On the Slate

As someone who enjoys factual films as much as soccer, observing the pitches at the 10th Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries (November 24 to 26, 2002) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, was like watching the back-and-forth action of soccer's World Cup.
January 1, 2003

As someone who enjoys factual films as much as soccer, observing the pitches at the 10th Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries (November 24 to 26, 2002) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, was like watching the back-and-forth action of soccer’s World Cup. Only 44 projects were pitched, down from 58 in 2000 and 47 last year, but event organizers say the function of the forum has shifted over the years: the pitching session held at the Paradiso Theatre remains central, but behind-the-scenes ‘networking opportunities’ have gained in importance. Perhaps coincidentally, demand for access to the forum has increased.

The moderators who both kept the peace and stirred the pot of debate were Jan Röfekamp of Montreal, Canada’s Films Transit; Karolina Lidin of Copenhagen, Denmark’s Filmkontakt Nord; Steven Seidenberg of Café Productions in London, U.K.; Chantal Bernheim of Paris-based prodco Dune; and Paul Pauwels of Brussels, Belgium-based Periscope Productions.

Thematically, the project pitches varied, from natural history programs to idiosyncratic auteured docs to projects that analyze the world brought about by the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Here is a cross section of notable pitches.


You have no rights

Australian David Hicks was captured by Northern Alliance forces in Afghanistan and handed over to the U.S. military in December 2001; he has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, ever since. Suspected of having ties with Al Qaeda, Hicks has not been charged and has no access to his family or lawyers.

The President vs. David Hicks, a 220,000-euro (US$225,000) 52-minute one-off by Birchgrove, Australia-based production company Olsen Levy Productions, probes Hicks’s Kafkaesque predicament. The doc also examines the process by which many Western governments have eroded the idea of human rights in the fight against global terrorism.

Henrik Grunnet, a commissioning editor with Denmark’s DR TV, said the project is important after the attacks of September 2001, and wanted to find out more about what the Australian government is doing for Hicks. Diane Weyermann, head of the Sundance Documentary Fund, said she too is interested, but thought the narrative split between analyzing civil liberties and detailing Hicks’s experience needs clarifying. Philippe van Meerbeeck, head of documentaries at VRT in Belgium, was also intrigued, and wanted to know more about the possibility of Hicks’s case ever coming to trial and what the implications would be for the film if it did.

The President vs. David Hicks, which needed a further 60,000 euros ($62,000) at the time of the forum, is a coproduction with Aussie broadcaster SBS and Australia’s Film Finance Corporation, and is due to wrap in September 2003.


Legacy of the Hapsburgs

Turn of the Century, a 120-minute theatrical doc by Wien, Austria- based Paul Rosdy Filmproduktion, takes a road-less-traveled approach to the history of Central Europe, as influenced by the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1896 to 1918). Blending archival film and images with footage of ordinary life today in the patch-quilt realm of the Hapsburgs, Century looks at the ties that bind these multicultural communities and still govern social interaction 100 years later.

WDR’s Gabriel Heim, chief of programming for the German pubcaster, noted that the film comes at a key time in European history, given the eastward spread of organizations such as the European Union and NATO. Nick Fraser, who commissions for the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ slot, agreed, but pointed out that the film faces a challenge with Western audiences, since few people know much about the Austro-Hungarian period.

Marie Natanson, the executive producer of independent docs at Canadian pubcaster CBC, said the pitch’s five-minute clip contained great images, but said the doc would be difficult for her to place. Christiane Philippe, who commissions for Belgium pubcaster RTBF’s ‘Carré Noir’ slot, expressed concern about the focus of such a wide-sweeping narrative.

Billed at 470,000 euros ($481,000), Century is backed by Film Fund Vienna and the Austrian Film Institute, and is set to wrap in the fall.


Money makes the world go ’round

Dr. Georgi Lulchev is an unstoppable optimist, but his luck and business skills leave much to be desired. In Georgi and the Butterflies, Sofia, Bulgaria-based prodco Agitprop illustrates these basic truths about Lulchev by following his tragicomic attempts to improve the conditions in the Bulgarian mental institution that he runs. Lulchev’s hapless money- making schemes – ranging from raising ostriches and beavers to growing soybeans – have each been stymied by timing (such as the U.K.’s mad-cow outbreak that crushed the market for meat) or poor planning.

