To understand the painstaking approach HBO Europe takes to documentary development, you need look no further than Mila Turajlić’s IDFA entry The Other Side of Everything. The film was hatched by its Belgrade-based director many years ago — and HBO was there almost from the outset.
Hanka Kastelicová, Executive Producer of Documentaries for HBO Europe, is a former filmmaker. She knows exactly what it’s like to struggle to finance projects and deal with unsympathetic patrons who’ll deny you time or money — or both. Kastelicová first encountered The Other Side of Everything at a pitching forum in Lisbon in 2011, when she was still working for public television in Slovenia. She fell in love with it and has stayed with the project ever since. When she started working with HBO the following year, this was one of two projects she made sure to take with her.
“It was not an easy process because she [Turajlić] had so many layers in her story. She wanted to reflect all the modern history of her country and, at the same time, make it around the relationships in the family,” Kastelicová says of the film, a European premiere at IDFA. The Serbian premiere will be held in a huge cinema on 29 November and HBO will show it in the Balkans in December.
Sticking with a documentary over such a long gestation period is not unusual for HBO Europe. The average time for one of its docs to come to fruition is four years. If a project needs to be longer, Kastelicová will stick with it. Her approach is clearly paying rich dividends. HBO-backed Eastern European projects like Houston, We Have a Problem! and Chuck Norris vs. Communism have been seen worldwide.
The premium pay television service aims to back between 8 and 12 new documentaries each year. HBO supports its filmmakers at every step of the process, from early development to editing and marketing. Kastelicová herself will mentor directors. She sees her role as closer to that of a producer than that of a traditional commissioning editor.
“For me, HBO is quality. We want to reach the maximum potential of every title,” she says. “It is very rare I would say ‘come to me when you have a rough cut.’ I don’t want that. I want to have impact throughout the whole production and to make sure we get the best from the story.”
At any given time, HBO Europe will have more than 30 films at different stages in production. If one title is delivered later than expected, Kastelicová will ensure another one is finished in time to fill the available slot. “If I see a good reason to wait, I prefer to wait and make a perfect film.”
As she commissions documentaries from Eastern European directors, Kastelicová is placing the emphasis firmly on youth. “I am really searching for films for young audiences from young auteurs,” Kastelicová declares. “We have to inspire the young generation somehow!”
Turajlić is a second-time director. Young Pole, Anna Zamecka, whose Communion has just been shortlisted for a European Film Award (EFA), is a debut director. The film was invited to IDFA’s First Appearance competition two years ago but Zamecka turned the invitation down. With HBO’s blessing, she continued to edit instead, adding 15 minutes of new material before it finally premiered in Locarno. Since then, it has won over 20 festival awards.
Another HBO title, Hungarian director Balázs Simonyi’s Ultra, has also been shortlisted for an EFA. Meanwhile, HBO is working on Romanian title Denisa Morariu’s The Other Side of the Medal, which tells the story of how Olympic gymnast Andreea Răducan was stripped of a gold medal at the Sydney Olympics after failing a doping test. She was 16 and had been given a Nurofen which contained a banned substance. Now in her early 30s, she is fighting to clear her name.
Here at IDFA, another of the company’s titles, Ethiopiques — Revolt of the Soul from Maciek Bochniak, premiered in the Music Documentary section. Meanwhile, screening in First Appearance is Czech directors Lukas Kokes and Klara Tasovska’s Nothing Like Before. HBO also recently partnered with Slovakian director Tereza Nvotová on her film, Lust For Power.