While Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, presented hundreds of new nonfiction this past week in Toronto, the organization’s accompanying professional component, the Hot Docs Forum, gave industry a sneak peek at 75 future projects aiming to make it to festivals, theatres, and television in the coming year or two.
Taking place over two days, the Hot Docs Forum brought together key decision makers from around the world, broadcasters and funders looking for the next big doc to support. Twenty select projects were presented to this impressive body in a series of twenty-minute public pitches, with filmmakers seeking co-production or pre-buy financing in the presence of a hundred observers, while filmmaking teams from 55 other projects took individual meetings with attending industry as part of this year’s new Deal Maker initiative.
Including five fewer public pitches this year made for streamlined proceedings, with more time allotted to one-on-one meetings rather than what has tended in the past towards public theatrics. As part of the 2013 international selection committee, I was impressed with the submissions made to the Forum this year, and the assembled commissioning editors, foundation reps, and general observers seemed to respond overwhelmingly positively to the projects we selected for inclusion.
Highlights from some of the best-received pitches are included below, but, first, it’s often instructive to also consider projects that received a more mixed or unexpected reception. Violeta Ayala and Dan Fallshaw (“Stolen”) split the panel and observers with their new project, “The Bolivian Case,” which follows a notorious case of cocaine smuggling that implicated three young Norwegian women. Despite the film’s promising exploration of media bias in the way the case and its subjects were represented, some found the project’s trailer altogether too confusing. Some similar concerns came up for Mahmoud Al Massad’s (“Recycle”) new project, “Borhan,” an impromptu addition to the pitch session as the winner of the annual Mountie Hat wildcard slot. The film offers a glimpse at a different side of Jordanian life, as a struggling photography studio owner begins to dig around his garden for buried gold based on visions experienced by his young son. Panelists expressed confusion over political sequences included in the trailer and their connection to the story, while others missed the point completely. Others, recognizing the artistry on display, urged the producer to make the film they want to make regardless of commissioning editors’ comments, to which she very practically rebutted, “But we need money!”
Nagieb Khaja’s “Redemption,” following the efforts of a Danish-Morrocan criminal to become a good Muslim by joining in the fight for democracy in Syria, split the attendees. Some were concerned with the choice of a convicted criminal as some kind of heroic figure, while others welcomed the moral and ethical complexity this brought to the project. But perhaps the most talked about pitch came from Polish director Michał Marczak, at Hot Docs presenting his latest completed film, “Fuck For Forest,” but also selected to pitch a new project called “Rocket Men.” When his time slot came up, Marczak and his producer explained that “Rocket Men” wasn’t going to happen, but rather than waste the opportunity, they instead elected to give an impromptu and humorous pitch for an unrelated project, showing remarkable chutzpah and keeping the commissioning editors on their toes.
But beyond these episodes, the following eight projects (found on the next page) seemed to register most strongly with the decision makers. Film fest programmers and documentary fans alike should add them to their list for 2014 and beyond.
Director: Ryan Mullins
Producer: Bob Moore
Production Company: EyeSteelFilm
Proposed Delivery: 1/10/2014
Financing Sought: $277,628 of $534,950 USD
Synopsis: A janitor mopping floors in a brothel. A hotel waiter in a tuxedo. An albino trafficker in Tanzania. A Catholic priest in a Bangkok prison. They are all the calling cards of one man – undercover journalist Anas Aremeyaw Anas. Anas has been called the James Bond of Ghanaian journalism. He’s exposed a sex-trafficking ring by masquerading as a bartender. He’s uncovered deplorable conditions in Accra’s Psychiatric Hospital by admitting himself. He’s posed as a crown prince in order to bypass a rebel checkpoint. His unorthodox methods are infamous throughout Ghana, but despite his notoriety, his face is unknown to the public. Anas is an elusive figure in Ghana, which only adds to his notoriety.
