The 2015 Hot Docs Forum report, part one: “pleasure hospitals” and playing God

In the first installment of realscreen's annual three-part report on the Hot Docs Forum, we cover five of the 20 documentary projects being pitched during the two-day event. (Pictured: Tyler Measom pitching his doc on MTV, New Sensation)
April 30, 2015

In the first installment of realscreen’s annual three-part report on the Hot Docs Forum, which kicked off at Toronto’s Hart House on Wednesday (April 29), we cover a portion of the 20 documentary projects pitched during the two-day event. 

For the 16th annual Hot Docs Forum, 15 countries are represented in the 20 documentaries being pitched to a host of international commissioners, including representatives from such outlets as BBC ‘Storyville’, DR Danish Broadcasting Corporation, CNN Films, Al Jazeera Arabic and ZDF. The Toronto event – which falls almost six months ahead of its fall counterpart, the IDFA Forum in Amsterdam – sees teams of producers, filmmakers and backers take their seats at the head of the Hart House roundtable in the hopes of seeing their pitches lead to offers of funding.

Presented to an audience of observers, many of the films selected for the public pitches go on to have great success within the documentary circuit following their bows at Hot Docs and IDFA. Recent heavy-hitting Forum alumni include Angad Bhalla’s Herman’s House, which was pitched in 2010, as well as Forum 2012 alumnus Doug Block’s 112 Weddings and – most recently – John Maloof and Charlie Siskel’s Oscar-nominated Finding Vivian Maier, which was presented in Toronto in 2011.

Meanwhile, documentaries screening at this year’s Hot Docs that had their start at the Forum are Mor Loushey’s Censored Voices, Ryley Grunenwald’s The Shore Break and Violeta Ayala’s The Bolivian Case.

Elsewhere, some of the new faces at the round-table include Diego Bunuel of France’s CANAL +, who joined the Paris-based cable channel in November as head of documentaries, as well as Noland Walker, who was named senior content director at PBS funding arm Independent Television Service (ITVS) in September.

Realscreen is covering both days of the Hot Docs Forum and here presents the first part of its coverage of the event’s public pitches. Please note that coverage of one pitch, from Canadian filmmakers Attiya Khan and Lawrence Jackman for their domestic abuse film A Better Man, has been withheld due to concerns by producers and Forum organizers over the sensitive nature of the project.

Production Company: Inflatable Film, LLC (U.S.)
Directors: Leah Warshawski, Todd Soliday
Production budget: US$427,000
Still needed: $284,200

Kicking off the Forum was a documentary on “national treasure” and 89-year-old Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski, which the filmmakers insist is “not a ‘Holocaust film.’” A sizzle reel for the doc showed the Kansas City-based seamstress – who is also the grandmother of co-director Leah Warshawski – driving to her shop, John’s Tailoring, which is situated in a 1960s-era mega-mall. Big Sonia follows along as the elderly Warshawksi speaks publicly across the city about her experience during the war, and decides whether or not to open a new shop or retire before the time she turns 90.

“Within our lifetime, all the Holocaust survivors will be gone so we feel particular anxiety and push to finish this film as soon as we can while Sonia is still in good health,” said Warshawski while addressing the roundtable following the trailer, adding that 80% of the doc has already been filmed and that the team is looking for partners to complete it.

Leading the response from commissioners was Christopher White from PBS doc strand ‘POV’ who said Big Sonia was the type of film he’d be interested in, given that it’s a Midwestern story: “I love the backdrop of the American mall, which has gone through its own life cycle and is aging in the U.S.”

Similarly, Naomi Boxer of Canada’s TVO said the doc would be a good fit due to its themes of tolerance, social responsibility and the power of community, but was curious how the filmmakers would shape the film and sustain the story that unfolds. “In your text here you say this is ‘not a Holocaust film’ so I’m looking forward to seeing how you weave all the elements together, of her social outreach with her dramatic story.”

