The 2021 Hot Docs Forum report, part two

In the second installment of Realscreen‘s report on the Hot Docs Forum, we take a look at what happened in the second part of the two-day event, which was held ...
May 10, 2021

In the second installment of Realscreen‘s report on the Hot Docs Forum, we take a look at what happened in the second part of the two-day event, which was held May 4 and 5. Part one of Realscreen‘s report on the forum can be found here.

The digital edition of the 22nd annual Hot Docs Forum concluded last week with eight of 20 projects searching for international funding presented to a panel of experts.

Pitched projects included in part two of the forum included The Age of Loneliness, about scientists and researchers’ work to understand why many insect species are at risk of extinction; and Varado: The Curse of Gold a documentary about gold panners in the Amazon rainforest.

Also notable among the second day’s selections was Wilfred Buck (pictured), which won the $10,000 Canadian Forum Pitch Prize. The award goes to the best Canadian pitch, as decided by international buyers.

Media blackouts on day two included Made in Ethiopia from filmmakers Max Duncan and Xinyan Yu about three women navigating the expansion of the biggest Chinese industrial zone in Ethiopia; and Shiori Ito’s Project X from Hanashi Films, Project X, LLC and Cineric Creative.

Media restrictions were also in effect for Mother VeraBlix and The Yoga Village.

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


Production company: Frequent Flyer Films Inc.
Director: Michelle Shephard
Production budget: $583,277
Still needed: $117,311
Proposed delivery date: Feb. 1, 2022

Logline: A story of possession, obsession and the tormented life of Thomas Harvey, the man who stole Einstein’s brain and went on a bizarre road trip in the search for genius.

Shepherd pitched Possessing Einstein to the panel with producers Carolyn Abraham and Bryn Hughes. The film will use archival footage, animated sequences and interviews with exclusive access to the people who knew Harvey best.

The project is 80% funded, Hughes said, with the team looking for international pre-sales and seeking distribution. Principal photography is scheduled to begin this summer.

Jordana Ross from the CBC Documentary Channel, which is already a supporter of the project, kicked off the conversation by praising Abraham’s 2001 book on Dr. Harvey and the strange journey of Einstein’s brain, Possessing Genius, for being a story that has stuck with her since reading it.

Sandbox Films’ Jessica Harrop quickly showed interest with the hope that the film could balance science with its character-driven adventure story.

“At Sandbox we love stories that explore the process of scientific discovery, and I’m definitely interested in meeting with this team to learn more about what science has come out of this brain, and if that’s a throughline throughout the piece,” Harrop said.

But some panelists questioned where the story leads to, and what greater significance it holds. Noland Walker of ITVS said it seemed fascinating, but wondered what the larger piece is about, and if it delves deep enough to help audiences learn something about themselves.

In response to these questions, Krishnan Arora from SBS Australia said panelists were overthinking this ‘cracking story.’ He added he wants to hear more about the project as it’s about a well-known figure audiences will respond to in Albert Einstein.

Shepherd also responded by pointing out the film includes a scientific element exploring the difference between the brain and the mind, and that it asks viewers how far they would go to pursue greatness and pluck themselves from obscurity.

“That’s what Dr. Harvey wanted, and that’s what Einstein wanted, and their storylines parallel that way,” Shepherd said.


Production company: Door Number 3 Productions
Director: Lisa Jackson
Production budget: $1,192,308
Still needed: $215,962
Proposed delivery date: July 31, 2022

Logline: Wilfred Buck follows a man who’s been called the Indiana Jones of Indigenous star knowledge, weaving his harrowing past and present to explore colonization’s impact on Indigenous ways of knowing.

The Wilfred Buck team’s pitch, which went on to win the Canadian Forum Pitch Prize, was widely praised by panelists. It was delivered by Jackson, executive producer Jennifer Baichwal and producer Nick de Pencier. The project is already 80% funded from sources including Bell Media, the National Film Board and the Sundance Institute’s Sandbox Fund, the producers said, and now they’re looking for international support to complete the project.

“Lisa’s brilliance and mastery of fiction, non-fiction, animation and multimedia techniques ensures that Wilfred’s life and worldview will translate seamlessly into a layered visual experience that can capture the full scope of his life, and reflect both the interiority and vastness one feels when contemplating the cosmos,” said Kristin Feely of the Sundance Institute.

“We’re also excited about the film’s ability to make complex ideas accessible to a wide audience, and we can’t wait to see this film out in the world.”

The project immediately garnered interest from ‘POV’ executive producer Chris White because Indigenous stories from Indigenous makers is a priority for the strand.

France Télévisions’ Caroline Behar called it a moving pitch, and said she’s interested to know more about how Buck’s story is interwoven with the struggles his community faces today, so it could fit with France 2′s documentary strand ’25 Shades of Docs’.

