The 2020 Hot Docs Forum report, part one

The digital edition of the 21st annual Hot Docs Forum kicked off on Tuesday (May 5) with 11 out of 22 projects presented to an expert panel. In this first installment of a ...
May 11, 2020

The digital edition of the 21st annual Hot Docs Forum kicked off on Tuesday (May 5) with 11 out of 22 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 digital pitching event.

Projects discussed in this installment include An Act of Worship (main image) by Nausheen Dadabhoy, a hybrid documentary that examines the Muslim-American experience over the last 20 years; Energlandia, Kinga Michalska’s exploration of the “grotesque juxtaposition” surrounding Poland’s largest amusement park situated 20 kilometres from former Nazi concentration camp, Auschwitz-Birkenau; and In the Shade of Light from directors Ignacia Merino and Isabel Reyes, which documents the Chilean hamlet of Charrúa that lies in darkness despite being surrounded by four thermoelectric plants and an electrical substation.

This year’s project selections were chosen from 463 submissions and represent 19 countries, with women making up 18 of the 27 directors. 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 were media blackouts on several projects including Kristi Jacobson and Jialing Zhang’s untitled films, with the information at the bottom of this story the only information permitted to be published for that project, as well as partial media blackouts on WarplayThe New Greatness and Dreaming Walls.

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


Production company: Ethnofund, Nukleus Film, Roast Beef Productions
Director: Anna Shishova-Bogolubova
Production budget: $447,737
Still needed: $372,121
Proposed delivery date: March 2021

Hot Docs logline:
In today’s Russia the young, the freethinking, the honest are seen as a threat by the autocratic Putin regime. It does everything to crush them.

Filmmaker Anna Shishova-Bogolubova and producer Vlad Ketkovich have arrived, figuratively speaking, at Hot Docs ’20 with one-third of their budget raised with support from Creative Media Europe, the IDFA Bertha Fund, the Baltic to Black Sea Documentary Network, American Film Showcase and via HBO Europe’s Development Award. The pair have shot 90% of their material and are awaiting final court hearings in June to complete the film. At the same time, the duo have edited a 20-minute rough cut with plans to release The New Greatness in Spring 2021.

Axel Arnö at Swedish broadcaster SVT noted that while he was “very interested” in the investigative side of this film, he would like to know more about the exact evidence that would trace the investigation back to the Russian regime, as well as whether the filmmaking team had “any access to the Russian regime.”

Director Shishova-Bogolubova replied by stating that she would be able to share more information in a one-on-one meeting as they are dealing with sensitive materials, but that “we have interviews with people on the police side.”

While ARTE France has supported several investigative films about Russia in the last number of years, commissioning editor Mark Edwards explained that he wanted to know “how widespread this entrapment is, and how many people is this touching?”

BBC Storyville’s Hayley Reynolds said has been tracking The New Greatness for “a while” and though she believed the story to be “really, really strong,” the UK pubcaster is quite concerned for the characters’ safety.

“One thing we’ve been talking quite a lot about internally is the safety and duty of care to the girls, their families,” said Reynolds, “and whether you can do anything to try and mitigate the risk and what that risk may be.”

Though she very much enjoyed the pitch, Barbara Beimann at ARD – NDR said the story at the moment felt “too locally Russian” for the German broadcaster. “But I would definitely pass on the project to MDR (Mitteldeutscher Rundfunk). They’re focusing on Eastern Europe and Russia is definitely their turf, so I would be happy to connect you.”


Production company: Capital K Pictures
Director: Nausheen Dadabhoy
Production budget: $1,048,228
Still needed: $632,584
Proposed delivery date: December 31, 2020

Hot Docs logline:
An Act of Worship (main image) is a hybrid documentary that combines verité, archival footage and community-sourced home videos to create a collective memory of the Muslim-American experience in the last 20 years.

