Part one of the 23rd annual Hot Docs Forum took place last week, with 10 out of 20 projects (representing 19 countries overall) presented to a panel of decision-makers.
Below is an overview of some of the projects pitched on the first day of the two-day event. Realscreen will cover the second half of the Forum later this week.
Budget figures listed below are expressed in U.S. dollars, and loglines are provided by Hot Docs.
Heaven Through the Backdoor
Production company: Mirabel Pictures
Directors: Anna Fitch, Banker White
Production budget: $679,658
Still needed: $320,493
Proposed delivery date: January 12, 2023
Logline: Part myth, part documentary, Heaven Through the Backdoor explores the mystery of death through the unconventional friendship of Anna and Yo, two kindred spirits born 49 years apart.
Producer Heidi Fleisher and co-director Anna Fitch led much of the pitch, explaining the concept of the film, its themes of friendship and mortality, and the intention to utilize intricately built miniature sets and puppetry, among other techniques, to tell the story. The production team is aiming for a mid-2023 release.
“I know this project well, and I see something new in it every time I see it,” said the Sundance Institute’s Kristin Feeley of the pitch. The Sundance Documentary Film Program awarded the team a production grant almost five years ago, with Feeley explaining that “we responded to the team’s ambitious goal of crafting a fully original story that centers on unapologetically female protagonists and is grounded in universally emotionally accessible themes. This is not art for art’s sake.”
Marie Nelson of ABC News felt like the specificity of the film’s story, which focuses primarily on two women, actually makes it more universal.
“There is an inherent beauty to the story of Yo, but I also feel like Yo, in this incredible relationship, in this search for meaning and this exploration of grief, is what we all need in kind of a new way right now, surviving this last chunk of life for the last several years,” she told the filmmakers. “I feel like there’s going to be an even deeper resonance when this does land.”
Production company: Multitude Films
Director: Reid Davenport
Production budget: $936,698
Still needed: $876,698
Proposed delivery date: January 1, 2024
Logline: Life After interrogates the contradictory political ideologies surrounding death and disability, while coalescing the missing voices of the disabled community in the contemporary debate around medically assisted suicide.
Director Reid Davenport and producer Jessica Devaney led the pitch for Davenport’s follow-up to his debut feature I Didn’t See You There, which won the directing prize in the U.S. Documentary competition at Sundance.
Remarking on the footage shown from the new project, Chi Hui-Yang of Ford Foundation/JustFilms noted the throughline he saw in Davenport’s filmmaking from I Didn’t See You There.
“Something that I really appreciate, Reid, about your filmmaking practice is the discomfort that you’re very interested in provoking within the viewer and asking the viewer to hold themselves accountable for how they are seeing the world and how their perspectives have been socially constructed and, in a way, how they reproduce a lot of the problems that you’re representing in your films. And I see a lot of that potential here,” he said.
Opal Bennett of American Documentary, the parent of PBS doc strand ‘POV’, was also impressed.
“Reid, we saw your film at Sundance and were blown away, collectively as a team at ‘POV’,” she said. “To see you have a new follow-up with the team at Multitude, who make such important and impactful films, we were very very keen to learn more about the project.”
Jutta Krug, commissioning editor at German pubcaster WDR, praised the fact that this project was coming from someone in the community being discussed. “It’s so good to have someone who has personal experience with what he is talking about and making a film about.”
Production companies: The Good Black Project (Pty) Ltd., Viso Producciones SAS, Multitude Films
Director: Milisuthando Bongela
Production budget: $934,780
Still needed: $544,325
Proposed delivery date: December 31, 2022
Logline: Set in past and present South Africa, Milisuthando is a poetic coming-of-age personal essay on love and what it means to become human in the context of race.
Director Milisuthando Bongela and producer Marion Isaacs led the pitch, describing how Milisuthando (pictured) is divided into five “acts” or, as the film’s press notes describe it, five related short films that combine into a cohesive, multi-layered story.
The doc is named for its director Bongela, who grew up in the Republic of Transkei, one of five regime-approved, semi-independent Black “states” within apartheid-era South Africa. However, Bongela stresses that the film is less a straightforward biographical documentary than it is a way of examining apartheid and its ongoing effects to this day, describing how it will move between his personal recollections and experiences while also touching on the history of South Africa, fascism, Indigenous rights and more.
“We’ve been tracking this project… for three or four years, pandemic in between,” said Chris White of American Documentary/’POV’ after the early footage had been shown to the panel. “I’m constantly struck by the language and the clarity of vision that is exhibited here by Milisuthando, it’s just a wonderful and personal tapestry.”
Noland Walker of PBS/ITVS praised the “deep, mystical, wonderful pitch” and the filmmakers’ “unbelievable work” so far, and pitched to American Documentary’s White to potentially go in as coproducers together for public media in the U.S. market.
