HBO Europe Scores With Documentaries

Toto si surorile lui Toto and his Sisters Still - H 2014
Courtesy of San Sebastian Film Festival

Toto si surorile lui Toto and his Sisters Still - H 2014

After a strong presence and awards won by some of its films at international festivals in 2014, its co-production 'Chuck Norris vs Communism' will screen at Sundance.

HBO Europe, which operates across Eastern Europe and in the Netherlands, had a strong year with original documentaries.

The European arm of the Time Warner premium TV unit had two documentaries in the New Directors section of the San Sebastian Film Festival in 2014: Romanian filmmaker Alexander Nanau's Toto and His Sisters and Hungarian director Marcell Gero's Cain's Children.Toto won awards at various festivals, including for best international doc in Zurich, for best doc in Warsaw and the ecumenical jury prize at Dok Leipzig. Other docs in which HBO Europe had a hand also won some honors and caused buzz.

Plus, the Sundance Film Festival late in the year announced that ‎Chuck Norris vs Communism would get its world premiere in the ‎World Cinema Documentary Competition, marking‎ the first time an HBO Europe co-production has been selected for the festival.‎‎‎

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HBO Europe is reaping the benefits of its documentary work in recent years, which has been part of its push into original fare, including drama, such as Burning Bush, which is mirroring the U.S. parent company's strategy. Executive vp of original programming and production Antony Root started at his post in 2011. HBO Europe had done local docs for local people, but he decided to focus on fare with appeal beyond a single market. In 2012, he hired Hanka ‎Kastelicova as executive producer, documentaries, and she has focused on taking doc output to the next level.‎

‎"Our strategy is linked to the idea of establishing something truly distinctive," Root told The Hollywood Reporter. "Documentaries, like original fiction, help with our branding, since HBO is a subscription service. There is a very deep commitment in the company to continue to grow the original portion of programming."

He added: "When originals work, they connect you much more deeply to your audience. On the fiction side, originals can quite clearly outperform the top end of American programming. We approach documentaries with the same vigor. I see them really as closely related. We are about filmmaking."

"Like in fiction, we always wanted to do distinctive pictures by strong filmmakers," Root added about the documentary strategy. "We look for ‎strong narratives and emotional subjects rather than the traditional European journalistic reportage, because we ideally want a documentary to work in all 15 territories of HBO Europe or even more widely in the international community."

‎Kastelicova told THR: "We work very closely with the filmmaker throughout the process, including [where possible] in the development stage. Filmmakers tend to have a view just for local audiences. We are encouraging them to tell the story in an international visual language to appeal to a broader audience. I believe films must travel.... We really want to encourage directors to use film language, not just words." That also makes HBO Europe's docs distinct from those of European public broadcasters, she argued.

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Root said that is key as his team measures the success of the docs not only via viewership, but also by their ability to cause debate and play well at film festivals, as well as garner press and social media buzz.

The goal of focusing on a wider audience is helped by the fact that HBO Europe finances many of its docs with such European partners as Arte and Germany's ZDF, even though in some cases it funds them all on its own.

While social issues and arts have often been the focus, the company is also open to doing sports and various other topics. "Some are lighter, others are darker," said Root. "We are looking for a mix. And our goal is to have 12 a year, so we can do a premiere every month in our documentary slot on Thursday that we have across all our 15 territories."

Looking back at 2014, ‎Kastelicova told THR: "Over the l‎ast year, we have had many successes. ‎We want to be seen as leading producer of documentaries in the region." That is beginning to be the case.

Among HBO Europe's recent docs, which have screened at film festivals, have been:

The Queen of Silence
This musical documentary is about a deaf Roma girl living in a camp in Poland who discovers Bollywood dance after finding DVDs in the garbage and expresses herself through it by imitating the films.

Something Better to Come‎
The Danish-Polish co-production had its world premiere at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam. It is about 11-year-old Tula, who lives in the biggest junkyard in Europe, near Moscow. The filmmaker followed her for 14 years. The film won the Grand Prix award at the Artdocfest in Moscow in December.

Stream of Love
The film by a Hungarian documentarian shows octogenarians in rural Romania speaking candidly about love and sex. It was part of the international showcase at the Los Angeles Film Festival 2014.

Deep Love
This doc features a Polish diver, paralyzed after a stroke, who wants to fulfill his dream of diving in the legendary Blue Hole in Egypt. His partner helps him despite her concerns.

Cain's Children
This Hungarian doc is about a group of men who were convicted of murder when they were underage and featured in a 1985 doc. The filmmaker shows them now, discussing their prison experience and life challenges.

Toto and His Sisters
The film from Romania is about‎ three kids in the Bucarest ghetto. During their mother's imprisonment, Toto learns dancing, reading and writing while his two sisters try to keep the family together.

The international success of HBO Europe's docs "has enhanced the success we have had locally," said Root. "It has helped enhance our brand and raise awareness."‎ Added Kastelicova‎: "‎We do release some of them theatrically, which brings more attention after airing on HBO."

Currently, HBO Europe has around 30 docs in various stages of production or ready for release. Among them are a couple of films with U.S. tie-ins:

Houston, We Have a Problem‎
The docudrama looks at conspiracy theories that former Yugaslavian strongman Tito ran a secret space program that the Americans bought from him. The film, from Ziga Virc, nominated for a student film Academy Award for his Trieste Is Ours!, is the first doc from HBO Europe's Adria region.

Chuck Norris vs Communism
The doc, set to debut at Sundance, from the London-based company of Romanian sisters Mara Adina and Ilinca Calugareanu tells the story of a woman who secretly dubbed Hollywood films and other foreign blockbusters that were smuggled into Romania during the time of the Iron Curtain. Her voice became the voice of freedom for a generation.

For now, HBO in the U.S. typically doesn't air HBO Europe output. But Root and ‎Kastelicova‎ see opportunities for that in the future.
"The journey we are on means they are more and more interested in what we are doing," Root said. "HBO is taking note. We must speak to our super-local market. But by applying broader standards and ambitions and focusing on universal film language, we have found success outside of it."‎

Twitter: @georgszalai