IDFA ’15: The complete Forum report, part one

Doc projects highlighting global conflict and the refugee crisis were front and center on the first day of the IDFA Forum. In the first installment of a three-part series, realscreen presents its annual report of the Central Pitches.
November 24, 2015

In the first installment of a three-part series, realscreen presents its annual report of the IDFA Forum’s Central Pitches (pictured), which this year sees 17 projects pitched over two days in Amsterdam. 

Global conflict and the refugee crisis were predominant themes in the Central Pitch projects presented on the first day of the IDFA Forum. Documentaries set in Israel, Somalia and Italy sparked a dialog among commissioners about the genre’s role in reflecting realities for refugee groups and navigating the politics of war. Meanwhile, the lens was also placed on youth in China and Chile, with projects highlighting difficult transitions into adulthood and relationships with the virtual world.

Now in its 23rd year, the turn-out for the three-day pitching event at Amsterdam’s Compagnietheater on Monday (November 23) was outstanding, with Forum guests and observers sitting in the aisles and standing in the wings for all sessions.

The roundtable was characteristically robust, with representatives from international broadcasters and film foundations gathered together for the annual fall event. New faces at the session included Jose Rodriguez of the Tribeca Institute, Chi-hui Yang of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms Initiative and Ingrid Falck of Al Jazeera English.

Projects to secure deals with buyers and foundations at the event included Los Reyes, which received support from Tribeca’s Rodriguez almost immediately, and In the Middle, which received the backing of HBO. The session also saw Tea Time director Maite Alberdi moving into a producing role for Los Reyes, and Web Junkie helmer Hilla Medalia – also a producer on Censored Voices - once again turning to producing for the doc By a Thread.

Realscreen is covering all three days of the IDFA Forum and here presents the first part of its coverage of the event’s Central Pitches. Please note that coverage of Untitled 1979 Documentary has been withheld due to concerns by producers over the sensitive nature of the project, which is still in development.

Director: Rina Castelnuovo, Tamir Elterman
Production budget: €235,187 (Some financing from Yes Docu, Chicken & Egg Pictures)
Still needed: €167,311
Status: in production

IDFA logline: By a Thread tells the story of Muhi, a Gazan child, son of a Hamas activist, who has been living confined to an Israeli hospital since he was born.

Castelnuovo and Elterman’s By a Thread centers on a six-year-old Palestinian child from Gaza who has lived his entire life in an Israeli hospital due to a life-threatening condition that has brought about the amputation of his arms and legs. The young boy is guarded by his grandfather Abu Naim, who believes it is his Islamic duty to stay by Muhi’s side, and Buma Inbar, an Israeli veteran paratrooper who finds purpose in caring for the boy.

“The film explores Muhi’s contradictory world in which he is treated, raised and saved by his people’s enemy, while his parents remain in Gaza,” reads a synopsis by the filmmakers.

Castelnuovo, who also works as a photographer, first met Muhi a few years ago when she photographed him and his grandfather at the hospital. The film’s producer is Hilla Medalia, who most recently directed Web Junkie, while Israel’s Yes Docu is the project’s attached broadcaster.

Showing immediate interest in the project was Jose Rodriguez of the Tribeca Film Institute, which previously supported Web Junkie. The commissioner – a new face at the Forum this year – said the film could be a good fit for a social issue-driven fund from Tribeca opening next week that is geared towards finishing funds. Elsewhere, Dan Cogan of Impact Partners was not shy in vouching for Medalia, whom Impact backed for both Censored Voices and Web Junkie. “Anything Hilla is doing, we’re interested in,” he told the Forum audience.

Tabitha Jackson of the Sundance Institute, meanwhile, encouraged the team to apply to the organization’s rolling call for projects. “Often we see films that stand as a metaphor for a geopolitical situation, which this one does, but so quickly I was pulled into that human drama. I think it’s wonderful,” she said.

Barbara Wiessing of the Netherlands’ IKON wondered where the team started and stopped filming “because it seems to be an endless story,” while Nick Fraser of the BBC doc strand ‘Storyville’ was similarly curious about the outcome of the film.