Production companies: IOTA Production S.A., TAG Film SAS
Director: Jérôme le Maire
Production budget: $687,024
Still needed: $241,613
Proposed delivery date: August 4, 2025
Logline: In the Moroccan desert, torn between tradition and the promise of modernity, a young nomad witnesses the construction of the largest solar power station in the world.
Director Jérôme le Maire and producer Isabelle Truc were on hand for the pitch.
The film, which takes its name from the Arabic word for “light,” follows a young Moroccan man from a nomadic community whose way of life has been disrupted by the construction of a massive solar power station. Hired to act as a caretaker for the project, he finds himself tasked with mediating between the development and his people. The film uses his story to explore the clash between cultures and the implications that can lie beneath promises of “better” energy sources.
Krishan Arora of SBS Australia (who was joining the panel from London) was struck by the timeliness of the themes and ideas discussed in the film.
“In Europe particularly, right now we are talking about energy security all the time — we’re talking about that in the context of the Ukrainian war and our dependence on Russian oil and gas, and I think the idea that there are perhaps other sources of power in the Moroccan desert is something that people would be interested in,” he said.
Tim Horsburgh of National Geographic was also intrigued. However, he also brought up the potential representational issues of a Belgian filmmaker telling the story of a nomadic Moroccan community.
“One of the drivers of [Nat Geo's] commissioning is, definitely, it has to be visually stunning and cinematic, and I can see how this project would have that,” he said. “I’m interested in how the filmmakers are trying to bridge the gap or explore the cultural interchange as a European team taking on Moroccan characters, because I think that perspective is also very important to Nat Geo as we make our choices.”
The Making of a Japanese
Production companies: Cineric Creative LLC, NHK
Director: Ema Ryan Yamazaki
Production budget: $500,000
Still needed: $200,000
Proposed delivery date: August 15, 2022
Logline: Intimately following first and sixth graders at a public elementary school in Tokyo amidst the coronavirus pandemic, we observe kids learning the traits necessary to become part of Japanese society.
The pitch for this project was handled by director Ema Ryan Yamazaki, producer Eric Nyari and executive producer Shin Yasuda.
Focusing on two classes of children attending school in Tokyo during the COVID-19 pandemic, the doc not only explores the challenges that this enormous public health crisis created for the institution, but also highlights for Western audiences many of the different approaches to child-rearing and education taken in different cultures.
“As someone who grew up sometimes not agreeing with the system, I definitely have a critical eye,” said Ema Ryan Yamazaki when asked whether the film will offer a critique of Japan’s comparatively more rigid school system. “However, I do think that Japan has a unique system [that can] offer insight to the rest of the world, in a way. I’ve been amazed at the way schooling has been handled throughout the pandemic.”
The film is shot verité-style, with the camera at eye level with the children to emphasize their perspective. The filmmakers said they’re also considering a shorter version for broadcast, as well as series versions of the project.
Erkko Lyytinen of Finnish pubcaster YLE praised the “wonderful, heart-melting trailer” and was very interested in the project, particularly from the perspective of a different culture.
“It reminds me of how far this educational model is from Finnish society,” he said. “This would be something that I could easily see being broadcast on our channels.”
Quiet the River
Production companies: Shanghai Jiemian CLS Technologies Co., Ltd.
Directors: Tiantian Wang, Zhizhe Chai
Production budget: $392,554
Still needed: $219,487
Proposed delivery date: February 28, 2023
Logline: China is implementing a 10-year fishing ban in the Yangtze River. Both fishers and law enforcement officers are thus caught in a whirlwind of rediscovering their place in life.
Co-directors Tiantian Wang and Zhizhe Chai made the pitch from Shanghai, where they’re under strict lockdown due to the pandemic. Their film looks at how China’s government “turns social change into a massive political movement,” and how that manifests in the 10-year fishing ban implemented in 2020.
Takahiro Hamano of NHK mentioned the Japanese public broadcaster’s hunger for films about China. “NHK is always interested in Chinese stories, and we actually produce a lot of Chinese stories,” he said. “If we could get a little bit more information about the background, why it’s happening, also what’s the big picture behind this trouble… we’d like to talk about the story.”
Jordana Ross of CBC Documentary mentioned that the film’s subject matter, specifically the ban on fishing, was relevant to Canadian audiences.
“Things in China are always fascinating to us — the Yangtze we’ve looked at and filmed before,” she told the filmmakers. “Canada has also had issues with closing down fisheries and fishing areas, so I think it would be a very interesting story.”
Asta Dalman of Sweden’s SVT was intrigued by the way the filmmakers used the stories of a small number of characters to stand for a much larger issue, and also responded to the directors’ description of the characters in the film as emblematic of a culture that values accepting things without complaint and moving forward.
“I really love the way that you approach this huge, imposed thing that changes the lives of hundreds of thousands of people through the lives of a few that can really represent the many,” she said. “I’m also very curious about the stoicism you mentioned at the end of the pitch, that when things happen that completely change your life, in Chinese society you just sort of accept.”
