The 2020 Hot Docs Forum report, part two

The 2020 digital edition of the Hot Docs Forum returned Wednesday (May 6) with the final 11 of 22 projects presented to an expert panel. In this final installment of Realscreen‘s report ...
May 12, 2020

The 2020 digital edition of the Hot Docs Forum returned Wednesday (May 6) with the final 11 of 22 projects presented to an expert panel. In this final installment of Realscreen‘s report on the forum, we take a look at the last projects pitched during the two-day online event.

Part one of this report can be found here.

Pitched projects include Nesa Azimi’s Driver, about a community of women long-haul truck drivers; Jason Lapeyre’s Speak No Evil, a true-crime documentary about Donald Lang; and Anjali Nayar’s Just A Band (pictured), a coming-of-age story during Kenya’s post-dictatorship art renaissance.

Partial media blackouts were in effect for The Current and Children of the Mist.

Budget figures listed below are expressed in U.S. dollars. Loglines are provided by, and are created by and in some cases opinions of, the filmmakers.


Production company: Koi Studios
Director: Rafał Skalski
Production budget: $319,800
Still needed: $178,439
Proposed delivery date: September 30, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
Thirty years ago a group of young people kayaked down the Amazon for the first time ever. A group of 11 started the journey, but only two made it to the end.

Director Skalski and Agnieszka Skalska, a producer of the film, presented The Current May 6 to the virtual Hot Docs Forum panel. The film is currently in the pre-production phase with development funding from HBO Europe and production funding from the Polish Film Institute. Polish distributor Against Gravity is attached to the project, and rights are available.

Filmmakers have access to seven members of the 11-person team that attempted to kayak the Amazon River in the 1980s, in addition to two hours of archives created by members of the expedition.

Both Gaspard Lamuniere of RTS - Radio Télévision Suisse – the French speaking channel of Swiss broadcaster RTS — and Axel Arno of Swedish broadcaster SVT questioned how many members of the original group are alive, and who else would be participating in the film.

The filmmakers explained they have interviewed three of the 11 members, and have contacts for others but are waiting until after the current crisis to set up interviews.

Guy Lavie of Israel’s yesDocu praised the pitch, adding: “The trailer has all the great ingredients that can attract a large audience — human interaction, fight against nature.”

Hayley Reynolds of BBC documentary strand ‘Storyville’ asked whether members of the original expedition will be reunited in the film. Skalska said the filmmakers hope to reunite the group by the Amazon River: “It’s one of the last steps for us.”

“This sounds really fantastic,” Rudy Buttignol of Canada’s Knowledge Network, stated. “I think it really depends on the quality of the footage, what else you have. And also, at the end of the day, what I’m missing is what the point of that journey was?”

HBO Europe’s Hanka Kastelicova capped off the discussion by calling the archive material used in the film “mind blowing.”

“I hope this film with be a very thrilling adventure and psychological thriller also,” she added.


Production company: Varan Vietnam
Director: Hà Le Diem
Production budget: $201,319
Still needed: $97,000
Proposed delivery date: January 31, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
In the misty mountains of North Vietnam, a teenage Hmong girl walks a thin line between childhood and adulthood.

Director Hà Le Diem and producer Swann Dubus joined the panel with 65% of the film’s budget secured from funders including the IDFA Bertha Fund, Hot Docs CrossCurrents, DMZ International Documentary Film Festival and others. The filmmakers are looking for funding, partnerships and distribution opportunities.

“This is 100% in our wheelhouse for a variety of reasons,” Poh Si Teng of Al Jazeera English said. “We look for filmmakers that have a personal stake, something to gain or lose from telling the story. You have that. And as an insider, you would naturally bring all the nuance.”

Gudrun Hanke-El Ghomri of Germany’s ARTE ARD echoed Teng’s sentiments, but questioned whether footage was staged or real. Diem said she was adopted into the community after many years and therefore able to film the Hmong people freely.

Yoko Imai of Japan broadcaster NHK called the pitch a “strong and shocking story,” adding the subject matter is something Japanese viewers would want to see — though she questioned whether the film will be told from the perspective of Diem or the teenage girl.

“That was some of the most trenchant filmmaking I’ve seen in vérité,” Noland Walker of PBS doc funding organization ITVS said. “It’s very clear that you know the world in which you are working. You know where to put your camera based on what is happening in the scene and what is happening around you.”

Chris White of PBS documentary strand ‘POV’ said the pitch was a “really powerful sample” and he was especially attracted to the “observational, immersive experiences.”

