The 2019 Hot Docs Forum report, part one

The 20th edition of the Hot Docs Forum kicked off on Tuesday (April 30) with 10 out of 21 projects presented to an expert panel. In this first installment of a two-part report, ...
May 1, 2019

The 20th edition of the Hot Docs Forum kicked off on Tuesday (April 30) with 10 out 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.

Projects discussed in this installment include Alvin Ailey by Jamila Wignot, which looks at life of the gay African-American artist Alvin Ailey; Zinder, Aicha Macky’s exploration of the growing gang epidemic in Zinder, Niger; Valerie Kontakos’ The Queen of the Deuce, a portrait of the complex figure Chelly Wilson; and Hidden Letters from Violet De Feng and Zhao Qing, who chronicle the fight to preserve an ancient secret language used by women.

This year’s projects come from 18 different countries and were selected from more than 325 submissions. All projects are eligible for the First Look Pitch Prize, the CA$10,000 Corus-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, and the Cuban Hat Award.

There was a media blackout on Maya and a partial blackout on Plan C For Civilization.

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

Production company:
Insignia Films, PBS ‘American Masters’
Director: Jamila Wignot
Production budget: $1,599,595
Still needed: $549,595
Proposed delivery date: Autumn 2020

Hot Docs logline: A chronicle of a visionary gay African-American artist who found salvation through dance and created boundary-shattering works while building one of the most successful dance companies in the world.

Brooklyn-based filmmaker Jamila Wignot’s debut feature-length film Alvin Ailey spotlights the influence of African-American choreographer Alvin Ailey on modern dance. The works he created, which explored the African-American experience, broke boundaries and stereotypes and redefined modern dance. The film is an intimate portrait of Ailey’s life and his enduring vision.

Noland Walker of ITVS kicked off the Forum by saying the film funder/distributor was interested in the production, which is currently under consideration for its Open Call funding.

Meanwhile, Christopher Hastings of World Channel WGBH/PBS said he endorsed the project as the story “needs to be told.”

And Mandy Chang, BBC ‘Storyville’ commissioner, said she was interested in the style of the film being pushed as a format. However, from the trailer, Chang noted that combining the past and present don’t push the form. “It’s a well-known way of making dance documentaries,” she said. Chang said the team should be focused on turning the film into something distinctive, which should be possible due to the size of its budget. Chang said its a film that BBC Arts would most likely be interested in.

Production company: Tabous Productions; co-production partners are Les Films du Balibari and CORSO Film
Director: Aicha Macky
Production budget: $408,626
Still needed: $381,186
Proposed delivery date: June 3, 2020

Hot Docs logline: Unemployed youths are swelling the ranks of gangs sowing violence in Zinder, Niger. Aicha Macky explores the origins of the radicalization in her hometown and the prospects for escaping.

Filmmaker and activist Aicha Macky takes audiences into the world of the growing gangs in the Kara Kara district of Zinder, Niger, brought on by the swell of unemployed, young men. These young men style themselves on the American hotshots from the ghettos, and are a ticking time bomb, sowing violence in society. Zinder explores the roots of violence spreading throughout Africa and the potential for escaping it.

Arte France’s Mark Edwards noted that Macky had great access to her characters, but would be interested in seeing youth as a focus of the film as he assumes they are the main targets for radicalization.

Chang of BBC ‘Storyville’ lauded Aisha Macky for her bravery in tackling this subject. “I’m interested in talking to you to hear more about how you are going to weave this story together and how you are going to use allegorical metaphors to help tell the story,” Chang noted.

She said even if she didn’t take Zinder, it might find a home on BBC’s ‘Africa Eye’ stream.

In the U.S., Christopher White of ‘POV’/’American Documentary’ said his main question was what role Macky played in the film. After watching the trailer, White felt the director took on a journalistic role, noting that may not be a natural fit for ‘POV.’ He questioned how much personal reflection and personal story was interwoven into the film.

Harry Vaughn of Sundance Institute, meanwhile, was intrigued by Macky’s access and her own voice in the story. However, he didn’t quite see the tensions and high stakes raised in the film, although he thinks they are inherently a part of the story.

