“Where is the hope?”
That was the question posed last week at one of the world’s most prominent launch pads for nonfiction films in development — the Hot Docs Pitch Forum — and it reflected the general mood in the room.
As 20 filmmaking teams pitched their projects to dozens of top decision-makers, funders, and broadcasters sitting around the long wooden table in the Gothic-designed Hart House at the University of Toronto, there was a particular excitement for new documentaries that were “fresh,” “optimistic” and “fun”—to use some of the words spoken publically over the two-day pitch-a-thon.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you could see those same powerbrokers struggling over what to do with still essential, but tough issue-driven films having to do with post-revolutionary countries in the Middle East or the global refugee crisis. “There are just so many films about refugees,” complained one buyer about “Lady of the Harbour,” a fascinating new take on the refugee crisis, about a foul-mouthed Chinese activist in Greece who tries to get well-to-do Chinese émigrés to join her cause of helping immigrants.
Despite a world plagued by rising nationalist and conservative “populist” movements—as reflected in a special promo reel and plea made by the NHK’s Takahiro Hamano—there were at least two instances of a chilling political effect in the room: first, when Guy Lavie, from Israeli broadcaster yesDocu, candidly admitted that his channel could not back films with Palestinian protagonists because of pressure from the Israeli Ministry of Culture; and secondly, when broadcasters confronted Latino filmmakers Alex Rivera (“Sleep Dealer”) and Cristina Ibarra (“The Last Conquistator”) for not being objective enough in their sympathetic look at the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a radical pro-immigrant activist group, in their pitch “The Infiltrators.” Such reactionary instances suggested larger potential issues on the horizon when it comes to nation-funded and public broadcasting services.
Judging from the reactions and talk among attendees, the following 10 projects (in rough order of priority) were this year’s hot pitches at Hot Docs 2017. Don’t be surprised if many of the films below end up on next year’s festival circuit, with a few angling for as early as Sundance 2018.
- “306 Hollywood”
The hands-down audience favorite at this year’s Forum, Elan and Jonathan Bogarín’s visually stylized “306 Hollywood” was just the kind of engaging, fresh, personal and unique project that the industry was waiting for. The project follows the brother-and-sister filmmaking team undertaking an archaeological excavation of their late grandmother’s New Jersey home. Weaving together colorful imagery of the home’s ‘50s artifacts, video interviews with their grandmother, and expert testimony from a Roman archaeologist, a fashion conservator, a historian, and a physicist, the innovative film aims to look at the nature of memory and the meaning of objects we leave behind. Winner of the Cuban Hat Award, decided by ballots collected from the Forum’s audience, the project received a couple thousand dollars in donated cash, in addition to other in-kind services (i.e. a two-hour consultation plus homemade gourmet meal in Montreal).
- “93 Queen”
Selected by ITVS through its “Open Call” submissions and executive produced by Marco Williams (“Two Towns of Jasper”), “93Queen” follows a Brooklyn-based Hasidic lawyer and mother of six who is determined to shake up her patriarchal community by creating the first all-female volunteer ambulance corps. Both U.S. and international buyers were drawn to the film’s story of female empowerment within a community that’s rarely represented on screen, particularly in such a positive, inspiring way. First-time director Paula Eiselt stole the show with her parting line: “Change isn’t made by the women who leave; change is made by the women who stay.” Even without firm commitments from around the table, “93Queen” was the big financial winner at the Forum: The project received Hot Docs’ inaugural first look top prize—$75,000 in Canadian cash, pooled by a group of philanthropic supporters and doc investors lead by Laurie David (“An Inconvenient Truth”).
- “The Feeling of Being Watched”
A personal documentary and political thriller, “The Feeling of Being Watched” chronicles filmmaker Assia Boundaoui’s investigation into a pre-9/11 FBI terrorism probe into her Arab American family and community in Chicago. Winner of the firstlook group’s second prize—of $25,000 Canadian dollars—the project is highly topical, but the decision-makers were also enticed by Boundaoui’s personal approach. While there were some questions about the outcome of Boundaoui’s own legal inquiry, given the government’s reluctance to help, the filmmaker promised she had already discovered plenty of revelations. In a resonant exchange from the trailer, she asks a family member, “Do you think you’re being paranoid?” “No,” she responds, “this is real.”
