The 2015 Hot Docs Forum report, part two: narco-music and culture clash

In the second part of realscreen's comprehensive coverage, we present the remaining four projects from day one of the Hot Docs Forum (April 29). (Pictured: the Hart House roundtable)
May 1, 2015

In the second part of realscreen’s comprehensive coverage, we present the remaining four projects from day one (April 29) of the Hot Docs Forum, where a set of globally-focused docs ranged from culture clashes in an Egyptian luxury resort and the “narco-music” of the Honduras to the recordings of Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński and the consideration of urban space in global cities.

The first part of this report can be found here. Look for the third and final installment of our report on Monday (May 4).

Production Companies: Olancho Movie, LLC; Tercer Piso (U.S., Honduras)
Directors: Christopher Valdes, Theodore Griswold
Production budget: US$249,410
Still needed: $199,110

This project from directors Chris Valdes and Ted Griswold takes audiences inside the world of narco-music – songs about local drug cartels and their activities – in the Honduran city of Olancho, where the pair taught English in 2010. Olancho focuses on the members of a band called Los Plebes do Olancho, which is recognized by the townspeople as the best local group, though its members now keep a low profile. The doc – which follows the trajectories of two band members – explores the tribulations of these musicians, who can face death threats if their songs anger the gangs.

“Through the story of these two musical cousins, we will show the inherent violence that is normal in Honduran life, and you’ll feel the resilience of the people that survive a very corrupt world,” said Valdes.

The project is seeking close to $200,000 in completion and post-production funding. Olancho is being crowd-funded but also needs institutional support, as well as an executive producer to guide the project through fundraising efforts.

Showing immediate interest in the film was Noland Walker of PBS funding arm Independent Television Service (ITVS), who said the film would be a good fit for PBS doc strand ‘Independent Lens,’ as well as Marie Nelson of PBS, who applauded the filmmakers’ access.

Elsewhere, Claudia Rodriguez Valencia of Colombia’s RTVC – who says she is familiar with the narco-music culture – wanted to know more about the narrative structure and about the perspectives presented in the doc. Similarly, Nick Fraser - editor of BBC doc strand ‘Storyville’ – said he loved the footage but didn’t understand the story.

Finally, Bilaal Hoosein of the Qatar-based Al Jazeera English said he liked the use of music in the film, but said it needed more contextualization and thought the filmmakers needed to explain further where the doc takes the viewer as well as provide a “bigger, fuller picture.”

Production Company: Otter Films (Poland), Vezfilm (Poland, UK)
Director: Magdalena Szymków
Production budget: $329,203
Still needed: $78,203

Polish writer and reporter Ryszard Kapuściński is the subject of this found-footage portrait that plays out like a pastiche of images covering the journalist’s life. Based heavily on archival material from the 1960s until the present day, Reporter is guided by Kapuściński’s audio recordings, giving the film the feeling of a personal essay. Director Magdalena Szymków had the opportunity to work with the journalist for several years prior to his death in 2007, providing the film with a personal angle.

“Recently I discovered his voice recordings and I realized I had a treasure in my hands,” Szymków told the roundtable. “Thanks to this material, I could follow him from one place to another. I could hear him also struggling with the writing. I realized I could make a film that shows not only what’s behind the news but also what’s in the writings and explore the process.”

The BBC’s Fraser was quick to vouch his support of Kapuściński, assuring that “he’s a big deal among aging hacks like [himself],” but said the team was on the wrong track with the film.

“You have to take what you have and say, ‘How do we get people under 30 to watch something about Kapuściński?’” he said, later adding that the team will have to take the subject and sell it to people in the room “who’ve never read a word he wrote.”

Elsewhere, Michael Gries - commissioner for Germany’s ZDF – opined that the German audience would not understand the film, which he deemed “cryptic,” while Bruce Cowley of Canada’s CBC-owned Documentary channel suggested the team watch Hot Docs selection Listen to Me Marlon for an idea of how to navigate the audio recordings. Meanwhile, Christopher White - who is taking over PBS doc strand ‘POV’ as executive producer from the departing Simon Kilmurry - said the film would be a challenge for American audiences unfamiliar with the subject.