Jutta Krug of Germany’s ARD-WDR had questions about how the principal refers to her own past in the documentary, and also how Leah Warshawski will figure in the film as her granddaughter. Later, the co-director explained that she will play a “very small part” in the film as the focus will be on her grandmother.

Finally, Mette Hoffmann Meyer of DR Danish Broadcasting Corporation said she liked the idea of the story but didn’t find the trailer informative enough. “People are talking about Sonia but I don’t get an impression of Sonia,” said the commissioner. “Is she funny? Does she have a sense of humor? For me it’s important to see some footage of her.”

Production Companies: Harbour Line Films (India)
Production budget: $500,351
Still needed: $323,849

The feature profiles four people living in Mumbai, whose lives on the edges of society are meant to reflect a rapidly growing country where “dark undercurrents of lawlessness pervade across the entire social stratification.” Characters featured in Thief’s Bazaar include 76-year-old taxi driver Sammy, 15-year-old street youth Raju and 30-year-old escort Pinki.

The team is to return to India this fall to continue filming with Raju and Pinki.

Following some questions from POV’s White and Marie Nelson of PBS about what the story arc would look like, Nick Fraser - editor for BBC doc strand ‘Storyville’ – did not hold back in describing the film as “overly cinematic.”

“I feel like I’ve been watching films about people triumphing over extreme poverty in India for most of my life, but India is the country – apart from China – with the fastest process of transformation in the world, so I wonder why you choose these subjects who we’ve seen many, many times, who’ve come to represent India?” questioned Fraser.

Echoing Fraser’s sentiments, CANAL +’s Bunuel said you couldn’t watch the trailer without thinking of the narrative film Slumdog Millionaire, minus the “millionaire” part.

“I think this very dark vision of India is a way of seeing India through a very specific, narrow lens,” he said. “I feel like those stories have been told to a certain extent. It’s beautifully filmed but my question always is, ‘Is this something that will tell us something new about the country, about the society, about the history?’”

One commissioner who showed interest in the documentary was Bilaal Hoosein of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English, who said the film could work for the network – which he billed as “the voice of the voiceless” – but was curious how the various characters would fit into the doc.

Production Companies: Big World Cinema, Yoav Shamir Films (South Africa, Israel)
Director: Yoav Shamir
Production budget: $450,296
Still needed: $360,296

Checkpoint and Defamation director Yoav Shamir’s latest offering follows the story of French cult leader Rael, who leads the world’s biggest UFO religion. The doc traces his followers’ attempts to open a “pleasure hospital” in Burkina Faso that aids women with female genital mutilation (FGM) by conducting operations to restore their clitorises. The film is to highlight the broader picture of faith and modern religious colonization.

Beginning the feedback from commissioners was Michael Gries of Germany’s ZDF who said the film made him angry but also made him laugh. “It’s telling more than just a superficial story about aliens, and exploiting the situation…it’s also telling a story about the mechanisms of religion so therefore it’s a metaphor,” he said, adding that the film would be a fit for the broadcaster’s hour-long late night current affairs slot.

CANAL +’s Bunuel said he also found the story entertaining but questioned the role ascribed to Rael, and warned that the project shouldn’t merely be regarded as just a funny, cool doc, and that it was important for viewers to understand the risks involved with FGM. Elsehwere, PBS’s Nelson said the gap in the doc for her was one of tone and that the comedic elements made it challenging to understand what was driving the choices of these women to get the operations.

The BBC’s Fraser said he had a problem with linking the storyline about the UFOs with FGM. “It seems to be this very horrifying thing that you treat in this flip way in the trailer,” warned the commissioner. Similarly, DR’s Hoffmann Meyer said she generally liked films with a cult focus but echoed Fraser’s feeling that “FGM cannot be included in this.”

Defending the comedic elements in the film, Shamir said, “I think humor is a great tool to look at things,” and cited his film Defamation as an example of using humor in a constructive way.

