The 2017 Hot Docs Forum report, part one

The 18th edition of the Hot Docs Forum kicked off Tuesday (May 2) with 1o of 20 projects judged by an expert panel. In this first installment of a three-part ...
May 3, 2017

The 18th edition of the Hot Docs Forum kicked off Tuesday (May 2) with 1o of 20 projects judged by an expert panel. In this first installment of a three-part report, realscreen provides in-depth coverage of what transpired during the first day of the two-day-long pitching event.

Selected from more than 200 international submissions, the projects were presented to a roundtable of leading commissioning editors, film fund representatives, financiers, programming executives, sales agents and delegates.

Projects represent 18 countries, and are helmed by 10 female directors and 25 female producers.

Projects discussed in this installment include Elan Bogarín, Jonathan Bogarín‘s portrait of their late grandmother in 306 Hollywood; Fazeelat Aslam’s Fatima, tracing Pakistan’s Syeda Fatima as she frees slaves from bonded labor; Vita Drygas’ War Watchers, an obs doc in which tourism looks to the war machine; Itaru Matsui’s Fear Of Hearing, in which a rural American teen struggles between wanting to be deaf and hearing; and spotlighting pathologists fighting to give deceased migrants a name in Madeleine Leroyer’s The Watchmen.

Commissioner’s stationed around this year’s Forum roundtable include representatives from ARTE France, Vice, TVO, Knowledge, NHK, PBS, IKON, the Sundance Institute, VGTV, yesDocu, YLE, VPRO, ZDF and The New York Times‘ ‘Op-Docs’ arm, among others.

Realscreen is covering both days of the Hot Docs Forum (May 2 and 3). Watch this space for the second and third installments of our report.

Production Company: Filou Films (Pakistan)
Directors: Fazeelat Aslam

Logline: Pakistan’s Syeda Fatima is a modern Harriet Tubman, freeing slaves from bonded labor. When “Humans of New York” raises her US$2.3 million in an online fundraiser, Fatima’s life changes forever.

Fatima (pictured), a co-production alongside Jimmy Goldblum’s Old Friend, tells the story of Syeda Fatima, who runs Pakistan’s Bonded Labour Liberation Front, an organization seeking to liberate the estimated two million slaves toiling away in the country’s brick kilns. Sneaking into kilns in the middle of the night, she ushers enslaved families into rescue vans. A hero to the disenfranchised, Fatima is seen by the government as a “rabble-rouser.” In 2015, Humans of New York photographer Brandon Stanton helped Fatima raise over US$2.3 million through an online fundraising campaign.

Oscar and Emmy-winning director Fazeelat Aslam’s feature length debut will begin by exploring Fatima’s biography, before introducing the impacts of Stanton’s fundraiser.

Production on the doc is still in its early stages with a team of industry veterans lined up for post-production, including Davis Coombe, editor of Casting JonBenet, and Dan Romer, composer of Beasts of The Southern Wild. The filmmakers own all of the rights to Fatima, which is in search of development, production and financing partners.

TVO’s documentary programmer Naomi Boxer kicked off the feedback, noting that the Canadian broadcaster is always in search of strong character-driven stories: “It’s interesting how it’s bringing in the issue of the mixed power of the internet and social media, the dark and light of that. But I’m curious about how you’re going to balance Fatima as character, the story of the photographer and whether we will be getting to know any of the kiln workers. But this is something that could absolutely work for us.”

PBS’s Marie Nelson, VP of news & independent film, appreciated that the filmmakers were stepping into the unintended and complicated consequences of philanthropy. “I’d be interested to see how you could bring pieces of story back, not just to Brandon [of Humans of New York], but to all those folks who stepped up to support Fatima hoping to accomplish something positive,” she said.

ZDF commissioning editor Michael Gries said that though Fatima‘s pitch made him curious about the consequences of each rescue, the German broadcaster wouldn’t be able to find a home for “the complicated film” without deconstructing it completely.

Anders Bruus, commissioning editor of documentaries and factual atDR, noted that the film could find a potential home across Scandinavia as the Danish pubcaster typically slots these types of human-interest stories.

Production Company: Drygas Production (Poland)
Directors: Vita Drygas
Production budget: $502,682 (Some funding secured from Polish Film Institute, Bekke Film, TVP 2, Drygas Production, Braidmade Films)
Still needed: $152,420

Logline: War Watchers is an observational documentary and psychological journey into the depths of the modern tourist, for whom a new holiday destination has become a place mired in armed conflict.