Mark Edwards of ARTE France concluded the session by adding that he’d like to see the film recognize the community’s struggle within the context of the Vietnamese state. He said the film would most likely be picked up as an acquisition for the network.


Production company: Goldfish Films, Hedgehog Films
Director: Nesa Azimi
Production budget: $970,452
Still needed: $768,552
Proposed delivery date: August 31, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
Driver follows a dynamic community of women long-haul truck drivers. Threatened by routine sexual violence and bound by a system in which multibillion-dollar megacarriers conspire to make individual drivers anonymous and disposable, one woman brings together an unlikely group of drivers to find strength, solidarity and self-determination on the road.

Director-producer Nesa Azimi and producers Elise McCave and Kellen Quinn arrived virtually on day two of the Hot Docs Forum with early support from Doc Society/The Perspective Fund, Tribeca Film Institute, Firelight Media and Catapult Film Fund, among others.

On-the-ground production has ceased due to COVID-19 but the filmmakers are working closely with the film’s main character, Desiree Wood, and fellow drivers to document the impact of the crisis on their lives.

The team are seeking funding to continue production and to begin editing with both processes proceeding in tandem. They are also seeking feedback from foundations, granting organizations and equity investors, all of which they see as “ideal partners” for this stage of the project. All rights are available, and the filmmakers noted they are “keen” to hear from buyers and commissioners, too.

Kristin Feeley of Sundance Institute kicked off the discussion: “It is absolutely a film that works for Sundance.”

Noland Walker said the project is something ITVS would potentially be interested in. Likewise,  Chris White of ‘POV’ said the project is “interesting” for the documentary strand on different levels, namely how the pandemic is bringing supply chains into focus, the place of women in the “invisible” trucking industry, and the power of collective organizing.

“It speaks to the types of films ‘POV’ is interested in,” White added.

Krishan Arora of broadcaster SBS Australia, meanwhile, said the examination of the trucking community has a “natural connection” to Australian culture, and wants to know more about how the film examines the world outside the small community of truck drivers.

ARTE France’s Mark Edwards said Azimi’s trajectory as a filmmaker is interesting to the network, which he said looks for films that hold power accountable. From a European perspective, he adds the film could give audiences a look at how American people are fighting for their rights.


Production company: Door Number 3 Productions, Clique Pictures, Earth City Film
Director: Rémy Huberdeau, Sean Stiller
Production budget: $500,000
Still needed: $410,000
Proposed delivery date: April 30, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
Ojiibikaan is a cinematic, character-driven feature documentary that immerses us in the experience of being in relationship with the living world; where plants, animals and the land itself are medicine.

Directors Rémy Huberdeau and Sean Stiller and producer Lisa Jackson are moving into production on Ojiibikaan following two years in development. The film was developed with the National Film Board of Canada, with financing from Hot Docs CrossCurrents and both federal and provincial tax credits.

The filmmakers are currently looking for foundation and broadcast partners in order to move into production later this year.

“The trailer is very effective, impactful,” Jane Jankovic of Canadian educational TV service TVO stated. “So I think I’d like to talk with you guys and see where it could possibly go.”

Magdalena Borowska of Poland’s TVP said the pubcaster’s programming schedule has a slot for world stories, and thinks the film could be a fit. Similarly, Yoko Imai of Japan’s NHK said the film’s theme of coexistence with nature could connect with Japanese audiences, despite its North American setting.

“Stylistically, format wise I’m not sure whether it is for us at this stage because it is more reflective, meditative,” Poh Si Teng of Al Jazeera English added. “We look for strong observational and unfolding drama. But thematically, I think it is very important for all of us to support Indigenous stories because I don’t think we can ever have enough. I personally think that Indigenous people all over the world hold the key to our survival as a species, because they are the closest to understanding the environment — from climate change to food security.”

Kristin Feeley of Sundance Institute said she agrees with Teng, and that the film could be a fit for the institute’s documentary fund as well as its Indigenous funding programs, inviting the pitching team to apply.

Chris White of ‘POV’ concluded the feedback. He said he liked the notion of going back to Indigenous wisdom and practices, but questioned whether it would be a fit for the documentary strand and how the multiple storylines would be interwoven.


Production company: Glaciar Films
Director: Cristóbal Valenzuela
Production budget: $245,735
Still needed: $97,369
Proposed delivery date: July 31, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
A documentary about the man behind the story of the “Friendship Island,” surrounded by a delirious world of ufologists, and the unsettling truth behind these fake stories.

Director Cristóbal Valenzuela and executive producer Diego Breit arrived at the virtual pitching session May 6 with partial financing from the Culture Ministry of Chile, Glaciar Films and the CORFO Slate Fund.