Rasha Salti of Arte France called the pitch “gorgeous” and said it covers the kind of urgent issues that documentary slots should pay attention to. Field of Vision’s Sarah Choi, meanwhile, also said she’d be open to learning more about the project.

“The tone that you strike in the sample is really beautiful,” Choi said.


Production company: Studio112
Director: Jenni Morello
Production budget: $997,425
Still needed: $967,425
Proposed delivery date: October 2022

Logline: The Age of Loneliness is a beautifully wild and weird romp across the globe as a diverse group of researchers and citizen scientists race to understand the impending insect apocalypse.

Morello pitched her new project, The Age of Loneliness, alongside producers Leslie Norville and Bennet Elliott. The trio said funding for development has already been secured from the Sandbox Fund, but they’re looking for collaborators and finance partners. Now that their project’s subjects have been vaccinated for COVID-19, the team hopes to resume filming this summer with the aim of completing the project in time for a 2023 festival run.

The project plans to use animation to help audiences understand complex ideas around evolution, and incorporate actors in insect costumes as an homage to the Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno Live!  series.

The pitch received compliments for tackling an urgent issue connected to climate change, and for the quirky approach the pitch used to take on this weighty topic through its interesting characters, animation and music.

The CBC’s Michelle McCree said the pitch piqued her curiosity and made her want to hang out with the researchers featured in the film.

Dana Merwin, from the International Documentary Association, said she loved how it acknowledged Rossellini’s work while creating its own style.

“For our Enterprise Fund, we’re always looking for contemporary urban issues that are told in a unique way and bring a different conversation to it, and I think this is definitely one of those,” Merwin said.

But as someone who doesn’t like bugs, TVO’s Jane Jankovic said she would need convincing to feel connected to why she should care about the story.

“For me, what was missing in the pitch was the context of beyond who eats who and therefore is sustained in the current ecology — what is the ultimate impact of what’s going to happen if we lose these populations,” Jankovic said.

Jankovic said she’d love to meet with the team, and hopes the film can illuminate what effect the decline of insect populations has already had.


Production company: Galaxion Films LLC
Director: Rongfei Guo
Production budget: $309,695
Still needed: $296,087
Proposed delivery date: May 1, 2022

Logline: The story of what happened when a newly appointed party secretary launched an ambitious campaign to eliminate poverty with yoga in a Chinese village four years ago.

Bringing the Yoga Village pitch to the Hot Docs’ forum was Rongfei Guo with producer Wenxin Zhong. The team has shot 75 per cent of the film so far, and aims to end production by the end of the year.

Chicken & Egg’s Lucila Moctezuma said she sees a lot of potential in the pitch and encouraged the team to reach out. She said she likes the film’s observational story and is excited to see how the story plays out.

Gaspard Lamuniere from Radio Télévision Suisse said the project already received an award from RTS, who’s now on board with the project.

“It’s an inside view of China that probably we totally ignore. We know the huge cities and things like that, but these remote villages are really interesting,” Lamuniere said.


Production company: Pink Productions, s.r.o.
Director: Greta Stocklassa
Production budget: $433,102
Still needed: $248,070
Proposed delivery date: Feb. 1, 2022

Logline: In his sunset years, Hans Blix reflects on his life and wonders if telling the truth is enough in itself.

Stocklassa pitched the project with producer Radovan Sïbrt. They said a thorough interview with Blix, the former UN chief weapons inspector sent to Iraq to investigate suspicions about weapons of mass destruction there, will serve as the film’s backbone as he reflects on his life.

The only subjects interviewed for the film will be Blix and his wife. Some panelists questioned this decision.

“It’s about the editorial position. For somebody who is controversial like him, it’s really hard to sell to an audience that this will be a filmmaker that we don’t know or doesn’t have a position who’s asking questions of somebody controversial,” Krishan Arora of SBS Australia said.

Arora suggested the film could also examine another side of Blix’s story and the impact of his work.

Some panelists questioned how sympathetic of a figure Blix is, and wondered if his record on other issues, including his time with the International Atomic Energy Agency, will be covered.

Ahmed Mafouz of the Al Jazeera Documentary Channel said the film’s topic would be important for his audience, but at the same time he wants to ensure both sides of the story are told. He said they have set up a meeting with the Blix team, but are unsure to what extent they’ll be involved.

Nicole Tsien from ‘POV’ said she likes the film’s approach to asking what neutral diplomacy looks like, as Blix reflects on if he could have been more persuasive to leaders in the West about the idea that the weapons they suspected didn’t exist. Tsien said a question to pose is what the filmmakers want an audience to get out of this project.

“Particularly thinking about a U.S. audience, is this something that you want them to reflect on the history, [and] get a different look at a perspective of someone who is actively part of it? Or is there more of a commentary on the nature of diplomacy that you want folks to think about in regards to how it’s currently done?” Tsien said.


