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Here’s What It’s Like to Pitch Your Documentary at Points North Pitch

Here's What It's Like to Pitch Your Documentary at Points North Pitch

Documentaries aren’t the only show at the Camden International Film Festival. To be sure, the 11th annual event, staged each fall against a striking Atlantic Coast backdrop in the towns of Camden, Rockport and Rockland, Maine, brings in filmmakers from around the world. Not all of them, however, arrive with a finished movie.

READ MORE: Camden International Film Festival Announces Winners

Each year, six projects are chosen to participate in the Points North Pitch – which was launched in 2010. Filmmakers arrive for a full day of coaching and preparation, followed by a live presentation at the Camden Opera House. On stage. Before a packed house of festival-goers. As if they were not nervous enough already.

They face a panel of potential funders from major supporters of documentary efforts that include HBO, the Sundance Institute, the Tribeca Film Institute, the Catapult Film Fund, Vimeo and the LEF Foundation, among others, with seven minutes to introduce their film and show a short clip. Then, for 10 more minutes, they field questions from the panelists, who offer candid and even blunt notes about what they’ve just seen and heard. The filmmakers do their best to satisfy the comments, although sometimes it’s clear that the project in question isn’t necessarily a fit.

It must feel like wandering into a non-fiction film version of “Shark Tank.”

“I didn’t expect to come out of there alive, I guess,” said Jeff Unay, a Seattle-based director who came to Camden last weekend to pitch his feature debut “Greywater.” The film is an intimate portrait of a middle-aged family man in crisis who makes a fateful decision to return to something he promised his wife and children he would never do again: cage fighting. Unay met his subject, a muscular man’s man named Joe, at the gym where he trained.

“I was at yoga class,” he said. The filmmaker, who had been an important part of the special effects team than won an Academy Award for “Avatar,” caught his new acquaintance’s interest with his background in Hollywood blockbusters. ” I told him, ‘Hey, I’m making my own films,” Unay said. “He told me, ‘I’m almost 40. I really want to get back in ring.  I know I have a year left and that’s about it.'”

Right then, Unay knew he had his movie – and an immediate timeline. He also walked away with the $10,000 Points North Pitch-Modulus Finishing Fund award, although not without serious competition. The projects, drawn from a pool of more than 200 submissions, included Carlye Rubin and Katie Green’s “No Place for Children,” a piece about juvenile offenders charged in crimes as adults and given extreme jail sentences; Sabaah Jordan and Damon Davis’s “Whose Streets,” an on-the-ground portrait of new young activists in Ferguson, Mo., galvanized by the Michael Brown killing;  Suzan Baraza’s “¡No Soy Puta!” which details the experience of a sex worker caught on the immigration battleground between the Dominican Republic and Haiti; and Jordan Fein and Hunter Baker’s “Three Rising Towers,” which examines social and economic pressures in the life of a medicine man amid a crucial transition on his reservation. 

“The strength of this year’s pitches was the level of variety in approach and subject matter,” said Charlotte Cook, former director of programming at Toronto’s Hot Docs festival and a co-founder, with filmmakers Laura Poitras and A.J. Schnack, of Field of Vision, a new documentary platform committed to short films. “The level of cinematic artistry was superb. It was also fantastic to see very ambitious projects like ‘¡No Soy Puta!’ and ‘Whose Streets.'” 

Luke Meyer, whose documentary about a teenage heavy metal band “Breaking a Monster” screened at CIFF, also pitched his next project “The Fourth Wall.” The film draws on archival material and interviews to explore the strange saga of a 1960s Upper West Side psychotherapy cult known as the Sullivanians. 

“The value of something like this is it forces you to hone into a very focused place what your project is about,” he said. “Documentary is two-sided coin. If you have a good story and character, it’s very easy to begin by picking up a camera and focusing on them. You don’t need to overthink it before acting on it. The other side of that is it’s very easy to cut yourself too much slack. The best films are often made in the edit room, but more preparation helps them to be better. This is a good program to help people do the things that will make them make better films.”

READ MORE: Indiewire’s Ultimate Guide to Documentary Filmmaking

The shape that those films take has been evolving, at least as framed by Points North, whose highlight programs also included a master class presentation by Alex Gibney and a session devoted to “The New News,” short documentary journalism produced for online streaming by media outlets like The Guardian, The New York Times and PBS.

Issue-driven pieces are a norm in non-fiction, but as panelist Daniel Chalfen of Naked Edge Films said, the focus of the pitch is to look for story first. “I like story-led films with a significant level of moral ambiguity The guy who would usually be the antagonist could be the protagonist, for example, and being bold with a story, allowing any character to humanize whatever their background is,” he said. “If I can see it as a fictional story, then it will make a good documentary.”

That trait also struck Sean Flynn, director of the Points North Forum, as a key in selections for this year’s Pitch. 

“Look at ‘Greywater’ and ‘Three Rising Towers,’  those are exceptionally cinematic films in the way they’re being shot, verite in the classic sense, really doing some great observational camerawork,” he said. “They’re shooting on expensive cameras now and getting this kind of aesthetic that makes it hard to differentiate between narrative indie film and documentary. That’s been happening for some time now.”

Flynn said he hoped that the Pitch could be a platform for filmmakers otherwise not on the radar of major funders or institutes. Unay, whose expertise has been digital facial design, is highly accomplished. “But he’s a no-name in the documentary world,” Flynn said. “He’s got incredible instincts as a storyteller and cinematographer. It’s really exciting to find a talent like that who can use the festival as a springboard for that film.”

During his pitch, Unay went into detail about his background in mapping faces and how he applies it to filming a real human being, exploring with sensitivity the complex issue of manhood. “It’s more about showing that telling,” he said of the project, which is nearing completion after two years. That the story touches poignantly on aspects of masculinity was purely organic.  “It’s not something that I go into it with,” he said, “to say let’s define what it is to be a man today. That wasn’t the motivation. But as a theme I think it seeps out of this film.”

READ MORE: Reality Checks: How Good Pitch Raises Millions of Dollars for Documentaries

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