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REPORT: Lisbon Docs 2016

by Vitor Pinto

European, Portuguese and international projects took the floor at the 2016 edition of Lisbon Docs

REPORT: Lisbon Docs 2016

After four days of intense tutorials and workshops, the time came for the participants in the 2016 Lisbon Docs to take the floor and pitch their projects to 12 international decision makers who had flown in to the Portuguese capital. Moderated by EDN director Paul Pauwels (read the interview), the pitching sessions took place at Lisbon’s Culturgest centre on 21-22 October. They gathered together an eclectic panel to comment on the projects; the panel included, among others, Marie-Anne Iacono (ARTE, France), Ingrid Falck (Al Jazeera English, Qatar), Tom Koch (PBS Distribution, USA), Reinhilde Weyns (Canvas, Belgium) and Mads Mikkelsen (CPH:DOX, Denmark).

Ranging from social themes to more arty titles, a total of 22 projects (including 14 from Europe, four from non-European territories and four from Portugal) were presented by their respective directors or producers during the two-day public sessions. Most of them were intended for television or theatrical distribution, although the feedback from the panel often underlined the possibility of exploring the project’s potential by also creating shorter web documentaries and/or games. It’s a sign of the digital era we live in: diversifying formats and platforms offer new business opportunities and new ways of targeting audiences. This report first takes a look at the 18 international projects, focusing particularly on the 14 European ones, and you can read the report on the four Portuguese projects further on.

One of the most promising projects pitched last Friday came from Bosnian producer Srdjan Sarenac (Novi Film). Along with director Anne Barliant, Sarenac is currently developing Beyond the End of the World, a documentary examining the first edition of the Sarajevo Film Festival, which was held in 1993 during the siege of the city. Blending animated sequences, archive footage and interviews conducted recently, the project really caught everyone’s eye. Currently in development, Beyond the End of the World has a total budget of €250,000 and is looking for partners to tell this “story of surviving in the war zone”, which could, according to the producer, “inspire people in other parts of the world like Syria”.

Polish talent was represented by two projects. If Game of Thrones has its mythical “Winter is coming!”, the Poles seem to boast that the “wind is coming!”, as was demonstrated when director Michal Bielawski took the floor to pitch his upcoming documentary thriller, The Wind. The project’s research material revealed a potentially intense film portraying the effect that the Halny wind has on the inhabitants of the Podhale region. When the wind blows, people and animals tend to become restless and violent, and suicide rates rise, and Bielawski wants to be there to shoot it all (and hopefully escape from it unscathed to edit the film). The Wind, which panel member Tom Koch described as “weather-porn”, is being produced by Maciej Kubicki (Telemark Sp.z o.o.). It already has the support of Creative Europe/MEDIA (development) and HBO Europe.

Bielawski’s fellow countrywoman Monica Krupa has always been intrigued by archaeology. She is now teaming up with producer Dorota Mandziara (of Trzyfilm) to move forward with The Mission. The project, whose title didn’t seem to win over the panel, is set to be shot in Poland and Egypt, following a scientist who has been looking for the tomb of Pharaoh Herihor for over 30 years now. Krupa defined the project as a film “about love, passion and determination” – but what happens if nothing is turned up at the end? What happens if his determined quest runs out of sponsorship? The Mission is currently looking for interested broadcasters and co-producers.

From Lithuania came two very different projects. Firstly, director Albina Griniute came on stage with a project revolving around the rehabilitation of delinquent teenagers, who are sent to take part in a special programme organised on a ship called SalomonSons of Salomon follows one of those teens during nine months in rehab, during which time he tries to find his place in the community and in life itself. Griniute, who has chosen an observational style for her project, is looking for co-producers, particularly in Germany and Switzerland.

Also from Lithuania, director Emilija Skarnulyte pitched Burial along with her producer, Dagne Vildziunaite (Just a Moment). The project, initially named Energy Island, is being shot in the vast Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant (INPP), which is now undergoing a decommissioning process. Research footage unveiled a potentially strong, arty project – an immersive film that, in Skarnulyte’s words, “aims to give viewers the time and space to feel the void”.

