The 2018 Hot Docs Forum report, part one

The 19th edition of the Hot Docs Forum kicked off Tuesday (May 1) with 10 of 21 projects presented to an expert panel. In this first installment of a two-part ...
May 2, 2018

The 19th edition of the Hot Docs Forum kicked off Tuesday (May 1) with 10 of 21 projects presented to an expert panel. In this first installment of a two-part report, realscreen provides a look at what transpired during the first day of the two-day-long pitching event.

The projects were presented to a roundtable of leading commissioning editors, film fund representatives, financiers, programming executives, sales agents and delegates.

Projects discussed in this installment include The Last Year of Congo Mirador by Venezuelan director Anabel Rodriguez, which looks at a small village in her home country, and the impact of oil extraction on the community; Uluru & the Magician, Anna Broinowski’s examination of cultural differences; Sissel Morell Dargis’ Balloon Wars, an intimate portrait of balloon-building gangs in Brazil; Cuban Dancer, in which Roberto Salinas follows a young ballet dancer caught in two worlds; and Richard Poplak and Diana Neille’s look at the shady world of PR and politics in Agents of Influence

Commissioners stationed around this year’s Forum roundtable include representatives from the CBC, BBC, NHK, POV, ARTE France, TVO, PBS’ ‘Independent Lens’, and many more.

Realscreen is covering both days of the Hot Docs Forum (May 1 and 2). Check back at for the second installment of our report.

As for the films pitched during the first day of the Central Pitch, there was a media blackout on The Queen’s Man, Mirror Mirror on the Wall, The Rashomon Effect and You Won’t Kill Me.

All currency in the descriptions is in U.S. dollars.

The Last Year of Congo Mirador
Director: Anabel Rodriguez
Production company: Sancocho Publico A.C./copro partners Spiraleye Productions LTD and Pacto Audiovisual Prod. Assoc. Ltda.
Production budget: $285,529
Still needed: $119,691
Proposed delivery date: November 18, 2018

Hot Docs logline: Despite literally “swimming in oil,” Congo Mirado, a small village built on stilts in the middle of Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela’s largest oil field, is sinking in oily mud, corruption and violence.

The first Venezuelan pitch at Hot Docs Forum comes from director Anabel Rodriguez, whose first feature-length film, The Last Year of Congo Mirador (pictured), transports viewers into the small village, which faces an environmental catastrophe as oil is turning Lake Maracaibo, the water the village is built upon, into a swamp.

Despite the small village being plunked in the middle of Latin America’s largest oil field, the film contends that the locals have yet to see any benefit to the resource extraction. Shot over four years, Rodriguez spotlights three characters  – a teenage girl, a Chavist supporter and her rival, a local teacher — to show what is going on in the ground in the village.

Chi-hui Yang of Ford Foundation/JustFilms kicked off the Forum by saying the project has some “great pieces in place” around international extraction and elections. What would interest the foundation, he says, is the degree to which the larger forces play out in various ways in the community, and how toxic politics and violence impact village relations.

Jess Search, chief executive at the UK’s Doc Society, was curious about how the story could impact Venezuela and what the Venezuelan diaspora could do when they see the film. “What are your goals for the film inside the country?”

Christopher White, producer, ‘POV’/American Documentary, said his strand would “definitely be interested” in the project and when a rough cut has been complete “to send it our way.” He said it’s an all-too-familiar story of how oil and money corrupt and how citizens are left behind.

Lois Vossen, executive producer of ‘Independent Lens’ at PBS, noted that she would have liked to have had a sense of the “dark forces of the oil industry” from the trailer.

Mandy Chang, BBC ‘Storyville’ commissioner, said she loved the fact Rodriguez is Venezuelan and telling the story of her own country. “We get so many pitches from Americans and English people trying to tell these stories,” Chang stated. “I’m looking for the people from those countries to tell the stories.”

Uluru & the Magician
Director: Anna Broinowski
Production company: Brindle Films and The Doc Book Co.
Production budget: $1,046,826
Still needed: $370,796
Proposed delivery date: May 31, 2019

Hot Docs logline: Fed up with performing at kids’ birthday parties for a living, magician Dave Welzman decides to make Uluru disappear – and in the process, finds himself.

Australian director Anna Broinowski’s new project Uluru & the Magician places elements of capitalism, tourism and magic into conflict with one of Australia’s most sacred sites, the huge sandstone rock formation, Uluru. The point man for the film is magician Dave Welzman, a struggling magician who concocts a plan to reboot his career by somehow making Uluru disappear. As he works alongside the Rock’s Traditional Owners to pull off his stunt, he learns about its spiritual importance to the Indigenous community.

Uluru & the Magician is 70% financed and 25% shot with the film’s team looking for broadcasters and partners to come on board.

Rasha Salti, head of ARTE France documentary slot ‘La Lucarne’, said her stream is dedicated to more experimental documentaries so she was not sure if she would be the right person for the project.

Mark Edwards, commissioning editor for documentaries at ARTE France, said the film shows how every person can learn about Indigenous culture. “I think it’s a stretch to bring a European audience in but I think it’s a creative enough way to try. The question for you should be how do you speak to an audience outside of Western Australia.”