Mullins scored high marks from the assembled industry with his pitch about a stranger than fiction subject from an underrepresented part of the world that mixes a sense of fun with very serious topics. EyeSteel has produced several acclaimed nonfiction films already, and seem set to continue on the same path with this immersive investigative doc which seems tailormade for fictionalization.
“Lost & Found”
Directors: John Choi and Nicolina Lanni
Producer: Nicolina Lanni
Production Company: Frank Films Inc
Proposed Delivery: 3/1/2014
Financing Sought: $304,585 of $500,000 USD
Synopsis: An epic endeavor is underway involving two continents, three countries and the largest body of water on Earth. Twenty-five million tons of wreckage from Japan’s devastating tsunami drifted into the Pacific Ocean and is destined to wash up on North America’s shores. The debris – fragments of coastal towns, fishing communities and rural villages – is evidence of the 15,000 lives lost to the waves. Strangers, continents apart, are coming together to salvage the memories amidst the debris. “Lost & Found” follows beachcombers, oceanographers, kayakers and environmentalists as they travel to Japan to return objects that washed ashore in North America to their rightful owners.
Like several of the pitched projects, Choi and Lanni’s film has already attracted some attention through a successful crowdfunding campaign – in their case, using Hot Docs’ own Doc Ignite. Broadcasters were extremely enthusiastic about their project, which humanizes a tragedy of epic proportions through a simple but effective premise.
Directors/Producers: Michael Attie and Meghan O’Hara
Production Company: Attie/O’Hara
Proposed Delivery: 8/1/2013
Financing Sought: $106,887 of $209,025 USD
Synopsis: War is hell. Why would anyone want to spend their weekends there? “In Country” is about a “platoon” of reenactors dedicated to recreating the Vietnam War in the woods of Oregon. Why recreate a war so many have tried to forget? The motivations that draw them to such a controversial activity are diverse and unexpected. Many are veterans of Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, suffering from PTSD. The film is not just about the aftermath of the Vietnam War or the fantasies of grown men; it’s a meditation on how the drums of war continue to draw men to battle despite devastating consequences.
Another project that has received a boost from crowdfunding, Attie and O’Hara also impressed at Camden’s Points North Documentary Forum last Fall. Of particular significance in the positive responses to the pitch from those around the table were comments from the international representatives – for what might perhaps be thought to be too “American” in focus and topic, there were clear indications of a more universal resonance that should help the film reach beyond its borders.
Directors: Ramiro Ozer Ami & Sebastian Mayayo
Producers: Daniel Cross, Bob Moore & Monique Simard
Production Company: EyeSteelFilm
Proposed Delivery: 12/12/2015
Financing Sought: $240,000 of $300,000 USD
Synopsis: Pepe Mujica was the leader of the Tupamaros, Uruguay’s outlawed leftist political party, and went on to spend over a decade in solitary confinement as a political prisoner. With a history similar to Nelson Mandela’s, he was released from jail as a folk hero with the expectation he might end the extreme corruption in Uruguayan politics. In 2010 he became President. Filming his incredible journey to power since before his election, this film will serve as both an authoritative biography and reflection on the meaning of statesmanship and political service.
Contractually obligated to hold off on premiering the film until after Pepe is out of office, programmers will have a bit longer to wait on what looks to be an incredibly promising, exceptionally candid portrait of a politician facing the compromises of the highest elected office in his nation – and another EyeSteel production. Commissioning editors and funders alike appreciated the filmmaker’s intimate access to a head of state, though some felt quite strongly that work needed to be done within the film to provide a sort of “Idiot’s Guide” to Uruguayan history and politics in order to crack the international marketplace – a note that might serve other filmmakers working on stories that might also be deemed too local.