Looking back at previous editions of Lisbon Docs, it would not be at all surprising to find another project about fado, Portugal’s so-called national song, popping up at this year’s iteration. And this was indeed the case: German producer Anahita Nazemi (Kobalt Documentary) and Portuguese co-producer Ivan Dias went on stage to pitch A Night of Fado (Saudade Never Dies). Mixing archive images with more recent material, the project intends to portray the city of Lisbon – and its evolution over the last few decades – through the eyes of four fado singers (both established ones and newcomers). Slated to be co-directed by António Cascais and Marcel Kolvenback, the project has a total budget of €200,000 and already sees the involvement of ZDF/Arte. The panel feedback was rather positive, although the pitchers were advised to redefine their narrative arc and not explore too many themes besides the film’s core topic of fado.

Belgian director Daniel Lambo and producer Maarten Schmidt pitched Toxic Circle, a project that brings to light the effects that asbestos exposure has had on two villages – one in Belgium and another in India. Even though some people are still seriously affected by this exposure, they are still opposed to demanding their rights and prosecuting a local factory. The ultimate goal of Schmidt as director seems to be to raise awareness of the topic and push for legal action. The panel underlined the importance of his personal involvement but argued that the project needed a more global approach.

Angel Esteban and Elena Goatelli are preparing a film entitled Los Malditos, about a group of unemployed Spanish artists who created a performance that ended up winning the most prestigious local theatre award. The film is set in the days following the awarding of the prize, lifting the lid on the actors’ daily struggles and featuring images captured by the actors themselves with their mobile devices. Los Malditos is an Italian co-production with a budget of €80,000.

From actors to clowns (but still set against a socio-political backdrop): French producer Adriana Ferrarese (Ceresa Films, France) and director Jethro Massey are teaming up for the development of It’s a Funny World. The project follows a French female clown (who is also a political activist), a group of clowns from Mali and The Moustache Brothers, who have got bogged down in their continuing battle against the censorship of the Burmese military government.

Georgian filmmaker Shorena Tevzadze isdeveloping Forward to the Ancestry, in which she follows a group of martial-arts boys from Tbilisi who, over the summer, are sent to a castle where David – the castle’s owner, a Georgian artist based in Dubai – performs moralistic and nationalistic speeches dressed up in traditional Georgian costumes. The summer ends with the children being left alone in the forest. They must return alone to the castle in what can be seen as a coming-of-age experience. “I wanted to ask how far we can go to be part of a community,” said Tevzadze of her project, which is being produced by Giorgi Pridonishvili (Diafilm). The panel praised the project and the director’s delicate way of capturing the children’s essence in some of the footage presented.

The Romanian project Teach centres on a man with a cause: a maths teacher who has retired from the system and has transformed his home into a school, where he teaches teenagers in accordance with his own methods. “It’s not the Romanian system that needs to be changed,” he says in one of the sequences presented; “it’s the world’s educational system that needs to be reformed!” Irina Malcea (Luna Film) is producing the project, which is to be directed Alex Brendea, a former student who now wishes to pay tribute to his former teacher-turned-role model.

Two female character-driven projects arrived from Turkey and Italy. Sevinç Baloglu pitched Lives Caught in-Between, set to be shot on the divided island of Cyprus, where two female photographers from the Greek and the Turkish parts of the island try to set up a project together involving a 92-year-old lady who has a great deal to share about her own personal story (and, by extension, about the island’s geopolitical history). A female perspective is also what Italian director Brunella Filì is intending to bring in her project Sea Sisters, which focuses on three women from Italy, Norway and the Azores who are trying to be successful in a man’s world: they are fisherwomen, or, as one of the characters puts it, “fishermen”. Gender equality is at the core of this project, which is being produced by Monica ChiariAlessandro Alliaudi and Beth di Santo (of Officinema Doc).