Yoko Imai, senior producer/international coproductions & acquisitions at Japanese broadcaster NHK, said Australia is a favorite destination for Japanese tourists. Thus, it’s important for the broadcaster to know how deep the film is going into the social mood and the issues surrounding the site.

Jane Jankovic, executive producer of documentaries at Ontario’s TVO, said she looks forward to better understanding Aboriginal traditions and culture. However, she didn’t see the impact of tourism on the community and the site itself in the trailer and wanted to know how much of that would be brought into the film.

Al Jazeera English commissioner Poh Si Teng said for her purposes, she needed to clarify who is leading the story. If the main takeaway from the project is to teach global audiences about Aboriginal culture, she wasn’t sure if Welzman, the magician, would be the person to guide that process.

Balloon Wars
Director: Sissel Morell Dargis
Production company: House of Real
Production budget: $463,965
Still needed: $333,965
Proposed Delivery Date: January 13, 2019

Hot Docs logline: A film about a secretive gang where passion for making paper take flight, and desire for recognition, drives favela thugs to extremes in their struggles to get giant hot-air balloons airborne.

Danish filmmaker Sissel Morrel Dargis takes audiences into the favelas of Sao Paulo where gangs compete in illegal hot-air balloon competitions. The point of entry into this world is Jaba, a 32-year old man who is so passionate about building balloons that his wife, after giving him the ultimatum “the family or the balloons,” leaves him. The common enemy facing the gangs are the authorities who are always on the trail of Jaba and other enthusiasts.

With 20% funding in place, the team on Balloon Wars is looking for co-financing, sales agents and copro partners.

ARTE France’s Mark Edwards said he was struck by the beauty of what Jaba and the other gangs are doing with the balloons, and that he liked the fresh take on the present reality of working-class Brazil. He added that he thought the film will travel but he wasn’t sure if it would fit the broadcaster’s strands.

Chris Hastings, executive producer & editorial manager for World Channel at WGBH Boston, said he also liked seeing a different side to Brazil, beyond the narrative of violence. “I think it would be interesting from an arts perspective to look at this film in that way, and use it as a vehicle to talk about the poverty we do know about Brazil in another way.” Hastings said World Channel would be interested in the film, perhaps as an acquisition.

TVO’s Jane Jankovic said the film is multi-genre and therefore there is flexibility in how the public service broadcaster could present it. The commissioner was also curious about how the population, which is not affluent, has the time and resources to build such elaborate balloons.

What most interested ARTE France’s Rasha Salti about Balloon Wars was the class and social dynamics the film presents and the story of where a man’s obsession leads.

Cuban Dancer
Director: Roberto Salinas
Production company: Indyca SNC/copro partner: Micro-Documentaries
Production budget: $358,440
Still needed: $224,030
Proposed Delivery Date: November 2, 2018

Hot Docs logline: A talented student of the National Ballet School of Cuba is forced to emigrate to Miami. Alexis struggles to adapt and become a principal dancer in the USA.

Cuban ballet dancer Alexis is a promising student at the National Ballet School of Cuba when political changes compel his parents to move to Miami where they reunite with Alexis’ half-sister. After leaving Havana, the young dancer has to confront the elite educational system in his new home. He receives a scholarship to the HARID Conservatory. He is now caught between two cultures, and as he is scouted by prestigious ballet companies, is torn between staying in America and returning home to Cuba. Director Roberto Salinas captures Alexis on his journey and the decisions he must make.

Marie Nelson, VP news & public affairs at PBS, said she was “pleased” to see a film from Cuba which gives audiences a different slice of life. However, she said the trailer left out Alexis’ voice and she would have liked to have had more access to his thoughts.

Jenny Raskin, head of development at Impact Partners, remarked that she is a “huge dance fan, so you’ve got me,” but echoed Nelson’s point about Alexis’ absent voice. The exec also wanted to know how long the director planned on sticking with the dancer’s story.

ARTE France’s Edwards said that what interested him about the project is that Salinas caught Alexis during a shift in Cuba-U.S. relations where people are wondering what the impact will be for Cuban-Americans and Cubans on their native soil.

Agents of Influence
Director: Richard Poplak, Diana Neille
Production company: EyeSteelFilm/copro partners: Fireworx Media, Chronicle
Production budget: $802,867
Still needed: $502,564
Proposed delivery date: January 18, 2019

Hot Docs logline: From the journalists who exposed the notorious reputation management firm Bell Pottinger comes a globetrotting investigation into these architects of “post-truth,” and the growing global misinformation complex they’ve helped construct.

Filmmakers and award-winning investigative reporters Richard Poplak and Diane Neillie set out to chart the history of postmodern spin-doctoring popularized by the UK PR firm Bell Pottinger agency. Agents of Influence is a political thriller that looks at the shady universe of the 0.1 per cent, while also examining the global media and the “alternative facts” phenomenon.

Christopher White, director of programming and production at ‘POV’, said as the strand is premiering Kimberley Reed’s Dark Money feature about the flood of special interest money in politics later in the year, he said the exploration of advertising and PR as it pertains to the pursuit of power is very interesting.

Mandy Chang of BBC ‘Storyville” said this is a project her team has been tracking for some time and believes it would find a home with a British audience.

And Andreas Fay, head of acquisitions for VGTV Norway said he found the story to be “complex and fascinating” and that while he was not sure if it would find a home on his network, he hopes it does find an audience in Norway.

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