Director: Mads Brügger
Producers: Peter Engel, Nadja Nørgaard Kristensen & Erik Gandini
Production Company: Electric Parc
Proposed Delivery: 9/1/2014
Financing Sought: $1,095,500 of $1,480,000 USD
Synopsis: If this really is true, if the Secretary-General of the United Nations really was assassinated by a sinister nexus of big powers working in collusion, it could be the most important and shocking story ever told. The geopolitical reverberation of Dag Hammarskjöld’s death in the jungles of Ndola in present day Zambia can still be heard and felt today. A critical mass has assembled itself, and the time to make an indisputable argument for the likelihood that his death was not a simple plane crash – which several investigations have concluded – is ripe.
While the seven-figure budget might make one pause, Brügger’s proven, and provocative, track record – “The Ambassador,” “The Red Chapel” – no doubt had its influence on the pitch for his new project. While the Danish enfant terrible wasn’t in attendance for the Forum, his producers received an enthusiastic response to this investigation into foul play with a strong geopolitical impact.
Directors/Producers: Damien Gillis & Fiona Rayher
Executive Producers: Mark Achbar & Daniel Conrad
Production Company: Two Island Films Ltd
Proposed Delivery: 1/1/2014
Financing Sought: $146,000 of $248,000 USD
Synopsis: Caleb Behn, a young Dene Nation warrior, is fighting to save his people’s land and culture in the exquisite wilderness of northeast British Columbia, by taking on the oil and gas industry which contaminates air and water and is driving an irreversible global climate crisis. Caleb is adept with weapons used for hunting, a vital part of his culture. To fight the gas industry, he needs stronger weapons. He has graduated from law school and works for the Fort Nelson First Nation, fighting the government giveaway to the gas industry of trillions of litres of water, from rivers that are the Dene’s lifeblood, polluted and pumped underground to frack for shale gas.
Gillis and Rayher were greeted with great enthusiasm for this homegrown David vs Goliath tale, and the endorsement by noted doc maker Achbar (“The Corporation”) as EP can’t have hurt. The project went on to win the scrappy Cuban Hat Award, a cash prize made up of donations from Forum attendees.
“Some Kind of Love”
Director: Thomas Burstyn
Producer: Trish Dolman
Production Company: Screen Siren Pictures Inc
Proposed Delivery: 9/1/2013
Financing Sought: $49,713 of $300,000 USD
Synopsis: The consequences of obsession, the burden of obligation and the great divide between art and science told through an aging artist, her scientist brother and their dilapidated mansion. With zero work/life balance, artist and designer Yolanda Sonnabend, 77, lives surrounded by a half century of painting, sculpture, frames, fabrics, books, archeologia and the ephemera of her frenzied imagination. After a career committed to science and patients, her older brother, Dr Joseph Sonnabend, 79, the esteemed New York AIDS doctor, moves in, returning to a country he has little affection for, a house he hates and a sister with early signs of dementia. Bound by his difficult love for Yolanda and shared secrets, he struggles to cope with her deterioration.
The winner of the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, Burstyn (“This Way of Life”) and Dolman’s project was among the best received of the two-day event. While some took issue with its overly generic title, that was a minor quibble for what looks to be a strong character-driven piece that is a study in contrasts.
“The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev”
Directors/Producers: Tal Barda & Noam Pinchas
Producer: Bruni Burres
Production Company: Pinchas/Barda
Proposed Delivery: 1/1/2014
Financing Sought: $229,050 of $326,550 USD
Synopsis: Tajik Papa Alaev, 79, is a gifted musician, ex-wrestler, time-to-time drunk and the indisputable leader of his musical family. But time is ticking, Papa is getting weaker, and the family wonders who his successor will be? Ariel, Papa’s youngest son, who, at the age of 47, still lives with his parents and can’t make any of his own decisions, not even regarding his rebellious teenage son? Ada, Papa’s eldest daughter who dared to leave his home and the band, and who is now living a non-musical life? This charged family triangle raises universal themes, and asks, in the 21st century, if it is worth staying under our family’s protective wings, even at the price of losing our personal freedom?
Finally, Barda and Pinchas’ distinctive project won accolades around the table for its intergenerational focus and especially for its lighter subject matter from a national cinema typically known for heavier, religious and political-based subject matter.