Production Company: Left Turn Films (U.S.)
Directors: Tyler Measom, Patrick Waldrop
Production budget: $993,029
Still needed: $893,029

An Honest Liar director Tyler Measom (pictured above) and producer Patrick Waldrop’s documentary on the rise of MTV pairs archival footage with insider interviews to trace the birth, rise and cultural effects of what was then known as Music Television, asking questions such as how the cable net reached 168 countries and became an integral cultural contributor. Rather than showing a trailer for the doc, the team presented an interview-heavy clip rich in archival footage from the early days of MTV.

After some early interest from Linn Aronsen of Norway’s VGTV, Courney Sexton of CNN Films said the project is an “interesting parallel” for CNN, which had a similar rise to esteem in the U.S. as the beginning of cable news. The exec also touched on a point that would resonate throughout the session with other commissioners, who wanted to see more celebrities in the doc.

“We definitely want to see some of the famous faces from the music side, not just the execs,” said Sexton.

ITVS’ Walker commended the team on a strong pitch and great subject matter, but also warned that audiences won’t remember the executives interviewed in the doc and would need to see the celebrities MTV catered to. Meanwhile TVO’s Boxer said the doc could be a great fit for the Canadian broadcaster due to its focus on the revolution of a popular culture. “I’m curious to see how you will talk about how MTV actually changed the content that was produced, with the intersection of marketing of the celebrity and all the advertising that came in and how that changed the music industry and changed us.”

Speaking in support of Measom – who recently worked with The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ on a short that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival – the Gray Lady’s Jason Spingarn-Koff also questioned how interesting the doc will be for viewers beyond his generation, which “has a lot of nostalgia for MTV.”

Measom maintained that even millennials still watch MTV, only not the music-heavy incarnation discussed in the film.

Rounding out the comments was an astute point by ZDF’s Gries who warned the team not to be too promotional in the film since MTV is still going strong, albeit with a different programming slant. The commissioner also questioned where the criticism was in the documentary since the content shown had “all been so positive so far.”

Production Company: Bildersturm Filmproduktion GmbH (Germany)
Director: Karin Jurschick
Production budget: $520,000
Still needed: $228,000

Producer Birgit Schulz opened this strong pitch by recalling the recent German Sunwings plane crash in the French Alps, and asking the audience how they would put a dollar amount to value a victim’s life, and the problematic nature of such a task. This is the job of U.S. compensation specialist Ken Feinberg – the subject of Playing God - whose task it is to decide how much the families of 9/11 victims should be compensated. The trailer – which is comprised of footage from another film, on which the project is based – detailed Feinberg’s occupation, which involves formulas for calculating the value of a life by asking such things as how old the individual was and the amount of their annual income.

The thrust of the doc, however, comes from the inner conflicts experienced by Feinberg, who must bear the brunt of families unhappy with his decisions. In the trailer, one family member of a victim pointedly says, “That’s what bothers me, that someone else can decide what [my brother] was worth, and he can’t.”

CNN’s Sexton was quick in pointing out that the doc could be a good fit, but a lot would depend on the subjects the filmmaker would choose to interview, while TVO’s Jane Jankovic asked how much insight viewers will get on how Feinberg arrives at his dollar amounts. Elsewhere, MSNBC’s Scott Hooker said the protagonist was a “fascinating figure” but questioned the narrative arc of the film as well as the percentage of the doc focusing on 9/11. Schulz responded that the team is still researching the film, but is confident they will find other characters to integrate.

Elsewhere, showing immediate interest in Playing God was PBS’s Walker who said both the subject matter, filmic approach and central character were all appealing to the pubcaster, while Knowledge Network’s Murray Battle said they had “an audience that’s very ready” for this doc.

Rounding out the comments was the BBC’s Fraser who called the film a “great project,” adding that the only problem he had was the trailer, which he found “flat and boring.”

“It’s rather like a public broadcasting program,” he said. “You have to throw all that away and get much closer to him, because whenever he starts talking it’s totally fascinating. You need to squeeze everything out of him that’s interesting, and that’s a huge amount.”

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.