“How do you get from the story of Muhi to actually saying something about getting in and out of Gaza?” he asked.

Finally, Forum newcomer Ingrid Falck of Al Jazeera English introduced herself to the audience. The commissioner heads up docs in Qatar, and said the broadcaster has a number of strands such as ‘Witness,’ ‘Al Jazeera World’ and ‘Correspondent’ and also acquires, co-produces and commissions films.

“We never make films that don’t leave people with some sense of a bigger picture and it’s very important for me to know what that bigger picture would be,” she told the team.


Warriors from the North

Warriors from the North

Director: Nasib Farah, Soren Steen Jespersen
Production budget: €668,740 (Some financing from DRTV, Danish Film Institute, Creative Europe Media)
Still needed: €464,340
Status: beginning production

IDFA logline: In Mogadishu, Mohammed – a deserted al Shabaab warrior – is drifting in limbo, unable to return to England and hiding from al Shabaab, who wants to kill him.

Lost Warriors is something of a sequel to directors Farah and Jesperson’s 2013 doc Warriors from the North. While the latter doc follows the recruitment of young Somali men to militant Islamist group al Shabaab, Lost Warriors is the story of those who changed their minds and want to return to their homes in the West. The doc’s central character is 26-year-old British-Somali Mohammed, who was 19 when he left the UK to join the Islamic rebels in Mogadishu. After deserting the group at 21, he has been in hiding in Mogadishu, and trying to maintain a relationship with his wife in London, and their baby, whom he has never met.

“This film is also about forgiveness. Can forgiveness end the circle of violence? Can and should the UK government forgive Mohammed for joining al Shabaab? Can his wife forgive him for the choices he made that prevent him from being a father and a husband?” asked director Jesperson.

The doc has been in development for 18 months and is supported by DRTV, the Danish Film Institute and Creative Europe Media. The team is ready to go into production, but still requires €464,340 to ensure they meet the necessary but expensive security measures in Somalia.

The BBC’s Fraser said the pubcaster had a project in production titled Confessions of an Ex-Jihadist which would pair well with Lost Warriors, but noted that this film isn’t about forgiveness.

“It really isn’t a question about forgiveness,” Fraser told the team. “In other words, you have to examine what would be the legal basis for rehabilitating or forgiving these people because no one watching this film will agree with you if you just say, ‘It’s fine, we just have to listen to them and take them back.’”

Elsewhere, Marie Nelson of PBS said she is drawn to the project because so much of the conversation about jihad in the U.S. is about ISIS, and most Americans don’t understand the significance of al Shabaab or Boko Haram and how these groups fit into the global picture. Elsewhere, VPRO’s Nathalie Windhorst said the Dutch broadcaster previously acquired Warriors from the North and this project also feels like a “natural fit.”

Meanwhile, Gaspard Lamuniere of Switzerland’s RTS asked the team what it wants the audience to feel about its subjects, to which Jesperson replied that he “wants them to think instead of grabbing the nearest weapon or grabbing the nearest judicial tool and locking them up.”

“I’m saying let’s find out what they think and maybe we can prevent others from going in the same direction,” said the director.

Finally, Cara Mertes of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative suggested the team releases short videos covering some parts of the story for new journalism platforms ahead of the doc’s ultimate release, and also suggested making the film into a theatrical doc rather than an hour-long film for TV.

Director: Ivan Osnovikoff, Bettina Perut
Production budget: €278,475 (Some financing from Fondo de Fomento Audiovisual – Child, CORFO)
Still needed: €146,927
Status: in production

IDFA logline: Los Reyes is the story of four low-income teenage skateboarders that embody the challenge of becoming adults in a segregated and classist current-day Chile.

Osnovikoff and Perut’s doc follows a group of teenage skateboarders in Santiago, Chile, who are transitioning into adulthood. Over the course of a year, the doc – produced by Tea Time director Maite Alberdi – will trace how each of them wrestles with leaving the skate park Los Reyes in order to find jobs and take on adult responsibilities, such as joining the military. The doc comes after five years of research by Osnovikoff, an anthropologist and skateboarder who spent time in the park and introduced Perut to the group two years ago. According to the team, the youth are shot intimately using GoPro cameras affixed to their helmets, while a more traditional filming approach is used in their interactions with adults.

