The 2015 Hot Docs Forum Report, Pt. 3: Wiseman, punk and a proposition

In the third and final part of realscreen's comprehensive coverage, we present seven projects pitched on day two (April 30) of the Hot Docs Forum.
May 4, 2015

In the third and final part of realscreen’s comprehensive coverage, we present seven projects pitched on day two (April 30) of the Hot Docs Forum. The first part of this report can be found here, while the second is here.

Please note that 10 projects were pitched in total on day two, but the coverage of three pitches – Vaishali Sinha’s Ask the Sexpert, Josie Swantek’s Selling Our Daughters and Till Schauder’s When God Sleeps (working title) - has been withheld due to concerns by producers and Forum organizers over the sensitive nature of the projects.

Production Companies: Sagafilm, Nonami AB (Iceland, Sweden)
Director: Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdottir
Production budget: US$744,534
Still needed: $714,342

This experimental documentary covers the work and life of pioneering New York-based video artists Steina Vasulka and her partner Woody Vasulka. Covering a three-year period, The Vasulka Effect follows the couple as their work enjoys renewed interest from an international audience and they prepare for their final show at London’s Tate Modern in 2017, where they’re to deliver an avant-garde tech installation. The project is filmed in ob-doc style, interspersed with archival material from the Vasulka archive.

Noland Walker of PBS funding arm Independent Television Service (ITVS) said he had met with the team previously to discuss the structure of the film and was eager to see the execution of the relationship between the Vasulkas as they prepare for the Tate exhibition.

“In preparation for this exhibit, they’re trying to do something new, instead of rehashing the old, in the sense that they’re taking risks, and I think that’s potentially very strong,” said Walker.

Julie Anderson of New York PBS station WNET noted the film’s connection to early avant-garde artists in New York, which she hoped to see included in the film’s ultimate direction.

“It’s possible this is a good fit for ‘American Masters’ depending on where you go with it, and if it focuses more on their influence and early work,” she added.

Similarly, Showtime’s Robin Gurney encouraged the filmmakers to tap into the relevance of U.S. art culture in the film, and bring in more household names in a bid to make the content more accessible for audiences.

“I was also curious if you intend to tap into their relationship a little bit?” Gurney continued. “I tend to think of Cutie and the Boxer a little bit, and the emotional impact of the two of them and the romance.”

Elsewhere, Nick Fraser - commissioner for BBC doc strand ‘Storyville’ – said the film had a “richly comic effect,” while YLE’s Erkko Lyytinen said he also liked the characters and atmosphere, but asked how the filmmakers could spend $700,000 by “just observing two characters.”

“It takes time to travel with the elderly, but we’ll also be filming quite extensively over three years,” replied director Hrafnhildur Gunnarsdottir.

Production Companies: Antelope/Normal Life Pictures, THIRTEEN Productions, LLC (UK, U.S.)
Director: Hugo Berkeley
Production budget: $1,871,039
Still needed: $1,614,039

The latest entry from Hugo Berkeley - winner of a 2013 Peabody Award for Why Poverty? – Land Rush - tells the story of American jazz greats such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie and their work representing the U.S. in Europe during the Cold War. Many jazz musicians visited the USSR, Asia and Africa in a bid to celebrate American culture and change perceptions of what it was to be black in the U.S. The Jazz Ambassadors draws on performance archives and personal accounts of the tours, as well as dramatic reconstructions to tell the story.

Following a trailer, WNET’s Julie Anderson – who is a backer on the film – pointed out that the budget is set high because the music and archives are expensive. “The rest of the budget is really for PBS to create a large educational foundation,” said the exec, adding that the team recently received a $500,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Showing immediate interest in the film was ITVS’ Walker, who said he’d been in talks with Berkeley for a long time, as well as Michael Gries of Germany’s ZDF, who said the doc would be very relevant to the broadcaster’s history programs. Meanwhile, Jason Spingarn-Koff of The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ arm said he had recently commissioned a film on the contemporary resonance of the Black Panthers and wondered if Berkeley could leverage a short film that could be a companion to the feature doc.

Elsewhere, PBS’s Marie Nelson said she didn’t know some of the experts in the film, and encouraged the team to bring diversity into the project.

“I would challenge you to make sure you really have a diverse space of experts reporting throughout this,” said Nelson. “Also if there are just folks who can give it a little bit of contemporary verve – so, contemporary jazz musicians and others – I think that could be something that really makes this pop and feel relevant now.”


andrew catauro and frederick wiseman

Andrew Catauro and Frederick Wiseman

Production Company: Moulins Films, LLC (U.S.)
Director: Frederick Wiseman
Production budget: $747,871
Still needed: $557,871

Most Forum attendees would probably agree that documentarian Frederick Wiseman’s first-ever public pitch was among the highlights of the two-day event. Wiseman took his seat at the roundtable flanked by his long-time producer Karen Konicek and the Ford Foundation’s Andrew Catauro to present his 40th documentary feature, In Jackson Heights, which is a portrait of one of the most ethnically and culturally diverse communities in the U.S. The doc moves between the cultural, religious and social agencies and political institutions of Jackson Heights’ 36 city blocks, its small businesses, and the conversations among its residents.