Filmmaker Nausheen Dadabhoy and producer Heba Elorbany have completed 90% of the shooting for An Act of Worship just prior to global stay-at-home orders were implemented. The remaining 10% of materials to be acquired will encompass archival footage and home videos. From a production standpoint, the team is still on track to complete the film by the end of 2020 and reach their wide release goal on the 20th anniversary of 9/11 in September 2021.

“We started this film for our community, and the most important thing for us is that this film is complete and available before the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” said Dadabhoy.

The Ford Foundation was an early supporter of An Act of Worship and has provided three separate grants to it since 2017. The filmmaking partners have raised approximately 50% of their budget through crowdfunding efforts and grants.

Dadabhoy and Elorbany are actively seeking partners to assist in closing the budget gap in order to continue editing and meet their delivery goal. In addition to funding, the team is looking for distribution and impact partners. All rights are still available.

Charlotte Cook and her team at Field of Vision have been following this project for some time having worked with Dadabhoy in the past. During the feedback session, Cook provided blunt and positive feedback stating that she had yet to inform them of her thoughts.

“I haven’t told the filmmakers this yet because I was hoping to do this here, but we would love to provide a grant for this film,” Cook stated. “It’s been incredible how much the project has developed over time and I think it’s going to be a really important film when it goes out, so we’re very proud to offer some support financially to this film.”

Likewise, Poh Si Teng for Al Jazeera English’s ‘Witness’ strand has been following this project for a while and the question she posed was one similar to the question the executive had when she first met Dadabhoy. “The Muslim American experience is so broad and vast,” said Si Teng. “What’s the binding glue that holds it all together? Do the subjects in your film meet each other?”

Chris White, representing PBS and American Documentary for ‘POV’, added that this project could “easily” find a home on PBS somewhere and was interested in the director’s commitment to verité footage.

“On the face of it, it seems as though this is history being told from the perspective of these three activist women,” he said. “I’m just wondering how much evolution we’re seeing in real time in these women, and how much of it is actually just a history of Islamophobia in the U.S.?”

Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs, meanwhile, stated that the Sundance Institute is currently supporting producer Sofian Khan through its Creative Producing Fellowship, adding that An Act of Worship is “definitely a project we’ve been tracking.” The executive, however, was curious to learn more about how the film’s narrative was going to come together now that the filmmakers have removed scripted re-enactment from the project.

NHK’s Yoko Imai, meanwhile, pondered whether a project focused on the Muslim American experience could work for audiences in the Far East, but concluded that it possibly could interest her viewing demographic.

“Considering the fact that next year is the anniversary, I think it has a good chance to find a home, either as an acquisition or a pre-buy in one of the NHK documentary slots, or maybe other forms of collaboration depending on the details of your story and the style of filming,” the executive noted.

All responses from the filmmaking team were provided to industry experts off camera in scheduled one-on-one meetings.


Production companies: Gandom Production, inselfilm production
Directors: Mohammad Reza Eyni Sara Khaki
Production budget: $354,500
Still needed: $264,500
Proposed delivery date: April 15, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
Sara, a 38-year-old divorcée, is a motorcycle riding, former midwife turned fierce citizen advocate in her native Iranian village. She dares to go places that no woman has gone before.

Filmmakers Mohammad Reza Eyni and Sara Khaki are currently in advanced development and are planning to release Cutting Through Rocks on the festival circuit by 2022. Thus far, the pair have received financial support from Chicken & Egg Pictures and Bertha Foundation, among other funding.

Cutting Through Rocks is seeking funding, broadcasting and pre-sales, as well as grant support.

One industry expert hoping to offer its support is the Sundance Institute’s Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs who has been tracking the project’s progress over a two-year period. The film had previously been a finalist for funding at Sundance Institute, but ultimately the organization wasn’t able to back the film then. “I was so happy to see it again here, and love where you’re taking the narrative. I want to spend time with your footage, it’s so beautiful. I’d love to start talking again and see where you’re at.”