The film is currently shooting, and is looking for international funds, broadcasters and coproducers.

Starting the feedback was the Tribeca Institute’s Rodriguez, who immediately committed grant money to the film through the organization’s Latin American fund, which supports feature-length docs at any stage. “What we’re looking for are stories that deviate from the stereotypes that keep being propagated about Latin American culture, and I think this is a great fit.”

Elsewhere, Chi-hui Yang, a recently appointed program officer for the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative, marked his first appearance at the Forum. The organization has an office in Rio de Janeiro that works with South American grantees, he said, noting that the film’s social inequality focus would fit well with the foundation’s mandate.

Lois Vossen, executive producer of PBS doc strand ‘Independent Lens’ said she wondered how the group’s personal stories would weave into the larger story, and how much would be shot using GoPro. Similarly, Sundance’s Jackson echoed concerns about the use of GoPro in the film.

“There are so many films that we described [today] as important or urgent or timely and I’m very keen to get the balance between the art and the issue, so we’d be interested in looking at this, but we’d be looking at our filters of art, reach and change,” she said, adding that the trailer was difficult to get around.

“When you talk about [accessing] interior life through the GoPro, I felt like I was inside his eyeball but not necessarily inside his mind,” the commissioner joked.

Director: Lorena Luciano, Filippo Piscopo
Production budget: €301,368 (Some financing from the MacArthur Foundation, Chicken & Egg Pictures, New York State Council on the Arts, Film2 Productions)
Still needed: €165,368
Status: in production

IDFA logline: When his boat capsizes off Lampedusa – the epicenter of migrants dying in the Mediterranean – Eritrean refugee Aregai survives the tragic shipwreck, but yet another journey lies ahead of him.

Luciano and Piscopo’s doc delves into the rough waters of the Mediterranean, profiling Eritrean refugee Aregai, who was on a boat headed for southern Italy from Africa when it capsized off the shores of Italian island Lampedusa, claiming 350 lives. Aregai was saved by a local fisherman – whose business has been compromised by the political turmoil in the region – but must make his way further into Europe to find better prospects.

Luciano, who was also pitching on behalf of co-director Piscopo, said the film will follow the stories of both Aregai and fishermen, the Colapinto brothers. The team has so far shot about 400 hours of footage and will begin post-production this winter.

Jesse Weinraub of HBO Documentary Films said the premium cable channel has been in discussions with Luciano about the project, and is now committing to a deal for fee production and delivery of a rough assembly.

“As you can tell from the footage, it’s a candid longitudinal approach to an issue that’s unfolding daily and touches the lives of people across Europe, Africa and the Middle East and we are eager to see more footage.”

Elsewhere, Cynthia Kane of Al Jazeera America and White of PBS’ ‘POV’ both showed interest but acknowledged they couldn’t go ahead with talks if HBO was involved in the project in the U.S. Meanwhile, Jane Jankovic of Canada’s TVO said she hadn’t yet received many pitches about refugees inhabiting the space “in the middle,” between leaving a homeland and arriving in a country.

“I’m curious about where you start your story, because in that middle section, you could be there for two days or two years, you don’t know. And I love that ambiguity and the tension of that but I felt from your demo that you’re covering everything,” said Kane.

Luciano said the team will start from 2013 and will also go back and forth between 2011 and the present-day situation.

Kai Henkel of Germany’s ARD/SWR said it’s important to tell these stories, but wondered what makes In the Middle different from other docs on the topic.

“In Germany, we feel the refugee problem in the next year will always be looked at with a German angle because what happens is that this story is mostly told – Lampedusa is a focus we’ve seen a lot – and what we’ve tried to get to know in Germany now is how we deal with this,” said the commissioner.

