IDFA ’15: The complete Forum report, part three

A follow-up to the International Emmy Award-winning No Burqas Behind Bars and an Icelandic thriller were among the final projects pitched on day two of the IDFA Forum.
November 30, 2015

Realscreen rounds out its coverage of the IDFA Forum with the third installment of our full report. In this final segment, we bring you the last six presentations from day two of the Central Pitch.

The last batch of Central Pitch projects saw a wide range of docs presented, including a follow-up to the award-winning film, No Burqas Behind Bars, a portrait of a top Danish architect and an Icelandic thriller on a stunning criminal case from the 1970s.

On the commissioning front, former Tribeca Film Institute commissioner Ryan Harrington took his place at the roundtable as a newly-instated representative for the Discovery Channel, while the BBC’s Nick Fraser quashed rumors about the future of the pubcaster’s doc strand ‘Storyville.’

Later on, during the IDFA Forum’s Closing Drinks on Wednesday (November 25), prizes were handed out for the event’s best pitches. Nima Sarvestani’s Prison Sisters – the sequel to 2012′s No Burqas Behind Bars - picked up Best Central Pitch, while Hyewon Jee’s Singing with Angry Bird won Best Round Table Pitch.

Catch up on parts one and two of our IDFA Forum coverage.

Director: Matthieu Rytz
Status: in production
Production company: EyeSteel Film

This year’s wild card pitch – drawn out of a selection of projects pulled from the audience – was environmental doc Anote’s Ark from Canadian producer EyeSteel Film. Presenting in place of director Matthieu Rytz was producer Bob Moore.

Anote’s Ark – billed as a film about climate migration - is set on the Central Pacific island nation of Kiribati, whose inhabitants are under threat due to rising sea levels. The doc follows the country’s president Anote Tong as he travels the world making a case for climate change and its effects on Kiribati. The team has access to Tong’s meetings with international leaders, including U.S. president Barack Obama and the UK’s Prince Charles, along with his trip to this week’s UN Climate Change Conference in Paris. Also interviewed is an islander claiming to be the world’s first “climate refugee.”

anote tong, president of kiribati

Anote Tong, president of Kiribati

Kicking off the feedback from commissioners was Kai Henkel of Germany’s ARD/SWR, who asked if there’s a “fight for the island,” and questioned how the drama would unfold.

“Kiribati is a series of islands that’s essentially like a sandbar and could be washed away,” said Moore. “The belief is that, yes, the island will be wiped out. It is a complex story.”

Jose Rodriguez of the Tribeca Institute, meanwhile, noticed similarities between Anote’s Ark and Jon Shenk’s 2011 doc The Island President, which profiled Maldives president Mohamed Nasheed and his fight to keep the low-lying country from being submerged by the sea. “How would this film further expand the territory or distance itself from it?” he asked.

In response, Moore said Anote’s Ark tackled a slightly different character and will focus more on the practicalities of migration, adding that the final film will be different from the demo reel presented to the audience.

Elsewhere, Justine Nagan - newly instated executive producer of PBS doc strand ‘POV’ – said commissioners are all trying to figure out ways to make climate change more palpable in docs, and asked to be kept in the loop about the project, while Kathleen Lingo of The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ division asked why the team decided to focus on such a small country instead of a nation where millions are affected by climate change.

“It’s the characters,” replied Moore. “The feeling is the character of the president can act as a model for the rest of the world, that it’s happening there first, and if we can look at the way they deal with it, hopefully that can be more of an inspirational story.”

Director: Pekka Lehto
Production budget: €502,350 (Some financing from YLE, Finnish Film Foundation, West Finland Film Commission, AVEK/Kopiosto ry)
Still needed: €287,350
Status: beginning production
Production company: Zone2 Pictures Oy

The Real McCoy director Pekka Lehto pitched one of the Forum’s more complex and divisive stories with Jailhouse Socrates, an examination of the case of Jari Aarnio, the former head of the Helsinki anti-drug unit who is currently on trial for a number of drug-related offences. Lehto delves into prison life, and conducts interviews with many of the inmates once locked up by Aarnio.