Production company: YUZU Productions
Directors: Nicos Argillet, Stephane Correa
Production budget: $376,537
Still needed: $216,637
Proposed delivery date: March 1, 2022

Logline: At the heart of the Amazon rainforest, at the border between French Guiana and Suriname, clandestine gold panners destroy the rainforest in the hope of a better life.

Correa presented the project to the Forum alongside producers Christian Popp and Heather Millard. The project has already secured around half of its budget, and the team is looking for international partners as well as feedback.

The directors have traveled to French Guiana throughout the last decade already to shoot documentaries. They originally thought the gold panners appeared to be the “bad guys”, but decided to meet with them and hear their stories, to not see them as the enemy, Correa said. Now the filmmakers want to show their story about how these panners put their lives in danger to provide for their families.

Many of the panelists were impressed with the filmmakers’ access to their subjects, but also wanted to know how this would influence the project’s point of view.

Barbara Biemann of ADR – NDR said she’s conflicted about the project, but is meeting with the filmmakers. She said she thinks their access is amazing, but is conflicted about telling the story only from the perspective of the miners. She said she’s interested in the French government trying to preserve the Amazon rainforest, and in the Indigenous population in the area.

Noland Walker of ITVS said the film could work in the PBS system and wants to meet with this team.

“I think for ITVS and for ‘Independent Lens’, we would be looking also for [what] forces people into these circumstances. Because we had a whole war on drugs here in the United States in the ’80s, and there were many documentaries that looked at the day-to-day machinations of the drug trade, and this feels in some ways [to mirror] that level of people in desperate and illegal activity, or hazardous activity,” Walker said.


Production company: She Makes Productions Ltd.
Directors: Cecile Embleton, Alys Tomlinson
Production budget: $385,855
Still needed: $269,918
Proposed delivery date: Nov. 10, 2021

Logline: Mother Vera weaves the inner world of a strikingly unusual Orthodox nun with the community that saved her life. As an unexpected new chapter opens, Vera’s path is changed forever.

Embleton and Tomlinson both arrived at the digital forum to pitch their project, alongside producer Laura Shacham. The team has been filming since 2018, and is looking for financing and coproduction partners, as well as a consulting editor.

The pitch was widely praised by panelists for its striking visuals and the amount of work the directors have put into developing the story.

“They are really tenacious filmmakers and they deserve everything that they get,” said Jane Mote of The Whickers.

Mark Edwards from Arte France praised the film’s “breathtaking” cinematography, and said it could be something the broadcaster is able to pick up.

“In the post-Soviet space, the return to faith is a massive phenomenon. And I think both from her perspective, but also from her relationship to the community, you’re talking about an issue that’s touching hundreds of millions of people, and I think it’s a big issue of our times,” Edwards said.

When asked how much of Vera’s life before becoming a nun will be depicted, Tomlinson said her past will be progressively revealed not through archival material, but in candid conversations with close family members such as her mother and sister.


Production company: La Ventana Cena
Director: Carola Fuentes
Production budget: $417,752
Still needed: $268,786
Proposed delivery date: Jan. 31, 2021

Logline: After years living in an extreme free market model, millions of Chileans rose throughout the country demanding a social transformation. The awakening of the citizens and the death of neoliberalism.

On hand for the final pitch of the day for Breaking the Brick was Fuentes and producer Rafael Valdeavellano. With most of the filming done, the team will soon conclude shooting and start editing. They hope to have the film ready by early next year.

Fuentes said they had confirmed a pre-sale to Arte already, but they’re looking for other financing sources or a key coproducer.

Many of the responses reacted positively to the pitch, wanting to know more about how the film illustrates the negative effects of Chile’s economic policies, especially for audiences in countries halfway around the world.

Yoko Imai from NHK Enterprises in Japan said she felt the energy of the pitch and hoped the disparity and inequality in Chile would be well explained by characters in the film. She also thought its story could be inspiring for viewers.

“I think it is really uplifting for perhaps the Japanese viewers that even during the pandemic, something can be changed. I think that’s a very important message,” Imai said.

The topic of Chilean politics was especially interesting to Gaspard Lamuniere, after he was shocked by the Chilean coup years ago.

“We’ve had lots of films on Pinochet, but what’s happening and going on now is also fascinating,” Lamuniere said.

Krishan Arora from SBS Australia said the project might not make a good fit for his company given how far away they are, geographically, from Chile. But he wanted to know why the filmmakers were putting an end to filming now, while the rewriting of Chile’s constitution continues to be an ongoing story.

“The film finishes with this approval of the new constitution, which is the push of our future and our hopes… We cannot wait, we believe, to have a new constitution when it’s going to happen in (another) year,” Fuentes said.

Fuentes added they still hope to film another part of the saga of this ongoing story in Chile when the new constitution comes through.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.