Budgeted at 94,000 euros ($96,000) the 52-minute film shows how tough life has been in Bulgaria since the end of the Soviet Union, in particular for Lulchev’s patients, who depend on the doctor for their every need.

Iikka Vehkalahti, who commissions docs for Finnish pubcaster YLE TV2, said Lulchev’s ambition is refreshingly philanthropic. Mette Hoffmann Meyer, commissioning editor and head of sales and coproductions (docs and factual programming) for TV 2 Denmark, was keen to see what writer/director Andrey Paounov (Lucy Tsak Tsak) had already filmed. Göran Ellung, head of the current affairs department at Sweden’s TV4, found the story compelling and said he wanted to find out how it ends. Channel 4 head of docs Peter Dale then threw down the gauntlet and pledged 10,000 euros ($11,000) to the film if anyone else would, a dare that brought a few commitments – from Carlton Productions’ Princeton, U.S.-based executive VP John Lindsay, for one – and much applause. Georgi needed 60,000 euros ($61,000) and will wrap in October 2003.


Let me tell you about my family

Dumisani Phakathi was born in Soweto, South Africa, in 1975 to Sbongile and Jabu Phakathi. Within a few years he was joined by a brother and a sister, but then his father disappeared. In Don’t Fuck With Me…I Have 52 Brothers and Sisters, Phakathi traces how he learned of his father’s extraordinary life in apartheid-era South Africa, which included siring 53 children (Phakathi was his mother’s first child, but the ninth for his father, who died in 1996).

Produced by Dominant 7 of Paris, France, the 60-minute, 120,000-euro ($123,000) doc probes Phakathi’s complex family history through interviews with the director’s siblings. The process illuminates the dawning of the mass political movement that would eventually topple white rule in the country.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation is backing the film, which was seeking a further 90,000 euros ($92,000) and will finish production in the fall.

The BBC’s Fraser got the discussion going. ‘I won’t fuck with Dumisani,’ he said wryly, adding, ‘The BBC very much looks forward to seeing this film.’ Bill Nemtin, head of operations forLark International (a consortium of six pbs stations in the U.S.), said he could see Don’t Fuck With Me airing on PBS’s ‘Wide Angle’ slot.

Vehkalahti of YLE TV2 noted that the story’s scope and implications prevent it from being a ‘therapy film’, in which a doc-maker tries to address family issues with brutal frankness – and often fails terribly.

Investigating Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s most powerful countries, but is also among the most puzzling to outsiders. The kingdom’s royal family, the Sauds, enforce a code of law based on ancient Bedouin tribal customs, but personally indulge in the most expensive lifestyle money can buy. Saudi Arabia is closely allied to the U.S., and yet was the birthplace of a majority of the September 11 attackers.

In House of Saud, Paris-based prodco Alegria promises to give a revealing picture of the rulers of the enigmatic country. The story will progress along basic chronological lines, but will focus on key topics such as the advantages and disadvantages of being an oil superpower.

The BBC’s Fraser liked the pitch, but said the doc will be more effective if it shows the Saud royal family shopping and running everyday errands. Gudrun Hanke-El Ghombi, who commissions for the ‘Dokumentarfilm One’ strand at SWR in Germany, wondered what the shooting will be like, given Saudi Arabia’s lack of press freedom.

TV 2 Denmark’s Meyer acknowledged the lack of understanding of the politically influential Sauds, but, echoing Fraser, said the doc needs to be as ‘commercial’ as possible. Natanson at the CBC sat on the fence, saying her participation would depend on the focus and what the access to the family itself is like. Hugues le Paige, who commissions several slots for Belgium’s RTBF, expressed doubts about the production timeline (less than six months), but was reassured by Alegria.

House of Saud will be available in July 2003 in 60 and 80-minute lengths and is backed by ARTE France. The project, budgeted at 500,000 euros ($512,000), was seeking 120,000 euros ($123,000) at the forum.


Behind every great man…

Many people know that New York’s famous Guggenheim Museum is named after noted arts patron Solomon R. Guggenheim, and many know architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the landmark. But, few people today know the story of Baroness Hilla von Rebay, the woman whose life is central to the history of the building and its permanent collection.