- “Bisbee ‘17”
Rising nonfiction star Robert Greene (“Kate Plays Christine”) unveiled his latest hybrid project, “Bisbee ’17,” which examines a small mining town on the Arizona-Mexican border, which was the site of a mass deportation of some 1,200 immigrant workers (the “Brisbee Deportation”) in 1917. Working on a broader and more overt political canvas than his previous films, Greene also remains devoted to questions of representation by having local people restage scenes from their community’s controversial past. In the trailer, footage of the recreations were slick and evocatively noir-ish, conjuring “a desert ‘Twin Peaks,’” as Greene describes it in his treatment. Fans of the filmmaker’s work will definitely want to check this one out, though many of the international buyers at the Forum appeared more cautious. Public broadcasters like PBS and ITVS praised the project, but one could sense the feeling in the room that all would be for naught, with a Netflix or Amazon stealing this one away.
This story of Pakistani activist Syeda Fatima is not what it seems. What first appears to be a standard chronicle of another tough woman—Fatima is the leader of the Bonded Labor Liberation Front, which helps free enslaved brick-workers in Pakistan—the project quickly becomes a harrowing look at the shortsightedness of online philanthropy and the costs associated with being labeled a hero. When photographer Brandon Stanton published pictures of Fatima and her work on his photoblog “Humans of New York,” he raised over $2.3 million for her cause, quickly propelling her to the international humanitarian stage. Before long, George Clooney and Bill Clinton were taking photos with her and helping her achieve long-desired goals. But with fame also came death threats and a growing backlash. Scenes from the film show both Fatima’s harrowing work rescuing slave laborers, but also the personal toll her activism is having on her life in Pakistan. The project received interest from a range of broadcasters, including ZDF in Germany, Arte in France, Vice Documentary Films, and PBS.
- “The Watchmen”
Pitched as both a “detective story” and unique take on the global refugee crisis, “The Watchmen” follows a team of forensic pathologists who work diligently to identify the bodies of immigrants who die in the Mediterranean sea, giving them back their identity and their dignity. The documentary will center on top Italian scientist Cristina Cattaneo, and filmmakers Madeleine Leroyer and Valerie Montmartin promised that their project would culminate with a reunion between the family and the victims as a way to find closure. Though incisive, sharp imagery of the forensic process fleshed out the film’s mood, buyers asked questions about Cattaneo as a protagonist, and whether she would emerge as an emotional focal point. Despite the glut of refugee films, this one seemed to rise above the fray—but the film’s title would need to change for the international market, as the project has little to do with watching or men.
- “After a Revolution”
For security reasons, “After a Revolution” (also known as “Doshka”) had a media blackout on the project, so we can’t divulge what it was about, but this project from Italian director Giovanni Buccomino and producer Al Morrow (“Sour Grapes,” “How to Change the World”) has compelling characters and visceral, impactful footage. Though there was some resistance from the table of broadcasters due to the bracing subject matter, there was also just as much praise.
Put into that familiar category of tough but essential, “Jacinta” transcends its dour subject matter—a mother and her adult daughter, both addicts in Maine—with a startling intimacy that recalls Kim Longinotto’s recent “Dreamcatchers.” With emotional and engrossing material, captured between mother and daughter and her own young daughter, the film captures with disturbing clarity the cycles of drug use, poverty and incarceration that exist today in Trump’s America where white women are identified as the fastest growing prison population. There were plenty of complements coming from P.O.V., National Geographic and Norway’s VGTV, but it was Vice that appeared particularly bullish about the project, seeking Canadian filmmakers Jessica Earnshaw and Nimisha Mukerji out in the hallways during the break to show their interest.
- Untitled Jennifer Laude Documentary
Another project with a media blackout, this project from PJ Raval (“Trinidad”) and producer Lisa Valencia-Svensson (“Herman’s House,” “The World Before Her”) has already been publically supported by such major funders as the Ford Foundation, Fork Films, the Sundance Institute, the Bertha Foundation and Firelight Media and received a Guggenheim Award. According to the Sundance Institute, the film tracks the story of grassroots activists who are spurred into action when a local transgender woman is found dead in a motel room with a 19-year-old U.S. marine as the leading suspect. As they demand answers and a just trial, hidden histories of U.S. colonization come bubbling to the surface. North American broadcasters praised the filmmaking team and both ITVS and P.O.V. appeared to be strongly considering the project.
- “Blue Box”
Winner of the Corus-Hot Docs Prize for best Canadian pitch, “Blue Box” chronicles the untold story of the massive land takeover that led to the creation of Israel told through the diaries of the man who orchestrated it. Another media blackout project, the film was particularly embraced by the international broadcasters in attendance.