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Hot Docs Forum Fetes 20 Years of Groundbreaking Stories

Celebrating its 20th anniversary in Toronto this week, the Hot Docs Forum will once again showcase some of the most anticipated films slated to hit the documentary world. Over the course of the two-day event, 20 pre-selected projects will be presented to a round table of industry insiders from around the globe, including leading commissioning editors, film fund representatives, public financiers, private investors, festival programmers, sales agents and distributors.

“Pitching in a forum such as Hot Docs is as much a promotional and market validation and marketing exercise as it is a financing one—to be able to establish an auteur, a visionary, a filmmaker, and have them in a really quick, seven-minute way present their work to the entire international documentary community in one place,” said Hot Docs industry program director Elizabeth Radshaw. “It’s as much about cultivating that individual project as it is about cultivating the production companies and the artists themselves.”

This year’s Hot Docs Forum will take place on April 30 and May 1, with projects representing 18 different countries selected from over 325 submissions. All projects are eligible for the first look Pitch Prize, the Corus-Hot Docs Forum Pitch Prize, and the Cuban Hat Award. Teams will then move on to Deal Maker, Hot Docs’ tailor-made program of one-on-one meetings with industry players, which takes place April 30-May 2.

A Hot Docs Forum pitch can not only serve as a springboard for a specific film but a catalyst that launches a successful career. Past Forum projects include Ari Folman’s Academy Award nominee “Waltz With Bashir,” and “One Child Nation,” by Nanfu Wang (pictured), which pitched at the Forum in 2018 before winning the grand jury prize in Sundance this year.

“When I’m working with the teams in preparing the pitches for the Forum, one thing I say is, ‘Yes, you’re coming here with this documentary, but you really are in a room with the 400 people who are basically running the documentary film industry,’” said Hot Docs Forum producer Dorota Lech. “‘These are long-term relationships that you’re forging. Go in there knowing that these are the people you want to work with on your future projects.’”

Among the highlights this year will be opening pitch “Alvin Ailey,” by director Jamila Wignot, which chronicles the visionary gay African-American artist who created one of the successful dance companies in the world. In “Hidden Letters,” directors Violet Du Feng and Zhao Qing follow a young woman in rural China who turns to an ancient, secret, women-only script to navigate life in a world still dominated by men.

“Zinder,” by Aicha Macky of Niger, examines the ranks of unemployed youths joining gangs in the titular city, while exploring their radicalization and their prospects for escape. And “Light Darkness Light,” from director Landon Van Soest, tracks a blind Anglican priest’s journey to regain his sight by becoming one of the world’s first patients to receive a bionic retina implant.

Since the Forum’s first edition 20 years ago, the documentary landscape has evolved dramatically. Netflix’s aggressive move into the doc arena several years ago has had a noticeable knock-on effect, with the streaming giant’s fat checkbook raising the stakes for other buyers. Films like HBO’s Michael Jackson documentary “Leaving Neverland” and Netflix’s true crime drama “Abducted in Plain Sight,” meanwhile, have had the outsized cultural impact usually reserved for superhero tentpoles and prestige drama series.

CREDIT: Joseph Michael Howarth/Hot Docs

Documentary financing has also undergone sweeping changes, at a time when a wide range of financiers are increasingly stepping in to fill the role once largely held by broadcasters. A producer at this year’s Forum is as likely to pitch her project to an angel investor or an SVOD service as a commissioning editor for a national broadcaster. “We certainly see the type of people coming to the forum as growing alongside the film industry,” said Lech.

That financing evolution is evident in Hot Docs’ first look, a curated access program that offers exclusive, behind-the-scenes access to philanthropists looking to support and invest in documentary film. “First look has been a way to cultivate individuals who are curious about film finance, or excited about supporting documentary filmmakers and their films, and given them a little bit of insight into this closed space,” said Radshaw.

Charitable contributions from first look supporters amount to over CAN$100,000 ($74,000) in prize money for winning projects. Another initiative, the Hot Docs Partners Fund, is a CAN$2.6 million ($1.9 million) equity fund composed of former first look participants who, as Radshaw puts it, “want their skin in the game.”

At a time when documentary filmmakers are tackling hot-button issues like climate change, human migration, and political unrest, those alternative sources of financing ensure that today’s most pressing stories will continue to be told. “That is a powerful evolution,” said Radshaw.

This year’s selected Forum projects are:

1001 NIGHTS APART
Production Companies: Filmpunkt GmbH (Germany); Louise Rosen Ltd. (USA); Century Films Ltd. (UK); Rabison Art Production (Iran)
Director: Sarvnaz Alambeigi 

ALVIN AILEY
Production Companies: Insignia Films Inc. (USA); PBS American Masters (USA)
Director: Jamila Wignot 

ANOTHER BRICK ON THE WALL
Production Companies: Pango Pictures Co., Ltd (China); Arrow Factory Production (China)
Director: Nan Zhang

THE BONES
Production Companies: Intuitive Pictures Inc. (Canada); Cabula6 (USA)
Director: Jeremy Xido

COLOUR OF THE WIND
Production Companies: Tortuga Films Inc. (Canada); Alias film und sprachtransfer GmbH (Germany); Mouka Filmi Oy (Finland)
Director: Claire Sanford

DISAPPEARING VILLAGE
Production Companies: Sweet Take Ltd. (UK); Twofour Group Ltd. (UK)
Director: Megumi Inman

HIDDEN LETTERS
Production Companies: Ten Thousand Images AS (Norway); Fish + Bear Pictures (China)
Directors: Violet Du Feng, Zhao Qing

INSTANT LIFE
Production Companies: Meteor Films (USA); Hecho A Mano Films LLC (USA)
Directors: Mark Becker, Aaron Schock

THE KUNG FU NUNS
Production Companies: Stray Dog productions AS (Norway); Stray Dog productions ApS (Denmark)
Director: Line Hatland

LIGHT DARKNESS LIGHT
Production Companies: The Documentary Group (USA); Transient Pictures LLC (USA)
Director: Landon Van Soest

MAYA
Production Company: Banyak Films Ltd. (UK)
Directors: Anson Hartford, Jamshid Mojaddadi

MIDWIVES
Production Companies: EyeSteelFilm Inc (Canada); AMA FILM GmbH (Germany); Snow Film (Myanmar)
Director: Hnin Ei Hlaing

MISSION SEX-ED
Production Companies: Tondowski Films GbR (Germany); BWP (Spain)
Director: Cosima Dannoritzer

MONGUEN (LIFE)
Production Companies: Lemuntu Producciones E.I.R.L. (Chile); NETLAB S.A. DE C.V. (Mexico)
Director: Antonio Caro Berezin

PLAN C FOR CIVILIZATION
Production Company: Mangrove Media, LLC (USA)
Directors: Ben Kalina, Jen Schneider

QUEEN OF THE DEUCE
Production Company: Exile Films Ltd. (Greece)
Director: Valerie Kontakos

SOCKS ON FIRE: UNCLE JOHN AND THE COPPER HEADED WATER RATTLERS
Production Company: Hitbird Productions LLC (USA)
Director: Bo McGuire

TRAFFICKING JAM
Production Company: Media Stockade Pty. Ltd. (Australia)
Director: Catherine Scott

TWICE COLONIZED
Production Companies: Ánorâk Film (Greenland); Ánorâk Film Denmark (Denmark); Unikkaat Studios (Canada)
Director: Lin Alluna

ZINDER
Production Companies: Les films du balibari (France); Tabous production (Niger); CORSO Film (Germany)
Director: Aicha Macky

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