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Dispatch from Toronto | Hot Docs ’11: Winning Pitches at the Hot Docs Forum

Dispatch from Toronto | Hot Docs '11: Winning Pitches at the Hot Docs Forum

Over the past two days, over 120 funders, commissioning editors, and broadcasters from around the world gathered in Toronto to consider 28 pitches for new documentary projects as part of the Hot Docs Forum, the documentary festival’s international co-financing market. Part performative theatre, part practical one-stop shop to connect with the primary decision makers of the non-fiction landscape, the Forum serves an important function for both sides of the pitching table, as well as the hundreds of observers in attendance both days. Filmmakers from pre-selected projects are given twenty minutes total to pitch and field questions and comments from the distinguished panel in the hopes of securing pre-sales, co-production, or acquisition deals to help them plug their financing gaps.

Having attended the Hot Docs Forum since 2009, as well as IDFA’s own Forum the past two years, I personally was a bit disappointed in the overall offerings – a sentiment that other observers, and a few participants echoed, off the record. While there were a couple of frankly weak projects with uncertain focus, others simply just seemed uninspired or unoriginal, or just not particularly appropriate for the assembled decision makers and their respective strands.

That said, Forum Director Elizabeth Radshaw and her staff, as well as the independent international selection committee, can only work with what’s submitted, and, of course, some of their selections were definitely memorable and impressive. Of the 23 pitches I observed, the following eight were notable for their potential and for the professionalism of their delivery:

“Unstable Elements”
Director/Producer: Madeleine Sackler
Producer: James Lawler
Executive Producer: Tom Stoppard
Country: USA
Production Company: Great Curve Films
Proposed Delivery: 3/1/2012
Financing Sought: $701,410 of $751,410 USD
Synopsis: “Unstable Elements” tracks an underground resistance group fighting for human rights in Belarus, where the secret police are called the KGB and where political dissenters disappear. The members of the Belarus Free Theater risk their lives staging illicit performances and campaigning around the world, meeting with dignitaries to expose what life is truly like under the last dictatorship in Europe.

While I’d be the first to confess that films about theater – or especially films that attempt to incorporate theatre as a stylistic element – tend to leave me cold, the team behind “The Lottery” have found an organic way to make it work in their story about the Belarus Free Theater – and generated a lot of questions and interest from the assembled decision makers.

“Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls”
Director: Juliet Lamont
Producer: Jessica Douglas-Henry
Country: Australia
Production Company: Iris Pictures Pty Ltd
Proposed Delivery: 3/1/2012
Financing Sought: $165,000 of $542,000 USD
Synopsis: Meet Australian expat “Miss Nikki” and her Tiger Girls, Myanmar’s answer to 1990s British pop sensation the Spice Girls. Baby, Chilli, Electro, Tricky and Missy are the subversive young women from the country’s first-ever girl band, who hope to gain success on the international music scene – a big dream in a country ruled by a military junta resistant to outside, especially Western, influence. This intimate documentary follows the fate of six young women who are literally putting their lives on the line to sing about freedom.

With the support of ITVS and Screen Australia already secured, this story of accidental activism is on track to successful completion. Exploring pop culture and the desire for fame and success against the backdrop of a repressive society, the project has a number of unusual hooks uncommon for a film about Burma.

“Uranium Drive-In”
Director: Susan Beraza
Producer: Michelle Hill
Executive Producer: Judith Kohin
Country: USA
Production Company: Reel Thing Productions
Proposed Delivery: 12/15/2011
Financing Sought: $315,250 of $378,250 USD
Synopsis: The proposed Pinon Ridge Uranium Mill in southwestern Colorado is creating a raging debate among residents, tearing the community apart. The nation’s first uranium mill in 25 years promises to bring jobs and a stable economy to a region still struggling with health impacts, environmental harm and financial insecurity in the wake of the industry’s last bust. “Uranium Drive-In” follows the lives of three families – one for the proposed mill, one against and one family struggling with their position. It focuses on the human aspect, how people, when faced with difficult choices, make decisions about their future.

Beraza and Kohin, who most recently had success with the doc “Bag It,” turn their attention to another environmental subject with a personal connection – they live in the vicinity of the proposed mill. Their trailer featured some of the most beautiful cinematography of any of the pitches, indicating a visual sensibility that will uniquely capture their controversial, complex subject.

“Gideon’s Army”
Director/Producer: Dawn Porter
Country: USA
Production Company: Trilogy Films
Proposed Delivery: 12/1/2012
Financing Sought: $148,250 of $368,250 USD
Synopsis: What is it like to represent a person accused of committing a terrible crime? In “Gideon’s Army” we meet young lawyers working in the Deep South. Facing long hours, low pay and staggering caseloads, many will not last for even a year. But they now have help. Legal advocate Jonathan Rapping, founder of the Southern Public Defender Training Center, is spreading a revolution across the United States, training and mentoring the lawyers who represent the people society would rather forget.

The topic of “Gideon’s Army” is close to home for former attorney turned documentary filmmaker Porter. She already has the Tribeca Film Institute and the Ford Foundation in her corner to help realize her film about the challenging lives and work of Southern public defenders, and strong central characters willing to tell their stories.

