CIFF ’15: Report from the Points North Pitch

The Camden International Film Festival's Points North Pitch found six filmmakers and teams presenting projects to commissioners and funding execs from outlets such as HBO, CNN Films and the Sundance Institute. Realscreen provides a report of select presentations.
September 22, 2015

The Camden International Film Festival’s Points North Pitch delivered a high level of quality across all featured projects that delegates are coming to expect of the Maine event - an increasingly important pit-stop in the fall documentary circuit.

The festival, which ran from September 17 to September 20, held three days of industry sessions as part of the seventh annual Points North Documentary Forum, including masterclasses with Going Clear director Alex Gibney and Cutie and the Boxer editor David Teague, as well as panel discussions (“The New News: Documentary Journalism Showcase”) and case studies (“Storyforms: Living Los Sures”).

As in past years, the Points North Pitch – held on Saturday morning (September 19) – was one of the best-attended events of the festival, with delegates filling the Camden Opera House auditorium and prompting the venue to open its balcony to the pitch audience for the first time.

Among the gathered execs and commissioners, there were new faces such as Alexandra Johnes from Time Inc. who is helping to develop the company’s long-form division, as well as Charlotte Cook, the former Hot Docs programming director who is part of visual journalism unit Field of Vision alongside Citizenfour director Laura Poitras and Midterms filmmaker AJ Schnack.

The pitch saw six projects presented from the Points North fellows – a group of six filmmakers and teams developing feature-length projects with the help of CIFF and the festival’s partners. Following a reception on Saturday evening, it was revealed that Jeff Unay’s doc Greywater picked up the forum’s prize for best pitch.

Read on for realscreen’s coverage. Please note that coverage of two pitches, for the projects The Fourth Wall and Three Rising Towers, has been withheld due to the sensitive nature of the projects.

Directed by Carlye Rubin and Katie Green
Produced by Carlye Rubin, Katie Green and Tina Grapenthin

Carlye Rubin and Katie Green’s documentary looks at three families whose teenage sons were charged, convicted and sentenced to extensive prison terms. The filmmakers follow the families and the incarcerated youth to understand the effects of imprisonment at a young age. According to a synopsis provided by CIFF, “This documentary goes beyond being a polemic of the juvenile justice system to provoke thought about the controversial moral dilemmas surrounding guilt and accountability within society.”

Rubin and Green have shot 75% of the film and say they are editing as they go along. Of the US$450,000 total budget, about $100,000 has been raised and the filmmakers have received a grant from the Jerome Foundation. They are currently seeking finishing funds, as well as an executive producer.

Leading the feedback was Steve Cohen of The Chicago Media Project, a two-year-old organization that provides support to social impact film and media projects. One of the group’s subsets, the Justice Initiative, is geared towards supporting and highlighting work that focuses on the storytelling of individuals who are involved in the criminal justice system as well as their families.

“One of the things that’s so hard to do in a film like this is to create enough empathy between the subjects and the viewer to make them want to see this film, and we’re talking about typically subjects the viewers may not want to connect with,” said Cohen.

“I saw traces in your trailer of how you’re creating that kind of empathy and I’d be very interested to see how you develop that because it’s the key to not only making a successful film but one that does reach out and make people understand just who these people are,” he added.

Elsewhere, Courtney Sexton – senior director for program development at CNN – complimented the team for a concise pitch and said the subject matter was in the “realm of possibility” for her division, which each year takes on a handful of feature docs that usually get theatrical releases ahead of their television broadcasts on CNN. “People typically think of CNN as war, healthcare, politics, but under the CNN Films brand we can be something much broader than that.”

The commissioner added, however, that for the doc to work within CNN Films, they’d need a more macro approach. “From a national level, what is being done? What are the numbers? Is this something that’s an epidemic, that we as a nation would be interested in? Because we’re speaking to a very broad audience.”

Meanwhile, Chalfen of Naked Edge Films said the directors had to justify why they need three characters in the doc and not just one, since more characters could dilute the emotional impact of each principal. He also added that he’d like to see the victims’ sides.

“It’s a broader story and there are other people involved within the crime and I think that can add to the complexity and ambiguity of the characters,” added Chalfen.

Directed by Suzan Beraza
Produced by Erika Morillo and Michelle Maughan

Suzan Beraza, director of documentaries Bag It (2010) and Uranium Drive-In (2013), next took the stage to present her film about a Haitian sex worker and a Dominican prostitute-turned-activist looking to build better lives for their families. The doc takes place in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, which share an island. Since the 2010 earthquake, however, thousands of Haitians have moved to their neighboring nation – a migration that has led to racial tension, violence and attempts by the Dominican Republic’s government to strip Dominicans of Haitian descent of their citizenship and deport them back to Haiti.

The film is currently completing principal photography and is looking for production and post-production funds. Fork Films is on board as an executive producer and the team has raised about $100,000 of a $487,000 budget.

Kicking off the responses to the project was Lisa Kleiner Chanoff, co-founder of the Catapult Film Fund, which supports films in development with grants of up to $20,000 very early in the production process.

The commissioner – who said she has previously discussed the project with Beraza – pointed out that she liked the trailer in many ways but it felt like two different films. “I’m really interested in the sex workers’ stories and them trying to raise their families, and then there’s a lot of action around the deportations, which is also super interesting.

“Just coming into the film, not knowing how it’s been evolving, I might wonder why you chose those characters as the ones to follow to show the impact of the law,” she added.

