Films, Panels and Tense Pitch Sessions, Hot Docs '05 has Record Year
by Sarah Keenlyside
In spite of an unfortunate closing night film selection, and a week of being repeatedly subjected to the most annoying festival trailer I've ever seen, this year's Hot Docs International Documentary Film Festival (Toronto, April 22 - May 1) was a resounding success. Like a proud papa, festival exec director Chris MacDonald told the closing night audience that it was yet another record year for industry attendance and box office numbers, which was clearly evident to me by the packed screenings and industry sessions I attended during the week.
The entire event also seemed meticulously organized this year, and I was particularly delighted that longtime Hot Docs venue, the Royal Cinema, was dropped from the program, presumably because of its lengthy distance from the other festival screens. (I saved a fortune in cab fares.)
Apart from the closing night screening, the majority of films I attended this year were excellent. Particularly impressive was the world premiere of best international documentary and audience award winner "Street Fight," by U.S. director Marshall Curry. The film follows the Newark, New Jersey mayoral campaign in 2002 between newcomer Cory Booker and the incumbent mayor, James Sharpe. Booker is portrayed as a man relentlessly fighting the good fight whereas Sharp uses dirty tactics to get the job done. In this regard, the film does at times feel suspiciously one sided, however Booker is so convincingly earnest, and his tale is just the sort of feisty underdog story filled with enough good versus evil conflict to get audiences cheering.
Winning the award for best Canadian documentary (short to mid-length) was Nadja Drost's remarkable "Between Midnight and the Rooster's Crow." This brave film ventures deep into the Ecuadorian Amazon to uncover evidence of pollution, coercion, and corruption committed against people living in the midst of the Canadian oil company EnCana. Meanwhile the company claims a history of unfailing corporate responsibility and environmentally sound practices. Yeah, right.
Best Canadian documentary (feature length) was awarded to "Hogtown: The Politics of Policing," by director Min Sook Lee, and a special jury prize was awarded to Danish director Jeppe Rønde's "The Swenkas," a film about an odd practice amongst South African Zulu men who on Saturday nights compete for the title of most stylish man.
A strong slate of Sundance picks were also presented, although unfortunately, my favorite Sundance doc, "The Devil and Daniel Johnston" was pulled from the schedule at the last minute.
Hot Docs opening night kicked off with the Sundance audience award winner "Murderball" (dir. Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin). Others films screened were Werner Herzog's "Grizzly Man" (another of my favorite Sundance films this year), "The Education of Shelby Knox," "Twist of Faith," "The Three Rooms of Melancholia" and the hilarious "Abel Raises Cain," a daughter's loving tribute to her notorious prankster father, which won the grand jury prize for best documentary at Slamdance this year.
On the other hand, the closing night screening was indeed a poor selection, not only because "Heyzel '85, Requiem for a Cup Final" (dir. Lode Desmet, Belgium) was clearly a TV doc and seemed unsuited to being showcased in such a prominent slot at the festival, but also because the subject matter was truly dismal and lacked enough relevance in today's world that might justify closing the festival on such a negative note. The film revisits the tragic 1985 European football cup final when 39 people were crushed to death in a massive riot between rival fans. Most shockingly, after several hours of attempting to get the crowd under control and as bodies were being shipped to the local morgue, officials allowed the game to proceed. It took more than a few martinis at the closing night party to eradicate the sad, gruesome images of those helpless and trampled football fans from my mind.
On the other hand, the biggest treat for me this year was the almost complete retrospective of Errol Morris' work (for some reason, "Gates of Heaven" wasn't included). And on Saturday night, to a packed house in the Isabel Bader Theatre, Morris took the stage and was interviewed by film critic Gerald Peary. He charmed the audience, telling fabulous tales from his many years making documentary films (and about the few years he worked as a private detective). Overall, the entire evening was beautifully orchestrated and included clips from several of his films and commercials (including his hilarious Quaker Oats commercials, which he claims to be his best work ever).
He also brazenly dissed the Cinema Verite movement (not something typically discussed at Hot Docs - I mean, what would Hot Docs attendee and Verite pioneer Albert Maysles think?), and made the case that for his film "The Thin Blue Line," it was his utterly contrived approach to filmmaking that ultimately revealed the truth about a death row inmate who was wrongfully accused. The film's investigations saved the man's life. Morris was also honored on awards night with Hot Docs' annual outstanding achievement award.
But all was not screenings and parties and inspirational talks with legendary docmakers at Hot Docs. In fact, I spent about half my time inside the hallowed University of Toronto classrooms, attending some excellent panel discussions and, of course, the Toronto Documentary Forum. As usual, the Forum featured a mind boggling number of key broadcasting executives from all over the world, including this year, Satnam Matharu deputy chairman for documentary from the Aljazeera network, who presented an update about the sort of films the young Qatar-based broadcaster is seeking. (He's looking to acquire docs that are timely, groundbreaking and have high production values - the network recently acquired "The Corporation," for example). Other broadcasters that presented included the Sundance Channel, ARTE France, NHK Japan and Court TV.
Clearly, Hot Docs' TDF is the place in North America to get international financing for docs. It is modeled after the FORUM for International Co-financing of Documentaries in Amsterdam, and projects presented must have a broadcaster attached before coming to the table. From what I've observed over the years, the Forum can be an effective way to get financing, but the possibility of success depends almost entirely on the pitch. Out of the six pitches I observed, two were so poorly executed they were almost painful to watch. One, in fact, nearly erupted into an argument between a hotheaded producer and a representative from German television. Needless to say, some of the other broadcasters jumped in to defend their colleague from Germany and the film was overwhelmingly snubbed.
What did I learn about pitching this year? Always be mindful about the length of time you have to pitch and focus on the key elements of your story. Be prepared to answer questions and accept criticisms about the film. Highlight things like exclusive access to important characters and even your own track record - one producer showed a clip from one of his past films to illustrate the humorous approach he would take. His pitch was received with a succession of "I'm interested" comments.
Overall, I think the best advice if you want to pitch a project in a forum setting is to buy an observer ticket and take lots of notes. And if you're not pitching in the Forum but have a great idea, I've been told that smoke breaks can be a great time to hang around and make an introduction to a particular broadcaster...