Jane Mote from The Whickers agreed that both the footage and access in the film are “amazing,” but was curious as to how the filmmakers would build the narrative to make the story of a motorcycle-driving councilwoman in Iran a more universal one. “You’re in development so there are still options for you,” she said.

ARD – NDR’s Barbara Biemann had a similar concern and asked for clarity surrounding the film’s dramatic arc and what the major conflicts in the film were.

Co-directors Sara Khaki and Mohammad Reza Eyni responded by saying the pair have a “very clear idea” of how they will film the remainder of the film when it comes to the secondary characters, the women, and the struggles within the village.

“Although Sara is in power, there are still people who are stopping her in her political activities, but also now that she wants to push the girls to change,” Khaki replied.

The filmmaking team has been following the protagonist Sara since the 2017 elections, and have been filming on and off since with heavy dependence on funding.

Eyni added that the filmmakers have full access to the village, to Sara, her opponents and the girls that Sara wants to help. “After three years, we know how we can tell our story by asking people to participate in front of our camera.”

Noland Walker of PBS – ITVS closed out the pitch with high praise for the filmmakers, noting that the cinematography for Cutting Through Rocks reminded him of such films as 400 Blows and Pelle the Conqueror. “That felt like a dramatic feature film. Don’t ignore that power,” Walker stated. “I don’t know if this is right for us at PBS, but it’s right for me.”


Production companies: Clin d’Oeil Films, Media International, Momento Film, Films de l’Oeil Sauvage, Hard Working Movies, Basalt Film
Director: Amélie van Elmbt
Production budget: $768,000
Still needed: $189,695
Proposed delivery date: January 1, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
The legendary Chelsea Hotel is being renovated into a luxury hotel. In the chaos of the construction, the remaining residents hold on and try to keep the bohemian spirit alive.

The filmmaking team has shot approximately 80% of the material and are planning to finish shooting the remaining portions of the film throughout the summer. Should the ongoing coronavirus pandemic not allow director Amélie van Elmbt and her production team to return to New York City, a plan has been put in motion to either collaborate with a local crew in the Big Apple and film from a distance, or there will be much consideration placed into restructuring the material in order to finish the film without shooting the final portions of the film.

Dreaming Walls has 80% of financing in place thanks in part to funding from Belgium, France, Sweden and the Netherlands, and confirmed collaborations are already in place with international broadcasters including RTBF (French-speaking Belgium), Canvas/VRT (Belgium) and SVT (Sweden).

Dogwoof is representing international sales distribution.

Gaspard Lamuniere of Swiss pubcaster RTS kicked off the feedback by noting New York’s iconic Chelsea Hotel holds quite a bit of mystery within its walls, though the executive had “a lot of questions” surrounding the film’s style and narrative story arc. “How experimental will it be, because what I’ve seen in the trailer it’s quite experimental. You’re using mixes of archive and other things. I’ll be really curious about the style and the main storyline.”

Posed the question of whether this film would work for a Canadian audience by moderator Catherine Olsen, Knowledge Network’s Rudy Buttignol believed that it would as both the Chelsea Hotel and its artists are well known to Canadians. He added: “It’s a really interesting look at decline. Is it really about creation or about getting old? I think the latter is really interesting. Depending on which artists you survey, it could have really large appeal in Canada.”

CBC Docs and documentary Channel’s Sandra Kleinfeld, meanwhile, noted that the documentary probably would not work for the Canadian pubcaster as the network is “really looking to support Canadian stories and Canadian films.”

Dreaming Walls, however, could work for the BBC Storyville audience where assistant commissioning editor Hayley Reynolds said she’d like to watch an escapist film like this one immediately for reprieve from the current situation we’re in. Reynolds, however, added that while she saw “a lot of portraiture” in the trailer, she had concerns over whether the film had enough “narrative propulsion” to ensure that the film has depth.