“The film offers a unique angle into the mechanisms of personal and institutional corruption,” reads a director’s statement. “It is told mostly by the people who are invisible because they are locked up behind bars or live between the lines of civil society.”

The Nordic noir – which blurs the boundaries between fiction and documentary – comes after two years of research across Europe, and Lehto has secured unique access to a group of prisoners and other criminals. Finnish financing is in place and the team is looking for other European broadcasters, public funds and distributors.

Tore Tomter of Norway’s NRK took the lead in feedback. “I think you’re going to make a really gripping film but…I have some concerns that you’re making it so much like a drama that it’s going to be difficult to believe it’s a documentary.”

The Sundance Institute’s Tabitha Jackson, however, said it was the hybrid nature of the doc that drew her to the project. “When these kinds of hybrids are most effective, it’s because the style is in service of the story and vice versa, and this may well be the case.”

Those confused by the story included Ingemar Persson of Sweden’s SVT, who wanted more clarification of the details, as well as Nathalie Windhorst of the Netherlands’ VPRO, who said the project and its dramatic elements puzzled her.

Similar, ARD/NDR’s Barbara Biemann said she was also put off by the visual style, which she found too dramatized. “It has the feel of a movie, of actors. I don’t get the feel of gritty, dirty prison. I’m puzzled.”

In response to the wide concerns about the doc’s hybrid nature, producer Beatrix Wood of Scotland’s Trix Pix Limited said, “It’s based on a lot of factual research, so nothing is invented, if people are worried about fiction. It is telling a story that tries to lift beyond the everyday into the deeper part of human nature.”

Lehto, addressing the commissioners, announced, “I’m not doing naturalistic films. You have to separate naturalism from realism.”


barbara miller

Barbara Miller

Director: Barbara Miller
Production budget: €900,500 (Some financing from ARTE and SRG, SRF, Bundesamt fur Kultur, Zurcher Filmstiftung, Schwyzer Foundation)
Still needed: €645,472
Status: beginning production
Production company: Mons Veneris Films GmbH

IDFA logline: The Female Touch accompanies young women from different religions in their fight against fundamentalist demonization of the female body and their search for fulfilled sexuality in the hyper-sexualized secular world.

Barbara Miller’s doc centers on five young women who are challenging attitudes regarding the female body and female sexuality in their respective cultures and religions, which include Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism and Judaism. Women from New York, Delhi, London, Rome and Tokyo are profiled for their activism in breaking the taboos around sexuality and desire despite the barriers they encounter in their communities.

Mette Hoffmann Meyer of Denmark’s DR TV said the film touched on a very important issue and said the team should ramp up its emotional involvement with the characters.

“Make sure we get emotions into it and the people are exposed in a powerful way,” she said. “I think it should also be an angry film because it goes on and on, year after year, and it’s important to get reactions to these types of stories.”

For some commissioners, such as Margje de Koning of Dutch broadcaster IKON and Julie Anderson of American broadcaster WNET, there were too many characters profiled in the film.

“I think there are a lot of characters for a 90-minute film and I’d be interested in hearing what your plan is for weaving the narrative together,” said Anderson.

The New York Times’ Lingo said the team has good examples of what the problem is, but wanted more evidence of why aspects of these religions seem to suppress female sexuality. “Getting into that question could be an interesting avenue for the film,” she said.

Elsewhere, Al Jazeera America’s Cynthia Kane was impressed by the project but felt the title was “too soft” and could stand to be much bolder, while the Sundance Institute’s Jackson said the film would need to be more developed before approaching her organization.


nima sarvestani

Nima Sarvestani

Director: Nima Sarvestani
Production budget: €421,280 (Some financing from Swedish Film Institute, Creative Europe Media, SVT, NRK)
Still needed: €192,309
Status: in production
Production company: Nima Film

IDFA logline: Sara refuses to believe that her former fellow inmate Nadjibeh was killed in Afghanistan. Exiled, Sara tried to find her, but encounters a tragic maze of lies and half-truths.