Catauro, who introduced the film, said that the organization had previously invested $75,000 into the film, and would now match the investment with another $75,000. Konicek explained to the Forum audience that Wiseman shot 120 hours in summer 2014 and is now editing the film, which is in the rough-cut stage.

“I’m just briefly going to introduce the clip. It’s done in my usual MTV style,” said Wiseman, playing a three-minute clip from the film, which had a big-band version of Katy Perry’s “Roar” playing in the background.

“The final film will be one of my shorter films at three hours,” he joked, adding that the doc was the third in a series about communities, preceded by docs on Belfast, Maine, and Aspen, Colorado. “I chose to do Jackson Heights because it is the most densely multicultural and multiracial community in the world…the people in Jackson Heights are the new immigrant faces of America.”

Following Wiseman’s presentation, PBS’s Nelson thanked the documentarian and asked, “Do you see a place in this film for an exploration of the ways in which co-existence really is a challenge in this particular community, because as important as the dailiness of the images in the trailer, I think there’s another side I’d love to see explored more.”

“I think you see that just by seeing what’s going on on a daily basis,” said Wiseman. “Nobody talks specifically about that, but you see people shopping, going to meetings, participating in discussion groups. People of all races and ethnicities.”

Later on, the BBC’s Fraser joked that there’s a problem within the pubcaster called “Wiseman 22,” in which he is not able to coproduce or enter films unless he’s able to cut them if the BBC requires editing, which Wiseman does not allow.

“What I would like to do is to see a rough cut, and build around it a ‘seasonette’ of very long Fred Wiseman films that will appeal to the British audience,” said Fraser.

Finally, Mette Hoffmann Meyer of DR Danish Broadcasting Corporation suggested Wiseman should “think about making a 90-minute [film] so it can be shown in primetime in all these European countries. Because otherwise there’s little audience. Your films are wonderful but very few see them because they’re so long. Maybe you can do a 2 x 90-minute?”

In response, Wiseman said there’s a certain paradox involved.

“One of the reasons people like my films is because they’re complex explorations of complicated subjects, and I try not to simplify them in the service of having some fantasy of reaching a larger audience,” he told the roundtable, to applause from the audience.

“My first obligation is to the people who gave me permission to make the film, to represent their experiences as accurately as possible. And sometimes, because of the nature of the subjects, it takes a while.”

Production Company: MC2 Communication Media (Canada)
Directors: Sébastien Rist, Aude Leroux-Lévesque
Production budget: $304,296
Still needed: $146,645

Paulusie Kasudluak – a young Inuk living in the small Canadian Inuit community of Inukjuak – is the center of this documentary that follows his transition into adulthood. Occupying many roles, including hunter, son and boyfriend, Kasudluak tries to balance his duties, but gets in trouble with the law when he assaults someone with a knife and is imprisoned. Living with Giants - which later picked up the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize for best Canadian pitch – follows the tragic repercussions of Kasudluak’s imprisonment.

The team told the Forum audience that 90% of the shooting is done, and editing will begin this summer. Half the financing is also secured.

Kicking off the feedback was Chris White, the newly appointed executive producer of PBS doc strand ‘POV,’ who said they had a similar doc called Arctic Sun. White said he liked the intimacy of the project, but had questions about the structure and how the team would handle the tragic events and shift their focus accordingly.

Elsewhere, Kristin Feeley of the Sundance Institute invited the filmmakers to apply for support during the editing process, while Jutta Krug of ARD-WDR said she liked the script and visuals, adding that when she read the written treatment for the film, she thought it was a narrative feature.

“I thought, how could this come together, where it’s a coming-of-age story that has turned tragic? That’s how you construct a fiction film, so I think it’s really strong and allows us to get to know a world we’re not familiar with at all,” she said.

Lastly, DR’s Hoffmann Meyer commended the scale and beauty of the doc, adding that she’d be interested in including the film for the Why Foundation’s ‘World Stories’ strand, which curates 20 documentary films per year for under-served audiences around the world.

Production company: Fine Point Films (Ireland)
Director: Trevor Birney

Searching for Mercury follows a group of women astronauts known as the “Mercury 13,” who were trained to go into space as part of a privately funded program but never given the chance. The doc arrived at the roundtable after producer Brendan Byrne’s business card was drawn for the Mountie Hat Pitch on Tuesday (April 29).

Director Trevor Birney kicked off the pitch by saying the doc was a story of unfulfilled dreams, told through the lens of protagonist Wally Funk. “There were 13 women who joined the Mercury program. There are only five left today. In this film, we will tell those five women’s stories.”

