Report: B2B Doc Documentary Industry Days 2023

B2B Doc: Modern Times Review looks back at the week of panels and presentations that made up the 2023 B2B Doc Documentary Industry Days programme.

31 August saw the conclusion of the 2023 Baltic to Black Sea Documentary Network (B2B Doc) edition. In an expanded format and in collaboration with the Odesa International Film Festival, this year saw B2B Doc hold its annual pitching workshop in the Baltic Sea city of Gdynia, Poland. This would be the third year I have attended B2B Doc, each now coming in a different location given the ongoing Russian war inflicted on Ukraine. In 2021, Modern Times Review joined B2B Doc in Kyiv as part of that year’s Molodist Kyiv International Film Festival. In 2022, the event was held as part of the Krakow Film Festival. And now, in 2023, we moved to Poland.

Taking place over four days, 28 – 31 August 2023, the event would exist under the name «Documentary Industry Days» and feature three pitching categories and several informative and insightful masterclasses and presentations. Featured films would come from Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia or Azerbaijan. For the second year running, Russian projects were not qualified for submission. Of the three pitch sessions, two – Cutting Edge and Launch Pad – represented projects in the editing and production stages, respectively. In addition, for those without fully formed projects due to lack of resources, a «Scouting Session» was also introduced.

Stefan Borg teaching a B2B Doc 2023 masterclass in Poland
(l) Stefan Borg, (r) Maciek Hamela; PC: B2B Doc / Maurice Wolf

Panels and presentations

Before we dive into the projects and pitching sessions, we should discuss, for a moment, the Documentary Industry Days discussions and masterclass roster, which kicked off with our friends at Pitch the Doc, who opened things up with the apropos topic «How to Pitch Your Film Project.» Here, issues of note were taking advantage of the «pitching effect» over the long life of a project, as well as practical tips on developing and executing a compelling pitch.

This practical workshop led to two panel discussions discussing on-the-ground practicalities of working as a journalist or filmmaker in conflict zones. The first, held on 28 August, was titled, «Being a Fixer in Ukraine During the War.» The discussion was moderated by prominent French-born, Ukraine-based producer Stephane Siohan, whose We Will Not Fade Away (dir. Alisa Kovalenko) has been a staple of the festival circuit across 2023. Panellists included French-Canadian reporter for Le Figaro, Margaux Benn and Ukrainian Documentary Filmmaker Zhanna Maksymenko-Dovhych, who engaged in an extended conversation on the dos, don’ts, and definitely nots on finding and working with locals in aid of navigating foreign areas of volatility. From day rates to ethics, much was discussed in very personal terms. A key personal takeaway from the talk was how Western (in particular, US) 24/7 media can drive up day rates by essentially overpaying for access, monopolising the top tier of local fixers. Another was Maksymenko-Dovych’s ethical example of Italian newspaper La Repubblica journalist Carrado Zunino, whose Ukrainian fixer, Bohdan Bitik, was shot dead by a Russian sniper whilst on the perilous Kherson bridge. The story was used as an example of some actions not to do in such situations, including the lack of a bulletproof vest and unclear reasoning for even being in a well-known place of danger.

On 29 August, Emmy-nominated Swedish journalist Stefan Borg moderated the «Personal Security When Filming in War and Conflict Zones» masterclass. This fascinating discussion also included Polish journalists Magdalena Chodownik and filmmaker Maciek Hamela, who have had extensive experience working in conflict zones. For someone with a deep interest in conflict zone reporting (this field brought on my interest in journalism and documentary), this conversation provided many rich insights. For example, Borg explained how an off-white press badge is more effective than the traditional full-white one frequently seen in news images from the zone. Chodownik explained how playing a role of naivety (as she described it, the «dumb blonde») can both play positively on existing cultural gender dynamics of the area, as well as alleviate inherent suspicions male counterparts may encounter. Another insight was the necessity of a Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) programme for anyone interested in working in the conflict zone. HEAT covers various topics, including Basic first aid and psychological first aid, Personal safety and security, maintaining a safe and security mindset, learning one’s way around communications equipment, what to do in case of capture and captivity, and more.

