The 2018 Hot Docs Forum report, part two

The 19th edition of the Hot Docs Forum returned Wednesday (May 2) with the final 11 projects of 21 presented to an expert panel. In the second part of realscreen’s comprehensive ...
May 3, 2018

The 19th edition of the Hot Docs Forum returned Wednesday (May 2) with the final 11 projects of 21 presented to an expert panel. In the second part of realscreen’s comprehensive coverage of the 2018 Hot Docs Forum, we present seven more projects pitched during the two-day pitching event.

Part one of this report can be found here.

More than $137,000 in cash prizes were handed out to projects at this year’s Hot Docs Forum, which were presented to a room of 475-plus industry delegates, including 220 key commissioning editors and funders.

During an evening reception at the end of the second day, the presentation of pitch prizes took place. The First Look program’s top prize of CDN$75,000 was awarded to Shareef Nasir’s Case 993, while the program’s second prize of $30,000 went to Nanfu Wang‘s Born in China. Taking third place was Sam Soko’s Softie.

Meanwhile, The Cuban Hat Award, which offers prize money support for powerful and unique projects, was also presented to Soko’s Softie. The take-home for this year’s award amounted to CDN$1,175 and US$267, with Hot Docs matching the total Canadian and American dollar amounts.

Winning the Corus-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize was Betrayal from Toronto-based director Lena MacDonald. The $10,000 cash prize is awarded to the best Canadian pitch at the Forum, as voted on by attending international buyers.

Elsewhere, winning Best Commissioning Editor honors was Marie Nelson, PBS’s VP of news and public affairs.

As for the pitches heard on Day 2 of the Forum, Brooklyn-based directors Jeff Reichert and Farihah Zaman presented Nobody Loves Me, in which they hope to explore some of the world’s ugliest animals; Liz Marshall asked whether lab grown, sustainable “clean meat” is the future in Meat The FutureBrett Story revealed an unflinching portrait of climate change with New York as the backdrop in The Hottest August (pictured); and Stig Björkman painted an intimate portrait of a media-shy literary icon in Joyce Carol Oates: I’ll Take You There.

Please note that coverage of the award winners — Sam Soko’s Softie; Shareef Nasir’s Case 993; Lena McDonald’s Betrayal, which won the Mounties Hat pitch; and Nanfu Wang’s Born in China — has been withheld due to respected publication bans.

Decision makers this year included BBC ‘Storyville’, Al Jazeera, CBC, Discovery Communications, Film Independent, HBO Documentary Films, Knowledge, The New York Times Op-Docs, NHK, PBS, PBS ‘Independent Lens’, PBS ‘POV’, Redford Center, Sundance Institute, SVT, TVO, yesDocu, YLE, and Vice, among others.

Note that dollar figures for budgets listed below are in U.S. currency.


Production Company: NLM Movie
Director: Jeff Reichert, Farihah Zaman
Production budget: $710,314
Still needed: $395,314

Logline: In a time of rapidly dwindling biodiversity, the animals that are earmarked for protection are usually those considered by humans to be adorable. But should only the cute survive?

A subversive nature documentary, Nobody Loves Me aims to place attention on some of the world’s oddest-looking members of the animal kingdom in need of saving, as filmmakers Jeff Reichert (GerrymanderingThis Time Next Year) and Farihah Zaman (Remote Area Medical) travel the globe to share their stories with viewers in an intimate fashion. Strange looking animals explored in the “freewheeling, wryly comedic” documentary include the aquatic scrotum frog, found exclusively in Lake Titicaca; the axolotl, a rare underwater species of salamander; Madagascar’s aye-aye, the world’s largest nocturnal primate; the blobfish, a gelatinous fish that inhabits the deep pressurized waters around Australia; and the proboscis monkey, whose population in Borneo has declined by an estimated 50% in the last 30 years.

Reichert told the table that each animal within the project will receive “the treatment usually reserved for their more attractive, mainstream approved cousins.” As such, the filmmaking duo plans to write narration so that the animals can speak to the viewer directly about their lives and communities.

Production on the doc is still in the early stages of development with an expected delivery date set for Q3 2019. The directors have received financial support from an unnamed distributor ($300,000) and The Redford Center ($15,000).

Marie Nelson, VP news & public affairs at PBS, noted that Nobody Loves Me could potentially serve as a co-presentation between PBS’ ‘Independent Lens’ and ‘Nature’, but showed concerns about having to push the production values in a nature and wildlife film, whether through a director of photography, producer or cinematographer. “We’d love to do anything that we could do to be of assistance in trying to do some matchmaking to help you along with that part of the project.”

