TVO’s Doc Studio Website Packs It In

I am very impressed with TVO’s new Doc Studio website. Which is ironic because I used to complain vociferously about their uninformative previous site. This new hub blends information: air-dates, links to featured docs, docs in production – which is really a neat inside peek, a featured filmmaker profile – along with full documentaries that you can watch online.

My first viewing pick was the much touted 2-part series “Raw Opium.” The documentary blended intelligently the life of poppy crop farmers in Afghanistan with the life of heroin addicts of the streets of Vancouver. It inspired me to start writing my own story about the marijuana industry and sub-culture in Canada.

If you visit their site, don’t forget to check out the doc studio filmmaking contest. The winning filmmaker gets:

  • A mentoring session (of up to eight hours total) with Genie award-winning filmmaker Alan Zweig;
  • A television broadcast of your short documentary on TVO, and TVO’s YouTube Channel;
  • A Hot Docs 2012 industry pass (approximate retail value of $500.00).

Filmmakers – also check out the site’s blog for industry information.


INPUT 2012 Canadian Call for Entries

INPUT is now accepting entries for the 2012 conference in Sydney, Australia May 7-12. INPUT isn’t a competition or festival. It is an international conference that aims “to celebrate and encourage the development of public service television.”

 INPUT is looking for innovative, courageous and provocative programmes from all TV genres – programmes that show fresh ways of catering to new audiences, destined for public television.

*Please note, as you consider whether to submit, that if your program is selected you must send someone to present it. Funding from INPUT for Canadian productions is very rare so it is also advisable to consider how you would pay for your representative to attend.

 DEADLINE: Please note the deadline for Canadian selections is Friday November 18, 2011.

DVDs and copies of the online entry forms should be sent to:

Ilka de Laat at CBC Toronto in room 5A300-A of the Broadcast Centre, no later than Friday, November 18, 2011.

(See below for the full shipping address).

 Submitting a production for INPUT means to submit a filled out submission form found at with two DVD copies of the production and accepting the following 10 conditions and rules that apply:

 1. Productions produced or broadcast after January 1, 2010 are eligible. It is not essential that the programme has already been broadcast, but it must be clear that programmes have been produced for television. 

2. Productions submitted to the conference may not include any commercial advertising.

3. A co-production will be regarded as the submission of whichever organization submits it.

4. All co-production partners must be named on the submission form. It will be presumed by INPUT and the conference host that the other co-producers have agreed to the programme being submitted.

5. All productions screened at INPUT will be presented by a Key Staff member such as the Director, Author, Commissioning Editor or Producer. The submitting company is responsible to bear all registration and traveling costs to and from the conference for this staff member. A production will not be screened unless a presenter for each production is present during the conference.

6. The conference host and/or INPUT shall have the right to release stills and excerpts of up to 3 minutes from any submission for screening free of charge by TV stations reporting on the conference or for use in the internet or other media.

7. All graphic material sent in by the entrants is released free of charge for use in all publications about the conference (Press, Printed material, Internet etc.).

8. Freight, customs and insurance costs for the shipment of entries and accompanying material shall be borne by the submitter.

9. INPUT will keep the all submitted material (DVDs, DigiBeta cassettes, press material) of all submissions and all productions screened during the conference for use in the INPUT archive.

10. INPUT may use all productions screened during the annual conference strictly for non-profit and educational events such as Mini-INPUT, Best of INPUT, Post INPUT etc. The screening of the submitted production – in full or in part – shall not occur until the organizers of such INPUT events have informed the submitters beforehand about their intention to use the production at such an event.

 Thank you for participating,

   Jim Williamson

   Canadian Coordinator (English) INPUT

 Send submissions to:

 Shipping Address:

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation

205 Wellington St. West, Room 5A300-A

Toronto, Ontario

M5V 3G7

Tel: 1.416.205.8646

Attention: Ilka de Laat (that’s me)

Blood in the Mobile

Danish filmmaker, Frank Piasecki Poulsen, has a Nokia cell phone and has heard that there may be conflict minerals in his phone. When Nokia refuses to acknowledge his request for a transparent supply chain, he goes to the Congo to visit the mines. The documentary is gripping at times because even though the Congo has the highest concentration of UN troops, the UN refuses to chaperone the filmmaker as he visits one of the largest mines in Bisie. The mine is currently controlled by a militia, the 85th Brigade which has gone rogue from the DRC military. Between 15,000 and 25,000 people live at the mine, valued at approximately $70 billion US. The shafts are improvised and highly dangerous. The filmmaker takes us down into the shaft accompanied by a minor. The 85th Brigade tax the workers so heavily that they become indentured servants – essentially slaves. There is no medial care, clean water, nor proper housing. 
Poulsen then delved into the history of Nokia, which remarkably has a colonial history in the Congo – the corporation started as a rubber boot company and bought rubber from King Leopold’s rubber slave colonies. Today Nokia is one of the biggest corporations in the world. They claim they are leaders in social responsibility. The filmmaker visits scientists in Germany who claim they can “fingerprint” the source of minerals directly to specific mines, thus no cellphone company can claim that they can’t know the source of the minerals. Poulsen then returns to Nokia to confront the company, however he makes no headway with them in his attempt to achieve a transparent supply chain.
This is today’s “blood diamond” story. I found it a brave film. What I don’t know is how much corporations like Nokia have been doing lately to assure that their products are conflict-mineral free. I doubt they have come along very far since the film was made in 2010. For more on the film or how to contribute to the cause, please visit the official website here.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