Production company:
Arrow Factory Productions, Pango Pictures Co. Ltd
Director: Nan Zhang
Production budget: $347,729
Still needed: $159,729
Proposed delivery date: December 30, 2019

Hot Docs logline: China is restoring the ruined Great Wall. As the historical project takes place, commoners from different generations, young, middle-aged and elderly, contend with higher powers and face old ghosts.

Another Brick on the Wall from Nan Zhang follows the stories of commoners’ sacrifices for the restoration of the national landmark in Xifengkou, a partially submerged portion of the Great Wall of China.

Chang of BBC’s ‘Storyville’ said after viewing the film’s trailer she struggled to understand what the tensions were between the groups of people. She said it would be a complex task to unpack the facts of the story in the film. Chang explained that she wants to see how the story unfolds and is interested in tracking the project despite not jumping on it immediately.

Murray Battle of Canadian arts-focused channel Knowledge Network said China is a subject of interest to the network’s audience and the film would be a natural fit for them. Though he acknowledged there was still a lot to figure out in terms of the story, Battle said he trusts the team and is committed to the project.

Jane Jankovic of TVOntario said she loved the story as the stakes she felt were “so high for everybody.” Also, the rebuilding of the Great Wall of China, which is a historical site, is itself interesting, Jankovic noted.

Over at ‘POV’, White made mention that he is interested in tracking the film as it strikes similar themes to movies his broadcaster has previously aired, including Fallen City and Up The Yangtze. White likened Another Brick on the Wall to these films that show how decisions made at the governmental level impact people on the ground. He said the film highlights active resistance.

“I’m interested in learning more about the intersection of the local government and those individual characters to crystallize what the stakes are,” White noted.

Production company: Intuitive Pictures, Inc., Cabula6
Director: Jeremy Xido
Production budget: $1,495,245
Still needed: $967,708
Proposed delivery date: May 1, 2020

Hot Docs logline: In the wake of a dramatic court case, United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton, players with lucrative stakes in the international dinosaur-bone trade are caught between commerce and science.

The international trail of poached dinosaur bones from Central Asia to the dark alleys of Seoul, Korea, to Hollywood is the subject of Jeremy Xido’s The Bones. The film follows Dr. Bolor Minjin, one of Mongolia’s first female paleontologists as she journeys from her hometown of New York City back to the Gobi Desert to learn how the dinosaur bones were stolen from the rich fossil region. Minjin is featured alongside a cast of characters who are at the center of the international dinosaur bone trade.

Sandra Kleinfeld of Canadian pubcaster CBC said she liked the story and the dynamic between science and commerce, and wanted to know more about the characters. She was also interested in talking to the team privately about how they planned on integrating the creation of a dinosaur into the film’s narrative.

Elsewhere, TVO’s Jankovic stated that she’s always been attracted to a film that “sniffs out the money trail” and what you learn along the way.

Kathleen Lingo of The New York Times Op-Docs, meanwhile, said she was not surprised that dinosaur bones are selling for millions of dollars. Lingo, however, was more interested in finding out what sentiment the production team wanted to leave with audiences. She also thought the scientific discovery aspect of The Bones seemed unconnected to the commerce aspect of the film.

‘POV’s White explained that the film seemed as though it would make for good television viewing, describing it as a documentary thriller. However, he wasn’t sure if the film would find a home on ‘POV’ as he feels the true crime aspect seems to drive the project.

Production company: Exile Films Ltd.
Director: Valerie Kontakos
Production budget: $483,000
Still needed: $413,000
Proposed delivery date: December 7, 2020

Hot Docs logline: Chelly Wilson was the high priestess of Times Square, reigning over the porn cinema circuit for two decades. Torn between feminism and exploitation, she was one of New York’s biggest riddles.

Native New York filmmaker Valerie Kontakos tells the story of Chelly Wilson,  who was born Rachel Serrero into a Sephardic Jewish community in Thessaloniki. Escaping to America on the outbreak of World War II, without her family, she reinvented herself and with, the onslaught of the modern gay rights movement and the success of Deep Throat, developed a porn empire.

Edwards of Arte France said the world of Times Square in the ’70s was a fascinating time. Nowadays, with identity politics taking a stronghold in culture, seeing an unconventional grandmother live through those times is amazing. “I think that’s the heart of the story I would be most interested in watching,” he said.

