IDFA ’15: The complete Forum report, part two

A new project from filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich and the upcoming installment in the iconic doc series The Staircase were among the work pitched on day two of the IDFA Forum.
November 26, 2015

In the second installment of realscreen’s Forum report, we bring you coverage of four of the 10 Central Pitches presented on day two (November 24) of the IDFA Forum (pictured).

The second day of the Forum saw vérité filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich pitching a doc on Syrian refugees, while the team behind the miniseries The Staircase marked their return to a notorious criminal case with a third film in the series. The roundtable also heard pitches for films about iconic American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. as well as the lucrative industry of international kidnappings and ransoms.

Read the first installment of our report here.

Here, below, are four pitches from day two:

Director: Jean-Xavier de Lestrade
Production budget: €450,829
Still needed: €185,929
Status: beginning production

IDFA logline: 12 years after his five-month trial ends with a life sentence, four years after a startling twist wins him release under house arrest, Michael Peterson is facing his final trial.

The team behind the iconic documentary series The Staircase is back with the third installment of the story, picking up from the 2013 documentary The Staircase II: The Last Chance. Michael Peterson was sentenced to life in prison in 2003 for the murder of his wife, but he has been a free man since his release in 2011 due to a ruling that there were “due process violations” and “perjured testimony” from a key witness in the original trial. Having had conditions of house arrest lifted in 2014, he is awaiting a new trial. Staircase III will document this new trial, set to begin around the spring of 2016.

“Hopefully, like Michael Peterson said, it would be the end of the story, and maybe we will know more about what really happened that night, and a bit more about the death of Kathleen Peterson,” director Jean-Xavier de Lestrade told the Forum audience.

Following the team’s presentation, Nick Fraser, commissioner for BBC doc strand ‘Storyville’ enthused that he loved the series and broadcast the second film, but asked if there was a possibility the next trial might not happen – and where that would then leave the film – and, secondly, if the film could stand alone.

The team responded that a trial is likely, and they are preparing for a long and comprehensive shoot. They also confirmed that the film could stand alone, much like the second documentary.

Tore Tomter of Norway’s NRK said the project had a “magic” about it, but added that there would have to be something new to promise audiences in the third installment, apart from the expected trial.

Over at TVO, commissioner Naomi Boxer said the film could be a fit for the Canadian broadcaster because it deals with broader issues of justice, but questioned what characters around the case – the family or legal team, for example – the film would focus on, and if they would go through any kind of transformation.

sammy davis jr.

Sammy Davis Jr.

Director: Sam Pollard
Production budget: €885,000
Still needed: €385,000
Status: beginning production

IDFA logline: I’ve Gotta Be Me is the first film documentary to examine Davis’s vast talent, and his journey through the turmoil of civil rights and racial progress during twentieth-century America.

This documentary on American entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. is one of the first projects for PBS doc strand ‘American Masters’ to be pitched at IDFA. The film is billed as the first project to “seriously consider Davis’s quest for personal identity as a prodigiously talented entertainer whose career encountered major American flash points from the Depression until his death in 1980.”

The doc – whose title refers to a signature song by Davis – will explore his challenges, failures and triumphs in breaking down the racial barriers that prevented other African-Americans from succeeding in the entertainment industry. I’ve Gotta Be Me will have access to major figures in Davis’s life, along with rare archival footage, including photos taken by Davis obtained through a deal with the entertainer’s estate, as well as audio recordings, TV material, clippings and hate mail he received over the course of his career.

Tom Koch, VP of PBS Distribution, stood in place of director Sam Pollard, who was unable to attend the Forum. Pitching the project was executive producer Michael Kantor, who took the reins of ‘American Masters’ and succeeded Susan Lacy in April 2014.

Showing immediate interest in the project was Nathalie Windhorst of Dutch broadcaster VPRO, while Nathalie Verdier of ARTE France – who now works for the arts department – said the project could be a good fit for the broadcaster’s ‘Documania’ slot. Japanese broadcaster WOWOW also said the film could work well for its 50-plus demographic due to Davis’s popularity in the country in the early 1970s, though his appeal for the under-30 audience remained to be seen.

Elsewhere, NRK’s Tomter said Pollard’s doc was an interesting case because it could be an entertaining doc while also having an investigative element. The commissioner asked, however, how the team would balance the light-hearted aspects of the film such as music and dance with the more troubled side of Davis’s life.

