The 2012 Hot Docs Forum report, part three: Fires, Liars and Inside Jokes

In the final installment of a three-part comprehensive report, realscreen reviews the final pitches from the 13th annual Hot Docs Forum's second day, identifying the projects that wowed international commissioners, and those which missed the mark.
May 22, 2012

Pictured: Commissioners Tomoko Okutsu from NHK (left) and Claudia Rodriguez Valencia from RTVC (right) at the 2012 Hot Docs Forum. Photo: Joseph Michael

In the final installment of a three-part comprehensive report, realscreen reviews the final pitches from the 13th annual Hot Docs Forum’s second day, identifying the projects that wowed international commissioners, and those which missed the mark.

Part one of this report can be found here.

Part two of this report can be found here.

Elephant Soldiers

Production company: Bars Media (Armenia); director: Inna Shakyan, producer: Vardan Hovhannisyan.
Budget: $59,000 already in place (SVT, Armenian Second TV Channel), $222,000 sought.

The Hot Docs Forum continued through its second day with an Armenian project offering an innovative take on the eco-thriller. The trailer for Elephant Soldiers began unremarkably enough, with some hard-hitting footage of elephants being hunted, killed and chopped up. Moving stuff, while not really original.

The plot took a twist however, with the introduction of Cambridge scientist Max Graham. Charismatic on screen, Graham plans to install GPS chips in the tusks of poached elephants so he can trace smugglers back to the source of the demand for ivory: China.

Reaction to the pitch was positive, with the BBC’s Nick Fraser telling the team: “I thought it was fantastic – it was really good. The BBC’s certainly looking for a replacement for David Attenborough, and I totally think you have to build the action around him [Graham].”

He added that while it was not really a fit for his strand ‘Storyville,’ he would do his best to champion the project at the BBC and “to broker a deal with all the other parts of the BBC that are interested in natural history.”

Also impressed was Axel Arno, commissioning editor at SVT in Sweden. Taking a break from moderating duties, he offered that the film “could be The Cove for elephants,” a sentiment echoed by Iikka Vehkalahti, documentary commissioning editor for Finland’s YLE TV2.

“I agree with Axel – it’s not a natural history film,” he said, “it’s an investigative thriller.”

The Battle for Rio

Production company: Pumpernickel Films (France); director: Gonzalo Arijón, producer: Christoph Jörg.
Budget: $240,000 already in place (ARTE France), $370,000 sought.

From former ARTE commissioner Christoph Jörg, The Battle for Rio looks at the implementation of the controversial new Police Pacification Units (UPP) in Brazil. The UPP is charged with ‘pacifying’ 50 drug-dealer controlled favelas – slum neighborhoods – ahead of the country hosting the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Olympic Games in 2016.

The documentary promises to look at the effectiveness of the initiative, and whether it is bringing about genuine social change or is merely a façade designed to give the world a favorable impression ahead of the major sporting events.

Lois Vossen, senior series producer for PBS’s ‘Independent Lens,’ was among those more impressed with the project. “It is a really important subject and in line with our work, so I’d encourage you to come to us and apply for funding.”

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Fraser has questions about the direction the film would be taking, asking the team whether this is “a current affairs investigation or a story about something subtler and deeper.”

Jason Spingarn-Koff, the series producer and curator for The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ strand, said the project would not be for him since the subject area had been covered very recently for the Times’ film and video section.

Meanwhile, Tomoko Okutsu, NHK’s producer for international coproduction and acquisition, added her concern that there have been “many films about the favelas.”

“What’s new?” she asked. ‘What’s the difference?”

Svalka: Yula’s Journey

Production company: Hanna Polak Films/Goats Hill (U.S.); director/producer: Hanna Polak, producer: Piotr Uzarowicz.
Budget: $31,000 already in place (Films Transit, Polish Film Institute), $307,000 sought.

At a large garbage dump on the outskirts of Moscow, we meet Yula, an 11-year-old girl who is the main character in the latest offering from Oscar-nominated director Hanna Polak (The Children of Leningradsky).