Production companies: Waypoint Pictures LLC, Topeka Pictures
Directors: Daniel Chein, Mark Mushiva
Production budget: $390,360
Still needed: $340,400
Proposed delivery date: January 1, 2024
Logline: A revolutionary agent is dispatched to steal technology from his colonial oppressors to use against them. Can he help his people without losing himself in the maze of the diaspora?
The pitch for this film came from co-directors Daniel Chein and Mark Mushiva, as well as producer David Felix Sutcliffe.
The panel responded strongly to this ambitious project, which blends genres and techniques from science fiction to verité documentary. The trailer also showcased co-director and star Mushiva’s performance as a time-traveling protagonist whose journey through our modern day serves as the backbone of the film.
“I really adored the approach and how content and form are coming together,” said Keisha Knight of the IDA. “This kind of speculative, verité approach is very exciting, and it seems very much in line with the contemporary moment. I’m very excited to see where you go with this.”
Jane Mote of The Whickers was similarly impressed with the “poetic vision” shown in the pitch.
“It literally takes you to a new world. The Whickers is all about first-time directors taking us into new worlds,” she said. “This is a world that’s challenging and scary, and yet you have some approaches that could give us answers that we don’t know we need to know yet.”
Marie Nelson of ABC News said the Afrofuturist themes in particular connected with her, saying the project was “pushing all sorts of buttons for me.” She also said that she was interested in showing the pitch to Black Panther director Ryan Coogler and his production company.
“We did an incredible mini-doc on Afrofuturism last year and knew that we were just scratching the surface, because quite honestly, in terms of exploring some of the concepts that it looks like you’re playing with, I think that this mixed form is the exact right way to move into that,” Nelson told the filmmakers.
There Was, There Was Not
Production companies: Vernon Films Ltd.
Director: Emily Mkrtichian
Production budget: $518,548
Still needed: $397,951
Proposed delivery date: December 1, 2022
Logline: There Was, There Was Not tells the collective myth of a homeland nearly lost to war, and four women’s resistance to that loss.
Producer Mara Adina and director Emily Mkrtichian led the pitch for the project, which focuses on four women in the Republic of Artsakh, an unrecognized country in the South Caucasus supported by Armenia that is dealing with the aftermath of one war and teetering towards another. The film’s subjects are a political activist running for office; a martial artist seeking Olympic gold; a domestic violence activist helping women escape abuse; and a single mother disarming land mines from the last war.
National Geographic’s Tim Horsburgh saw a place for the project on his platform.
“I’m interested in this being a slightly different perspective, a female perspective, and one where there’s attempts to rebuild, and personal sacrifice, and some of the twists in this story that I think are resonant with activities that are happening in many countries around the world today,” he said, adding that it would more likely be an acquisition than a commission for Nat Geo.
Julian Carrington of Hot Docs, which is backing the project and is working with Mkrtichian in its CrossCurrents lab, chimed in to praise the project.
“I can attest to both the care and attention that Emily is bringing to the project as an individual, but also to the really wonderful wealth of material that they’ve already shot,” he said. “This is a classic project that is at once about a very specific time and place — and in this case a place that the wider world doesn’t know much about — but also, in its look at the way the war impacts these characters’ lives, it’s one of those films that has a real universal resonance.”
Production company: Oscura Producciones S.A. de C.V.
Director: Otilia Portillo
Production budget: $598,753
Still needed: $551,761
Proposed delivery date: February 17, 2023
Logline: Three Mexican Indigenous scientists — all women — partner with mushrooms to fight for their territories. This film combines documentary and science fiction to follow their struggle from both human and fungal perspectives.
The pitch for this film was led by director Otilia Portillo and producer Paula Arroio.
Another ambitious project, The Queendom is the story of three female scientists employing their mycological expertise to defend their communities against extractive industries, poverty, climate change, and sometimes state and local violence. Additionally, the film uses mushrooms as “characters,” which piqued the curiosity of many on the panel.
Opal Bennett of American Documentary/’POV’ definitely saw a fit for her audience.
“PBS is always interested in stories that bridge the science and human stories, and I could see this definitely holding interest for our audiences,” she said. “I would want to see a bit more about how your creative approach is going to be and make sure it aligned with the kinds of stories we usually feature with ‘POV’, but I can see the themes are there.”
Chi Hui-Yang of Ford Foundation/JustFilms was impressed with both the trailer and the project overall.
“What I appreciate about this project and how you’re framing it is, it’s about knowledge. It’s about the protagonists, it’s about mushrooms, but it’s deeply about knowledge and how knowledge allows one to build community, to build self, and how that knowledge is transferred.”
ABC News’ Marie Nelson was also struck by the focus on not only female characters, but also female knowledge. “What to me is so beautiful about what we’re seeing right now is… approaching this through the female gaze and also about this idea of power and power in knowledge, and the way in which that reinforces itself in a very, very unique setting and context.”
She added that she’d like to see the filmmakers “bring that sense of the dynamism and the experience of fungi to the screen in a way that really takes people into the excitement of what you’re truly tapping into, the power of what you’re truly tapping into.”