Part of the reason that the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) has grown into one of the must-attend non-fiction events in the industry's calendar is the concurrent IDFA Forum, the fest's international co-financing and co-production market. Drawing producers, commissioning editors, and funders from around the world, the Forum has a proven track record of enabling significant business to be done – the financing of a promising crop of future doc projects. While the details are typically hammered out in private one-on-one meetings, a limited number of observers have a view into the process during the pitch sessions – partly a performative spectacle, partly a chance to gain insight into the programming sensibilities of the key stakeholders in international documentary.
The Forum's offerings include extended work-in-progress screenings of anticipated new projects (Yoruba Richen's "The New Black" and Lucy Walker's untitled snowboarding doc on Kevin Pearce are among those featured this year), but the bulk of the programming consists of the two categories of pitching: Round Table pitches to small subgroups of commissioning editors and the main event, the Central Pitch, where filmmaking teams face about thirty intimidating decision makers in an arena-style set up, surrounded by observers on all sides. Consistently, these pitches have been an essential part of the process of determining the viability of a filmmaker's project in the marketplace, and the source of needed funding to bring it to audiences – a significant number of films screening at film festivals this year (IDFA and elsewhere) got their start at the Forum's pitch tables in the past. For that reason, keep an eye on the following pitched projects at a future festival:
Yance Ford's feature directorial debut has already been the subject of advance buzz. The POV series producer has been helping shepherd other documentarians' projects for years, and the strength of her sense of storytelling shone through in the trailer shown at the Forum. This story of the impact of a murder on an African-American middle class family featured a singular, visually arresting style completely atypical of the kind of showreel that the commissioning editors are used to – and they took notice. The always outspoken Nick Fraser responded to it with an urging that producer Esther Robinson craft a separate "mass audience" version that dispenses with artistry and focuses on the specifics of the crime at the heart of the story – a suggestion that didn't sit well with others at the table, who see festival laurels in Ford's future.
"Like Wind, Yeji and I"
Also well-received at Central Pitches was the new project by last year's IDFA winner for "Planet of Snail," Seung-Jun Yi. Like that acclaimed film, his new documentary is also a humanistic portrait of disability, focusing on a mother's attempts to communicate with her deaf and blind daughter. Given the success of "Snail," commissioners seemed eager to support Seung-Jun's new work.
Anyone who's been paying attention to international documentary in the past few years can't help but notice the strength of the work coming out of Denmark. Karen Stokkendal Poulsen's project offers a behind-the-scenes look at international diplomacy as the EU's Robert Cooper attempts to broker cooperation between Serbia and Kosovo. The well-received trailer hit all the right marks for the decision makers – clearly outlining the high stakes, the three central characters, and, refreshingly, a sense of not-quite "In the Loop" style absurdity and humor at play.
Producer Marilyn Ness and Oscar-winning director Ross Kauffman ("Born into Brothels") presented their look at the Human Rights Watch Emergency Team, having gained unprecedented access to the work of investigators on the front lines of international abuses. Sharing director duties with Katy Chevigny, Kauffman noted the adrenaline rush of joining their three main subjects in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere, captured in the fast-paced, character-driven trailer. The pitching team noted that, despite being embedded with the HRW, they've maintained independence in being able to show both the successes and failures of their activities – an aspect that was well-received by the decision-makers.
"The Visual Crash"
Providing a rounded view of a topic is at the crux of Yael Hersonski's new project. The director of the acclaimed "A Film Unfinished" takes on media spin in her multi-perspectival analysis of the 2010 raid on the Gaza Flotilla by the Israeli military. As witnessed in her compelling trailer, Hersonski will contrast Army-led media reports with smuggled footage from on-board the vessel and surveillance recordings to explore the way state ideology shapes meaning. Though the editors didn't take issue with it, the awkward title seems to be the only misstep in this provocative project.
"A Gentrification Project"
Speaking of provocation, Dutch director Renzo Martens ("Why Poverty?") courted plenty with his unevenly received pitch for his latest project, which frankly puzzled about half of the respondents. Noting that much of art that's created about the developing world ends up being shown in the West and rarely economically benefits its subjects, Martens constructs a project theoretically about beginning an art center in the Congo with the aim of gentrifying the locals. His cheeky trailer and presentation led to a number of "I don't get it" comments from some, to Nick Fraser's indignation about its cynicism and condescension, arguing with more welcoming opinions at the table who sided with Renzo against the tendency toward "documentary masturbation" in much developing world non-fiction projects.
Another uncomfortable moment was to be found during Kyoko Miyake's otherwise positive pitch on Japanese culture and its focus on punctuality, focused through the story of a commuter train crash brought on by the driver's fear of being 80 seconds behind schedule. When the moderators solicited comments from one commissioning editor, she sharply refused to opine, noting that she had not yet been sent a cut of Miyake's previous film that she had funded. Despite the efforts of star moderator Jess Search and others at the table to smooth this slight over, this left a stark, and public, lesson to filmmakers to make sure to honor their obligations before going back to the same well for their next project.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, Shorts & Panel Programmer for DOC NYC, and a consultant to documentary filmmakers and festivals. Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).