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8 Must-See Documentaries That Haven’t Been Finished Yet From the Hot Docs Pitch Forum

8 Must-See Documentaries That Haven't Been Finished Yet From the Hot Docs Pitch Forum

“This is the
fucking one.”

So said Amazon Studios development executive Brianna Little
during the 17th edition of the Hot Docs Forum, one of the world’s
largest and most important conferences for pitching in-the-works documentary
projects.

It was a rare moment of effusive praise for the Forum,
revealing not just Little’s first-timer enthusiasm, but also a general feeling
among the documentary executives that this year’s 20 nonfiction projects were a
largely solid bunch. Only one of the docs faced outright negative criticism,
while the rest of the 19 films (representing more than a dozen different countries)
were mostly warmly welcomed by the 300 key funders and other decision-makers sitting
in the massive wood-paneled room within the University of Toronto’s Hart House.

READ MORE: Hot Docs 2016 Announces Full Lineup

Hot Docs Forum isn’t a place where deals are signed in the
hallways, but it does spark anticipation, meetings, and for a couple of films,
cash prizes. This year’s winner of the Best Canadian pitch and CDN$10,000 in cash
went to “Showgirls of Pakistan,” a compelling story of female dancers in Punjab’s smut theatres (which was
unfortunately undermined by an overly sensationalistic and over-cut trailer).

Another pitch from first-time Italian director Giovanni
Totaro called “Happy Winter” received the Cuban Hat Award, which included CDN
$1,223.50 as well as industry passes to 2017 Hot Docs, Doc Leipzig, an IDFA
accreditation, and consulting sessions with various industry experts. “Happy
Winter” won over the audience with newcomer Totaro’s nervous excitement — one
industry exec compared his “charm offensive” to Roberto Benigni’s — and a
beautifully shot winsome clip reel about working-class Italian families on
vacation on Palermo’s Mondello Beach.

Other highlights of the two-day forum were “The Patriot,” a
dark tale of extreme nationalist ideologies and twisted vengeance in the
digital age from “Censored Voices” producer-editor Daniel Sivan and produced by
Zafrir Kochanovsky of Israel’s TTV Productions, as well as projects from Pulse
Films (“XY Chelsea”) and Parabola Films (“Billy”). Because of media blackouts
on the three projects, further information on the docs is embargoed.

Another surprise was Patricia Gillespie’s stunning and
stylish trailer for “American Monster,”
 a dark Southern Gothic true-crime look at the pathology of American violence,
which turned out to be the Forum’s first-ever docu-series pitch. This news
turned out to stymie most of the broadcasters in attendance. Originally set up
as a feature documentary, the project made a deal just a couple days before the
Forum with Morgan Spurlock’s Warrior Poets to develop the film into a
multi-part series. Outside-the-box companies showed strong interest, including
VICE Media (“This is the most creative and compelling thing I’ve seen at Hot
Docs,” noted VICE development exec John Turner) and Norway’s VGTV (“I’d like to
make an offer,” said acquisitions head Hans Andreas Fay), but it was Forum
moderator Axel Arno from Stockholm’s SVT who seemed to surmise what most
everyone was thinking: “I know Netflix is in the room,” he said, “they will
find you.”

Netflix came up a few times during the conference as the
proverbial elephant in the room. During the Forum’s most commercial pitch, for “The Last Animals” about elephant and rhino poaching, from photojournalist-turned-filmmaker
Kate Brooks and heavyweight producer Laurie David (“An Inconvenient Truth”), it
was BBC Storyville’s always candid Nick Fraser who declared, “If I was I Netflix,
I would buy this on the spot.” 

