Production News

In this installment of `Non-fiction to Go': a selection of new projects pitched at the 6th Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries, a feature of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. The Filmfestival was organized by Foundation Forum Netherlands in association with...
February 1, 1999

In this installment of `Non-fiction to Go’: a selection of new projects pitched at the 6th Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries, a feature of the International Documentary Filmfestival Amsterdam. The Filmfestival was organized by Foundation Forum Netherlands in association with the European Documentary Network and the MEDIA Programme. The pitching took place over three days (November 30 – December 2), before a record number of commissioning editors, buyers, distributors and financiers (over 100). The location was the storied Paradiso, a church-turned-dance club in the heart of Amsterdam.

Striking about this year’s event were the number of producers who returned from the previous year to pitch new projects. Also notable was a strong presence from Ireland, which was represented by two production companies (Akajava and Red Lemonade Productions) and two commissioning editors from RTE (Clare Duignan and Peter Feeney). However, heated debate around the table was almost non-existent this year, with films on topics such as war and poverty generating very little discussion.


Homecomings in Oz

From the time Australia was first settled by Europeans in 1788 until the mid-1970s, indigenous children were routinely taken from their homes and placed in the care – or at the service – of foster organizations. Aboriginal culture was nearly destroyed, and they became what has been described as a `race for hire.’ The Stolen Generation from Sydney’s Jotz Filmproductions is an 85-minute look at this situation. Scheduled for a December wrap, it has a budget of US$235,000, a quarter of which is being underwritten by John Hughes at SBS Australia, and almost half by the Australian Film Finance Corporation. The doc tells the stories of several divided aboriginal families, but also witnesses some happy family reunions. Producer and director Tom Zubrycki, (who pitched a project called The Diplomat at the Forum in ’97 under the auspices of Emerald Films), drew some interest from Iikka Vehkalahti from YLE TV2 in Finland. Claire Duignan from RTE would be interested, ‘if there’s an Irish way into the story.’ The response from Canada, Germany and the U.K. was that each of these territories is more likely to invest in similar stories from its own region.


Wrestling with self-image

Toronto’s High Road Productions (in Amsterdam to support festival favorite, Wrestling With Shadows) were backing a pitch by co-directors Leslie Coté and Felicia Francescut, called Through Thick & Thin. The 60-minute film follows the two filmmakers as they explore their own history of extreme eating disorders. Much of the highly dramatic pitch consisted of personal journal entries read by Coté and Francescut. The budget is US$195,000, with Canada’s pubcaster, the CBC, in for 25%. Catherine Olsen was backing the duo at the Forum. A number of commissioners – including ZDF/ARTE, the BBC and SVT1 commented that they have covered the issue locally. Olaf Grunert from ZDF/ARTE told the directors he was touched by the pitch, but he had only recently aired an ‘anti-dieting’ thematic evening.


Big Brother calling

Paris-based ADR Productions (which pitched The New Russians at the Forum in ’97) wants to know a little bit about you. Their 90-minute High Technology and Security is a look at the science behind issues of technology and privacy. Everyone has heard stories of how much information can be gathered about an individual with only a PC, a geek and an Internet connection, but this lack of security doesn’t seem to raise alarms anymore. In the seventies, when the German government proposed national identity cards, there was almost rioting. Last year, national health cards went into effect in Germany that contain far more information than the proposed identity cards. Almost no complaints were heard.

Ready for April, High Technology carries a budget of around US$350,000. The French broadcaster La Sept/ARTE, under the auspices of Christoph Jorg, is involved for just under half of that. Both Nick Fraser of the BBC and Flemming Grenz from Denmark’s DR TV said they would recommend this project to their respective science departments. BBC’s Horizons was a strong possible outlet. Hugues Le Paige from Belgium’s RTBF expressed interest, if the film delved deeper into political ramifications of the science.

Fighting the past

Battlefields of Recovery, is a 52-minute look at how the Vietnam conflict continues to affect the lives of five veterans and their families. The film explores the legacy of war, and uses original and archival footage to bring viewers the experience of what it was like to try to make the leap from jungle war back to civilization. Battlefields will follow five vets as they and their families return to Vietnam for the first time since the conflict.