Sarvestani returned to the IDFA Forum for a second consecutive year, this time presenting his follow-up to the International Emmy Award-winning No Burqas Behind Bars. The director sat alongside producer Maryam Ebrahimi to pitch Prison Sisters, which follows the principals from the former film after their release from an Afghan prison.

Sara and Nadjibeh became best friends behind bars, but upon release, Sara escaped to Sweden (where she stayed on after being invited for the Swedish premiere of No Burqas) and the latter remained in their Taliban-controlled town. Later, Sara learns that while Nadjibeh was moved to a safe house in Kabul after her release, she was soon executed by her husband in their village. Disbelieving of media reports, Sara takes steps – along with the filmmakers – to find her former prison sister.

“We are going to be shocked in the film, but we hope it can give a picture of daily life of an Afghan woman,” said Sarvestani. The film is currently in production with 55% of its budget in place. The team is looking for copro deals and pre-sales.

IKON’s de Koning was the first to board the film. The commissioner was involved in No Burqas and said she can be “really sure” IKON will have a hand in this project as well. DR TV’s Hoffmann Meyer also committed to the project, along with YLE’s Jenny Westergard, who said the broadcaster has been following Prison Sisters for some time.

Jane Jankovic of Canada’s TVO remarked that film was both powerful and compelling but inquired about the balance of the story, and the filmmakers’ involvement. Ebrahimi replied that the idea is to include the filmmakers in the film because their principal isn’t able to return to Afghanistan due to her refugee status.

Elsewhere, Takako Ishikawa of Japan’s NHK said the broadcaster was proud to be a part of No Burqas - which was well-received by the Japanese audience, she added – and would also have a meeting about this project. Lois Vossen of PBS doc strand ‘Independent Lens’ asked if viewers will need to see No Burqas in order to understand Prison Sisters, to which Ebrahimi said the film will be an independent film.


Director: Kaspar Astrup Schroder
Production budget: €401,099 (Some financing from the Danish Film Institute, DR TV, AVROS/TROS, Autlook Filmsales)
Still needed: €80,116
Status: in production
Production company: Sonntag Pictures

IDFA logline: An intimate insight into the life of a genius innovative mind and his struggle to maintain his own persona while making the world a better place to live.

Rent a Family Inc. director Kaspar Astrup Schroder follows Danish superstar architect Bjarke Ingels – whose firm, Bjarke Ingels Group, is known as “BIG” – for six years as he completes the biggest projects of his career: New York skyscraper W57 and the World Trade Center 2. “The film will lift the lid off the creative process of an innovative architect and the infinite number of compromises and practical problems that work and life entail,” reads a synopsis of the project.

“The dramatic curve of the story naturally connects to the artist’s life, from leaving Denmark to starting up in New York, to having a huge penthouse office on Wall Street with 250 employees,” Schroder told the audience.

bjarke ingels

Bjarke Ingels

Producer Sara Stockmann said 80% of the financing has been secured since the project was last pitched at the Nordisk Panorama Forum. The doc will be delivered in January 2017, and the team is aiming for theatrical release in select territories followed by a strong TV broadcast.

Nick Fraser, commissioner for the BBC’s doc strand ‘Storyville,’ said he liked the psychology and drive of the protagonist, while WNET’s Anderson said Ingels was a fantastic character and his work in Manhattan would make the film a good fit for the channel’s New York audience. Similarly, Justine Nagan of PBS doc strand ‘POV’ said she’d like to speak further with the team, noting that a January 2017 release would be a possibility for the strand.