SVT’s Axel Arno was among the first to chime in, questioning how the filmmakers will weave together black and white archives and myriad images or footage to tell the story. He said the broadcaster isn’t likely to come in as a pre-buyer or co-producer, but will circle back when the film is closer to the finish line.

Sundance Institute’s Kristin Feeley said the film has “so much potential for a feature,” and there could be an opportunity for the institute to support the project. “But given that you’re in coproduction and the world is the way that it is, and Ernesto’s health is precarious, how much of the film will be centered on interviews with him? How reliant are you on those conversations?”

Valenzuela said the team has completed all interviews with the film’s main character, Ernesto de la Fuente, who has now passed away.

Sarba Das of indie distributor A24 joined the conversation:  This is exactly the weird and kind-of crazy project that A24 would be probably very interested in. I’m very curious to know the use of existing archives from other films.”

Rudy Buttignol of Knowledge Network said the film’s twist — Fuente’s alleged involvement in the abduction and murder of two people at the end of 1973 during Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile — is the most “appealing” piece of the story.

“That the UFO stuff is just the vehicle to get into the repression, fake news, propaganda. That part is the part that’s interesting.”


Production company: 4th Row Films, Field of Vision
Director: Adam Dietrich, Bella Graves
Production budget: $489,900
Still needed: $364,900
Proposed delivery date: September 30, 2020

Hot Docs logline:
Bella’s life changed at 13 when pedophiles arrived at her doorstep with instructions to rape her. In this film, Bella confronts her trauma and the childhood friend who betrayed her.

Directors Bella Graves and Adam Dietrich along with producer Douglas Tirola attended the second day of the Hot Docs Forum virtual panel in search of partners to bridge their funding gap and help finish the film.

Bella has already secured financing from Field of Vision and 4th Row Films.

‘POV’s Chris White kicked off the discussion. He said the film was “interesting” and would like to learn more about the layers of Graves’ journey outside of seeking the boy who victimized her.

Kristin Feeley of Sundance Institute said the “assuredness” in the filmmakers’ approach and the use of cinematic tools to tell Graves’ story is “incredible.”

Echoing Feeley, The Whickers’ Jane Mote chimed in: “Love the fresh approach that you’ve got for such a deeply personal story. It makes it feel very modern.” Though Mote said the project may be a “bit too far down the line” for the documentary funding organization, she questioned how the filmmakers will “contemporize” the story.

Hayley Reynolds of BBC ‘Storyville’ called the presentation a “brave, brilliant pitch,” and wanted to learn more about how the team is working together and navigating the duty of care to Graves.

Gaspard Lamuniere of RTS jumped in, adding he was “confused” by the trailer and would need to talk with the filmmaking team to learn more, but acknowledged the importance of shining a light on online abuse and bullying.


Production company: Osaka Sunset Pictures, Submarine
Director: Jason Lapeyre
Production budget: $1,000,000
Still needed: $783,900
Proposed delivery date: September 1, 2020

Hot Docs logline:
Speak No Evil is a true-crime documentary about Donald Lang, a deaf man accused of murder in Chicago in 1965, and Lowell Myers, the deaf lawyer who defended him.

Speak No Evil director-producer Jason Lapeyre, executive producer and Submarine co-founder Ben Braun and associate producer Priscilla Galvez have already secured funding from the Ontario Film and Television Tax Credit, IFP/HBO New True Stories Funding Initiative and the Telefilm Canada — Marketing Fund.

The film will be shot entirely on 16mm film, and will include dramatic recreations, Lapeyre noted. Filmmakers will also work with consulting producers from the deaf community and black community to gives notes on the film’s cuts as they move through production.

Speak No Evil is in the late development stage, with five key interviews completed and an additional 15 to be shot in Chicago, Los Angeles and Rochester, New York. The team will then reconvene in Ontario to film recreation scenes.

The filmmakers are looking for financing partners as well as broadcast pre-sales.

Charlotte Engel of Canadian pubcaster CBC was first to speak. Engel said she wants to know more about where the film’s main character is today, and is curious about the “sensitivity to people involved” in the story.

TVO’s Jane Yankovic said the film isn’t Canadian, so it doesn’t fit into a commissioning bucket for the channel, but it could work as a pre-buy. She questioned, however, what the documentary is adding to the story, as it’s already been told in dramatic form.

Noland Walker of PBS’s ITVS said he didn’t think the film would work for the American pubcaster.