The film consists of five spinal interviews as well as archival material such as NASA footage, news broadcasts and personal photographs and Super 8 film.

Leading the comments from commissioners was PBS’s Nelson, who said she’d like to see some conversation between these women and other women who did make it into space. Elsewhere, Jill Burkhart of EPIX said she had met with the team previously and liked the fact that it was a relatively unknown story, as well as its focus on gender inequality.

Throwing its support behind Searching for Mercury was Marita Hubinger of ZDF/ARTE, who said she “fell in love” with Funk, and would put the team in touch with her colleagues. “I think we’ll find a way in for Wally on ARTE, I’m sure,” she said.

Following the closing of the Forum later that day, Searching for Mercury picked up the Cuban Hat Award for the Forum’s best pitch, as selected by the observers.

Production Companies: Mouka Filmi, Indie Film As (Finland, Norway), Auto Images, Film i Skåne (Finland, Norway, Sweden)
Directors: Jukka Kärkkäinen, J-P Passi
Production budget: $639,717
Still needed: $367,606

The sequel to the 2012 documentary The Punk Syndrome follows the punk rock band Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät – which is comprised of mentally disabled adults – as the band gets ready for the retirement of its leader Pertti Kurikka. The band, which began as a workshop for people with disabilities, has reached celebrity status in Finland and in February won the Finnish qualifications for the annual Eurovision song contest. Post-Punk Disorder follows the band as they come to terms with Pertti’s decision to retire and the conflicts between members.

POV’s White was quick to note that, judging by the trailer, it didn’t seem audiences will need to have seen the first film to understand Post-Punk Disorder, while PBS’s Nelson said she saw a lot of potential in the doc.

“For me, one of the challenges we have is continuing to expand what we’re doing in terms of arts films,” said Nelson. “We’re looking specifically for more content in the music arena. Things that are able to fuse some of the back-story that you combined here with music will be increasingly important to some of my colleagues, so this is one of the ones I’d want to flag.”

Elsewhere, ARTE’s Philippe Muller said the doc could find a place on the broadcaster’s arts schedule, but said he was surprised by the proposed delivery date of March 1, 2017, and asked if it couldn’t be completed faster. The team responded that it was important for them to include Pertti’s retirement in December 2016, which is why they’d chosen that particular date.

Further commenting on the timeline was the BBC’s Nick Fraser who said the team couldn’t afford such hold-backs.

“Every broadcaster will want a show around the Eurovision Song Contest so if you want broadcaster money you have to take that into account,” he said, adding that the team should consider ending the film not at Pertti’s retirement, but at their experience at Eurovision.

Production Companies: Friendly People, Le Boxeur Films (India, Netherlands)
Directors: Khushboo Ranka, Vinay Shukla
Production budget: $448,506
Still needed: $253,143

Drawing on recent social movements such as the Middle East’s Arab Spring and North America’s Occupy protests, the team behind Proposition for a Revolution gave a strong pitch for its film about India’s anti-corruption movement, which saw the birth of a political party formed by protesters. The film follows the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP, Common Man’s Party) from its creation in 2012 to its first election in December 2013. Billed as a “political thriller,” the doc finds the party’s underdogs Arvind Kejriwal and Yogendra Yadav going up against India’s political heavyweights with dramatic setbacks.

“This is also a story that resonates with universal concerns about democracy,” co-director Vinay Shukla told the roundtable. “Like the Syriza in Greece or when Obama was elected in the U.S., they too are trying to navigate the tension between hope and pragmatism, between idealism and politics.”

The team has raised over 50% of its budget and recently won the IDFA Bertha Coproduction Fund with Dutch coproducer KeyDocs.

Showing interest in the documentary was Knowledge Network’s Murray Battle, who said the film might be a good fit for the net’s ‘East is East’ strand, while the BBC’s Fraser also said it would work for ‘Storyville.’

“It’s really good what you have. The title is a trifle wordy, and I also think you have to get this film finished quickly,” said Fraser, adding that Proposition could also be a possibility for the Why Foundation’s ‘World Stories’ strand.

Meanwhile, Michael Gries of ZDF said the trailer seemed to take a “wide angle” approach, but wanted to know if the doc would discuss what it feels like getting into politics, in a bid to be more universal for audiences.

“Because you’re talking about something that’s happening in Spain, too, and in many countries in the Arab Spring, that would need another perspective – how do those people behave, what is a reflective movement that everybody is [experiencing]?” he said.

Elsewhere, Bilaal Hoosein of Al Jazeera English said the project was fascinating, and had excellent behind-the-scenes access, but would need to be finished quickly.

“Is much of the film devoted to post- or pre-election?” questioned the commissioner. “If the whole thing is rooted in current affairs, this film obviously needs to get out as soon as possible so it has a shelf life and we can show it at least a year down the line.”

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.