HBO documentary chief Sheila Nevins has called on film-makers to come forward with challenging ideas on international subjects and not to assume that the US network is only interested in US-focused films.

Traditionally, HBO has a reputation for screening more domestically-oriented films - particularly in its America Undercover series. But Nevins pointed out that HBO currently has a film about children living in a brothel in India on its slate. "Once I would have said 'who's going to watch it'', but the narcissism of the US has changed after September 11 and the documentary has a much more important place now."

HBO currently has films on difficult international subjects such as Kim Longinotto's harrowing film about female circumcision in Kenya (The Day I'll Never Forget) and Aids in rural China (Weijun Chen's To Live Is Better Than To Die).

"These are way out films for HBO," said Nevins, who added that she didn't expect all her documentary subjects - particularly from international film-makers - to get big ratings.

Nevins, speaking at the IDFA Forum on Nov 24, said that she was prepared for her less accessible subjects to get much lower audiences than films about strippers or big American subjects such as In Memoriam: New York City 9/11/01, one of HBO's biggest-rating films.

Nevins refused to outline subject areas that she was specifically on the look out for. "I would find it difficult to pick a [specific] subject - it's about how the film is made. The HBO doc is emotional rather than political and foreign films have to be made applicable to the US - they need to show the similarities between people's different experiences. If it's foreign, but intimate, then it will be considered."

Nevins admitted that documentary is considering secondary programming on HBO, with most people subscribing for the movies. But she added: "It's still an important part of the service."

HBO spends $20m a year on both theatrical and TV documentaries, making between 35-45 films a year on budgets as varied as $20,000-$2m. The network is currently experimenting with more theatrical releases, with Nevins indicating that a third of the network's films would get the theatrical treatment.

HBO has backed five films at IDFA this year including Jockey, To Live Is Better Than To Die, My Flesh And Blood, The Kidnapping Of Ingrid Betancourt and Capturing The Friedmans.

Nevins has promised that HBO would view every proposal sent into the New York-based network, but recommended avoiding e-mails. "We are incredibly accessible. We screen everything that comes in. The best thing is to send in a five- to 10-minute clip or a pitch," she said.