Director: Jamie Meltzer
Producer: George M Rush
Country: USA
Proposed Delivery: 10/1/2011
Financing Sought: $156,250 of $207,200 USD
Synopsis: “Informant” explores Brandon Darby’s dual life as revolutionary activist and FBI informant. In 2005, Darby became an overnight hero, traveling to Katrina-devastated New Orleans, risking his life to rescue a stranded friend, and co-founding Common Ground, a hugely successful relief organization. In 2008, after two young activists were arrested for possessing Molotov cocktails at the Republican National Convention, Darby shocked close friends and activists nationwide, revealing he was an FBI informant.

Meltzer’s has a proven track record with his previous non-fiction work, “Off the Charts” and “Welcome to Nollywood,” while Rush has repped standout narratives like “Everything Strange and New” and “The Myth of the American Sleepover.” Their new project has already been awarded a grant by Cinereach, and focuses on the fascinating and charismatic Brandon Darby, who was perhaps the most intriguing yet not fully explored element of the recent acclaimed doc “Better This World.”

“The Dark Matter of Love”
Director: Sarah McCarthy
Producer: Al Morrow
Country: UK
Production Company: Met Film Production
Proposed Delivery: 1/6/2012
Financing Sought: $494,174 of $574,174 USD
Synopsis: This film is about three strange and ferocious things: love, science and small children. In it, an American family adopts three Russian children, twins and their sister. As the adopted children, and the adoptive family, learn how to form human relationships, we explore the scientific experiments that taught us the little we know about the dark matter of love.

Producer Morrow is a well-regarded producer whose most recent credits include “Donor Unknown” and “Men Who Swim,” while director McCarthy charmed audiences at TIFF with “The Sound of Mumbai: A Musical,” which sold to HBO and Channel 4. Their new project split the decision makers at the Forum, with some hoping for more science, and others less. The teaser shown used old scientific research as wry commentary, providing a different perspective to the typical adoption documentary, but the project’s focus on the family bonding of a complicated adoption also promises a fair share of emotion and drama.

Director: Jonathan Howells
Producer: Rob Fletcher
Country: UK
Production Company: Start in Morocco Films Ltd
Proposed Delivery: 2/1/2012
Financing Sought: $271,260 of $373,075 USD
Synopsis: A story about two newlyweds who drove around the world in a 1934 London taxi in the 1950s, starting in Africa and ending in Japan. Now he’s 84 years old. We follow Alfred’s efforts to restore the taxi and take it 2,500 miles across America, accompanied by the son he didn’t raise to surprise the woman he loved and left – and who he made that epic journey with 50 years earlier – so he can give her one last ride “before it’s too late.”

While road trip docs can be treacherous journeys indeed – often due to the boredom they generate in viewers – “Driven” should escape that trap, based on the strength of the footage the pitching team presented. Some broadcasters expressed concern that the story seemed too Hollywood, but I personally was charmed by the concept and intrigued by the access the filmmakers have to unique characters with a fascinating backstory.

“A Whole Lott More”
Director/Producer: Victor Buhler
Producer: Angel Vasquz
Country: UK
Production Company: Flying V Films
Proposed Delivery: 11/30/2011
Financing Sought: $231,872 of $308,872 USD
Synopsis: Lott Industries in Toledo, OH employs more than 1,200 workers with developmental disabilities. For decades, the company excelled in assembling car parts. However, with the decline of the auto industry in neighboring Detroit, Lott is threatened with closure. The company has 12 months to reinvent itself and to save the livelihoods of its disabled employees. “A Whole Lott More” follows Lott’s critical year and brings to light how people with disabilities are excluded from the working world – a situation that must change.

The well-respected and accomplished Buhler has already received support from the Channel 4 Britdoc Foundation for this appealing story which was overwhelmingly positively received by the decision makers and by the observers. The latter selected it as one of the co-winners of the Cuban Hat Award, a cash-prize generated from donations by observers over the two days of the Forum. “Lott”‘s trailer displayed strongly-defined characters and provided a very clear sense of how much is at stake for them if they lose their jobs. The project has the potential to showcase the disabled in a very different light than they’re usually shown, and seems destined for audience accolades.

I should also note that William Hechter took home the Shaw Media-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, $40,000 in cash, awarded to the best Canadian pitch, for his project on American songwriter Jerome Felder, AKA “Doc Pomus,” while the above mentioned Cuban Hat Award was shared with the last-minute pitch by Canada’s Nomad Films for their ayahuasca-focused project, “The Jungle Prescription.” While the cash went to “Jungle” and “Lott,” the Cuban Hat was awarded to the decision maker voted as the Forum observer’s favorite – the irascible Nick Fraser from the BBC.

ABOUT THE WRITER: Basil Tsiokos is a Programming Associate, Documentary Features for Sundance, consults with documentary filmmakers and festivals, and co-produced Cameron Yates’ feature documentary “The Canal Street Madam.” Follow him on Twitter (@1basil1 and @CanalStMadamDoc) and visit his blog (what (not) to doc).

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