Murray Battle, director of independent production and presentation at Knowledge Network, said that while the British Columbia network serves primarily as an arts and culture outlet, that the film “just looks fun and would love to talk.”

ARD/NDR’s Barbara Biemann, meanwhile, enjoyed the unusual approach and humor attached to the film. NDR, she said, is a network that is deeply involved in blue-chip wildlife and shared similar concerns regarding top quality production value, but noted that if no other German broadcaster jumped on, the team should circle back.

Production Company: Lulo Films
Director: Alejandro Bernal
Production budget: $388,00
Still needed: $338,000

Logline: Can there be love after the war?

This observational documentary serves as a love story between two former combatants of the Colombian guerrilla group FARC-EP. Rebel Love follows Cristian and Yimarly as they turn in their weapons in favor of love while navigating the complex process of reintegrating into normal society.

Jamie Escallon-Burgalia’s Lulo Films has contributed $50,000 to the project’s production budget.

Production on the film, which could fit a feature length and television broadcast hour format, began in October 2016 with shooting to continue into the next year. Production is slated to wrap in December 2019. Director Alejandro Bernal and his production team were at the Hot Docs Forum in search of broadcast and coproduction partners.

Justine Nagan, the executive director of American Documentary, remarked that the audience at ‘POV’ is enthralled by personal stories that capture complex socio-political situations. The characters, she said, are “very charismatic, warm characters that draw you in” and said the film had ‘POV’ as a potential landing pad.

Chicago Media Project’s co-founder and board chair Steve Cohen said that the company had previously looked at film projects focused on personal stories of individuals who were embroiled in similar political conflict and was intrigued about a film that didn’t focus domestically within the U.S., but went farther abroad.

Naomi Boxer, documentary programmer with Canada’s TVO, echoed comments made around the table, saying that the Canadian pubcaster was in search of documentaries with social context and current affairs, but with a personal way in. And while Boxer believed the characters to be compelling, she wondered how the director would provide context to those unfamiliar with Colombia’s political history.

“Our film is completely focused on the characters and what’s happening with them. I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen to them, but I am completely sure that there will be something happening in their lives in the next six months,” Bernal responded, noting local political uncertainties.

Production Company: Unlimited Film Operations, HBO Poland
Director: Ana Brzezińska
Production budget: $726,364
Still needed: $544,700

Logline: A dark road movie delving into the world of life-changing technology. Driven by loss and grief, a young filmmaker searches for answers to some of the major questions about human mortality.

After the sudden loss of her father, director Ana Brzezińska sets out in search of people attempting to “conquer death” by using bleeding-edge technologies. The film chronicles Brzezińska’s journey as she comes into contact with some of the globe’s greatest tech pioneers currently working in the fields of life extension, AI, robotics and space colonization.

The feature-length film, which is coproduced by HBO Poland and incorporates a VR component, is currently in the development stages with two additional filming trips required. It has an expected delivery date of September 2019.

Brzezińska was at Hot Docs looking for funding and partnerships that would help her finish the development stage and subsequently join through production.

The Future of Forever has been thus far financed by HBO Poland ($100,000), United Film Operations ($42,364), Polish Film Institute ($22,000), National Audiovisual Institute ($14,300) and Documentary Campus e.V. ($3,000).

The feedback kicked off with Chicago Media Project’s Cohen who appreciated Brzezińska’s candor and honesty in the film. He further noted that the organization has an early stage grant that looks to help catapult projects like The Future of Forever, as well as innovative outreach impact grant, which is focused on the ways that technology is being used to produce impact for movies.

“I know it’s a little early for the second type of grant, but we’d would like to start tracking you now to talk to you about both grants,” he said.

And while broadcasters like TVO and Knowledge Network seemed keen to discover where Brzezińska’s personal exploratory journey would take her, ARD’s Biemann and Lois Vossen of PBS’ ‘Independent Lens’ needed more clarity.

“I was confused by the teaser, because it didn’t really reveal to me what the film was going to be about,” commented ‘Independent Lens’ executive producer Vossen.

However, it was in the presentation where Vossen felt most connected to the project because the director “revealed how you underwent that change.”