I challenge you to present me with a finer 3D film than Werner Herzog’s “Cave of Forgotten Dreams,” which took me on a transcendent guided journey into human history, one that I could never have imagined. Nor would I have ever been able to experience the 30,000 year-old paintings in Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc in southern France, because acess to the cave is nearly impossible unless you are a very lucky scientist. Or filmmaker.

You could say that this film is yet another volume in the anthology of humanity that is Herzog’s work over the past fifty years, but to set it apart, it is a breath-taking  poetic experience.  In fact, I never took to the 3D idea; now I can see how in the right hands, it makes for an entirely different film experience.

And to watch the film at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, where the film premiered last year. I was so lulled by the score (by Ernst Reijseger), the environment of the theatre melding together with the images of the enveloping cave, my imagination filled with what our ancestors must have been like, that I nearly fell into a trance.

“Cave of Forgotten Dreams” is still screening this week at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Quick go see it if you can before TIFF 2011 gets started.

Morgan Spurlock Gets You To Eat Your Spinach

“I want you to eat your spinach, but I’ll make it taste like cotton candy,” is how Morgan Spurlock describes his brand of educational documentary. From “Super Size Me” to “30 Days,” Spurlock has always been shining a light into dark corners of popular human experience. He shines again with his newest film “POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold,” which takes viewers behind the scenes of marketing and advertising and shows how they pervade nearly every facet of North American culture.

Spurlock’s great ambition as a documentary filmmaker was to have the entire budget of this film paid for by sponsors, and turn that process into the film itself. Such is the premise – to make a film about marketing and product placement that is paid for by the brands themselves. As he works advertising agencies, corporations and lawyers, he makes transparent a shadowy business of product placement and cross-promotion in our everyday lives.

The film is a lighthearted, playful essay about the pervasiveness of advertising today, but also brings up some concern about how sneaky and manipulative advertising will become in the future. In one scene, Spurlock is subjected – by an advertising executive – to a brain scan which records his reaction to emotionally-triggering advertisements (narrowly focused clips triggering fear, sexual arousal and craving.) The dopamine levels don’t lie: Spurlock, it is clear, is addicted to Coca Cola.

“In the future,” Spurlock explained to me after the Opening Night Gala at Hot Docs, “they will film commercials with the product as a green screen to which they can superimpose any beverage, cereal – whatever – according to your tastes that you’ve expressed by say, searching the Internet for a similar product. The way that Google provides you with ads tailored to your tastes today, TV commercials and television programs will tailor ads to you in the very near future.”

I told my husband, who colour-corrects TV commercials, this information. He concurred – in fact, he had just worked on a commercial which had been shot half a dozen ways to promote half a dozen different varieties of a product.

“So you believed this brain-scan guy?” I asked. “Oh absolutely,” Spurlock replied.

In a segue during the film, Spurlock takes us to São Paulo, Brazil where public outdoor advertising has been banned. Without billboards and posters weighing down and distracting us, there is a calm – even in the bustle of mid-day traffic – that seems both lonely and releasing at the same time.

And that is the spinach eating part of the film to me: in our world where advertising and marketing business is a multi-billion dollar business to make us buy things we don’t even need, there is a quiet stream nearby where we can take a walk and remember what being human is really like.

“POM Wonderful Presents: The Greatest Movie Ever Sold” opens in theaters across Canada on Friday.

Hot Docs Opening Night

“Babies” R Us

And it’s been almost a year since I last posted – amazing how a gal’s time gets eaten up by pregnancy, and then a hungry baby girl (not to mention the day job, other daily responsibilities…)

And of course the film I chose to write about after such a long hiatus has to be “Babies” since the topic is currently my day-to-day.  What a better way to meld that into this blog.

As I mentioned back in April in my Hot Docs post, the film did receive a wide distribution as I suspected it would. So here I was at home with Scout napping this afternoon and I browsed my On Demand programming and spotted “Babies” in the listings. I settled into the couch and allowed the world and the tender beginnings of human life unfold on my television screen.

