IDFA 2011: The complete Forum report, part one

Strong pitches for new projects from Thomas Balmes (Babies) and Alexander Nanau (The World According to Ion B) kicked of the 19th edition of the IDFA Forum in Amsterdam this week. Realscreen will present full coverage of all 21 pitches, beginning with this first report from the fest.
November 23, 2011

Why are the Forum events – the Hot Docs Forum in the spring and the IDFA Forum in the fall – so important?

For a start, they offer a rare glimpse behind the curtain to see ‘how the sausages are made,’ so to speak, presenting a direct insight into the thought processes of some of the sector’s best filmmakers and brightest newcomers.

Secondly, they offer a look at commissioning editors’ current tastes and budgetary situations – there can be a great worth in knowing what these funders are on the hunt for, as well as what they are not interested in.

Finally, the Forums can offer an advance look at some of the big doc hits of the future. Consider this: previous instalments of the IDFA Forum have seen pitches for Michael Collins’s Give Up Tomorrow, Liz Garbus’s Bobby Fischer Against the World, Steve James’s The Interrupters and Victor Kossakovsky’s ¡Vivan las Antipodas!

Here, realscreen kicks off the first of three instalments giving complete coverage of all 21 projects presented this week at the IDFA Forum’s Central Pitch in the Compagnietheater in Amsterdam, during the 2011 International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

In addition to offering an overview of the projects, we present details on the funding being sought by producers and, of course, the all-important commissioner reactions to the pitches.

And if that’s not enough reading for you, you can also check out the projects which were last week tipped by IDFA Forum head Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, and check out realscreen‘s comprehensive report on May’s Hot Docs Forum (parts one, two and three) for a recap on how the North American equivalent of the IDFA Forum went earlier this year.

Director/producer: Thomas Balmès

Budget already in place: €135,000 (BBC ‘Storyville’). Still needed: €630,000

The first pitch of the 2011 IDFA Forum came courtesy of Thomas Balmès, the director of box office hit Babies, with backing and money from the BBC’s ‘Storyville’ strand.

The project focuses on an eight-year-old boy living in Laya, a village 4,000 meters high in the middle of the Himalayas, which forms part of Bhutan, the last nation on earth to get television. In 2012, the 900-population village will finally gain electricity and television.

“After finishing Babies, which took five years of my life, I was wondering what to do with my life,” Balmès explained. “In Bhutan, I was very lucky to find this village and this boy, who has never left the village. The film will really be connected to everything he’s going to go through in the next 12 months.”

Following an impressive trailer, Christilla Huillard-Kann, who oversees cultural programming at ARTE France, chimed in first, saying that she was “really fascinated” by the project. “It’s a good thing to do a coproduction with the BBC and I’m sure it will be accepted by ARTE,” she added.

YLE’s head of coproduction Erkki Astala was also positive, telling the room that “the great thing about anthropological films by filmmakers like Thomas is that eventually they will tell us about ourselves,” and the project was welcomed by POV exec director Simon Kilmurry, who said that it looks promising. “Very complicated and serious issues told with some humour are always welcome,” he added.

However, not everyone saw humor in the film. For VPRO’s commissioning editor for documentaries Barbara Truyen, the prospect of the village’s simple, rustic existence being upended by the arrival of the Internet and television was a depressing thought. “I think it’s a very sad trailer, to be honest,” she offered.

Execs from CBC, NHK, RAI and ITVS also paid praise to the project, making for an overall strong pitch, and Balmès said he would be looking to deliver the film at the end of next year.

“I’m interested in transition,” the director said, “and there’s nothing in the world that can change people’s way of living more than television.”

Director: Alexander Nanau. Production company: Strada Film

Budget in place: €61,000 (Policy Center for Roma and Minorities). Still needed: €101,000.

The second project of the day came from Romanian director Alexander Nanau, who shot to fame last year after his documentary The World According to Ion B won an International Emmy Award for best arts programming.

His latest effort is set in a ghetto in Bucharest and follows a nine-year-old Roma boy called Totone who, with his two sisters and a mother in jail, struggles to get by while living in extreme poverty. Life takes a turn for the better, however, when he enrolls in an alternative educational club in the neighborhood school, where he quickly learns to read, write and dance.

Judging from the trailer, which featured shots of young girls injecting syringes into their arms, the project looked very dark. “The area they’re coming from, nobody dares to go to,” Nanau told the commissioners. “We were lucky to get the protection of the drug lords for as long as we need to tell our story. Normally journalists arrive in cars, shoot very quickly and then drive away.”

The team will shoot until April 2012, and around 60% to 70% of filming is complete. Acclaimed composer Hans Zimmer (Inception, The Lion King, The Dark Knight) is onboard to score the doc.

TVO commissioning editor Jane Jankovic was among the first to praise the project, but enquired about the structure the film would take. Nanau said it would be “quite linear, starting with archive footage of the mother’s arrest,” which the team had secured.

Elsewhere, Bruni Burres, producer and senior consultant with the Sundance Institute, echoed other commissioners when she said the pitch was “a really strong presentation.” She added: “I greatly appreciated that there was no condescension” in the way the story was told, and said that the Open Society Foundations were interested in the project.

There was a question about the Policy Center for Roma and Minorities, which has invested heavily in the doc, and whether that organization would have any sway in the film; however, Nanau assured this would not be the case. “I’m the kind of director that will not make commercials for anyone,” he said.