On 30 August, the masterclasses had ended, but there was one more presentation to be held, and it was on the Emergency Residency Programme. Moderated by B2B Doc’s communications manager and the manager of the programme, this presentation offered the stories of a handful of female Ukrainian filmmakers (Lana Shapoval, Adelina Borets, Olga Chernykh, Zoya Laktonova) who joined the programme in one of its locations. The Emergency Residency Programme is an artistic residency and a space of rest and respite for durations up to the accepted filmmakers. Projects can come from various stages of production, with tutoring services available upon request. The discussion was largely subjective, with each speaker expounding in an overwhelmingly positive way. «B2BDoc literally saved me when I stuck with my film project, Puzzle,» Lana Shapoval says, continuing with «I`ll always be grateful to the B2B Doc for giving me the feeling of being safe.»

B2B Doc 2023 scouting session decision makers
Decision Makers at the Scouting Session; B2B Doc / Maurice Wolf

Scouting Session

In terms of the pitch presentations, those kicked off with the early-stage focused Scouting Session. Six fresh projects were presented here to identify potential and provide insight into future strategies. Projects came from Belarus, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, and Poland/Georgia, covering topics from ancestral homes (Echoes of Avey; dir. Atanur Nabiyeva) to the trials and tribulations of creatives living off the world map (Milena: Between Strange Borders; dir. Sabina Asadova, Mira Oyetoro) to female boxing in the rural mountains of Georgia (The First Swallow; dir. Sandro Visotski, Joanna Roj). Of the six projects, some of which have been redacted from this report in the name of filmmaker safety, the group of invited Decision Makers bestowed Echoes of Avey with the GoEast Award. The Azerbaijani film on the mystical and traditional Sky Nomads (dir. Aytaj Khalig Suleymanova) was given the FRF – Filmproducenternas Rättighetsförening Award.

a catalogue in hand of the 2023 B2B Doc event
PC: B2B Doc / Maurice Wolf

Cutting Edge

The editing-stage-focused Cutting Edge Session was next, with seven mature projects presented. Here, one of the most sought-after upcoming titles featured would ultimately be given the 20,000-value TINT post-production award. The film Divia from two-time B2B Doc alum Dmytro Hreshko is a meditative documentary in the vein of Godfrey Reggio. It is a sound-driven observational documentary on the ravaged nature of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That said, in my humble opinion, the 20-minute or so visual presentation of the pitch session did not quite do the sensory and immersive experience justice. Coming as the last project featured of the day, after several that were also war-based, it felt more like an apex of the current state of destruction-heavy war films rather than the reflective documentation of nature it seeks to be. I do not doubt that a heavy emphasis on post-production (to its great advantage, TINT utilises the vital Dolby Atmos sound mix system) will tie both intent and imagery into something singular, perhaps even transcending the very critique I present here. On the film’s next steps, however, Hreshko tells Modern Times Review, «Now our main task is to make a rough edit and understand what other shots we need for the film. Until the end of the year, we will still shoot and look for the necessary scenes and events.» He adds on the necessity of B2B Doc’s space within the documentary landscape, «B2B Doc is probably the only platform that helps filmmakers in countries from the post-Soviet Union, especially from Ukraine, to develop projects from idea to almost the end.» Divia will soon feature at the DOK Co-Pro Forum (and the Baltic Sea Forum) and, given the awe-filled response at B2B Doc, is undoubtedly to feature heavily on the 2024 festival circuit.

The Cutting Edge session featured several ultimate award winners, including the Documentary Association of Europe Award to the Ukraine/France/Germany co-production A Picture to Remember (dir. Olga Chernykh). This film also featured in August at Sarajevo Film Festival CineLink Industry Days Docu Talents From The East session, where it was a co-winner of the Ji.hlava IDFF sponsored main prize. FRF – Filmproducenternas Rättighetsförening also presented an award to the immediately engaging Flowers of Ukraine (dir. Adelina Borets). This film was the most intriguing to me, personally, as it features one of the strongest and most dynamic protagonists of all presented films; just see its official logline:

Natalia lives harmoniously with her two husbands – one Ukrainian and the other Russian – in a tiny green paradise in the midst of the concrete jungle of Kyiv. She defends her ‘queendom’ against real estate developers, but the real fight begins with the full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Berlinale then awarded the Ukraine/Czech Republic/Lithuania co-production Up in the Air (dir Oksana Syhareva) with its award. Up in the Air also pitches at the Riga-based Baltic Sea Forum for Documentaries Pitch Sessions.