Award-winning Dutch director Floor van der Meulen pitched Last Male Standing, a project that garnered much praise from the panel and persuaded Reinhilde Weyns, of Belgian broadcaster Canvas, to get on board. The upcoming film focuses on the last remaining northern white rhinoceros on Earth, which is dying. Suddenly, the rhino saw itself overly protected by the army, and scientists from around the world decided to investigate alternative fertility treatments. Van der Meulen is exploring all the fuss around the animal while questioning why mankind seems to have such a morbid fascination with extinction. Outfit Een van de Jongens is handling the production, and has already confirmed the support of IKONdocs and the Dutch Cultural Media Fund.

Besides these 14 titles, four other non-European projects also took to the pitching stage: James Walsh’s Dungeon Keepers (South Africa), Rodrigo Iturralde’s Finding the Werewolf (Mexico), Miriam Chandy Menachery’s Her Story Wall (India), and Salim Habr and Jihad Saade’s Europa in Phoenician (Lebanon).

Producer Helena Lins pitching Jorge Pelicano's project Until Porn Do Us Part

As for the new Portuguese documentary projects pitched at Lisbon Docs, Portuguese director Jorge Pelicano is involved in the making of another film named Until Porn Do Us Part. The project, currently at the principal photography stage, was pitched last Saturday at the forum by Helena Lins, from production outfit Até ao Fim do Mundo. Pelicano’s upcoming movie follows the journey of acceptance of a Portuguese mother as she finds out that her son, who has emigrated to Germany, has become a successful gay porn star named Fostter Riviera. Facing up to her mixed feelings of shame, disappointment and love, this working-class mother has learnt to use the internet and social networks in order to get in contact with her son. The teaser, unveiled at Lisbon Docs, included close-ups of the mother’s gaze and hands as she sends Facebook messages to her son – as if those messages were about to become a central part of the script. Whether the whole process will lead to acceptance or not remains to be seen. Already funded by Portugal’s film body, the ICA, the film is expected to be finished by mid-2017 and is now looking for co-producers and festival opportunities. A former TV reporter, Pelicano has made a successful transition from reportage to documentary. Suddenly My Thoughts Halt, released two years ago, is his most highly acclaimed film to date (read more).

Until Porn Do Us Part was only one of the four Portuguese projects pitched at the Lisbon forum. Equally promising was Erica Rodrigues’ Framing the Revolution. Still at an early stage of development, the project intends to paint a portrait of female filmmakers who started or developed their careers during the revolutionary period (1974 and the subsequent years) – and whose work has not been sufficiently recognised. At the beginning of the process, Noémia Delgado, the first woman to direct a feature-length documentary in Portugal, passed away. Rodrigues missed the opportunity to film her, but she decided to use that unavoidable event to build a stronger project that will hopefully put the work of relevant names (Solveig NordlundMonique RutlerMargarida Cordeiro and Margarida Gil, among others) on the map, allowing younger generations to discover them. The project is being produced by Fernando Vendrell from David & Golias. Support from the ICA and pubcaster RTP, still to be requested, form part of the financial plan of the film, which is expected to wrap in 2017.

Director Ana Luísa Oliveira also attended Lisbon Docs to pitch Home Sweet School, which centres on the reality of homeschooling. As this method is forbidden in certain countries (like Germany), Portugal has become a sort of El Dorado for overseas families seeking to escape the authorities. A lot of them settled in the centre of the country, and that is where part of the film will be shot. Liliana Lasprilla (from Maia-based Pixbee) is attached to the project as a producer.

Finally, the fourth Portuguese project was pitched by Catarina Laranjeiro, who is co-directing The Iran and the Flight along with Daniel Barroca. A self-confessed huge fan of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s work, Laranjeiro spent several months in Guinea-Bissau, and will soon return there to explore local myths and to find out more about local beliefs linking the visible and the invisible worlds. Ansgar Schäfer, of Kintop, is producing the film and is currently looking for potential partners.

Some local documentary titles pitched at previous editions of Lisbon Docs grew to become internationally recognised titles, such as Miguel Gonçalves Mendes’ José e Pilar and Gonçalo Tocha’s It’s the Earth Not the Moon. Others, such as Stefan Lechner’s Vadio (production: Real Ficção), are soon to be released.