The 2021 Hot Docs Forum report, part one

The digital edition of the 22nd annual Hot Docs Forum commenced this week with 10 out of 20 projects presented to a panel of decision-makers. In this first installment of a ...
May 7, 2021

The digital edition of the 22nd annual Hot Docs Forum commenced this week with 10 out of 20 projects presented to a panel of decision-makers.

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, held May 4 and 5.

The 2021 Hot Docs Forum projects represent 16 different countries and 25 filmmakers, 20 of whom are women and 10 of whom are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour.  

Projects included Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, a love story of two scientists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who died in a volcanic explosion; Sasha Kulak’s A Hawk as Big as a Horse, in which a Russian ornithologist attempts to make her own version of Twin Peaks; and African Moot (pictured), about four law student teams from across Africa who travel to Botswana to compete in a mock court competition.

Media blackouts on day one included Débora Souza Silva’s Black Mothers and an untitled Marjolaine Grappe film. Media restrictions were in effect for Light of the Setting Sun and Brigidy Bram: The Life and Mind of Kendal Hanna.

Budget figures listed below are expressed in U.S. dollars. Loglines are provided by Hot Docs.


Production company: Fire of Love Productions
Director: Sara Dosa
Production budget: $1.44 million
Still needed: $709,476
Proposed delivery date: April 4, 2022

Logline: Fire of Love is an unexpected love story of two intrepid scientists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who die in a volcanic explosion doing the very thing that brought them together: seeking to understand the magic of volcanoes by capturing the most explosive imagery ever recorded.

Director/producer Dosa pitched with producers Shane Boris and Ina Fichman.

Fire of Love, which will weave a trove of archival footage with cutout animation, is set to be finished in time to premiere at a major festival. The team is looking for partners in streamers, broadcasters, funds and/or investors.

Greg Boustead, founding director of Sandbox Films, an investor in the project, said he was “blown away” by the archive material.

“Then to hear how Sara, Shane and Ina put together the narrative — we haven’t greenlit a project faster,” he said. “The footage is stunning. It’s rare you have emotional and experiential and scientifically significant pieces to a story. This has it all in spades.”

Sandra Kleinfeld, senior director of documentary at CBC Television, echoed Boustead, calling the footage “incredible” and the characters “interesting and adorable.”

“I wondered about the kind of professional reputations they have as scientists… and how you plan to show the depth of their relationship,” she added.

‘POV’ executive producer Chris White said the film’s “timelessness” had potential for the PBS/American Documentary strand.

“‘POV’ really cherishes creative and bold approaches to storytelling,” he added. “I have questions about the animation and how that will be integrated and what it will look like. But I’m sure that the team will arrive at the perfect balance… I’d love to learn more about the budget, where those funds would be used. But all in all I’m interested in talking.”


Production companies: Snooker Club Films, A Little Anarky Films
Director: Sarvnik Kaur
Production budget: $306,608
Still needed: $154,411
Proposed delivery date: January 2023

Logline: A tale of love, brotherhood and resentment against the backdrop of an adoring sea, which is turning adverse under the menacing effects of an all-pervading calamity called climate change.

Pitching Against the Tide to decision makers was director/producer Kaur and producer Koval Bhatia.

Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs, director of the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, a supporter of the project, started the discussion.

“They were one of 15 projects that we supported out of a submission pool of 1,200 applications,” she explained. “It really stood out because of stunning visuals, and the careful observation. Sarvnik really has immersed us in this world of the brothers, and she’s telling this universal story about the everlasting effects of the planet. It’s something that we should all be really considering. The footage really revealed, when we were watching it, this incredible insight and mutual trust on both ends of the camera.”

Al Jazeera English producer Reem Haddad called Against the Tide an “important story.”

“Climate change is thematically really relevant these days,” she said. “My question would be more about how you’re going to tie up all these different narratives.”

‘POV’s Chris White echoed Haddad, asking how the filmmakers will connect the brothers’ story to the larger issue of climate change.

Mandy Chang, BBC ‘Storyville’ commissioning editor, applauded the pitch.

“Amazing access and very strong characters — which is, I think, critical to these environmental films because you want them to be story led rather than issue led. My question is, how is COVID going to impact this story and the making of this film?”

Lucila Moctezuma, program director at Chicken & Egg Pictures, which is also supporting the project, highlighted the cinematic and artistic approach of Against the Tide.