one on ones at the 2023 B2B Doc
B2B Doc one-on-ones; PC: B2B Doc / Maurice Wolf

Launch Pad

Finally, on 31 August came the flagship B2B Doc session, its Launch Pad Pitching. Ten projects in the relatively early production stages were presented, with several receiving the remaining Decision Maker awards. First off, however, it was a non-awarded project that was ultimately my personal favourite across sessions. This was the multi-dimensional, layered Georgian production Heart Don’t Be Afraid (dir. Ana Kvichidze). The film follows the story of Dachi, a young, queer Georgian man, who is castigated by both the homophobic church of his region as well as his own family. Across his search for his identity, he encounters an old witch whose powerful magic proves empowering while developing a generational friendship for the ages. Also from the programme, the Ukraine/France/Slovenia co-production Ashes Settling in Layers on the Surface (dir. Zoya Laktionova) was a dual winner, taking home the Göteborg Film Fund Award and the Watch Docs/Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights Award. The film is based on the personal stories from the city of Mariupol, focusing on the value of freedom and human life.

Individual 2022 B2B Doc alumni Sasha Kulak (Mara) and Masha Maroz joined forces for the artistic documentary Leave Easy Come Back Safe, which received the Illienko Film Productions & Morkwa Cinema Lab post-production award. IDFA then handed the Polish production and Belarusian-centred Letters (dir. Andrei Kutsila) its award while also receiving the second Watch Docs/Helsinki Human Rights Foundation prize. On the importance of the award, Kutsila tells us, «Thanks to the award grant from Watch Docs in Gdynia, we will continue to work on the letters and partly the film script. Right now, such a moment has come, and a project has appeared that needs precisely the kind of support that the B2B DOC provides.» Finally, Pitch the Doc awarded two films with their respective consultation awards: The first, Operation: Champion (dir. Miriam Nikolaishvili; Georgia), and the second, The Amateur Photographer’s Family Portrait (dir. Nurlan Hasanli; Azerbaijan).

Divia Dmytro Hreshko
Divia, a film by Dmytro Hreshko

Children, tradition and war

In my opinion, the 2023 B2B Doc Documentary Industry Days session was the strongest of the three that I have attended. The projects featured were diverse, and though many, many continue to focus on the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, there were several areas of respite offered across each session – The Amateur Photographer’s Family Portrait and Heart Don’t Be Afraid – immediately come to mind. A strong thematic connection to children’s experiences was also featured across sessions. These films include Milena: Between Strange Borders, The First Swallow, Ever Since I Knew Myself (dir. Maka Gogaladze; Georgia/Germany), and Swinging Fields (dir. Sareen Hairabedian; USA/France/Ireland). Tradition also played prominently as a thematic thread across sessions. Examples include Echoes of Avey, Sky Nomads, Heart Dont Be Afraid, and Leave Easy Come Back Safe. Of course, the war featured most prominently across discussions and projects. Aside from the mentioned films were Memo ’94 (dir. Kornii Hrytsiuk) – on the 1994 de-nuclearization of Ukraine – and Vera Means Belief (dir. Pavel Braila) – on a 72-tear-old woman’s refusal to leave her modest tent home following the Russian invasion. Kornii Hrystsiuk also presented the film Zinema, which deals with the topic of Russian imperialism through cinema. This film, though interesting in its current form, felt like it teeters on overly-subjective territory with what seemed to be an umbrella terminology and absolute thesis. Let’s see if that, too, was the result of limited presentation time.

Overall, the 2023 B2B Doc Documentary Industry Days was quite an enriching experience, simultaneously presenting a wealth of projects and doing so against the nautical backdrop (and fresh sea air) of the beautiful port city of Gydnia. But, it was not just me who thought this as my discussions with the filmmakers, decision makers, and guests elicited a similar sentiment. Avto Khorava describes the week, «Our experience has exceeded our expectations. The tutors were super friendly, and their experience and professionalism gave us confidence. They were always available and supportive. To put it in simple words, they did an amazing job, and we are very grateful to them.» On the same topic, Nurlan Hasanli said, «Working with the tutors at B2B Doc was an enriching experience. Their expertise and guidance were invaluable in shaping our project and pushing it to new heights. Their feedback and insights were instrumental in our success.» At the same time, Divia producer Tasia Puhach describes it as «a great opportunity to find and involve partners in the production process and to test and improve the idea of the film.»

Featured image: B2B Doc CEO Alex Shiriaieff moderating Launch Pad Pitching; B2B Doc / Maurice Wolf

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