Production company: Danish Documentary Production, Motto Pictures
Director: Pernille Rose Grønkjær
Production budget: $880,000
Still needed: $806,578
Proposed delivery date: January 20, 2022

Hot Docs logline:
A documentary about a plot to make a lot of money in Las Vegas by employing a betting system created by two world-class physicists that affects global financial modelling.

Norwegian free-to-air channel TV2 and the Danish Film Institute are already on board The Roulette Project, but the production team is still currently looking for interested and like-minded partners.

Additionally, producer Carolyn Hepburn said the team has a way of producing the film despite current difficulties of traveling between the U.S. and Europe.

Noland Walker of PBS and ITVS stated that the film “most certainly” could find an audience with American viewers as the mathematically-focused project looks like “fun” while TVO’s Jane Jankovic noted that while the story does look fun, it is also “an interesting story about human character, and the fickleness of the market and where we put our money.”

Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs with the Sundance Institute, meanwhile, stated that she believes The Roulette Project holds an interesting story but that she would “love to learn more about how science and chaos theory” come into play as Sundance Institute has a specialty fund geared toward science-focused projects.

Elsewhere, ARTE France’s Mark Edwards said he was captivated by the trailer but was curious as to where the filmmaking team believed the storyline would go and whether the film would focus on capitalism, on science or how the world really works. “I’m not quite sure, but I’m happy to be taken somewhere.”

Director Pernille Rose Grønkjær answered that while there’s a strong link to science in this film, she was interested in seeing “that these two extremes – Vegas and Wall Street – in some way collide in this story.”

Wrapping up the pitch was Knowledge Network’s Buttignol, who said his British Columbia-based network is constantly seeking stories surrounding global economics and global financial markets as either one-offs or as part of anthology series.

“I’m not sure where these two guys sit, but the mathematical geniuses that are behind the manipulation of the financial markets are part of computer trading today, and I’d love to find out more about how this fits into the body of work already out there,” Buttignol said, adding that aspects of the film have already been fictionalized in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 film Casino.


Production company: Commuted Film
Director: Nailah Jefferson
Production budget: $797,551
Still needed: $577,551
Proposed delivery date: September 30, 2020

Hot Docs logline:
Commuted (pictured below) tells the story of Danielle Metz, whose triple-life sentence was commuted by the Obama administration, and who now is struggling to reconnect with the family she lost to incarceration.

New Orleans-based director Nailah Jefferson (Vanishing Pearls: The Oystermen of Pointe a la Hache) and producer Darcy McKinnon are approximately 70% of the way through production on Commuted and the filmmaking team is using the social distancing downtime to get closer to the story “by building scene assemblies, strategizing the remaining production, going deep on archival research and fundraising towards completion.”

The team remains hopeful to release the film in 2021 and are seeking funding, festival relationships, sales distribution opportunities and “to grow meaningful relationships around this issue and film,” McKinnon said.

Representatives from PBS’s ‘American Documentary’ and ‘POV’ strands fawned over the progress of Jefferson’s Commuted since being introduced to the project at a previous Pitch Black Forum.

“We’ve been tracking this film for years and we’re excited to see the latest trailer and how the story’s coming along. This team, they are the women to tell this story,” said Justine Nagan. “Not only are they incredibly talented, but the thought and care they’re putting into the making of this film, the impact that this documentary can have on the world, it shows what tremendous filmmakers and humans they are.”

“Having met Danielle (Metz) at the Pitch Black Forum, this is a character who will grab you by the lapels and touch you in a way that a good character should in a film,” added Chris White.

While equally “struck by the passion and commitment” given to the film, executives at Al Jazeera English and BBC Storyville wanted to find out what the director believed the film’s narrative arc to be, and how the film was meant to begin.

“The film thematically is very important, but the challenge for ‘Witness’ is because we only look at observational films, hybrid-experimental films are a bit of a challenge for us,” said Al Jazeera English’s Poh Si Teng.

Jefferson, meanwhile, noted that her film is “deeply meditative” and follows Danielle’s journey as she returns home from prison and is “confronted with the fact that the dream that got her through prison isn’t her reality.