Thus begins the trailer for a striking project featuring absolutely astounding footage shot over a 12-year period.

Over the course of more than a decade, we see Yula and her friends growing up on the harsh Russian trash heap, without adults and in abject poverty. We see them talking intimately about their hopes and aspirations for their lives, seemingly oblivious to the reality of how terrible their living circumstances are.

At 16, the central character becomes pregnant, and at 23 she finally escapes the wasteland and secures an apartment in the city – a remarkable, against-the-odds resolution. Throughout the presentation, the intimacy of the access secured shone brilliantly.

The effect of the trailer on the commissioners was palpable, and the pitch was perhaps the best of the two days.

ITVS International program manager Cynthia Kane cut to the chase. “It’s a really, really strong project,” she said, while PBS’s Vossen added: “Her story is pretty exceptional – I’d love to see a cut when you have it.” CNN’s Jennifer Hyde offered that “this is the kind of story that would be strong in any context.”

Also moved was Tribeca’s Ryan Harrington, who said he was hopeful Tribeca would be investing funding into the project shortly. “I think it’s extraordinary – just amazing,” he offered. ‘I have so much respect for what you’re doing – I hope to have some good news in a few weeks for you.”

Knowledge’s Murray Battle, NHK’s Okutsu, the BBC’s Fraser and Naomi Boxer, documentary programmer at Canadian net TVO, all added to the praise, with the latter noting that “the access is amazing.”

Lorenzo Hendel, commissioning editor for Italian broadcaster RAI’s DOC3 strand, added that he would like to say that he is immediately onboard, but the “unfortunate bureaucracy at RAI” meant he would have to pass it up the chain of command for approval.

Finally, Guy Lavie at Israel’s Yes Docu said that the project reminded him of Michael Apted’s Up series of films, which revisits characters over considerable periods of times.

“I like the 7 Up films,” he said, adding that he buys “almost everything” that comes from Films Transit’s Jan Rofekamp. “So this should be no different.”

An Honest Liar

Production company: Left Turn Films (U.S.); directors/producers: Tyler Measom, Justin Weinstein.
Budget: $402,000 already in place (private equity and private investment), $398,000 sought.

The sixth film of the Forum’s second day arrived with some considerable support and buzz already behind it. An Honest Liar won the MIPDoc International Pitch competition in Cannes last month, having won over a judging panel of the BBC’s Fraser, SVT’s Arno and DRTV’s Mette Hoffmann Meyer – all of whom were also at the table in Toronto.

The film documents the life and exploits of 83-year-old master magician and “professional skeptic” The Amazing Randi.

The project mixes Randi’s numerous TV appearances over the years with footage of the magician today, showing how he is on a mission of sorts to both protect the integrity of magic – an “honest” form of lying, he believes – from what he sees as the fraudulent practices of faith healers and psychics.

The trailer was impressive, and at the end of the pitch, Measom and Weinstein threw in a little inside joke, with Measom introducing himself as Weinstein and vice versa. The trick seemed to go over the head of most commissioners, but DRTV’s Hoffmann Meyer and Tribeca’s Harrington seemed to spot the deception, sporting wry grins.

The BBC’s Fraser was the first to chime in, praising the project for being “genial” and “funny” but adding, “I’d like to know more about what proportion of the film features Randi in the present?” The filmmakers clarified there would be a split of “somewhere around 60-40,” with 60% looking at his past and 40% present day.

Guy Lavie from Yes Doc, meanwhile, said, “I think it’s a wonderful project – do you think you’re going to have confrontations with those who he has confronted?” Measom replied that Randi “has ruined lives and made people question things they held most dearly.”

Also enthusiastic was DR TV’s Hoffmann Meyer, who said, “I love it – I’m very keen and I have a feature doc strand for films like this,” while PBS’s Vossen said, “We worked with Justin on Being Elmo [which Weinstein produced] – it’s a great team and we’re very keen on them.”

And in Canada, Catherine Olsen, exec producer of documentaries for Canada’s CBC Newsworld, was also interested. “I think it could be a perfect fit for ‘Passionate Eye,’” she said.