The two foremost thoughts that came to mind as I watched, and these thoughts came back to me time and time again throughout the 79 minutes were: “I overthink and second-guess my parenting wayyyyy too much,” and “the filmmakers must have done a hell of a lot of traveling, and a ginormous amount of filming in no less than a couple of years in order to present these spectacular 79 minutes.”

After a little poking around, I read in this New York Times article, that indeed it took 400 days of filming spread over two years, and that it took almost two additional years of editing to whittle down 400 hours of footage to bring us this memorable document of early human life and its precious, often hilarious moments, on four different continents.

French Producer Alain Chabat had the idea of filming the earliest years of babies from around the world and set the images to music, a sort of nature film, but instead of animals, the subjects would be new humans. However, director Thomas Balmès offered a slightly different manner of presentation. He agreed that the piece should not be narrated and that the images would speak for themselves; however, instead of cute pictures of babies, he wanted to juxtapose infants from different corners of the world (Mongolia, Japan, Namibia and USA) as they experienced the first year of their lives. In doing so, the similarities in their lives – developing motor skills, chattering, taking their first steps – would contrast meaningfully with the differences in their lives – the rugged vistas of Mongolian plains versus the crowded streets of Tokyo.

I was overwhelmed with emotion watching the tender earliest days of these babies’ lives, then disturbed when cattle nearly knocked over little Bayar, the Mongolian baby, curious when Ponijao’s mother wiped her feces on her knee in Namibia, and empathetic when little Mari in Japan loses her cool over some building blocks that just won’t stack. As a North American mother, I was critical of how Hattie in San Francisco was being raised – seemingly perfectly I decided. And at that moment I found myself laughably in the hyper-parent trap I was hoping to avoid! Aha, nothing a good dose of “Babies” to make me realize that my little girl was doing just fine, that I needn’t overthink things, that babies are babies wherever and however as long as they’re loved.

Certainly, this film is the definitive film on babies. Like “Planet Earth,” it is the visual and aural standard for its subject matter and thankfully, not just a music video with cute pictures of babies.

My Hot Docs 2010 Picks

Growing a baby is taking so much energy that I haven’t contributed to this blog in way too long. However, people are pulling on my sleeve for my Hot Docs picks, so I finally put aside some time today to list them out. What a task! But here are my picks. I encourage you to visit the Hot Docs website and search on the title so that you can read more about these films (and more) and watch trailers.

Babies – I really want to see this because I’m having one, but I don’t think I will bother with the line-ups because I know that this one will become available through iTunes, or at my local independent video store, or even get a broad theatrical release.  I tend to select my Hot Docs pics based on the story (I love a twist), the location (I love traveling somewhere new or revisit a country that I am familiar with), and the “punch” factor (as in “how the hell did they capture THAT!??!) I also skip the docs that I feel confident will get a wide release – I’m pretty accurate with my predictions that way. So I would see Babies because of the location factor (how 4 babies, one from San Francisco, one from Mongolia, one from Namibia and one from Japan, spend their first year), but will pass because of the distribution factor.

 Joan Riveres – A Piece of Work – I am intrigued by the story and the punch – amazed that a woman so concerned with her looks would agree to be dissected publicly like this – but will likely skip because I sense a fairly wide release on this one. I’ll check it out if it fits into a blank in my schedule.

 Dish: Women, Waitressing & the Art of Service – Because Maya Gallus is Canadian, because I hear through the CBC that she’s got something going on, and because some of my spunkiest girlfriends were waitresses – for years I heard their lively and outragesous stories. I hope to get more, similar stories with this doc.

 Land – I’ve not heard anything about this doc or the filmmaker even though he’s Canadian, but I’m intrigued because I spent a month in Nicaragua back in 2003 and I was surprised at the rampant development that ex-pats were planning for the loveliest parts of the country. I wondered if this was possibly neo-colonialism in action and I’m curious to discover how much has changed and in what ways. Nicaragua is the poorest county in Central America and the second poorest in the Western hemisphere after Haiti. Nicaraguans suffered war for seventy years yet the people are remarkably calm and kind. Much of what I know about the world (and myself) I learned in Nicaragua. Thus, the fate of Nicaraguans means something to me.

 Life With Murder – Sigh. I feel a twinge of responsibility to see this film because the filmmaker is a Canadian veteran, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to stomach the subject matter (I’m pregnant and squeamish like never before.) This is the story of small-town Ontario parents who stand by their son after he is convicted of murdering his sister. Yikers. We were pitched this doc for CBC’s Doc Zone, and though it wasn’t Doc Zone material, our commissioning editors thought the story had legs.

