With Dual Oscar Nods, HBO Europe’s Doc Division Primed for Spotlight

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A pair of Oscar nominations for “Collective,” a blistering exposé of corruption in his native Romania, was certainly a triumph for Alexander Nanau, one of Europe’s most acclaimed documentary filmmakers. But it was a success story shared by co-producer HBO Europe, which has spent the past decade beefing up its documentary arm en route to becoming one of the continent’s leading producers of documentary films.

Now that doc division is readying for the global spotlight, as WarnerMedia begins the international rollout of its HBO Max streaming service, which will launch across Latin America in June and in much of Europe later this year. “This is really an exciting thing, telling local stories for a global audience,” says Hanka Kastelicova, HBO Europe’s VP of documentaries, who spoke to Variety during Hot Docs.

The kudos for “Collective,” which earned a rare double nod from the Academy in the documentary and international feature film categories, are a fitting validation of the work being done by Kastelicova, who joined HBO Europe in 2012 with a mandate to take the cabler’s documentary output to the next level.

As an HBO exec, her first trip was to Romania, where she met with Nanau, who had recently won an International Emmy for his debut feature, “The World According to Ion B.,” an HBO Romania co-production. The director at the time was working on his sophomore effort, “Toto and His Sisters,” which the cabler also backed.

Kastelicova recognized Nanau’s gifts from the start. “He’s an extremely talented documentary maker,” she says. “I’m not saying ‘director,’ because he’s a writer, DOP. He’s great in dramaturgy, a great producer. I see him as a renaissance artist. He has many complex skills.”

With “Collective” (pictured), which follows journalists who uncover a vast web of fraud and corruption in the Romanian health care system following a fatal nightclub fire in Bucharest in 2015, Kastelicova was involved from the moment Nanau decided to document that tragic night and its aftermath. Twenty-seven club-goers lost their lives in the blaze, but 37 more died in the weeks that followed, due to widespread infections in inadequate hospital facilities.

Nanau began shooting during the early days of the ensuing scandal, following journalist Cătălin Tolontan and his investigative team at the sports newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor, whose work would eventually help bring down the government.

“I felt from the very first moment this urgency to tell this story,” says Kastelicova. “But I think that no one in that moment could imagine [that it would tell] big and important stories about journalism, about corruption, about problems with the health system and about also problems in our political system, [or] how important a film it would be.”

The decade-long collaboration between HBO and Nanau that led to “Collective” offers “proof of [the value of] long-term cooperation,” says Kastelicova, adding: “When you collaborate on three films in a row, then the collaboration can go much deeper.”

Relationships built on mutual trust and dialogue are crucial to Kastelicova, who describes herself as “very hands-on” when working with filmmakers. “It’s totally different if a broadcaster comes on board very early, and is ready to take the risk,” she says. “With documentaries, we go on a journey in the beginning, [so] you have to have good instincts to see if the story can evolve.

“It’s a complex thing that requires a lot of energy and love on both sides, on HBO’s side and on the side of the [filmmaking] teams as well,” she continues. “I think this profound collaboration between HBO producers and our teams…is the recipe that brings our success.”

The company has established a sterling track record in recent years, backing standout documentaries such as Polish filmmaker Anna Zamecka’s Oscar short-listed “Communion,” Romanian director Ilinca Calugareanu’s Sundance player “Chuck Norris vs. Communism,” and IDFA selection “Something Better to Come,” from Poland’s Hanna Polak, who’s currently developing a film with HBO Europe about the ISIS atrocities against Yazidi women, “Angels of Sinjar.”

The ability of such films to score coveted berths at top-tier international film festivals is a testament to the globally appealing storytelling HBO Europe champions, an ethos that will come into greater focus with the international rollout of HBO Max in the months ahead.

“Documentaries are proven performers now in international streaming,” says Antony Root, head of original production for WarnerMedia for Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). The company is upping its nonfiction game in Europe, with the recent appointment of broadcast executive Annelies Sitvast to the newly created role of head of unscripted production for EMEA, where she will commission unscripted programming for HBO Max.

It’s a reflection of how “under the Max label, and under the Max wing, we will be broadening and expanding our app—which is very exciting—into some areas that we haven’t been involved in before,” says Root.

One area where the WarnerMedia exec sees a huge upside is documentary series, where HBO Europe found success last year with the Spanish-made, four-part series “The Pioneer,” about the politician, soccer mogul, and property tycoon Jesús Gil. This year the five-part, true crime series “Pray, Obey, Kill,” which revisits a complex Swedish murder case from 2004 that gained global attention, launched on HBO Max, as well as the linear channel, in the U.S.

The international, multi-platform rollout of a local European story is a promising sign of things to come for HBO Europe and its documentary division. Kastelicova, for one, says they’re ready for the challenge. “This is an important moment for us, when we see also that the stories we are telling in Europe are equally interesting for American audiences,” she says. “I don’t believe that we can make films just for one country. I always want to share these stories.”

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