To be produced by Dune in Paris, which pitched a film called Eureka! I Still Got It All Wrong at the Forum in ’97, this US$585,000 doc is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. So far, ZDF Germany’s Martha Schilling is involved for about a fifth of the total production budget.

Blood red history

The revolution that kept the Khmer Rouge in power in Cambodia for four years also killed two million people – almost 20% of that country’s population. When the capital, Phnom Pen, fell in 1975, few people knew who these revolutionaries or their leaders were.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge is a 3 x 52-minute series from Films du Bouloi in Paris. It has some exceptional and rare footage, including a 1997 interview with Pol Pot, and excerpts from 15 hours of previously unseen 8mm and 16mm Chinese and Khmer propaganda films. The production attempts to shine some light on one of the greatest slaughters in human history, and the people behind it.

Already picked up by La Sept/ARTE’s Pierre-André Boutang (who came in for about a third of the US$550,000 budget), the series will be wrapped by the middle of this year.

Feeling jumpy?

Paris-based Movimento Production is looking into why so many of us are nuts. In this 52-minute exploration of post-traumatic stress disorder (an affliction from which an estimated 10% of the U.S. population suffers), the producers look into why witnessing extreme moments of violence can change us for the rest of our lives, using 3D imagery of the brain for illustration. First diagnosed during the Vietnam war, the disorder can be brought on from all sorts of experiences, including rape and natural disasters.

The Unforgettable Experience is expected to be ready for June, and has a rather un-alarming US$280,000 budget. France 3′s Elisabeth Couturier has already come on board for over a third of that figure, marking the film for the broadcaster’s monthly science slot. However, some commissioners, particularly from RTBF and the BBC, were worried that the film would be overwhelmed by pure science if done in the French documentary style.


Thou shalt not merchandise

The Ten Commandments of Separating People from Their Money is the name given to a 145-minute production from Hermann Vaske’s Emotional Network in Frankfurt. The series is the third installment of the ‘Millennium Trilogy’ – which includes The Fine Art of Separating People From Their Money (1996) and The A – Z of Separating People From Their Money (pitched at the Forum in ’97). Scheduled to be wrapped in mid-2000, this US$1 million doc features actor Dennis Hopper, and explores the possibility of a social paradigm shift away from commerciality and materialism. (Hmmm…) Also featured are interviews with folks as diverse as Dr. Ruth, Luciano Benetton and Nick Cave. The doc uses the Ten Commandments as a dramatic framework to explore how advertising is redefining itself in the face of a new spirituality. ZDF/ARTE’s Sabine Bubeck is involved for about a quarter of the budget.

Johanna Samuel said her company, Fox Lorber, had been involved in the first series, and had tried to become involved in the second, but found the necessary advance too high. She feared the same problem for The Ten Commandments. Clare Duignan from Ireland’s RTE wondered if the entire trilogy could be re-packaged for easier programming. CBC Newsworld’s Catherine Olsen, who bought the first series, commented that she found the new project somewhat ‘unfocused,’ but would consider an acquisition on completion.

Getting high faster

Almost as fast as a speeding bullet, and able to leap the Atlantic Ocean in under four hours, the Concorde has been scaring the hell out of cattle with sonic booms for almost 30 years. In one attempt, this marvel of supersonic technology circled the globe in 31 hours.

Thundering Beauty: 30 Years of Concorde is a 58-minute production from Hamburg’s Vidicom, produced by documentary newcomer Peter Bardehele. Ready for mid-1999, the production has a budget of US$205,000, a third of which is being offset by Olaf Grunert and Christian Schwalbe from ZDF/ARTE. The production breaks down roughly into 30% on the history of the sst, 60% on the here and now, and 10% on the future of supersonic flight.


Smile, you’re dead

Obviously affected by the long periods of extreme cold and semi-darkness, the practise of taking pictures of the dead is alive and well in Iceland. From disposable cameras to 8mm films, recording your loved ones before their mortal coil is interred is considered a normal thing there.