“I met Danielle in 2017, about four months after she came home; that’s where we’ll pick up,” Jefferson added. “At the time her mother was still alive… but her mother dies seven months after she returns home from prison. That’s when she realizes that the dream that really pushed her through [her time in prison] is not one that she can realize now and has to begin a new dream for herself.”


Production company: Dos Be Producciones
Directors: Ignacia Merino, Isabel Reyes
Production budget: $200,000
Still needed: $170,000
Proposed delivery date: December 20, 2023

Hot Docs logline:
The story of the village that illuminates Chile but itself lies in darkness.

In the Shade of Light will serve as a 60-minute feature film and is currently in an advanced stage of development. The Chilean filmmaking team, led by first-time directors and cousins Ignacia Merino and Isabel Reyes, is currently seeking funds to finance the production that’s planned for the end of 2020 and the beginning of 2021.

Producer María José Díaz Merino added that the team are also in the search of “high standard international labs” that will push the creation of “a visually ambitious documentary.” As well, the South American group is also open to speaking with international distributors and outreach partners.

The film focuses on how a small Chilean town is surrounded by four thermoelectric plants and the country’s most important electrical substation. The streets of the 2,000-person town of Charrúa, however, are without light fixtures and electricity to its residents is “frequently cut off” despite paying some of the most expensive electricity fees in the country.

Though the judging panel similarly applauded the aesthetic and interesting story surrounding In the Shade of Light, similar comments and concerns were echoed by those in attendance.

Like many, Axel Arnö from SVT had concerns that the project would not work for his Swedish audience as the film did not follow a specific character, but rather relied on many from the Chilean village of Charrúa to lead the narrative. “I probably need somebody to cheer for in the struggle against the big energy company,” he commented.

NHK’s Yoko Imai agreed, adding that she was interested in the project as it focuses on “this very small, remote village in a very unfair situation” but added that Japanese viewers would likewise need a central protagonist. “I know it’s under development, but I need to know more about the potential characters and the storyline. I would like to set a meeting.”

“I was struggling a little bit with the video sample and understanding how it’s going to work on television. I know you’re in the very early stages, so I would love to hear more about the narrative drive and characters we’ll meet along the way,” added Chris White, representing PBS for ‘American Documentary’ and ‘POV’.

SBS Australia’s Krishan Arora stated that while Chile is quite far away from his Australian audience, the filmmakers were at an advantage when it came to the universal story of the importance of electricity. His concerns, however, reiterated Arnö’s apprehensions in that local audiences would need a social context of Chile.

“I wonder if there’s a way of finding characters in the big city, in the big establishment, in the government, maybe in the protest movements in Chile as the counterpoints to what we’re seeing in the village,” the SBS executive added. “When you get that contrast, we can see what it really means and … we need to know why we’re focusing on this little village when there are some big changes happening in Chile.”


Production company: Tangram Film
Director: Hemen Kurda
Production budget: $408,986
Still needed: $371,899
Proposed delivery date: July 1, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
A young boy grows up in a refugee camp in Kurdistan. His biggest dream is to become a soldier—until the day he receives a camera from a former refugee.

Warplay is currently in early development and director Hemen Kurda and producer Hanna Sköld have received funding and a year-long mentorship via the CrossCurrents Hot Docs Fund. In addition to backing from Hot Docs, the film has Swedish development financing from the Swedish film institute and Swedish Television “but we need more money in order to make a rough cut while filming,” said Sköld.

In addition, the filmmaking duo are currently seeking a co-producer to join the project that could broadcast across television while also serving as a film that could be used as a “tool for people working with refugees to understand their needs.”

ARTE France’s Rasha Salti kicked off the session’s feedback by stating that she was “very moved” by the story as she’s from the region. She added that while the film could in essence work for La Lucarne, the brand had recently wrapped a comparable film set in a remote Iranian village where women become empowered by the use of cameras to tell their own stories.

