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Developing Factual Ideas

Development Lessons From Some of the Best Films at IDFA 2012

Following on from an earlier post in which I revealed some of the most common concerns and comments given by commissioning editors during documentary pitches, I thought it would be interesting to take a look at some of my favourite films from IDFA 2012 to see what makes them work.

But first to recap: buyers like to see the following in a pitch:

  1. Unique access to a person or place
  2. A narrative, preferably unfolding
  3. New light shed on a familiar subject
  4. Passion and/or expertise in a subject on the part of the filmmaker
  5.  Unique approach
  6.  Topical hook or timeless story
  7. Universal themes that audiences around the world can identify with

The Uprising: Hip-Hop and the LA Riots

This is a fairly classic documentary that used eyewitness testimony and previously unseen archive footage to give a chronological account of the Los Angeles riots. The director, Mark Ford, brought specialist insights as he was working as a journalist at a local news station at the time of the riots. Since then, he’s made a number of Rock Docs for VH1 (of which this film is one), which meant he’d already made films with some off the Marin players, which gave him great access (Snoop Dogg narrates), a personal connection to the story and his previous work for VH1 means he hail ready had a demonstrable track record making that kind of documentary. 2012 is also the 20th anniversary odd the riots, which offers schedulers a convenient peg on which to hang the film. The documentary also offers new insights: namely that the hip-hop community had predicted unrest (N.W.A.’s Fuck the Police became the anthem for the riots, but it had been released four years before the riots) and that the brutal beating of Rodney King was the spark that set the already smouldering tinder alight. Beyond being a commemorative history documentary, its contributors talk about how similar tensions are beginning to simmer,  making the film especially relevant to today’s audience. [2, 3, 4, 6, 7]


Smash & Grab: The Story of the Pink Panthers

This documentary was a thrilling romp through Europe with a gang of international diamond thieves from director Havana Marking, whose feature  Afghan Star won her a Sundance Best Director Award. In this film she offers exclusive access to the Pink Panthers, who for obvious reasons weren’t keen to appear on camera. She could have got around this by shooting the interviews from behind or pixelating their faces, but instead chose a more creative approach and brought her interviewees to life though comic book style animations. Although the story is essentially a retrospective one,as the Panthers are no longer as active as they once were, the film is kept current with a warning that the the next, more violent, generation of diamond thieves are waiting in the wings. All this is set against the backdrop of the fall of Yugoslavia, which sets the events in the film firmly in a wider political context, which adds layers of meaning and understanding for the viewer. [1, 3, 5]


¡Vivan Las Antipodas!

The premise of this beautiful film from Victor Kossakovsky that it would be interesting to explore two places that could be joined by a line drawn (or a hole dug) through the centre of the Earth. He discovered that there are very few inhabited places that are linked in this way – antipodes – and so he set out to film them and the people who live very different lives on opposite sides of the world. Although there is no unfolding narrative, as such the treatment of the material is so inventive and mesmerizing it doesn’t matter. We quietly spend time with two toll collectors in a remote part of Argentina before being flung (by the camera turning 180-degrees on its axis) into the chaos of rush hour in Shanghai, China before heading off to Spain and New Zealand, Hawaii and Botswana, and Russia and Chile.  We don’t get to know our main characters very well, they are of secondary importance to the lush and cinematic landscapes (which Kossakovsky isn’t averse to ‘dressing’ to create even more visual impact -watch Where the Condors Fly to find out how he made the film). [4, 5]

It’s tempting to say that a film like this would never be commissioned for TV but the recent positive response on Twitter to the archive film From The Sea to The Land Beyond when it was shown on BBC4 suggests that there is an appetite for this kind of lyrical film

See Kossakovsky’s top ten rules for filmmakers here.



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