘day-in-the-market’ [theme], because there have been a lot of films around that.”


Stay tuned for part three of this report

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.