Corpus Camera: Death in the Family is a 52-minute production from Reykjavik’s, 20 Goats. Ready for the Autumn of this year, the production carries a small (US$90,000) budget, which is being partially offset by a 25% investment from Iceland’s Channel 2.

Although the practise might sound strange to some, the pictures allow grieving families to turn the experience into a positive one. The film will feature interviews with eight collectors, who have photos dating back 100 years.


Cell checks

In comparison to their pastimes on the street, for the kids in Ireland’s St. Patrick Prison for young offenders, the brain-twisting complexity of a simple game of chess is a welcomed relief. Through the Youthreach program, young criminals are being given a sense of dignity and purpose again through the use of the game. The film features four characters as they progress towards a regional chess championship.

From Dublin-based producers Akajava, Chess is a 52-minute film scheduled to be completed by October. The budget for the film hovers around US$120,000, but the Irish Film Board has already committed to a quarter of that.

Sabine Bubeck from ZDF/ARTE echoed concerns of a number of commissioning editors about the potential visuals: ‘It seems interesting, but just people sitting and playing chess… ?’


Looking for the whites of their eyes

The Gulf War opened many eyes in Israel, when the illusion of safety was shattered by a series of missile attacks that struck into the heart of the country’s most populated areas. The fear of much worse to come increases daily, as Iran, Iraq and many other Islamic nations come closer to developing a nuclear bomb.

To offset this threat, the Israelis have begun to develop an anti-missile missile. The story of this race, The Arrow Project, has become a 52-minute production from Tel Aviv’s GN Communications Ltd. Expected to be ready for October of this year, the project has the support of Keith Bowers at the BBC, who has come in for 25% of this US$200,000 project.

Glenn Marcus from PBS suggested that the film might be appropriate for Frontline, probably as an acquisition. YLE TV2′s Iikka Vehkalahti commented that the treatment sounded more like a current affairs program rather than a film. Also interested in the possibility of an acquisition were Leo de Bock of VRT in Belgium and Cees van Ede from NPS in the Netherlands. CBC Newsworld’s Catherine Olsen was interested in discussing a pre-sale, if she could wrangle a first window (i.e. before a PBS play).


I’ll be back

If you’ve got yourself a rat problem, Massimo Donadon might have the answer. Donadon is one of the world’s foremost experts on rat-catching. His company controls almost a third of the world’s rat bait market, and recently won the contract to clean up New York City. This rat terminator is already hard at work in many of the largest cities in the world.

Done in a tongue-in-cheek style of a war report, A Modern Pied Piper is being produced by Rome’s Videa Documentary and Paris coproducers La Compagnie des Phares et Balises. The 52-minute film should be wrapped by the Summer, with a budget of approximately US$235,000 – a quarter of which is being underwritten by Christoph Jorg at La Sept/ARTE. The film is destined for a thematic evening on ‘Self-made men.’

The BBC’s David Pearson turned down the film, citing a recent U.K. film about rats produced by Mark Lewis. RTBF’s Hugues Le Paige was worried the film would turn too far towards a magazine format. However, CBC’s Marie Natanson called the pitch ‘delightful.’

Videa (as it did at the last forum, where it pitched Flying Turbulences and Marriage Neopolitan Style) also pitched another hour-long doc at the event: Pummarola Red Sun. Featuring the tomato – billed as the vegetable that keeps Italy together – the doc should be ready for late 1999. With a quarter of their funding already in place thanks to Italian broadcaster RAI, this $200,000 doc was one of the few social-culinary investigations pitched in Amsterdam. The appealing stylistic approach attracted attention. RTBF was interested, as were ZDF/ARTE (perhaps to match with a film already commissioned on peanuts), SVT1 and Planete. Glenn Marcus from PBS suggested that the filmmakers approach PBS stations in regions of the U.S. where the Italian/American population is high.


An investment of ten to twenty

While most of us would love to see our bankers behind bars, the people of Latvia would rather just have their money back. One in four Latvians lost money when Banka Baltija went under, sinking under the weight of more than US$400 million in debts. Alexander Lavent, the former head of the bank, is now under house arrest, but tens of millions have already been transferred out of the country in a convoluted and far-reaching conspiracy.