Production Companies: Monokel, Fig Leaf Studios (Germany, Egypt)
Directors: Marouan Omara, Johanna Domke
Production budget: $290,000
Still needed: $240,000

The Egyptian beach resort of Sharm El Sheikh is the setting for Marouan Omara’s poetic study of cultural conflict in a “paradisal destination.” The resort city is visited by both Egyptians and tourists, but while the former are there in search of jobs and livelihoods, the latter are looking for beaches, nightlife and adventure. According to the filmmaker, the young generation of Egyptians at Sharm El Sheikh – a handful of whom are to be followed in the film – is “in conflict” with Western culture: while some enjoy the independence afforded to them by the setting, others find the Western influence “exceeds their moral standards.”

Jenny Raskin of Impact Partners – a New York-based equity fund that supports social issue documentaries – said she found the tone of the film beautiful, but had questions about the planned shooting approach and inquired whether there were any scripted elements. Meanwhile, POV’s White said he liked the focus in terms of exploring the conflict of cultures through the eyes of young people, but would need to meet some of the characters in the film.

The project seemed to resonate in particular with NHK commissioner Akira Yoshizawa, who said he liked the focus on Sharm El Sheikh because it was a meeting place between Western and Eastern values.

“Japan is a bit distant from Western culture, so for a Japanese audience, seeing the meeting or conflict between your own culture and Western culture is very interesting,” said Yoshizawa, adding that he’s waiting to see the development of characters.

The BBC’s Fraser said he wasn’t sure about the tone of the doc but what he found most compelling were the lives of the characters at the resort.

“I would go back and – maybe it’s the wrong advice – build the whole thing around the lives of the characters and make that the center of the story,” Fraser advised. “The conflicted nature and the trouble they have with the West in Islam – that’s really what I think the film should be about.”

Elsewhere, Rawan Damen from Al Jazeera Arabic said she connected with the material since she came from the same region, but was wondering where the contradictions were with the Egyptians at the resort.

“There are a lot of Arab tourists who have Arab culture, so I think since you said it’s a mosaic, I’d like to know more about how the mosaic [develops],” said the commissioner.

Production Company: Twofold Films Inc. (Canada)
Directors: Michael Bernard, Gavin Froome
Production budget: $381,000
Still needed: $254,040

The team behind the 2012 documentary Coast Modern – which showcases the West Coast modernist architecture movement – is shifting its lens to focus on the effects of urban space on society. Titled Dense City, the doc is to look at various cities around the world and compare their methods and philosophies around urban design. According to a synopsis of the project, the film will evaluate the challenges of living in cities through a set of personal stories.

“Our last film examined the positive impact good architecture can have on people’s lives,” said co-director Gavin Froome. “In Dense City, we’re considering the same question on a much broader scale.”

Producer Leah Mallen said the previous film generated a large online fan base, which the team believes will follow them to this project. Distributor KinoSmith is representing the film in Canada, and the team is currently looking for international broadcasters.

Following the pitch, the Ford Foundation/Just Film’s Andrew Catauro said the organization had an initiative called ‘Just Cities’ which could be interested in hearing from the team, while Jason Spingarn-Koff – commissioner for The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ arm – said he knew from the reception to the outlet’s interactive doc The Short History of the Highrise that they had an audience for the topic.

“The subject interests me, but it does seem very vague,” said Spingarn-Koff, saying he viewed Dense City as a kind of essay but was still unclear. “I’m really interested in what the final form will take.”

Meanwhile, the BBC’s Fraser said, “In the end you [as a viewer] say, ‘Well, yes, I agree with that,’ but it doesn’t really have anything to do with the way I live in the city.”

“We’re interested in the tension,” explained co-director Michael Bernard, “in the gap between what’s intended by the urban designers and how people live on the ground.”

In other news, a closing reception yesterday (April 30) following the end of the Forum saw the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize for best Canadian pitch awarded to MC2 Communication Media’s Living with Giants, on the world of young Inuk Paulusie Kasudluak. The award – which is voted on by attending international buyers – comes with a CAD$10,000 (US$8,200) cash prize.

Meanwhile, the Cuban Hat Award was presented to Fine Point Films’ Searching for Mercury, which was pitched by Brendan Byrne, Trevor Birney and Andrew Reid. The award is decided through ballots collected from Hot Docs Forum observers and the cash prize is generated by passing the hat around during the event. Incidentally, Searching for Mercury was presented after Byrne’s business card was drawn for the Entertainment One “Mountie Hat” Pitch, which allows one Forum observer to pitch their own project if their name is selected from the hat.

This year’s prize amounted to CAD$1,950.94, as well as two 2016 Hot Docs All-Access Passes, observer passes to IDFA and RIDM, and consulting sessions with various industry experts.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.