Director: Shirly Berkovitz
Production budget: €315,987 (Some financing from ARD/NDR, Channel 8, The New Fund for Cinema & TV)
Still needed: €112,002
Status: beginning production

IDFA logline: Following his son’s murder, Danny the father – an ex-hitman-Syrian-Muslim who turned Israeli-Jew – realizes the state won’t seek justice and sets on an investigative quest to find the truth.

Berkovitz’s doc about a father taking justice into his own hands after his son’s murder has the makings of an excellent narrative thriller, according to some commissioners at the roundtable. The doc follows Danny (born as Muhammad), a Syrian Muslim who served as a spy for Israel, but was later exposed and then smuggled into Israel. He started a new life and converted to Judaism, working at a yeshiva, but following the death of his son – killed outside a nightclub – he reverts back to his given name and begins his own investigation into the killing.

Discussing the film, Berkovitz told the audience that the team believed it had a good chance of proving a new and surprising narrative to this case. The project is supported by broadcaster ARD/NDR as well as Channel 8 and The New Fund for Cinema & TV.

The BBC’s Fraser, who says he had heard the pitch before, said that to make an impact outside of Israel, the team needs to lift this story and make it comprehensible to people who know very little about Israel. “Are you going to turn it into fiction, because I think it’s a perfect fiction film,” he added.

Elsehwhere, VPRO’s Barbara Truyen said the project had “fantastic Shakespearean elements” but was confused about what the film wanted to be.

“I’m wondering about your layers because it could be a fantastic ‘whodunit’ crime thriller but it could also be a very personal film about someone who’s mourning and trying to absolve himself of what he’s done in his life,” she said.

Finally, Hans Andrea Flay of Norway’s VGTV said the challenge with this doc is to make it simple enough for the average person to understand, while ‘POV’ commissioner White – though noting the film had a lot of drama and an interesting protagonist – wondered if Danny’s back-story takes over his present-day struggle.

“It’s a question of balance, and another question is whether or not this is a universal story for an American audience?” he asked.

Hao Wu pitching People's Republic of Desires

Hao Wu pitching People’s Republic of Desires

Director: Hao Wu
Production budget: €467,227 (Some financing from ITVS, the Sundance Institute and a private investor)
Still needed: €336,205
Status: in production

IDFA logline: In China’s popular virtual showrooms, three youths seek fame, fortune and human connection, but find the same promises and perils online as in their real lives.

People’s Republic of Desires follows three Chinese youth who take part as performers in online showrooms that are broadcast to millions watching on their computers. These youth can earn up to US$50,000 a night for singing karaoke or doing a talk show that is viewed by both upper- and lower-class patrons who then buy virtual gifts for the performers. While one subject’s entire family relies on her earnings from the showroom to get by, another is a migrant worker without friends who spends all his spare time in front of his virtual audience. A third subject has found fame as an online talk show host.

The Road to Fame filmmaker’s latest documentary elicited a range of reactions from the commissioners, some of whom described People’s Republic of Desires as a Chinese Slumdog Millionaire while others compared it to an M. C. Escher painting.

Sundance’s Jackson met Wu previously during the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and CNEX Workshop in Beijing, which nurtures Chinese documentary projects.

“Connection, culture, capitalism, consumerism – all within the vehicle of this film, which is incredible accessible and your characters are very engaging,” said Jackson, who added that Sundance had given the film some development funds. “The really creative challenge is how you bring this together and what the language of the film is going to be. These films that deal with the Internet and online, for me the only question is about style.”

Henkel of Germany’s ARD/SWR said he had never seen China from this perspective and likened the film to Danny Boyle’s 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. “It’s really an amazing trailer and I was very interested. What I’d like to know is how much in this film will be not in the virtual world but in the real world.”

Wu said that the majority of the film will be in the subjects’ real life, with 10 to 15 minutes of focus on their online lives.

Also showing interest in the doc was Murray Battle of Canada’s Knowledge Network, as well as the Ford Foundation’s Mertes, who said the organization has a Beijing office. “For us, threading the needle of how to tell stories that reveal the social complexities in China in a way that’s acceptable in China is a very, very rare talent and you seem to have captured a story that can do that very well.”

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.