“This project has so much richness in it,” she said.


Production companies: Visitor Media, Mercury Films
Director: Chelsea McMullan
Production budget: $3.19 million
Still needed: $3.15 million
Proposed delivery date: November 30, 2022

Logline: Swan Song plunges viewers inside the dramatic world of an iconic ballet company, revealing their behind-the-scenes stories of adversity and triumph, and following the exhilarating action as they mount a make-or-break new production of Swan Lake.

Pitching the Forum’s only multi-part project, which goes behind the scenes at the National Ballet of Canada, was director/producer McMullan and producers Sean O’Neill, Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier.

CBC is on board as a broadcast partner for Canada, and the team is currently looking for international partners.

The CBC’s Sandra Kleinfeld commended the “powerhouse” team on their work. Barbara Beaman of ARD – NDR in Germany said the docuseries had potential for the German pubcaster.

BBC ‘Storyville’ commissioner Mandy Chang echoed those comments, adding the pitch was “beautifully done.”

“I can totally see this on the BBC as part of the Arts offering and I know that they’re looking for boxsets so I’d love to share this with my colleagues,” she said.

Hulu’s VP of original documentaries, Belisa Balaban, said the filmmakers presented a “beautiful” tape with potential for the Disney-owned streamer.

“We do limited series on Hulu, and I’m messaging some of my colleagues at the other Disney platforms because I know we do have some ballet already within the family, but I really enjoyed it and I’d love to keep talking,” she said.

Krishan Arora, SBS Australia consultant, questioned how the story would unfold. O’Neill said the film is “a story about rebuilding from the pandemic.”

“They’ll be back in the studio this fall, so it’s about, how do they pull the pieces back together after such a devastating year?”

NHK executive producer Yoko Imai thanked the team for an “energetic and wonderful pitch.”

“I really enjoyed the trailer, I was really fascinated and really immersed into the visuals,” she said. “I do understand that it could become a family-viewing series, but I was wondering to know more about your target audiences — are you going to aim for younger audiences or are you going to go for the general public?

In response, O’Neill said the filmmakers’ see the series as an all-ages experience.

“We hope there are multiple entry points,” he added.


Production companies: Wake Up Films, Cut-Up Production
Directors: Biljana Tutorov, Petar Glomazic
Production budget: $472,405
Still needed: $272,531
Proposed delivery date: January 7, 2023

Logline: A tumultuous family drama unfolds as Gara and Nada defend their land, set to become a military proving ground threatening their environment, people and way of life.

Pitching the project was director/producer Tutorov, director Glomazic and executive producer Aleksander Govedarica. The team has been filming for three years, and is looking for funding, partnership and distribution opportunities. Most of the shooting will be completed this year, while the editing will be finalized by the fall of 2022.

Dana Merwin, program officer in the grants department at the International Documentary Association (IDA), praised the pitch and the film’s characters, adding: “I hope we get to meet later this week.”

Hanka Kastelicová, executive producer of documentaries for HBO Europe, said the issues explored in the film would resonate globally.

“Biljana is a very experienced producer and director in the Balkans,” she added. “I’m looking forward to get to know even more how the storylines will develop.”

Lucila Moctezuma of Chicken & Egg Pictures, the film’s first U.S. funder, encouraged her American colleagues to support the project. In Japan, NHK’s Yoko Imai applauded the cinematic pitch.

“Montenegro is a place where we don’t get many stories, especially for us in Japan. So, in many ways, it is an attractive project for viewers, but at the same time, we would like to definitely know more about the background of the social situation,” Imai added.

Gunny Hyoung of South Korea’s EBS noted the film would resonate with the pubcaster’s audience, while Krishan Arora of SBS Australia said the film transports viewers to “a different time, a different place.”

“In general, it’s quite challenging to draw an audience with the promise of something cinematic and intimate. A channel like SBS is fairly mainstream,” Arora added. “Our audience picks up on stories, and I think you do have a story there, you just seem to be burying it a bit in the pitch. The story is the campaign against the military base. I’d like to know more — what’s the likely outcome? When is the military base likely to happen if it is going to happen? And how much is that campaign going to be the story that drives the film?”

Jane Mote, consultant editor at The Whickers, capped off the discussion.

“I think it’s absolutely beautiful. And I really like the layers in the project, as well, from the actual here-and-now of the conflict potential but also those layers within the families and the relationship to nature.”