Avital Levi of Israel-based yesDocu said the trailer showcased the archive of Wilson when she was older, so she wanted to know how much video archive there was of her at other ages. Additionally, she wanted clarification on whether the protagonist’s Jewish identity was being portrayed on screen.

Jenny Westergard of Finnish broadcaster YLE said she had been tracking the film for a while, and wanted to know whether the production team held other materials outside of archive and how they were going to contextualize the Greek community in New York City.

Production company:
Lemuntu Producciones E.I.R.L., NETLAB S.A. DE C.V.
Director: Antonio Caro Berezin
Production budget: $277,939
Still needed: $94,288
Proposed delivery date: March 31, 2019

Hot Docs logline: As her pregnancy grows, Lucila will be obliged by the Chilean healthcare system to leave her Mapuche community in the Andes to await her childbirth in the city.

Antonio Caro Berezin’s Monguen is an obs-doc that follows a small girl from a community in the Chilean Andes through her first pregnancy. Under the country’s healthcare system’s rules, she must leave her family and natural environment and journey to an urban center until her baby is born and she can return home.

Margje De Koning of Dutch pubcaster Ikon said to bring this project to a Western European audience the production team was going to have to add context to the story as birth is universal across all cultures.

“You have to help me, as a viewer, understand that and what circumstance they are coming from. From the trailer, I couldn’t get that…We need more information to understand the harshness and uniqueness of the film,” De Koning noted.

Reem Haddad of Al Jazeera English said Monguen is a project that would appeal to the broadcaster’s audience and that indigenous issues in the Global South are of interest to them. She wondered whether a woman giving birth in a city is enough for audiences to grasp the Mapuche situation and the antagonism between the indigenous community and mainstream society.

Production company: Fish + Bear Pictures, Ten Thousand Images AS
Director: Violet Du Feng, Zhao Qing
Production budget: $685,548
Still needed: $629,719
Proposed delivery date: September 30, 2021

Hot Docs logline: Two young Chinese millennials in rural and metropolis China look toward the wisdom of an ancient secret woman-only script to navigate their lives in a world that continues to be dominated by men.

Hidden Letters, from award-winning filmmakers Violet De Feng and Zhao Qing follows characters Hu Xin and Wu Simu, two gatekeepers of the ancient secret language of Nushu, used solely by women in a few rural regions of Central China. With political and commercial interest in commodifying the language, Xin and Simu struggle to preserve the female-centric roots of the language.

Yoko Imai of Japanese broadcast network NHK said despite differences between China and Japan, the Japanese also feel the need for female empowerment. Imai said she thought Hidden Letters would draw in viewers.

ITVS’ Walker said the trailer depicted appropriation, capitalism, power and maleness “sinking its hand” into something built around the language of resistance – a message that transcends cultures.

A project like Hidden Letters, according to Al Jazeera’s Haddad, is the kind of story the channel is interested in as it showcases “women taking over the world.”

Production company: Hitbird Productions, LLC
Director: Bo McGuire
Production budget:$299,900
Still needed: $265,400
Proposed delivery date: August 1, 2019

Hot Docs logline: A poet composes a cinematic love letter to his grandmother as his homophobic aunt and drag-queen uncle wage war over her estate in Hokes Bluff, Alabama.

Bo McGuire heads home to Hokes Bluff, Alabama, where he finds his favorite childhood relative, Aunt Sharon, has locked her gay, drag-queen brother, John, out of the family home. The fight over objects, money and land goes to the local courts where Aunt Sharon is consumed with “her version of justice”.

Vaughn of the Sundance Institute said Socks on Fire brings audiences into queerness in the American South, and showing it as something that we are not used to – seeing it as “positive, affirming, artistic and personal.” Vaughn said he can’t wait to see the final project.

‘POV’s White, meanwhile, said the project has the “potential to be amazing” and that McGuire is taking creative risks, which he found refreshing. However, given the boundary-pushing nature of Socks on Fire, White said as a broadcaster he would have to see how the creative approach plays out over the course of the film before jumping into the project.

And Chang of the BBC said she wanted the film for ‘Storyville.’ Describing the project as having heart and really positive story. She said it’s rare to hear stories of the South with a queer protagonist. “As long as I get the green light from above, I’m in,” Chang said.

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