Leone Stars, a film following a team of single-leg amputee soccer players in Africa, is the first-ever documentary project to win the Pitch This! competition at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The project, which earned the $10,000 grand prize at the annual event at TIFF on Tuesday, tracks the Sierra Leone Single-Leg Amputee Sports Club as its players — who have "survived war, poverty and prejudice" — attempt to gain a spot in the 2012 World Amputee Football World Championships.
Co-directors Allan Tong and Ngardy Conteh triumphed over five other finalists by delivering a dramatic pitch that was delivered like a classical poem and set against a "sizzle reel" of video footage and evocative images of amputee players — leaping through the air, walking through the streets and sitting in their homes.
Ghanian musician Kobena Aquaa-Harrison played drums and thumb piano alongside, while the pitch ended with the K'naan song Fire in Freetown (which the Toronto performer permitted the pair to use during their search for financing).
Perfect coaching match
Sponsored by film funding agency Telefilm Canada, Pitch This! sees a handful of teams pitch their movie ideas in front of an industry audience, in the hopes of winning $10,000 of development assistance. A jury of industry experts decides the winner.
Before the event, each team gets coaching by an industry professional and, as if by fate, Leone Stars was matched with Richie Mehta, whose 2005 Pitch This! win was followed two years later by the release of his feature film Amal.
'"Do you believe a one-legged man can fly?" That's one of our key lines.' —Allan Tong
"I was actually thinking of his pitch [in 2005] when he used an empty envelope as a visual symbol. I wanted to do that: be visual, poetic and simple, really. I didn’t want anything fancy, like wearing a costume or kicking a soccer ball around the cinema," Tong told CBC News on Wednesday.
"The image of a one-legged man flying, that was our motif. 'Do you believe a one-legged man can fly?' That's one of our key lines."
The Toronto filmmaker was intrigued by striking images of African amputee soccer players, captured by New York photographer Fiona Aboud, on display at the 2008 Contact Photography Festival. Soon after, he tracked her down to propose a documentary on the subject.
In the three years since, fellow Torontonian Ngardy Conteh joined the project as co-director, as did Halifax producer Walter Forsyth and executive producer Jerry McIntosh, who manages the feature documentary program at the Canadian Film Centre.
A very successful campaign via online fundraising website Kickstarter.com garnered the project $20,000 — just enough for Ngardy and director of photography Colin Akoon to travel to Sierra Leone in March to shoot the initial footage used for Pitch This! as well as to create a short demo reel to present to potential financiers.
The $10,000 winnings will help the team with its next steps, which includes potentially shooting an upcoming tournament in Ghana in late October, attending the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam this November and meeting with potential broadcast partners and private investors.
"We've had a few nibbles [since Tuesday's win]," Tong said. "We've got to sort them out."