Meanwhile, taking his seat at the Central Pitch roundtable for the first time this year was Ryan Harrington, the former Tribeca Film Institute exec who is now director of acquisitions for docs and specials at Discovery Channel.

The commissioner told the audience that Discovery had a “renewed commitment” to storytelling and storytellers, and is commissioning, developing, acquiring and coproducing films about science, innovation, the environment, medicine and health.

“I’m certainly a big fan of Kaspar’s work. The unfolding narrative speaks to a number of the buckets I’m looking after right now,” said Harrington, adding that he’d be meeting with the director.

Jose Rodriguez of the Tribeca Institute said the project had progressed since he last spoke with the team, which is aiming to screen the film as part of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. “I think what would make it even richer, and for us to consider it for next year, is to delve deeper into his inner conflicts… as well as his outer conflicts – his detractors and the people who think he can’t pull it off.”

Finally, the Sundance Institute’s Jackson said the organization doesn’t typically take on many profiles but as per its expanded remit for more arts documentaries, Big Time could be a good “test case.”

Director: Dylan Howitt
Production budget: €402,400 (Some financing from the BBC, RUV – Iceland and the Welcome Trust)
Still needed: €245,400
Status: development / research
Production company: Mosaic Films

IDFA logline: It’s Iceland, 1976. Six suspects confess to two violent murders. Their involvement was all in their heads. This is the strangest criminal investigation you’ve never heard of.

In December 1976, six suspects confessed to two unrelated murders in Iceland, ending a national crisis in a characteristically peaceful society. The suspects served prison terms ranging from three to 17 years. Over the next few months, however, all suspects are expected to be exonerated of their crimes owing to a formal acknowledgement of “Memory Distrust Syndrome,” where an individual doubts the accuracy of their memory of an incident, normally due to coercive interrogation methods.

“Due to a combination of lengthy interrogations, long periods of solitary confinement and the intense pressure of the case, all of the suspects appear to have fabricated their own involvement in a crime that none of them committed,” reads a synopsis for the project. “Some of the suspects were so badly afflicted that, to this day, they are unsure of whether or not they committed a murder.”

The BBC’s Fraser, who is attached to the project, kicked off the pitch by ensuring the ‘Storyville’ strand is still operating despite the UK pubcaster’s extensive cuts and cost savings plan. “Since about 20 people came up to me and said they were sure ‘Storyville’ was going to be abolished, I just want to say reports of our demise are premature and we anticipate a long creative but, alas, not especially rich future at the BBC.”

Attention soon returned to Out of Thin Air, with co-producer Margret Jonasdottir saying the case – which has always been in the Icelandic news – is being re-opened after legal changes and following the efforts of a local investigative journalist. The doc is to use interviews, archive and re-enactments, and will be entirely in English.

Kicking off the feedback was Gaspard Lamuniere of Swiss broadcaster RTS who asked how the team would explain Memory Distrust Syndrome to an audience. Howitt explained that one of the world’s leading experts on false confession is involved in the story and would be interviewed in the film.

Elsewhere, Barbara Truyen of VPRO said the Dutch broadcaster was committing to the film, while YLE’s Westergard and PBS’ Nagan also showed interest.

Discovery’s Harrington called the project “a damned good story” and said there would be some natural connections with the Discovery-owned Science Channel, which he said was “rejigging its remit.”

“I would like to introduce you to our colleagues at Investigation Discovery,” he told the team, adding that the net acquires about 300 hours of programming a year and is looking at more feature docs.

Finally, WNET’s Anderson said there was so much to the story that there might be a possibility of serializing the film. “The Jinx on HBO last year was amazing – people were riveted by that story – and I don’t know if there are enough cliffhangers built into this story, but it seems like it might be interesting as a serialized story.”

CORRECTION: This story has been amended to reflect that Hyewon Jee’s Singing with Angry Bird won the prize for Best Round Table Pitch.  It was previously reported that Stammering Ballad won this prize, based on incorrect information provided by Forum organizers. 

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