Elsewhere, other questions focused on the funding of the film – with the more than US$400,000 gathered to date only listed in the Hot Docs Forum catalog as being from “private equity and private investment” as the sources. Here, Measom said that the money had come from “unsolicited donations from around the world.”

On the film funds side, Tribeca’s Harrington was also upbeat, telling the team: “You’ve submitted this to us a couple of times and I think it’s at the stage where we can get involved.”

Let the Fire Burn

Production company: The Film Sales Company (U.S.); director/producer: Jason Osder.
Budget: $260,000 already in place (from ARTE, NRW, AVRO, YLE and ORF), $260,000 sought.

An Honest Liar was followed by another project which should already be familiar to regular realscreen readers. Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn was first pitched at the Realscreen Summit’s So You Think You Can Pitch? competition back in 2010, where it scooped the top prize.

The project looks at the 1985 clash between the city government of Philadelphia and a black power organization calling itself MOVE. As the two groups became involved in a stand-off and the MOVE members isolated themselves in a West Philadelphia row home, the police decided controversially to drop C4 explosives onto the house.

The explosion and resulting fire claimed the lives of five children and six adults, and led to 61 homes being destroyed.

The pitch team said the film would be cut as both a feature length and a TV version, and that they would attempt to use the Senna model of storytelling, using solely archival footage without talking heads. The footage looked great.

First up in showing interest was CNN’s Hyde, who said the U.S. network has had “a great deal of success with films about [other pivotal events such as] Jonestown and Waco.” Also keen was Tribeca’s Harrington, who told the team “we very well may throw some money into this.”

The director was asked about the decision to forgo talking heads and stick solely to archive, to which he told the table: “We did shoot some present day interviews but it just wasn’t that interesting.”

One commissioner particularly sold on the project was Cynthia López, the exec VP and co-executive producer of PBS’s ‘POV’ strand.

“We’re very interested in the historical context of MOVE,” she told the team. “The footage is riveting, so we’d like to continue the conversation that we’ve started.” She added that the trailer “reminds me a lot in a very positive way of The Black Power Mixtape.”

Finally, the BBC’s Fraser said that he liked the project at that it could well work in the UK, although he suggested that the film might need contextualizing talking heads for a British audience in order to do so. “We barely know where Philadelphia is,” he said.

Following the pitch, Forum organizers informed of a second unscheduled pitch cancellation due to unforeseen circumstances. Mei-Juin Chen’s Secret Daughter was set to focus on Japanese cultural icon Yoshiko Yamaguchi, but apparently the documentary is now “no longer in production.”

Trend Beacons

Production company: Markell Productions (Iceland)/Spier Films (UK); directors: Örn Marino Arnarson, Thorkell Hardason, producer: Heather Millard.
Budget: $45,000 already in place (AVRO), $180,000 sought.

Trend Beacons promises to lift the veil on the hidden world of trend forecasters, a group of influential people whose business is to predict future trends in the multi-billion-dollar fashion and design industry two years from now.

One such trend forecaster is Li Edelkoort, and the documentary promises to follow her across the world as she analyzes the everyday global flux in an effort to provide a highly marketable forecast of the future. The doc is billed by the pitch team as “Art & Copy meets The September Issue.”

SVT commissioning editor Emelie Persson weighed in first, telling the team that the film could work in her home country, since Sweden “is probably the most trend-sensitive country in the world.”

Nevertheless, she had questions for the team about Edelkoort. “I want to know what access you actually have to her,” she said, adding, “This film has to be very cinematic and very beautiful.”

One commissioner impressed by the doc was Yes Docu’s Guy Lavie. “I actually like the project – I see more and more films about the fashion industry, which don’t play very well on TV, and then once a year we have a week of fashion films, and they play very well. So it’s not a natural fit for us, although we did air the series by Gary Hustwit.”

Less moved, however, was the BBC’s Fraser, who expressed considerable skepticism in the project. “How do you deal with the ‘bollocks’ factor in all this,” he asked bluntly.