Von Rebay, a German painter, was caught in a complex web of love and ambition during the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s. She painted a portrait of Guggenheim after meeting him in 1928. During his sittings they grew close; she convinced him to buy modern art and that she should curate the collection. In 1936 the Museum of Non-Objective Paintings (as the collection was first known) was opened in New York. Seven years later Guggenheim commissioned von Rebay to build a permanent home for it. She wrote to Wright, and together they started planning. Their relationship too would become intimate. My Dear Hilla: The Baroness Behind the Guggenheim is a one-hour 283,000-euro ($290,000) biography, produced by Freiburg, Germany-based White Pepper Productions.

Sabine Bubeck-Paaz, a commissioning editor for European broadcaster ZDF/ARTE, said the treatment appears to do von Rebay’s story justice. Rudy Buttignol, Toronto, Canada-based TV Ontario’s head of docs, drama and network, said his initial doubts were allayed, and asked to discuss the project further with White Pepper. Cindy Witten, the VP of original productions at Canada’s History Television, said she is interested if Buttignol backs out.

The film is set to launch with a screening at the Guggenheim in early 2004 in connection with an exhibition on von Rebay. It is backed by Dutch pubcaster AVRO. A tie-in book by the doc’s director, Sigrid Faltin, is also in the works.

Crisis of leadership

Slaves of the Sword is a 3 x 52-minute examination by Berlin, Germany-based First Hand Films and director Paul Jenkins (Cry from the Grave) of why ex-generals often win Israeli elections. Moshe Dayan, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon all donned statesmen suits after honing their leadership skills in battle fatigues. But, when do they stop being generals and start being civilian politicians? Can there ever be peace in the Middle East as long as soldiers lead the region? Slaves of the Sword explores these questions.

Lisa Heller, VP of original documentary programming for HBO, noted the series is a departure from the usual political portraiture, but decided nonetheless to wait to get involved. Nemtin of Lark International said the doc could work in the U.S., if it ran in major markets with large Jewish audiences. TVO’s Buttignol thought the premise strayed too close to current events to work in many history slots, noting how Sharon remains in the headlines. He said, however, that First Hand (producers of Yulie Gerstel’s My Terrorist) has ‘a great team,’ adding, ‘I’m sure they will prove me wrong.’

Backed by the BBC, ARTE G.E.I.E. and Israel’s Channel 8, Slaves is budgeted at 847,000 euros ($867,000) and is set to wrap in September.


Marriage, fundamentalist style

In Israel, marriages are governed by the rabbinate (orthodox Jewish religious courts following rabbinical law). As such, Western-style divorce is not an option; only husbands can determine whether a marriage is to legally end. The result? Thousands of women in the country wind up separated from their husbands, but are forbidden to be involved with other men.

Michal is one such women. She has been fighting for a divorce for 10 years, and although the court knows she was emotionally and physically abused by her husband, it will do little to help her. One of her attorneys, Susan Weiss, is the founder of Women’s Aid, a legal office in Jerusalem that is trying to improve the lot of women facing the same situation as Michal.

Amythos Films of Tel Aviv, Israel, was given total access to Women’s Aid and its cases to make Sentenced to Marriage, a one-hour doc to be released in November 2004. Budgeted at 170,000 euros ($174,000) and backed by Israel’s Channel 8, Amythos bills the film as a courtroom drama.

Annet Betsalel, who commissions docs for a Jewish cultural slot at Dutch broadcaster NIKmedia, pointed out the similarities to women’s rights issues in Islamic countries, and asked about the film’s cinematography. Tore Tomter, head of docs at Norway’s NRK, found the take on the fundamental laws intriguing, and expected the film to turn out well. Heller at HBO was keen to know more about it, noting courtroom access was key to making the story compelling. CBC Newsworld’s doc commissioner Catherine Olsen said she is a ‘great admirer’ of director Anat Zuria (Purity), and wants to be a part of the project.

The Netherlands

How do you say ‘stop or I’ll shoot’?

To make Peacemakers in Culture Clash, Amsterdam’s Big River Pictures secured unfettered access to a Dutch paratrooper unit in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The soldiers, whose assignment is to maintain civil order, are fit, keen and, most of all, young. Their experience with violence has been limited, whereas the Afghans they usher out of the way with a sweep of their rifles have known little else for more than 20 years. A mis- communication could be deadly. Peacekeepers aims to detail the challenges of these UN missions.

Budgeted at 475,000 euros ($486,000), the high-definition cinema verité documentary will be cut in two lengths (55 and 85 minutes), and has the backing of Holland’s broadcasting association ncrv and the Dutch Film Fund. The release date is October and as of the forum, Big River needed about 110,000 euros ($113,000).