With conflicts raging throughout Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan, war tourism has remained a secretive, but lucrative industry. A large demand for this type of holiday resulted in a number of operations springing up more than 20 years ago throughout the U.S. and Europe.

Vita Drygas’ feature length film War Watchers will aim to share three parallel stories, beginning with “Hezbollah Disneyland”, featuring such attractions as holding assault rifle, before showcasing how war travel agencies organize trips that include hotels with a “war view window”. Finally, the film will follow these extreme tourists, via handheld cameras, as they embark on their vacations to Aleppo, Syria.

With a proposed delivery date of December 2018, War Watchers is looking for broadcasters and co-producers.

BBC Storyville commissioning editor Kate Townsend opened the discussion by questioning whether Drygas would be taking the doc beyond a “relentlessly bleak” travelogue and into the blurred lines of citizen journalism. “What really are the underlying motives and what will we learn outside of the bitter, cynical story?”

Though Documentary Channel’s Bruce Cowley noted that there’s something kind of “icky” about the tourism industry capitalizing on the loss of life, he believes the uncomfortableness in War Watchers is a “brave, but absurd portrait” of the our times.

Meanwhile, Hans Andreas Fay of Norwegian digital channel VGTV worried about how the documentary maker would navigate the ethical and moral ramifications each subject faced while embarking on these trips. “I was curious of the addiction element of [these holidays] because you heard that from the protagonist in the trailer, but how will you explore that?”


Production Company: El Tigre Productions (New York)
Directors: Elan Bogarín, Jonathan Bogarín
Production budget: $535,613 (Some funding secured from New York State Council on the Arts, El Tigre Productions, Laokoon Filmgroop, private donations)
Still needed: $297,557

Logline: 306 Hollywood is a magical realist documentary of two siblings who undertake an archaeological excavation of their late grandmother’s house. They embark on a journey from her home in New Jersey to ancient Rome, from fashion to physics, in search of what life remains in the objects we leave behind.

The realist documentary from sibling directing team Elan and Jonathan Borgarín excavates the life of their grandmother, Annette Ontell, who spent more than 70 years in a modest house at 306 Hollywood Avenue in New Jersey. Ten years of interviews with Annette, between the ages of 83 and 93, provide an honest and humorous reflection on life from an age rarely represented across film and television. These interviews are interwoven with experts – from a Roman archaeologist to a fashion conservator – who explore whether there is life in the objects we leave behind.

The goal of the film, Jonathan Borgarín says, is to “elevate the story of a very ordinary person to the level of Hollywood story, and to transform an experience we will all share of the dusty remains of a very ordinary house into an epic metaphor for the passage of time.”

“The high level of entertainment and creativity allows us to bring this film to a much wider international audience. This could work for the entire family, like a Pixar documentary movie,” said Judit Stalter, the film’s producer.

Ninety per cent of the project has been shot and the team is currently in the midst of post-production with Laura Minnear of (T)error editing. The filmmakers are searching for financing, international sales and festival interest. All rights to the doc are currently available. A delivery is expected by the end of the year.

The feedback kicked off with PBS-WNET’s Julie Anderson commenting that the film transcends every language and ethnicity, enabling a large audience to relate, while PBS colleague Marie Nelson remarking that “finding the beauty in what is ordinary is incredibly important.”

Elsewhere, ARTE ARD-SWR commissioning editor Gudrun Hanke-El Ghomri said she was fascinated by the mixture of visual arts and documentary footage, noting that she would be interested in seeing a 30-minute rough cut of the film.

Mark Edwards at ARTE France, meanwhile, made mention that the company has had wonderful experiences when it’s decided to pour financing into an experimental-hybrid film like 306 Hollywood. “I’m very reassured that the formal invention is at the surface of her story and you’ve got all this material of her, and her testimony and life story as an ordinary person is worthy of the all of the questions you’re asking.”

Production Company: Little Big Story (France)
Directors: Madeleine Leroyer
Production budget: $601,164 (Some funding secured from Java Films, Little Big Story, CNC, PROCIREP-ANGOA and Region Pays de la Loire development funds)
Still needed: $466,560

Logline: Every day, more migrants die at sea. The Watchmen are the forensic pathologists who fight to give them back their names. They stand for the dignity of migrants and vouch for ours.

In development for more than 18 months, philosophical thriller The Watchmen documents the efforts of Cristina Cattaneo, an Italian forensic pathologist, leading the largest identification operation undertaken to date when as many as 800 migrants perished in the Mediterranean Sea when their ship capsized off the coast of Lampedusa, Italy in April 2015. The film will seek to determine what defines us as human beings while providing the deceased with their identity.