He added that he did not agree with the trailer’s assertion that the fashion industry had fallen out of love with Chinese culture after the 1989 Tienanmen Square Massacre, and also questioned the film’s upbeat tone, telling the team: “Often, the best stories about business are about failure, not success.”

The Pleasures of the Scents

Production company: Lowik Media (Canada); director: Patrice Sauvé, producer: Lucy Tremblay.
Budget: USD$385,000 already in place (Documentary Channel), $440,000 sought.

The penultimate pitch of this year’s Hot Docs Forum focused on the history of food and the emerging science of molecular gastronomy, which involves matching foods and wines based on their aromas.

It focuses in part on the story of renowned sommelier Francois Chartier, author of the book Tastebuds and Molecules, and his quest for “the pure essence of scent.”

Among the commissioning editors, there was some discussion about whether the doc was really a food/arts film, or a science title. SVT’s Persson offered that, “looking at the trailer, I think it’s not for arts and culture – it’s a science title.”

Producer Tremblay replied that she did not want to be too prescriptive in categorizing the film, stating, “I just don’t want to alienate part of the audience.”

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Fraser was again unimpressed, telling the pitch team: “I can’t tell you why, but I just can’t imagine any circumstances that the film would work in Britain – the British ones [food documentaries] are all about how to do it and how to get it.”

Less negative was ITVS International program manager Cynthia Kane, who suggested the team talk to her colleagues Kathryn Lo (at PBS Plus) and Tom Koch (at PBS International), who might be interested.

Finally, DR TV’s Hoffmann Meyer ended proceedings on a lighter note, jokingly asking the director: “At the end of the show, will we know exactly what to eat to have a big orgasm?”

Inside Joke: How Humour Invented the Jews

Production company: Cave 7 Productions (Canada); director/producer: Jamie Kastner, producer: Silva Basmajian.
Budget: $205,000 already in place (NFB, Cinephil), $706,000 sought.

The final pitch of the 13th annual Hot Docs Forum came from Jamie Kastner, the Canadian director behind docs such as Kike Like Me, Djangomania!, and the forthcoming The (Secret) Disco Revolution.

Inside Joke promises to deliver a “black comic globe-trotting road trip through unexpected landscapes of contemporary Jewish humor,” with history-of-the-world style reenactments, “God Himself” narrating and an animated Lucian Freud. Kastner described the film as being like “that feeling where you’re laughing but you don’t know if you should be laughing… for 90 minutes.”

With appearances from comics ranging from Sarah Silverman to Woody Allen, the film promises to be “funny and disturbing” in telling the story of Jewish humor “you think you know but actually don’t.”

Among those impressed by the doc were RTVC’s Claudia Rodriguez Valencia and SVT’s Persson, the latter of whom said: “I’m interest in seeing how it will develop – I think you have a nice thread with Woody Allen and some of the others.”

Meanwhile, NHK’s Okutsu said that jokes “are quite difficult to make work in Japan” – to much laughter from the room – “so I’m not quite sure about it. But I’d love to see the complete film.”

‘POV”s Cynthia López and TVO’s Jane Jankovic also wanted to see more of the project before making any decisions, but more positive was ZDF/Arte’s Martin Pieper, who told the team “it can definitely be something for ARTE.”

“People want to laugh – laughter can be a relief,” he said. “I think that this can make not only an entertaining film, but people can learn about how minorities are met on the outside.”


realscreen‘s top five picks from the 2012 Hot Docs Forum:

Svalka: Yula’s Journey

In short: Incredible, intimate footage gathered over more than a decade, unanimously loved by all the commissioners.

112 Weddings

In short: Wonderful footage, funny and light. Already has backing from HBO and interest from a theatrical distributor.

Vidal V. Buckley

In short: Super archival footage and a contemporary political relevance that is very appealing today. Prominent commissioner backing.

Let the Fire Burn

In short: Incredible archival footage of a dramatic American historical incident, heavy interest from PBS.

An Honest Liar

In short: An interesting, untold life story of a pivotal figure in the magician, atheist and skeptic communities. Talented filmmakers helming the project and a wave of industry buzz.

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