Kantor explained that the balance would come through Pollard’s editing, while Koch pointed out the film isn’t going to be a straight bio of the entertainer. “It really is putting Sammy Davis Jr. in the context of the place, the time, the social upheavals, the racial relations,” he said. “This really is looking at a man to tell the bigger back-story.”

Finally, the BBC’s Fraser asked about Davis’s inner life and any “crack-ups” he may have experienced, to which Kantor explained that the entertainer did have a drug problem and money issues that may be explored in the film.

Director: Rémi Lainé
Production budget: €575,591 (Some financing from ARTE France, Java Films)
Still needed: €330,591
Status: beginning production

IDFA logline: Every year, more than 30,000 people are kidnapped around the world. Behind each kidnapping is a ransom demand. Facing every ransom demand is a negotiator in action.

The documentary thriller The Ransom goes behind the machinations of international kidnappings and their monetary incentives. Hostage-taking is on the rise, with more than 30,000 people kidnapped every year. The film – which focuses on Nigeria, Mexico, Venezuela and Pakistan – profiles some of the strategists, negotiators and “assurance men” who offer their services to businesses, executives or the families of hostages.

“This film provides a journey to the heart of a secret world where cynicism butts up against morality, where to save a person’s life, one must resolve oneself to cold-hearted bargaining,” reads a synopsis for the doc.

The Ransom is a primetime film with a 90-minute format and a 52-minute version for international broadcasters. Shooting will begin in 2016, and the team is seeking pre-sales.

Marie Nelson of PBS was quick to respond to the project, and asked if any of the politically motivated, headline-making kidnappings and ransom demands in the past year will also be included in the film. Producer Valerie Montmartin replied that it was “impossible” to film political cases because of the difficulty in accessing governments and diplomatic cases.

“These cases are only 3% of all the cases so we decided to film the other 97% of the cases, which are only for money,” she explained.

Gaspard Lamuniere of Switzerland’s RTS announced the broadcaster is involved in the film. “We are in this film, not only because it’s going to be a thriller, but I think it raises a very interesting question, especially about the price of a person.”

Over at the BBC, Fraser had concerns about whether negotiators might revoke access if the cases end poorly. “Companies don’t want to see how badly they mess up in these cases; they don’t want to show you.”

Lainé said the team is able to film most of the subjects’ work because both major characters are at the end of their professional lives and believe their involvement in the doc can leave a mark in their fields.

Finally, Rawan Damen of Al Jazeera Arabic questioned why no Arabic countries have been profiled in the documentary given the rise in cases in Iraq and Syria that differ from those included in the film.

“There are a lot of terrorism cases and it’s impossible to film,” said Lainé. “The hostage could be abducted for two or three years; it’s impossible to do a film like this.”


leonard retel helmrich

Leonard Retel Helmrich

Director: Leonard Retel Helmrich
Production budget: €338,488 (Some financing from EO, Mediafonds, CoBo Fonds & NCDO)
Still needed: €98,488
Status: in development/research

IDFA logline: A documentary about life in Majdal Anjar, a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. The filmmaker registers from the inside what it is for people to live in a refugee camp.

The Position Among the Stars director is back with a film set in Majdal Anjar, a non-NGO camp located in eastern Lebanon and home to more than nine million Syrian refugees. Shot in Retel Helmrich’s signature single-shot, camera vérité style, the doc delves into life in the camp for its inhabitants, who are adapting to their circumstances, fostering relationships with neighbors and continuing with their lives.

The director explained that there are no interviews or voiceovers in the film. “I want to find the scenes and the scenes have to tell the story.” Later in the pitch, producer Pieter van Huystee added that the director had taught an Arabic woman in the camp how to handle a camera and film some of the women at Majdal Anjar who are less accessible, in order to include their perspectives.

Kicking off the feedback was Tabitha Jackson of the Sundance Institute, who praised the project and said the organization could be interested, while Erkko Lyytinen of Finland’s YLE also shared his admiration of Retel Hemrich’s previous films and said the broadcaster was in.

Jose Rodriguez of the Tribeca Institute suggested the filmmaker apply to the organization’s social issue fund, which closes on February 5, while Rebecca Lichtenfeld of the Bertha Foundation wanted to have a further conversation with the team.

RTS’ Lamuniere wanted clarification on what types of refugees are profiled in the film, to which the director – who began learning Arabic for the film back in March – said most of the refugees are not interested in relocating to Europe, and instead just want to return to their homes.

Finally, Al Jazeera Arabic’s Damen said the broadcaster had been covering Syrian refugees for many years, but commended Retel Helmrich for bringing a new perspective to the field.

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