“It would be hard for me to commit or even consider this project, but if you’d like to talk to me, I could also guide you,” Salti stated. “I might have some tips for funding in the region.”

Chris White explained that while he feared it may be too early for his brands at PBS to join as co-producers, he was interested in the project as it focuses on the children’s perspective in a Kurdish refugee camp. “I’m also interested in your role and your motivations for organizing these workshops and what the methodology behind that is, as well as what you hope to gain from it.”

Jane Mote from The Whickers, meanwhile, stated that she would like to set a one-on-one meeting with the Warplay team and was hoping for “more focus” on where the film’s narrative was leading to especially “because it’s such an early stage, it’d be great to talk about that element in more detail.”

Sundance Institute’s Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs closed out the discussion by mentioning that the project is one that is currently in consideration for Sundance’s funding round. Molnar-Szakacs added that while participatory filmmaking is common place in modern documentary, “there’s something beautiful about this because you treat the footage with such sensitivity” and was interested in exploring the connection between director Kurda and the children as well as “the complicated relationship you’ve formed and the responsibility you feel.”


Production company: Catbird Productions
Director: Kinga Michalska
Production budget: $432,222
Still needed: $297,908
Proposed delivery date: December 15, 2022

Hot Docs logline:
Poland’s largest amusement park sits only a few kilometres from the Auschwitz concentration camp—a grotesque juxtaposition that prompts reflection on post-Holocaust sites that overlap with everyday life all across the country.

Creative and observational documentary Energylandia will serve as the debut feature from Polish-born filmmaker Kinga Michalska, an accomplished photographer now based in Montreal.

The aim of the film will be to “construct a highly visual, poetic constellation of vignettes” that will refrain from traditional narratives of the Holocaust to instead “disturb comfortable binaries of good and bad, truth and fiction.”

Michalska and her production partner Katarina Soukup are currently seeking end of development support, commissions, pre-buys and co-production partners.

HBO Europe’s Hanka Kastelicova began discussions by saying the broadcaster is “very interested in projects coming from Poland” and while she wasn’t entirely sure how the story will be constructed was keen on setting a meeting.

Likewise, ARTE France’s Rasha Salti asked to schedule a meeting, adding that a vast majority of La Lucarne filmmakers are either artists or photographers transitioning to film. “I’m particularly keen on first-time filmmakers, and I’m biased towards women.”

Industry veteran Lisa Kleiner Chanoff said that The Catapult Fund often boards projects early on and found the pitch for Energylandia to be “a very fascinating premise … about how countries all over the world deal with their past.” One challenge Kleiner Chanoff worried about, however, was how the film would get beyond the premise of the story, which is the juxtaposition of the concentration camp and the amusement park.

TVO’s Jane Jankovic was likewise most interested in the visual metaphor of Auschwitz and the Polish theme park, stating that “it’s a really fascinating way to start this discussion about the duality of history and the promise of tomorrow.”

However, the TVO executive echoed Kleiner Chanoff’s concerns regarding how director Michalska would continue returning to those examples as a way of moving the film forward.

Sabra Das of indie distributor A24, meanwhile, was curious to know how much the film will dive into enduring discussions about how keeping the Auschwitz memorial museum on the grounds of the concentration camp directly impacts the town.

“I do think it’s an important and very complicated discussion,” said Das, who had previously lived in Poland and worked at the museum. “I would love to set a time with you to chat about it further. It’s a really vital, untold story and I appreciate you navigating the complexity of it.”


Production Company: McGee Media, Moss Creative, Catalyst Films
Director: Kristi Jacobson


Production company: CineMia, Little Lantern Company
Director: Jialing Zhang
Production budget: $846,210
Still needed: $802,710
Proposed delivery date: January 31, 2022

Hot Docs logline:
A Chinese businessman dreams of turning a rural Nigerian town into the manufacturing epicentre of West Africa.

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