Following a successful pitch at Thessaloniki Documentary Festival Finland’s YLE, Switzerland’s RTS, the Netherland’s Ikon and Greece’s ERT have confirmed their support for the film. Development support has also been provided by Europe Creative Media.

Production on the doc – which will be made available in 52- and 90-minute portions – is to begin in the coming days, with shooting locations across Italy, Greece, Africa and the Middle East. Delivery is slated for summer 2018.

“We’re really excited about this project,” said ARTE France’s Mark Edwards. “What it’s doing in narrative terms is really important – it’s telling the detective story but it’s also inviting the viewer to think of one person and one identity. We’re all trying to figure out how to deal with the refugee crisis in Europe and… this is a great step in the direction of covering the story.”

PBS’s Nelson remarked that The Watchmen is the type of film that would work well on the public broadcaster, noting that it could have been paired Daphne Matziaraki‘s Oscar-nominated short 4.1 Miles on documentary strand ‘POV’. “The numbers are so vast that we really have lost a sense that these are human beings with human stories.”

Of the possible closure provided to families in some of these cases, director Madeleine Leroyer says that with contact to the families and the collection of information, “you can cross the post-mortem and antemortem information” to come to an identification. “On the Lampedusa shipwreck, they were able to reach nearly 70 families and came to over 50% of identification.”

On the international front, Japanese pubcaster NHK stated that although it has previously done quite a bit on the European migration matters, The Watchmen tackles the issue with a different approach. “It has a very strong human aspect to it.” Imai further mentioned that she was “quite encouraged” in the visual sensitivity and the decision to not show bodies on camera.

Kathleen Lingo, series producer and curator of The New York Times’ ‘Op-Docs’ arm, suggested that the team could produce a short in the meantime, so long as the short debuted prior to the any broadcast or digital premieres.

Added John Turner, director of development at Vice Media and Viceland: “I love how this is bringing a new angle to this story and I’d be curious to hear more about central motivation of these characters.”

Production Company: Idioms Film (Palestine)
Directors: Karam Ali, Casey Asprooth-Jackson
Production budget: $182,750 (Some funding secured from Arab Fund for Arts and Culture, Idioms Film, French Consulate Jerusalem, Swedish Film Institute, HB PeA Holmquist Film, Future Logic)
Still needed: $144,350

Logline: A new crackdown on car theft provokes an investigation of crime, politics and legality in today’s Palestine.

Director Casey Asprooth-Jackson told the Forum audience that Chopped traces the journey of a stolen Israeli car, from a mechanics office in Ramallah, across the checkpoint to a parking lot in Tel Aviv, to a West Bank chop shop to be broken down into thousands of untraceable pieces. The film seeks a deeper understanding of the structures and interests that drive black markets while questioning where the line is drawn between politics and criminality.

Chopped‘s development stage has recently been finalized with support from the Swedish Film Institute and the Arab Fund for Arts and Culture. Production will begin this summer, with further shooting sessions needed to round out the documentary. The team is currently in advanced conversations with Norwegian co-producers and hope to complete the post-production in Norway. A proposed delivery date has been set for March 1, 2018.

Co-director Karam Ali was unable to attend the pitching forum, due to visa problems.

Guy Lavie, head of YesDocu, began the feedback portion by stating that though it’s become increasingly difficult in Israel to broadcast films portraying Palestinians as heroes, he enjoyed the comedic elements of the treatment. “My question would be as the heroes are blurred and not seen, who will be our protagonist that we’re connecting to emotionally?”

That concern was echoed by DR’s Anders Bruus and TVO’s Naomi Boxer, both of whom noted that they would like to better connect to the protagonists.

“Anonymity of our characters is critical to our process and also the aesthetics we’re putting together for the film,” responded Asprooth-Jackson. “But we have one character who has retired, gone straight and is an elder who can recall some of the stories, so while we’re following people currently in the game, we have someone who’s gone the legal route and is able to show his face. We see him as a grounding character.”

Meanwhile, Christopher White, an executive producer at PBS strands ‘American Documentary’ and ‘POV’, stated that there was a lot more he’d like to learn about the film, including the balance between whether car theft in the West Bank is a rebellion or a commerce, or a combination of both. “I’m interested in knowing if you step outside of this industry and learn how about heir rebellion manifests itself outside of chopping cars.”

Also on this side of the Atlantic, The New York Times’ Lingo said that Chopped is the type of film that would resonate with its audience, the goal of Op-Docs being to spark a conversation. “This is obviously a story that New York Times readers would care about. We would be interested in hearing a pitch for a short,” she added.


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