International Stories inspire Canada’s Sundance Docs

Nigeria and Mississippi are the locales for Canada's feature docs at Sundance 2009. Marc Glassman talks to Ben Addelman, Samir Mallal and Paul Saltzman about their projects that will screen in Park City.
December 8, 2008

Prom Night in Mississippi and Nollywood Babylon were produced in utterly different ways by filmmakers whose interests and experiences could hardly be more divergent. Yet the two Canadian films have made the grade and are among the 16 docs chosen out of over 700 submissions to be screened this January in The World Cinema Documentary section of the Sundance Film Festival.

For veteran director Paul Saltzman, Prom Night in Mississippi represents a surprising return to his former métier, which he abandoned nearly twenty years ago. Wholly self-financed, Saltzman’s doc started as an intimate journey back to the deep South, where he worked as a civil rights worker in 1965.

That film was temporarily shelved when the opportunity came up to document the first integrated high school prom in Charleston, Mississippi, where Oscar winner Morgan Freeman spent his early childhood. Saltzman, who is working with Freeman on both films, asked the distinguished actor to finance the historic formal dance, which ‘gives voice to kids and allows us to see them in the throes of examining their lives, beliefs and prejudices.’

For Saltzman, Prom Night in Mississippi is already successful because the event ‘has changed the town.’ A classic documentarian, with a belief in social change, Saltzman is pleased to quote one of his main subjects, an African-American ‘A’ student named Chasidy, who says that since the dance, ‘the white kids are talking to us more.’

Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal, the directors of Nollywood Babylon, weren’t even born when Saltzman first went down to Mississippi as a youthful idealistic Canadian. Their film, like previous successes Bombay Calling and Discordia, bears the imprimatur of the NFB and is co-produced by the Board’s Adam Symansky. The budget for Nollywood Babylon is $499,000, according to Mallal, who along with his producing and directing partner Addelman, persuaded Michael Burns (My Winnipeg), then head of the Documentary Channel, to aid in the financing of the project.

Despite their dissimilar production stories, both Saltzman’s film and Nollywood Babylon came out of personal interests. In the case of Nollywood Babylon, the young directors became fascinated by Nigeria’s booming film industry when they saw a screening at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal in 2005. ‘The aesthetics and story-telling got to us,’ recalls Addelman, ‘and so did the fact that it was so popular in Nigeria and all over Africa. Literally thousands are being made.’

Sundance will be important market for both films. All territories are open for Prom Night in Mississippi while Nollywood Babylon has only assigned a Canadian first TV window to Documentary! and the North American rights to the NFB. The Sundance Film Festival runs from January 15-25, 2009 in Park City, Utah.

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