Björn Arvas, a producer at SVT in Sweden, said he finds ‘watching these people trying to keep the peace’ fascinating, but questioned the high budget (many shooting days was the reason). Andrew Golding, general manager of Australia’s SBS Television Europe unit, queried how much screen time would be given to other un forces, such as Aussies and New Zealanders. Olaf Grunert at ZDF/ARTE believed the premise was good and that strong stories would emerge, but felt the running time (85 minutes) was too long.The BBC’s Fraser said Peacekeepers should be wary of becoming an ‘informational’ film, and that a story driven by the soldiers and their relationships would be most popular with viewers.


Unraveling the military industrial complex

In his final speech in 1961, then-U.S. president Dwight Eisenhower coined the phrase ‘military industrial complex’ and cautioned against ‘a permanent arms industry of vast proportions’ that would have ‘unwarranted influence’ over America. Forty years after his warning, the U.S. is the sole superpower, and the forces behind the U.S. war machine exhibit incredible control over everyone, regardless of nationality. This is the premise behind Why We Fight, the 600,000-euro ($614,000) follow-up to New York, U.S.-based prodco Think Tank’s acclaimed doc The Trials of Henry Kissinger.

By blending scenes from Hollywood war films, government propaganda and historical footage, Why We Fight investigates the degree to which the public agenda in the U.S. has been shaped – some would say controlled – by arms manufacturers and the Pentagon.

Commissioning editor Dasha Ross of ABC in Australia noted the impressive track record of The Trials of Henry Kissinger and said she is on board. YLE TV2′s Vehkalahti said the issue of why the U.S. arms complex remained so large even after the fall of the Soviet Union (and before the attacks of 2001) is an unexplained question. He said he is interested in joining the project too. Sundance’s Weyermann pledged to get involved if possible. The CBC’s Natanson said it would be ‘a great fit’ for her channel. The BBC has invested 80,000 euros ($82,000) in the documentary.

Rio Round-up

By Kimberley Brown

Brasil Documenta, a doc event held in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, from November 4 to 8, 2002, wrapped with a round of program pitches. A total of 10 docs were presented, each with seven minutes to pitch and five minutes for questions from the commissioning editors present. Here’s a sampling of the films-in-progress:

Visitors to the Amazon needn’t worry about running out of their favorite face cream in the middle of nowhere. About 5,000 women earn a living selling cosmetics to the people who live in the mining settlements throughout the forest. Vanity, a 52-minute film by Fabiano Maciel, will explore the concept of beauty by focusing on the work of these women. The film carries a total budget of about US$42,000.

Maria Pidner, of Brazilian pubcaster TV Cultura, revealed that she had seen a short version of the film and invited Maciel to speak with her after the pitch. Letícia Muhana, general director of Brazil pay-TV channel GNT/Globosat, was confused, however, about whether the focus of the film is the women or the subject of vanity.

In the $41,500 doc Sons of God, filmmakers Felipe Briso, Gilberto Topczwski and Pedro Amorim follow several of the stars from director Fernando Meirelles’s film City of God (Brazil’s 2002 Oscar submission for best foreign language film) to see how the film affected their lives. Many of the actors were chosen from Rio’s poor communities, their film roles imitating real life.

The directors plan to shoot for two more years, which puzzled most of the commissioning editors. Stephen Segaller, director of news and public affairs programming for Thirteen/WNET, pbs’s New York, U.S. outlet, noted that the stories appear mature enough to wrap. Ernesto Velázquez Briseño, of Mexico’s Canal22, agreed, saying he would be interested in the film if it was available sooner. The BBC’s Nick Fraser also expressed interest in the film, especially if City of God is nominated for an Oscar.

In 1980, the Serra Pelada mine in the heart of the Amazon attracted more than 100,000 people with the promise of gold. Today, Serra Pelada is a bare crater, but its past encompasses military revolts, land distribution issues and environmental disaster. The Naked Mountain, a 52-minute film from director Victor Lopes, will trace the history of the mine to reveal how its causes and consequences provide a global under- standing of Brazilian society. The budget is about $96,000.

Christoph Jörg, a ‘Thema’ commissioning editor at ARTE France, said the story would be complicated to tell to a European audience unfamiliar with Brazil’s history, but thought the idea had the elements of a great film.

A commissioning editor from Globo in Brazil all but committed to the project, noting it showed ‘the misery of life in the Amazon.’

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