 Daddy’s Girls – So curious about this one – how can a man lead simultaneous relationships with four different women? And be a father? The filmmaker is his daughter. This is one of the twistiest films on my list.

 David Wants to Fly – I like David Lynch: I like his movies, I like that he is a new documentary fan (he started Interview Project  last year), and I’d like to join him as he explores Transcendental Meditation – meditation is something I would like to learn more about.

 Chemo – It might be too much for me emotionally, but Chemo – the close-up stories of patients at a Polish oncology clinic – might reveal the most important things to live for.

 Marwencol – The full-length version of a very intriguing character, the victim of a brutal beating who retreats from society and creates a miniature WWII-era village that he essential “lives” in. This story was first developed as a short doc by a This American Life team – I sense that he gained some recognition via the TAL story and has since had to face his fandom – much to his discomfort.

 The Player – A doc about gambling, addiction, love and family. It’s not a top pick of mine, but it’s Dutch and I enjoy hearing my mother tongue spoken. I suspect it may be executed with a poetic touch. It may surprise me.

 The Canal Street Madam – Another one that if fits into my schedule… About sex-workers in New Orleans. I’m traveling to New Orleans next month so curious about the place and its people.

 Sins of My Father – This one is likely to be festival-circuit hit. I, along with many I’m sure, am not able to resist the story of Pablo Escobar, the famous and violent Colombian drug lord, as told through the story of his son.

 American: The Bill Hicks Story – No comedian has pulled on my heartstrings more that Bill Hicks. Even if this doc is dull – so many biographies are so linear, lack any story arc and contain too many accolade-spewing talking heads – I ache to see Bill perform.

 National Parks Project: Gros Morne – I wonder, is this the start of a series on Canadian National Parks? Hm. I like Peter Mettler’s psychedelic eye, but this screening is at the Drake Hotel and preggers lady over here may not make it out that far on a Monday. It’s likely sold out anyway.

 Strange Powers: Stephen Merritt and the Magnetic Fields – This bizarre musician has influenced so many (including Peter Gabriel). This will be a different kind of bio because Stephen himself is in the doc, so that’s obviously going to be more engaging and revealing.  I watched the trailer and he cracked me up when he said into a mike to a full house: “Ignore the audience and it will disappear.”

 Hold Me Tight, Let Me Go – Is supposed to be a top-notch doc about a British boarding school for extremely troubled children. The trailer didn’t do much for me, but the filmmaker, Kim Longionotto, had “Rough Aunties” at Hot Docs last year and that was a fantastic film.

 Rough Aunties – This incredible bunch of women is saving the lives of severely abused, neglected and abandoned children in Durban, South Africa. Some of the bravest, fiercest, most loving people this planet is currently graced with. I saw this film last year at Hot Docs so won’t be seeing it again, but highly recommend it.


This whole series looks good. I’ve seen most of the films (the only ones I haven’t seen are “Czech Dream,” “Family,” “Into Great Silence” and “Tarnation” so I will try to see any or all of these.) I recommend all of the others:

 American Movie – One of the first docs I ever saw that struck me as more fun than fiction films. Hilarious and endearing, we watch the main character Milwaukeean Mark Borchardt achieve his dream of making a low-budget slasher flick.

 The Corporation –  An education in corporate ways and wiles with gusto – the film is as cunning as its subjects and is a must-see for everyone whether at the fest or rent it sometime.

 Darwin’s Nightmare – Truly a nightmare, this film is a poetic, painful look into the heart of darkness – the destruction of Tanzania due to globalization. One of the most hard-hitting films I have ever seen.

 The Fog of War – One of the most remarkable scenes ever captured on film… Robert McNamara, former U.S. secretary of defense, grand manipulator of the war machine, faces his responsibilities and tells his tale in this intimate portrayal of the man and the mechanics of war. Errol Morris is a master interviewer.

 Iraq In Fragments – I will watch this one again if I have the chance because it is so breathtaking. I was a student in a video-journalism class last year and we had the opportunity to speak to filmmaker James Longley on the phone – he was in Iran filming his next film. I remarked about the magic of Iraq in Fragments and he explained that he achieved this by working as a one-man production team and he spends months imbedding himself into the culture.

 Spellbound – Like American Movie, a touching, rousing and entertaining film that knocks the socks off of fiction films. This film about kids in a national spelling bee, inspired me to learn about documentary filmmaking and story-telling. It planted the seed for me to transition in my career from dramatic TV to documentary TV.

 Enjoy planning your festival! I will try to post a Hot Docs Survival Guide tomorrow listing best places to pee (really important to me right now), best places to find cheap, good fast food, best places to stock up on water and Kleenex (for the tear-jerkers), and best places to get a beer (or tea) to discuss the film afterwards with friends.