Mother’s Wish (FKA Limits of Love)
Director: Joonas Berghäll. Producer: Timo Vierimaa.

Budget in place: €370,000 (Finnish Film Foundation, YLE). Still needed: €465,000.

The third pitch of the Forum’s first day was even darker than its predecessor. Featuring 18 protagonists, this human rights film looks at personal stories from women around the world, with each story featuring a mother as a central plot point. The heavy trailer shown to commissioners focused on one such story, featuring a Maasai girl who had been forced to undergo female circumcision.

Reacting to the pitch, POV’s Kilmurry first pointed out – as many commissioners went on to do – that he had greatly enjoyed Berghall’s previous film, Steam of Life, which he said had been “a surprise hit” on his network.

However, he added: “One of my concerns is that Steam of Life was focused on one country – 18 protagonists seems like a lot for something that’s coherent and tells a larger story.”

His concern was echoed by Tribeca Film Institute director of documentary programming Ryan Harrington, but when asked how he would keep the film from becoming too tangled, Berghall simply replied “trust.”

Backing the director up in his approach was Sundance’s Burres, who said she was “intrigued by [his] desire to have so many characters,” adding: “I think there is room for a different type of film and a different approach.”

Overall though, the sentiment was that the commissioners would need to see more to get a sense of how the project will be structured. “It doesn’t feel like Steam of Life at all to me,” said Murray Battle, director of independent production and presentation for British Columbia-based Knowledge Network. “It feels like a great leap of faith. It’s hard to figure out what the real theme is here.”

No Burqas Behind Bars
Director: Nima Sarvestani. Producer: Maryam Ebrahimi

Budget in place: €138,000 (SVT, NRK, Swedish Film Institute). Still needed: €333,000.

Nima Sarvestani’s No Burqas Behind Bars trumpets fantastic access to take viewers inside an Afghan women’s prison, providing a mixture of strong documentary genres – the prison access doc and the lesser-seen culture doc.

Through the trailer, we are introduced to imprisoned Afghan women who have been sentenced for a range of “moral crimes,” such as running away from their husbands (10 years) and cheating on their husbands (12 years).

Though the clip offered the occasional chuckle (such as a prison warden warning his guards that “it is much harder to deal with 40 female prisoners than 500 men,”) it was for the most part sombre and interesting. At times it seemed as though the prisoners had more freedom while locked up than they did at home with their husbands.

Producer Ebrahimi told commissioners the team had more than 90% of the material it needed, and 50% of the budget in place.

Claire Aguilar, VP of programming for ITVS, led the praise for the project, telling the table her fund had co-financed the last three films the production team had done and would be proudly coming in on this one. “It will be a really great learning experience to make this film,” she said. “It’s amazing material.”

Sundance’s Burres added that “it looks like it’s going to turn into a wonderful story,” and remarked that “there’s a freedom for these women being in this situation too.”

Also positive was Catherine Olsen, exec producer of documentaries for Canada’s CBC Newsworld, who said: “I was feeling some saturation with the subject of Afghanistan, but the women’s stories were really moving; I’d like to know on what terms the women are released.”

“I find this enormously compelling – we’re considering this,” added Tribeca’s Harrington. “I don’t see a lot of humor in it, but I do think it’s highly compelling.”

Rounding out the comments, RAI’s Lorenzo Hendel, ZDF/ARTE’s Martin Pieper and DR TV’s Mette Hoffmann Meyer all expressed interest in the project, making for an overall strong pitch. The latter said: “This is an amazing story – it’s about human rights, women’s rights, religion… it’s a very, very important film.”

Tea Time
Director: Maite Alberdi. Producer: Clara Taricco

Budget in place: €98,000 (CNCA Fondo Audiovisual, Jan Vrijman Fund, POV). Still needed: €72,000.

Maite Alberdi currently has a film playing at IDFA, The Lifeguard, and arriving onstage to present the fifth pitch of the Forum’s first day, offered what turned out to be one of the most charming and light-hearted projects of the event.

Having been tipped for realscreen last week by Forum head Adriek van Nieuwenhuyzen, the project looks at six women in Chile who have been meeting for afternoon tea once a month for 60 years. The trailer offered a wry portrait of the group, filled with plenty of humor, and was largely met positively by the commissioning table.

Presenting the project, POV’s Kilmurry said the film would be warm and intimate. “What Maite is able to do is capture these small gestures and moments that tell a lot more than the words themselves,” he explained, while the director added that she hoped the film would offer “a new vision of the elderly” on TV.

The BBC’s Fraser was among the positive responses, telling the team: “I thought it was very charming and we’ve got a meeting lined up,” while Tribeca’s Harrington enthused: “It’s like a Chilean Golden Girls – I love it!”

Elsewhere, YLE’s Jenny Westergard said she was looking forward to the project and had enjoyed The Lifeguard, which was full of wonderful “small moments;” and while ITVS’s Aguilar seemed to be a fan, she said: “I think because POV is involved we can’t participate.”

One question raised was how the film would sustain itself over the course of 52 minutes, with the director replying that the aim would be “to present the characters in a way that it seems to be taking place over one afternoon,” even though it had been shot over many different meetings.

Though the overall tone was positive, not everyone was won over. RAI’s Hendel was left lukewarm, while Gaspard Lamunière, commissioning editor for TSR Switzerland, said: “It’s a very good idea for a film but I’m wondering what you really want to say with these characters.”

 Stay tuned for parts two and three of realscreen‘s IDFA Forum report, publishing soon.

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