Production Company: Meat the Future
Director: Liz Marshall
Production budget: $561,308
Still needed: $228,750

Logline: What if slaughter-free, sustainable “clean meat” replaced conventional meat in the grocery store? Reinventing how meat gets to the plate is a tipping point that could change the world.

Spanning three years, Meat the Future serves as an immersive character-driven documentary examining ground zero of America’s clean meat movement, which asks whether sustainable lab-grown created meat can replace slaughtering animals. Through a five-act, dramatic structure, the feature-length film will explore the complexities of industrialized agriculture, spotlight a convergence of urgent issues and zoom in on pioneering change-makers, foodies, activists and critics.

Meat the Future has raised 60% of its financing in Canada, and the film’s team was at Hot Docs in search of presales and commissions from the international market. The project has a proposed delivery date of December 2019.

The Canada Media Fund ($150,000), CBC Documentary Channel ($75,000), Ontario Film and Television Tax Credit ($74,914) and Canadian Film and Television Tax Credit ($32,644) have contributed finances to the film.

‘Independent Lens’ commissioner Lois Vossen noted that while the long-running PBS documentary strand would not be able to board the film for production funding, there is interest in considering it for acquisition due to the film sitting at the intersection of technology, environment and sustainability. She also wondered whether her colleagues at PBS’s science strand ‘NOVA’ would have an interest in the film and would be happy to connect director Liz Marshall with them.

Jenny Raskin, VP of development and filmmaker relations at Impact Partners, however, seemed less certain of Marshall’s intentions with the film, stating that the trailer “felt more like a promotion, which can be tricky when profiling a start-up” and wondered how Marshall planned to balance the film.

“We’ve had a very robust development phase and most of my energy, to this point, has gone into securing exclusive access, and also being there at certain story milestones for character development,” Marshall responded. “Absolutely the film is going to include the other side and the complexity of this to present a very well-rounded view of this nascent enterprise.”

ARD’s Biemann, meanwhile, strongly recommended that Marshall consider producing for a television hour because the film would “market very well across the planet,” before adding that it’s not something that she would come in on at this point as a commissioner but would consider as an acquisition later on.

Erkko Lyytinen, a producer in YLE’s copro department, said that while the subject itself is one of great urgency, he needed to be quite critical of the presentation and trailer: “You said that this film will be character driven, but I didn’t get that much about characters at all from your trailer. They were more promoting their own ideas and their own company, so I ask you to focus on the element of drama and on the characters behind the situation – what motivates them?”

Production Company: Walking Productions, Oh Raftface Films
Director: Brett Story
Production budget: $549,500
Still needed: $152,481

Logline: A film about climate change, disguised as a portrait of collective anxiety, The Hottest August offers a window into the collective conscious of the present.

Toronto- and New York-based indie filmmaker Brett Story was in attendance presenting her third feature-length film The Hottest August, an obs-doc about climate change that “blends intimate interviews with artful camera work”. The film, with a proposed delivery date of September 2018, documents climate change without being mentioned through intimate portraits of a raft of New Yorkers living through August 2017, a month rife with tension over a new president, growing anxiety over rising rents, marching white nationalists and erratic weather systems battering America.

Story has teamed with Cameraperson editor Nels Bangerter to cut The Hottest August, which has a proposed delivery date of Fall 2019.

The project, which was seeking partners in Canada and internationally, has thus far received backing from ITVS ($300,019), Genuine Article Pictures ($50,000), Cinereach ($25,000), Sundance Documentary Fund ($12,500) and Toronto Arts Council ($9,500).

Among the executives raining praise upon the acclaimed director was Christopher White, executive producer, ‘POV’/American Documentary, who said that The Hottest Summer was a prime cinematic example of “what we love about film”, in terms of artistry. “I also liked the tapestry of human experience you’re finding in New York,” he added.

Adding to the commendation was PBS’s Marie Nelson, who was intrigued to see how the film would ultimately unfold while pointing primarily to Story’s “exquisite use of portraiture.” But the compliment also came with constructive criticism, with Nelson longing to see the significant conflict at the root of an environmental story like this.

ARTE France’s Rasha Salti, who serves as head of ‘La Lucarne’, remarked that these essay forms are very much what her doc strand is about, but was curious as to how a film about a particular month within a year would age for future generations.

“One of the motivations for making this film was thinking ahead to future generations and what archive we’re leaving them,” Story clarified. “We see this film very much as working on a level of being a mirror looking back to us, but also as an archive that doesn’t just tell future generations that we knew the planet was collapsing but that we had wherewithal to ask ourselves how that affected us and what we were doing about it. We were thinking a lot about making sure the film doesn’t get time-stamped in the wrong ways.”