Similarly, Alex Hannibal, manager of documentary programs for the Tribeca Film Institute, also admitted to seeing two separate films in the material. Hannibal said she has spoken with the filmmaker about Tribeca funds that could suit the project, but noted that the team is at a cross-section and funding will depend on which direction the film takes.

Elsewhere, The Chicago Media Project’s Cohen remarked that what’s happening in the Dominican Republic is running under the radar and a film like this could have a “tremendous effect” on shedding light on the issue.

“Connecting it up to what’s going on in the U.S. on the issue of immigration has a tremendous value to both the film as well as the issue,” he said. “I’m curious, looking at your timeline, whether this film could be ready, for example, for the election cycle of 2016, when this issue is going to be out there.”

Meanwhile, Chalfen of Naked Edge Films said the team “nailed” the pitch and applauded how they conveyed their levels of access, intimacy, shooting style and context. “The biggest challenge is going to be the financing because, from our perspective at Naked Edge, as potential equity investors or producers, the financial upside on a film like this will be limited.

“I can see it on ‘Independent Lens,’ which is hugely prestigious, but it’s definitely commercially challenged, so I think you should push all the foundations here to push you as much as possible,” he said. “But I caution that when you make the film, stick with the way you’re doing it and don’t focus on the impact but focus on the story.”

Charlotte Cook, co-creator of Field of Vision, said her team is looking for under-reported stories and, due to the nature of the unfolding story and urgency, No Soy Puta could fit the unit’s criteria.




Directed and produced by Jeff Unay

Jeff Unay’s film follows Joe, a blue-collar 40-year-old husband and father who is revisiting a past as a cage fighter, despite promising his family and himself that he would stop. Unay – who has also worked as a modeler and facial lead in visual effects for such films as Avatar and The Adventures of Tintin – says the underlying question in his documentary is, in all the ways Joe can self-heal from personal and family problems, why is he choosing to fight?

Unay said he is close to finishing production after two years of filming, and is getting ready for post-production.

One of the first to respond to the pitch was Vimeo’s Morrill, who said Greywater could fit in nicely with the niche MMA community on the site. “When I first heard Jeff’s pitch, it almost didn’t sound like a documentary to me, it sounded like you were pitching an indie drama and I think that really bodes well for it from a narrative perspective, and that coupled with the audience we know is out there for MMA content, this could potentially do well.”

Elsewhere, Time Inc’s Johnes said she loved the pitch and trailer and would talk further with Unay. The commissioner also added that Time isn’t necessarily looking for projects for a specific brand when commissioning content.

“We can make choices right now about the development of our division, where it’s not just, ‘Is this a Sports Illustrated film?’ but it’s, ‘Is this a film we’re interested in?’ and then we can figure out as the project unfolds where it best fits,” she explained.

Impact Partners’ Raskin, meanwhile, also complimented the trailer and said Unay should highlight how the film explores masculinity when it approaches foundations for funding. “I think it’s there, I’m not saying you need to do that in the film. Obviously you want it to be organic, but it’s clearly there, and it really came forward for me and you can point it out explicitly in your applications and outreach for funders.”

Directed by Sabaah Jordan and Damon Davis
Produced by Flannery Miller

In describing her documentary on the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the shooting of Michael Brown, director Sabaah Jordan says the film came in response to sensational media coverage that showed a lack of humanity and didn’t honor the grief of the community.

“I felt I had to go there and find the truth for myself,” she told the audience, adding that Damon Davis, an artist, had a similar vision and the pair teamed up to co-direct the film.

whose streets

Whose Streets

Whose Streets follows activists and residents who were triggered by Brown’s death and hope to bring about justice, but struggle to balance their personal lives and family obligations with a commitment to transforming their community.

Jordan says a significant portion of the film has been shot and the team is now looking for an editor with experience working with tandem narratives. Whose Streets has so far been backed by Firelight Media and the BritDoc Journalism Fund. A Kickstarter will be launched for the doc at Good Pitch New York in October.

Catapult Film Fund’s Kleiner Chanoff started the conversation by noting she liked the introduction to the story, but the trailer didn’t seem to reflect the actual pitch.

“The trailer has some images that we’ve seen and what’s going to be so interesting about this film is this fight as a way of life and how it’s affecting these individuals behind the fight, so I’d love to see more of that in the trailer,” she said.

CNN Films’ Sexton then commented that Whose Streets‘ deeper dive into the issues in Ferguson complement the work CNN has been doing in the past year. “If this is a piece coming two years from now, looking back and reflecting on what happened, I think that’s something that could work for CNN,” she noted.

The exec added, however, that the team’s $1.8 million budget seemed very high – an observation later echoed by HBO’s Rhem as well – to which Jordan explained that the figure included the project’s entire outreach and engagement campaign as well. Production costs should be around $650,000, she said, with the rest going towards work in communities and outlining an impact strategy.

Elsewhere, Field of Vision’s Cook said Whose Streets could be more than one film.

“I would hate for you guys to go through the process of making the film and having to get rid of a lot of the stories that I think you can find avenues for in other ways,” said Cook, adding that it’s something Field of Vision – which specializes in doc shorts with a fast turn-around – could be interested in.

Rounding out the feedback was the Sundance Institute’s Feeley, who congratulated Jordan on the team’s access.

“We at the [documentary fund] haven’t received a lot of films from Ferguson, about Ferguson,” the commissioner explained to notes of surprise from the audience. “I know it’s only a year on – there may be more in the pipeline – but we haven’t seen them. So we’ve been waiting for this film.”

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