Production companies: Daydream Reels, Best Yet Entertainment
Directors: Kareem Mortimer, Laura Gamse
Production budget: $479,635
Still needed: $329,702
Proposed delivery date: September 4, 2021

Logline: In this wild rag-to-riches tale circling psychosis and genius, the true story of prolific painter Kendal Hanna reveals a case study of how we institutionalize difference.

Co-directors and producers Gamse and Mortimer pitched the project. The filmmakers have shot 60% of the film and hope to wrap the cut this year. With an urgency to complete production, the team is looking for experienced executive producers and financiers, as well as sales agents and distribution opportunities.

Sundance Institute is one organization already supporting the project through its partnership with Sandbox Films.

“We’re very interested in how they’re immersing audiences into this colorful world of delusions and paranoia and the way they’re playing with the creative visuals and the aesthetic. It’s a very ambitious vision for the project,” the institute’s Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs said.

IDA’s Dana Merwin said the project could be a fit for the organization’s Pare Lorentz Documentary Fund, which this year is dedicated to films that challenge the notion of white supremacy.

“What struck me in this pitch is obviously him as an artist, but I want to hear more and see more about his relationship as an activist, that didn’t come through fully in the pitch for me so I look forward to seeing the treatment and meeting with you more, but [it's a] very exciting project,” she said.

‘POV’ co-producer Opal H. Bennett agreed with Merwin.

“I’m super, super eager to learn more about Kendal and his work. I was curious to know, how much of the film do you expect to be more archival and how much do you expect will be focused on the new footage that you’re filming now?”

“There will be a large archival component and we hope to also have a live action component,” Gramse responded. “The percentages still remains to be seen in the edit, but we aim to make it feel more or less like a narrative film.”

Jane Jankovic said TVO’s arts stream is typically focused on acquisitions, but there could be potential for the film on the publicly-funded Ontario network. Jessica Raspe, commissioning editor for art documentaries at Dutch Public broadcaster AVROTROS, commended the strong pitch.

“I would also love to learn more about his earlier life, and his activism and some of the factors that led to the contemporary piece that I saw on the pitch, and how you’re going to articulate some of those things,” Lauren Haber, head of development at Impact Partners, said, finishing off the discussion.


Production company: Setting Sun Productions, Walking Productions
Director: Vicky Du
Production budget: $672,190
Still needed: $231,271
Proposed delivery date: December 1, 2022

Logline: A Taiwanese-American filmmaker confronts her family’s silence around the cycles of violence that have persisted since the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949.

Director Du and producer Danielle Varga presented Light of the Setting Sun to Forum decision-makers. The team is currently mid-production and will complete the remaining key shoots this year.

The pair are looking for Canadian and international partners and broadcasters.

Wuan-ling Guo of Taiwan’s Public Service Television (PST) congratulated Du on her courage in making the film.

“I’m really looking forward to your production. I think it would be a great story with universal values. I think it will resonate with Taiwan’s audience because we have some common experiences in terms of past history. So, I definitely want to learn more about this project,” she said.

NHK’s Yoko Imai echoed Guo regarding the film’s universal story, and praised the filmmakers for a strong pitch.

Charlotte Cook, co-founder and EP at Field of Vision, chimed in: “I think this is an incredible team. We’ve worked with Danielle many times and Vicky, you can tell, is unbelievably talented and to carry the weight of your own family is an incredible thing to do on film. Seeing just the caliber of filmmaking within that team — it’s a real achievement how they’re approaching this.”

The Whickers’ Jane Mote echoed other comments about the film’s universality, while Michelle McCree, CBC Docs executive in charge of production, was drawn to the film’s intimacy and its exploration of intergenerational trauma and recovery.

“Well, we certainly have done a lot of diaspora stories from a POV vain,” Jane Jankovic said. “We haven’t done them for a while, but every so often a story comes up that makes you reconsider whether we want to continue to do some of those stories… So I’m more interested in it now than when I was walking in.”


Production company: Les Steppes Productions
Director: Sasha Kulak
Production budget: $286,404
Still needed: $233,308
Proposed delivery date: August 29, 2021

Logline: Lydia is a Russian ornithologist. She transforms every aspect of her reality into a strange fairytale. Her latest dream is to make her own version of Twin Peaks.

Director Kulak and producer Louis Beaudemont pitched the project at this year’s Forum. The team is looking for funding and distribution opportunities and various partnerships, Beaudemont said, and the film is expected to be 75 minutes in length.

Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs of the Sundance Institute Film Fund, which is supporting the project, called A Hawk as Big as a Horse “ambitious and kaleidoscopic.”

“When it came across my desk and it was one of 1000s of submissions, Sasha’s aesthetic and her strong visual approach really, really stood out,” she said. “Lydia is a really strong captivating character. The project itself is an ode to living one’s dream, and one’s truth.”

Rasha Salti of Arte France said the film was one of the “most delightful singular projects” she has come across, though her budget is too limited this year to get on board. Hanka Kastelicová echoed Salti, but added that HBO Europe is unable to finance a film in Russia as the network is focused on European territories.

Erkko Lyytinen, commissioning editor for Finnish public broadcaster YLE, praised the filmmakers’ “visionary” approach.

“There’s so many layers in the film that this needs a little bit clarifying for me, and I’m looking forward to having a one to one meeting with the project because it’s a unique, strange film,” he said. “I’m always curious and interested, how could we make this as a universal international film? This is a little bit local, a little bit [of a] strange film, but in a positive sense.”

Astra Dalman, commissioning editor at SVT Documentaries, agreed with Lyytinen.

“It was fantastic and weird and somehow it’s lovely to see something that you haven’t seen before. So, thank you for this pitch, and I’m definitely interested to see where it goes.”

Opal H. Bennett from ‘POV’ congratulated the team on the pitch, and noted her appreciation of the filmmakers’ connection with Lydia.

“It was about their humanity… A lot of trans stories — and I think this could be perhaps received as such — are coming from this really extractive point of view. The hope is to present stories that illuminate and bring further knowledge,” Bennett said. “I expect to see that throughout your film here.”


Production companies: Undercurrent Film and Television, Social Transformation and Empowerment Projects (STEP)
Director: Shameela Seedat
Production budget: $182,273
Still needed: $31,885
Proposed delivery date: August 31, 2021

Logline: African Moot follows four law student teams from across Africa as they travel to Botswana to compete in the largest mock court competition on the continent. In the course of one week, over 100 of Africa’s brightest young minds debate a hypothetical case centred on the rights of refugees in a fictional country much like their own.

Pitching the project was director/producer Seedat, producer Francois Verste and producer Tiny Mungwe. The film is currently in post-production and the team is seeking completion funding.

Hajnal Molnar-Szakacs kicked off the discussion.

“This is a really interesting project. I love competition films, there’s always a great story there,” she said. “I’m curious to know how much we’re going to get to know the characters and the balance of that in terms of their development, in relation to the competition. Our funding round — we’re going to be opening again in June for applications and then we’re going to be making decisions in December. I don’t know how that works with your timeline, but would love to learn more about the project.”

Krishan Arora of SBS said the material presented in the pitch gave him confidence in the project.

“Because it has that central issue that you put in there about borders, and about debate and dialogue, trying to overcome the borders that are being created between different African countries, I think that gives the film a real sense of energy, so I was delighted to see that, and it certainly could be something for SBS,” he said. “We love a legal drama, we show lots of legal dramas and it’s a narrative I think that people in whatever country they’re from can really relate to.”

SVT’s Astra Dalman agreed with Arora and Molnar-Szakacs, while Ahmed Mahfouz said the film had potential for the Arab audience and the Al Jazeera Documentary Channel.

NHK’s Yoko Imai noted the film could offer Japanese audiences a different viewpoint of Africa.

“Competition films do work very well on the NHK documentary slots, and so I would definitely like to know more about the stories, more about the characters,” she said. “Africa is a large continent with so many different countries, and there are various viewpoints, even in terms of human rights, different values and different perspectives. So, I would like to know whether there are clashes or compromises. What kind of dialogue would be included in your film?”

Opal H. Bennett at ‘POV’ said the film is a “winning combination” of competition and legal drama.

“You’ve got some really engaging participants, and put all that in with a perspective on African nations that we don’t see enough, which is home focused and not looking back at other other cultures and more familiar takes. I was instantly interested and really hope that we can get some time with you,” she said.

TVO’s Jane Jankovic agreed with Imai, adding the film offered a view of the continent viewers rarely see.

“But I did find that the trailer did not speak to me as a really tense competition film,” she said. “I’m wondering and hoping that you might have more to show other than the trailer, because I felt quite distant from whatever it is that they are experiencing.”

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