“The Last Animals” grabbed the attention of the executives
on the roundtable like no other pitch in the 48-Hour Forum. It was the project
that made Amazon’s Briana Little gush, and other executives follow suit with
praise for the trailer’s “strong images” and effective use of “pulling at
heartstrings.” PBS’s Marie Nelson said she was not ready to concede the
documentary to Netflix and could be instrumental in helping aid the filmmakers
with their outreach and impact campaign, while Mette Hoffmann Meyer, head of
docs and coproductions for Denmark’s Danish Broadcasting Companies, suggested the
world’s public broadcasters could all pull together to coordinate a
simultaneous “The Last Animals” airing event as way to keep the nonprofits in
the game. But in discussions after the pitch, the general consensus is that “The Last Animals” will be picked up by a more commercial entity. 

One such company HBO already has a first-look deal with “Rules
To Live By,” another favorite project at the Forum. While the story of director
Hope Litoff’s search to understand the suicide of her sister artist Ruth Litoff
may sound like a downer, Litoff has described the tone of the film as “witty,
sad, often outrageous and even funny.” BC’s Nick Fraser called the project “very brave and terrific,” and praised the trailer for its “texture” and the
way it beautifully expressed her observations. Produced by Beth Levison (“The
Trials of Spring,” “Lemon”) and shot by Dan Gold (“Blue Vinyl”), “Rules to Live
By” has already received support by the IFP and an Accelerator Grant from
Chicken & Egg.

A compelling sports story arrived in Poland’s “Over the
Limit,” an intimate portrait of the world’s most outstanding rhythmic gymnast,
Russia’s Margarita Mamun. The film follows Mamun for over a year as she readies
to compete in the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. On the page, the project did not
seem like it would stand out, but many of the executives were taken by the
filmmaker’s profound access into this sheltered community. “This is one of
those stories that transcends nationality,” said PBS’s Mariel Nelson, “and it’s
something I’d love to see at PBS.”

Another foreign pitch that turned heads, David Baksh and
Anna Thomson’s “Yoghurt Utopia” tells the quirky and surprising story of a
Spanish yogurt factory set up in the forest, where the hundreds of workers are
all hospital patients with mental illnesses. Supported by the Sundance
Institute’s Documentary Film Program, the film will reveal how the endeavor has
become both a commercial success, amidst trying economic times for Spain, but also
a revolutionary approach by Catalan psychiatrist Cristobal Colon to treating and
empowering the disabled. Champions in the room included Arte France’s Mark
Edwards, Amazon’s Brianne Little, and Vice’s John Turner who found Colon to be
a compelling central character with a “beautiful, youthful energy” that he
thought would resonate with their audience. More on the project can be found
here
.

From Chicago-based Kartemquin Films came another foreign
favorite, “Eating Up Easter,” a surprisingly moving look at the Rapu Nui
residents of the Pacific Island nation of Easter Island, as they grapple with a
rapidly growing tourism trade and increasing loads of trash and pollution. A
classic tale of globalization and its discontents, the trailer also benefited
from two compelling sets of characters, a crotchety grandmother who strives for
sustainability in a recycling center in the background of the majestic Easter
Island statues and a young couple trying to heal their community through music.
Companies such as Japanese broadcaster NHK, Arte France, and Germany’s RTL
Television all showed interest in the project. Because of financing the project
has received from ITVS’s Diversity Development Fund, it will eventually find a
home in the U.S. on one of PBS’s strands.

READ MORE: 5 New Must-See Documentaries From the 2016 Hot Docs Festival

The last but not least project in the Forum was “Mudflow” from Oscar-winning nonfiction filmmaker Cynthia Wade (“Freeheld,” “Shelter
Dogs”), co-director Sasha Friedlander and producer Tracie Holder (“Joe Papp in
Five Acts”). Focusing on the plight of Indonesian villagers in the wake of a
massive mud volcano, the project showed off gorgeous cataclysmic images of the
area, along with a potentially stirring and complex story of the collision of
politics, people and corporate interests in the region. Executives from NHK, Participant
Media, Danish Broadcasting and Al Jazeera all showed interest, while Dutch
broadcasting exec Margje de Koning offered a valuable lesson for perhaps all
documentary-makers: “Beauty,” she said, “is very important when we see harsh
stories.”

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