Family Drama

Project: Mountain Rivals...
October 1, 1998

Project: Mountain Rivals

Description: This hour-long film by Johannesburg, South Africa-based Rob Harrison-White follows the lives of a pair of black eagles and a caracol (an African lynx). Competing with caracols for food, the eagles try to raise their offspring and survive through storms and a devastating fire.

Executive Producer: Ellen Windemuth

Co-producers: Clyde Films, Off The Fence, TaurusFilms, ProSieben and Discovery Channel U.S., in association with France 3, Odyssée, SVT, TV2 and

Unapix International.

Budget: US$350,000

Mountain Rivals was exactly the kind of project that Ellen Windemuth of Amsterdam’s Off The Fence was looking for. She had been on the hunt for documentary filmmakers in South Africa for several years and knew the wildlife genre was where some of the best were working.

At Wildscreen she met Rob Harrison-White of Johannesburg and fell in love with a film he had been working on. It’s about a family of black eagles who, unlike most eagle couples, decide to have two sets of babies in one season.

‘That’s never been recorded before and it certainly has never been filmed before,’ explains Windemuth. ‘They end up having to kick out the juvenile way before they usually do in order to make way for the care of the two new children in the nest. That turns the eagle mother into something like a Brooklyn working-class mom. She’s got to feed a juvenile who’s been kicked out of the nest by the father and living about 1.5 km up the rock face, and she’s got to feed the new chicks.’

Windemuth and Harrison-White came up with an agreement: He would make the film while she shopped for financing.

In the end, both sides got what they were looking for – Windemuth got a film for which she’s having no trouble finding broadcasters (‘I think it’s more of a drama than a behavioural wildlife story and I think that’s why people decided to come in on it,’ she says) and Harrison-White got global exposure for a story that he had been following for the last five years of his life.

1993: Harrison-White starts habituating the black eagles and caracol and starts filming on his own. As he is habituating and filming these two species he discovers an unusual relationship between the two – mainly that they fiercely compete for the same food. He sees the male black eagle dive bomb the caracol and this strikes him as odd since the caracol is solitary and noctural and hunts in the plains, while the eagles are very family-oriented, live in the mountains and hunt during the day.

October, 1996: Windemuth meets Harrison-White at Wildscreen, who tells her about the project he is working on. ‘I was very intriguiged by what he was doing and I saw a couple of his shots and I thought his camera work was extraordinary,’ recalls Windemuth. ‘We became friends and started working together. I basically said, `Look, why don’t you film and I’ll run around and see if I can put this project together and we’ll film on a shoestring and see if we can pull this off.” Harrison-White goes off to continue shooting whatever he can while Windemuth goes off and shows the footage he has to broadcasters.

Fall, 1996: Windemuth takes some footage of the film to Germany’s Prosieben and TaurusFilm and both are impressed with what they see and pick up German-speaking European rights. ‘They looked at the footage in their office and they both said immediately, `We will do this,” she says. ‘I think they needed no more than ten minutes of footage and they said they were in.’ Windemuth won’t reveal how much the deals were worth, but admits it was what she needed. ‘It was enough to keep us filming and to keep us from selling the rights to a bigger player,’ she offers.

With the stamp of approval from TaurusFilm and Prosieben, Windemuth has no trouble convincing two French broadcasters to come on board – the pay service Odyssée and France 3 come in with ‘a sizeable amount’ for windows. TV2 Denmark and SVT Sweden follow.

1997: Filming is going well, with Harrison-White putting in long hours in a relatively remote area of South Africa, which Windemuth won’t reveal. ‘[A broadcaster] didn’t want to buy the film but wanted to know where we were shooting it,’ she laughs.

Everything seems to be working out fine until a terrible storm and fire devastate the area and destroy food resources. ‘We then witness the incredible struggle for survival of both species as they both try to hunt,’ explains Windemuth. One of the chicks is killed by the other – normal behaviour for eagles – but dies of heat and lack of food. The juvenile eagle is killed by the caracol.

Harrison-White returns to the location a few months later and finds that nature had renewed itself, the eagles were still together and the mother eagle had laid three new eggs. ‘So we have these two miracles of nature and we have what I believe is a real family drama,’ says Windemuth.

May, 1998: With some assistance from Unapix International, Windemuth sells U.S., Canadian, Middle Eastern, Latin American and Asian rights to Discovery Channel. Italy’s RAI 3 follows.

July, 1998: One of the lead characters in the film, the male eagle, is shot by a hunter. ‘Luckily all of the eagle footage was complete,’ says Windemuth. ‘But it will definitely be the last film on this extraordinary couple.’

September, 1998: With a month to go before MIP, Harrison-White and Windemuth are still working on a final cut. ‘We’re still working on it,’ says Windemuth. ‘There’s a little bit more shooting to do.’ The film is expected to be ready for broadcast in December.

October, 1998: Off The Fence represents Mountain Rivals at MIPCOM.

See also:

The War That Wasn’t: World War III (pg. 58)

Staying Power: Champions of the Wild (pg. 64)

Days of Wine & Pre-Sales: Wine World (pg. 74)

The Neverending Story: Operation Free Ranging Lions (pg. 76)

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