Photo by Joseph Michael Howarth

Hot Docs Forum Is Back: Dreaming in Doc Land

Profile of Samoan writer Sia Figiel, I of the Water, is first look winner

7 mins read

The 24th Hot Docs Forum wrapped last night with the announcement of over $78, 000 in prize money awarded to projects pitched during the festival’s first major international financing event since COVID began.  The lead sponsor for the Forum was the Directors Guild of Canada (DGC), whose president Warren P. Sonoda said, “On the 30th anniversary of Hot Docs, the DGC joins in celebrating – and championing – the Canadian and international documentary filmmakers who bring these stories to light and touch our lives.”

The Forum is set up in an entertaining fashion, in which projects are pitched in 15-minute segments, with filmmakers placed on one end of a long table, facing moderators opposite them, quite a distance away. Seated in between are at least 20 commissioning editors for broadcasters and streamers and international foundation funders. The pitchers have seven minutes in which to excite and intrigue potential financial partners with their rhetoric accompanied by a sizzle reel. Over the following eight minutes, the editors and funders are encouraged to respond by the seasoned moderators, who this year were Simon Kilmurry, an independent producer, formerly executive director of the Los Angeles-based International Documentary Association, and Catherine Olsen, who was the commissioning editor of the CBC series The Passionate Eye, for over two decades.

Of the 21 projects this year, the big winner, which received the $50,000 first look Pitch Prize was I of the Water, pitched by director Kimberlee Bassford and one of the forthcoming film’s producers, Linda Goldstein Knowlton, whose previous work includes the New Zealand international success Whale Rider. Bassford, who is a fourth generation Asian-American Hawaiian, is making a film with Knowlton and others about the groundbreaking writer Sia Figiel, whose Where We Once Belonged won the Best First Book in the Pacific region from the Commonwealth Writer’s organization in 1997.

Figiel’s novel was authentic about the life of her lead character Alofa (which means love) and the language was praised for its dense, poetic style. It became a classic to a generation of Polynesians and beyond, including Bassford. The feature documentary I of the Water will cover Figiel’s life and poetic sensibility, which remains vibrant despite various kinds of health issues. The pitch was vivid, incorporating footage of Figiel with animation and poetic imagery. And the response was rapturous, best exemplified by Monika Navarro, Senior Director of Artist Programs at Firelight Media, who said, “If we can’t make this film happen, I don’t know why we’re here.”

The second first look prize, for $15,000, was given to The Sandbox, whose director Kenya-Jade Pinto and producer Shasha Nakhai, were the project’s successful pitchers along with distributor Robin Smith. A very strong proposal, The Sandbox went on to garner the Cuban Hat Award, given by popular vote of the attendees at the Forum. A spontaneous prize, the whimsical donations this year included $1,055.75 CAD , $377.00 USD , € 27, MXN 5.00, 5 Egyptian Pounds, and a handful of other currencies including: British Pounds, Polish Zloty, Kenyan Shilling, Ugandan Shilling, Bosnia-Herzegovina Convertible Mark, Chilean Peso, Swedish Krona, Georgian Lari, Icelandic Króna, Indian Rupiah, Bulgarian Lev, and Iranian Rial. Hot Docs will match the total CAD and USD prize with the amount of CAD $1,500, bringing the total amount to CAD $3,110.57. The prize also included two All-Access Passes to Hot Docs 2024, two All-Access Passes to CPH:DOX, one IDFA Forum Pass, and a dinner with Hot Docs’ new president, Marie Nelson.

Less idiosyncratic but just as worthwhile is the CMF-Hot Docs Forum Canadian Pitch Prize, which awards $10,000 CAD for the best proposal made for a Canuck doc. The winner was the heartfelt Intercepted, which captured through phone messages the voices of Russian soldiers calling home to their relatives, while they’re in Ukraine fighting in an illegal invasion. A Canadian-Ukrainian film, Intercepted was mainly pitched by director Oksana Karpovych and producer Giacomo Nudi, who explained how they want to create a composite Russian soldier, feeling badly about being in Ukraine and missing home, misplaced in a terrible war. The film has the potential to be poetic and political.

It was clear that the Hot Docs Forum’s producer Dorota Lech was ecstatic to be back at University of Toronto with a live event. “The feeling of being together again after three online editions and years apart is incomparable. The energy in the room was absolutely electric,” she said. The atmosphere was extremely friendly and supportive throughout the two days, with pitches and even comments from the moderators and commissioning editors greeted by applause. Many of the pitches were first-rate, well phrased by their presenters with well edited trailers to match the presentations. Among them were: Karachi Sky, a personal look at love and loss, played out in Pakistan and the U.S.; the Zoom-pitched (because of visa issues) Iranian Whose Dream are You Living? about a rock musician and father, who wants to make music after being banned for decades in his own country; a compassionate project about dwarfs; Marriage Cops, a quirky look at how the police help with battling couples in India; Cinema Kawakeb, a romantic look back at the last cinema at Amman, Jordan; and Redlight to Limelight, about brothels in Kolkata, rendered in a meta-hybrid-docs meet drama style.

There’s no doubt about it: Hot Docs is back and so is its Forum.

Get more coverage from this year’s festival here.

Marc Glassman is the editor of POV Magazine and contributes film reviews to Classical FM. He is an adjunct professor at Toronto Metropolitan University and is the treasurer of the Toronto Film Critics Association.

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