This Thursday in Toronto, documentary film is going to have a remarkable moment, however brief. It will last 15 minutes and it’s going down at the Hot Docs Forum — the gathering of industry professionals during the Hot Docs Film Festival when prospective filmmakers get to pitch their films to a large table of distributors, broadcasters and producers. They will give advice, possibly funding, and/or platforms where films can be seen.
The Forum is in its 16th year, but this Thursday will be special because legendary 85-year-old director Frederick Wiseman (Titicut Follies, High School, National Gallery), who has pioneered the non-fiction form for fifty years, will pull up to the table, hat in hand.
It’s as close to a distillation of the state of documentary — its venerable history, rich personality and financially-barren creativity — as one could hope to find embodied in one interaction in one room.
“Like everybody else, I need to get money,” Wiseman told me last week in a phone call. “Everybody thinks it’s easy for me to get money, and it’s not.”
Wiseman says Hot Docs reached out to him, and he figured, “Why not?” he says. “Having never had done it before.” He’ll also be in an on-stage conversation Wednesday night, where the Forum will no doubt be discussed.
The film he’s pitching is Jackson Heights about new immigrants groups in America, which takes place in Queens, New York. The budget is Wiseman’s standard, he says, but he declines to divulge specifics.
“I am looking for production money and to sell the film to television networks,” he says.
With a virtual United Nations of television network professionals from around the world crammed into a long gallery room, the Forum has helped around 400 films over the years, including those pitched by other notable directors, including A-listers such as Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Neville.
“The value we bring to films goes beyond screening them for audiences,” Hot Docs programmer Charlotte Cook said. “The value of the forum is even appealing to the master of the form.”
I get the sense Wiseman is going into it with some measure of piss and vinegar, after hearing him describe how he has “all of three or four minutes” to talk, in addition to a trailer presentation and then the discussion afterwards.
“I would hope that at least some of the people have seen one or more of my films,” he says. “I would hope that I am not exactly an unknown quantity.”
Will Wiseman be grilled in such a public forum? Or, for that matter, might he just be fawned over?
“Anyone who’s met Fred knows that he doesn’t suffer fools,” says Cook. “He can take anything that comes to him. I am sure that he will give as good as he gets. And I don’t think people will be deferential but he’ll have their respect.”
As for the master, “I’m not the least bit concerned,” Wiseman says. “I think I can handle it.”
But is he looking forward to it?
“Let’s say it’s a necessary experience,” Wiseman says.