Erkko Lyytinen from Finnish broadcaster YLE mentioned he’d previously seen The Hottest Summer being pitched in Copenhagen at CPH:DOX and didn’t understand it then. However, after viewing the trailer, he said he fell in love with the material. “This is archive material for the future, and I don’t know how you’ve managed to create that atmosphere because it has the same essence, the same feeling of America in Color.

Production Company: Mantaray Film, East Village Entertainment
Director: Stig Björkman
Production budget: $1.2 million
Still needed: $674,520

Logline: Joyce Carol Oates, iconic American writer and witness of her times, takes us on a journey through landscapes, histories and mythologies, celebrating the power of language and imagination.

Seventy-nine-year-old Stig Björkman has once again partnered with the formidable producer Stina Gardell on their fourth collaborative documentary, Joyce Carol Oates: I’ll Take You There. With full access to Oates’s private archive, the feature paints an intimate portrait of the seminal literary and feminist figure and explores the landscape from which she evolved, her personal life, dreams and expectations and the histories and mythologies she’s examined.

Delivery on the project is expected for the spring of 2019 with an updated production budget of $1.2 million.

The filmmaking team, which has been following Oates over last 16 months, has acquired financial support from the Swedish Film Institute ($204,545), Mantaray Film ($100,088) and EU-Media Creative Europe ($40,091).

As the old saying goes, “Give someone their flowers while they’re still alive,” and PBS’s Marie Nelson believes Björkman is doing just that with the feminist literary icon. “That you have her as an active participant is a gift. She is the ultimate character and there are so many layers to this story,” she said, adding that ‘American Masters’ would be proud to be in conversation with the filmmaker.

Naomi Boxer said TVO would be interested in the film even with PBS’s involvement, and was surprised at how open Oates was in the film teaser because of her renowned status as a media shy author.

Mark Edwards at ARTE France also expressed disbelief at Björkman’s ability to acquire such exclusive access to Oates’ private life. Edwards, however, was curious as to how much more provocative material would Björkman provide for audiences: “Her world is as interesting for us as her practice as a writer; the provocative side, and this notion that reality is full of violence and many stories aren’t told.”

Production Company: Videomante, Mischief Films, Kerekes Films
Director: Peter Kerekes
Production budget: $545,800
Still needed: $436,600

Logline: A simple yet effective method to change your destiny by taking a trip on the day of your birthday.

Wishing On A Star profiles the lives of four people and the Neapolitan astrologist who believe that chasing a better constellation of stars to a specific far-away destination on their birthday has the power to dramatically change their lives. The film will look to reveal the group’s desires and hidden wishes, and the human urge to believe in something, all while documenting their worldly journeys and their interactions with the local inhabitants.

The project is currently in development.

Peter Kerekes’ Wishing on a Star has received financial support from RAI ($30,000), Media-Subprogram Education, Audiovisual and Culture Executive Agency/Creative Europe ($30,000), Fondo Audiovisivo del Friuli Venezia Giulia ($14,400), Videomante ($12,000), Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée ($6,000), Kerekes Films ($6,000), Mischief Films ($6,000) and YLE Finnish Broadcasting Company ($4,800).

‘POV’ executive director Justine Nagan remarked that the strand’s audience is enchanted with memorable characters and thought the whimsy in Wishing on a Star in combination with its grounding in humanity and the search for love could potentially work for PBS. “Kudos to the Hot Docs programmers for ending on this film,” she said.

Mandy Chang, commissioning editor of the BBC’s premier international documentary strand ‘Storyville’, said that she would like to keep tracking the project as it motors along, while noting that the style and the tone of the film seemed so self-assured. “What a charming pitch.”

Chicago Media Project’s Steve Cohen, who, much like Nagan and Chang, stated that he would like to keep tracking the film and keep in touch, added, “it’s a lovely idea and a lovely project. We really like what we see but it’s a little early.”

Though equally charmed and impressed, Impact Partners’ Jenny Raskin wondered whether Wishing on a Star director Peter Kerekes could anticipate what the narrative of each separate character would be once they departed for their journey.

Kerekes responded: “It’s very important to see the change of the characters. We’ll film them before and during the trip, it will not just be a journey to exotic places – it will be a journey into the soul of our characters.”

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