“Intentions are good and I would just urge you to tread really carefully in this,” he added. “I remember that TV movie, that TV movie was called Dummy. It was very 1970s, well-intentioned but ultimately reductive. And I think when you’re building with those materials and you are talking about producers from the deaf community, producers from the black community, whoever that is, you are in danger of confiscating people’s actual lives and humanity.”

Both Sabra Das of distributor A24 and Sundance Institute’s Feeley shared Walker’s concerns.

“I absolutely want to have that conversation about the perspective of the filmmaker and the filmmaking team and how that’s brought to bear with the more sensational elements of the story,” Feeley said.

However, Das said A24 is attracted to the project because it lends itself to the theatrical, adding the filmmakers were “breaking the mold” of documentary filmmaking by shooting in 16mm.

Axel Arno of SVT said the project will be a “fantastic story.”

“I’m sure it will end up on a streamer near you,” he added.


Production company: Ink & Pepper Productions, Afrobubblegum
Director: Anjali Nayar
Production budget: $889,075
Still needed: $785,600
Proposed delivery date: January 31, 2021

Hot Docs logline:
Four Nairobians form an Afro-electric band, a counter-narrative to expectation. Borrowing from a mishmash of Sun Ra, kung fu and hip hop, it is a coming-of-age story during Kenya’s post-dictatorship art renaissance.

Director Anjali Nayar, co-director Mbithi Masya and producer Wanuri Kahiu have completed 90% of the shooting for Just a Band, with post-production activities continuing despite the COVID-19 crisis.

All rights are open for Just a Band, and the filmmakers are looking for film festivals, distribution, financing and sales, with funds secured from the Sundance Film Institute, Cinereach, WorldView, Hot Docs Blue Ice Group and Britdoc Puma Catalist.

Rasha Salti of ARTE France said she was “definitely” interested in the project, and asked whether the team was looking for broadcasting partners.

“We’re curious about meeting broadcasters for sure. I think that at the moment we just wanted to see how it goes but that is something we’re definitely looking at securing as well,” Kahiu responded.

Chris White of PBS strand ‘POV’ added: “You had me at quirky and joyous… There were a lot of really creative and imaginative elements that I found really intriguing. I’m interested to see and to talk with you more about how those creative aspects of the film will play out over the length of a feature film.”

White said he wanted to know more about the balance between the film’s aesthetic approach and traditional storytelling, a sentiment echoed by CBC’s Charlotte Engel.


Production company: ZED, Moonmakers, Vides Filmu Studija
Director: Giedre Žickyte
Production budget: $526,353
Still needed: $387,289
Proposed delivery date: January 28, 2022

Hot Docs logline:
The discovery of 30,000 negatives in a Saint Petersburg attic offers a unique vision of life in the USSR, and reveals the extraordinary legacy of Masha Ivashintsova, Russia’s lost photographer.

Director Giedre Žickyte and producer Christine Le Goff attended the virtual roundtable with funding already in place from ZED, Creative Europe, VFS, Procirep and Angoa.

ARTE France’s Rasha Salti called the pitch “very promising,” but said she couldn’t tell from the trailer how experiential it will be.

Erkko Lyytinen of Finnish broadcaster YLE said the “intimate” photos presented in the film offer insight into the lives of those who lived in Soviet Russia, though he said including first-hand accounts could add a “striking” element to the film.

Christian Von Behr of Germany’s ARTE ARD said the broadcaster is primarily in search of Germany-focused current affairs projects, and it would make more sense for the team to work with ARTE France.

RTS’s  Gaspard Laluminere, meanwhile, said although it’s not the kind of film the broadcaster would typically be interested in, he praised the “fantastic” filmmaking team, and stated he’s curious to discover how the film goes beyond the “propaganda” photos of the Soviet era.

Magdalena Borowska of TVP joined the discussion, adding that the project is “very interesting” for the Polish broadcaster: “My question if it will be more poetic, this film, or more like a human story?”

“This doc is about the photos themselves being art and then a female artist in that time and soviet society,” TVO’s Jane Yankovich added. “It has a lot of things that would go across various time slots for us.”

Rudy Buttignol of Knowledge Network said photography is an ongoing programming interest for the channel.

“The question is whether it’s really about the quality of her work as an artist,” he said. “Or is it really a social issue documentary using the photographs to illustrate the oppression of women of the soviet period, which is really interesting. Either way it’s something that could be good for us.”

Noland Walker of PBS’s ITVS capped off the pitching session. He said the film could be an acquisition for PBS as opposed to a coproduction. Walker added the “photographs just speak volumes” and would seek small adjustments to make the subject matter more accessible for U.S. audiences.

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