A Banker and Life is a 60-minute production from Riga-based Juris Podnieks Studio. The pitch garnered a generally positive reaction from the buyers in attendance. Ready for the beginning of 2000, the hour carries a budget of about $120,000. Latvian TV has invested 30% of the money needed. Mette Hoffman Meyer from TV2 Denmark wanted to hear more, as did Iikka Vehkalahti of YLE TV2 (who said ‘I always like stories when someone becomes rich and then ends up in jail’), ORF1 and ORF 2 in Austria, and SBS in Australia.

A film from the hole

Billed as a film within a film, Time Zone – Prison is set in a somewhat totalitarian prison for young offenders in Latvia. This 30-minute piece questions how criminal children can become normal citizens after being subjected to such a system. The filmmakers have chosen to do this by offering the kids a chance to make a film of their own. They’ll write the script and perform in it, and the filmmakers will record the experience.

Produced by Kinolats in Riga, the film will be wrapped by August at a budget of under US$50,000. The Soros Documentary Fund in Latvia has committed to half the cost of the production.


Submariner surprise

Jonas Pleskys – the secret co-author, prototype and main hero of Tom Clancy’s best-seller The Hunt for Red October – was one of the youngest nuclear submarine captains in the ussr. During a secret mission in the Baltic, much to the chagrin of his superiors, he knocked out his own navigational system and went to Sweden, where he requested asylum. He was quickly smuggled to the U.S., but not before the ussr sentenced him to death, in absentia. His tribulations finally came to an end with his death in 1993, after years of having been secreted throughout Central and South America by the CIA.

Man from the Red October is being produced by Vilnius’ Studio Nominum. The 52-minute doc – featuring Pleskys’ KGB file, archive materials and witnesses – will be completed by October (Red October?), for an estimated US$150,000. Lithuania’s Baltijos TV is aboard for about 10%.

As the producers expect to use clips from the feature film, some commissioners were concerned about the relatively small budget, not to mention the time needed to secure such rights. Otherwise, the response was enthusiastic, with AVRO, Scottish TV,YLE FST, CBC and CBC Newsworld, the BBC and DRTV requesting more information.


Gunboat diplomacy

Simon Nasht of Café Productions aided in the pitch for War Games, saying he got involved with the project through ‘pure jealousy’ that the Polish producers had gotten it first. Available as either a 100-minute one-off, or a 2 x 52-minute series, War Games from Warsaw’s Apple Film Production is a chilling look into the `what-ifs’ of the Cold War. The film reveals the Warsaw Pact’s plans to attack NATO member states during the early eighties, initiating what would have certainly become World War III. Different plans were tested by Moscow strategists, including one that would have sent 500,000 Soviet troops into Poland to quell a fake uprising. The plan was to keep them marching west into Europe.

Ready for 2000, about 20% of the US$350,000 film is being financed by Polish Television. While bbc’s Nick Fraser wondered out loud whether the existence of CNN’s mammoth Cold War series would be a hindrance, Planete, PBS (for Frontline), Germany’s WDR, Canal+ and ZDF/ARTE all expressed varying degrees of interest.


A sort of homecoming

Irish music has international resonance, at least that’s the assertion of Daniel Television from Lettele, the Netherlands. Their 90-minute film, From a Whisper to a Scream, looks at the influence of several generations of Irish pop bands, including U2, Van Morrison, Rory Gallagher, Phil Lynott and The Cranberries. Ready for the Spring, and also available in a 6 x 30-minute series, this US$900,000 doc has a lot of backers already in place, including RTE Ireland (who are in for about a fifth), as well as PolyGram and Keith Kocho from Toronto’s Digital Renaissance (who are in for about $125,000 each).


Porn for everyone!

In the new and democratic Poland, pornography has found a new lease on life. Filmmaker Edward Porembny of London’s Arcadia Pictures (labeled a true ‘subversive’ by Nick Fraser) returns to his native Poland to find that the butcher shop across from his parents home has become a peep show. It’s only a symptom of a larger revolution. It’s the Polish Catholic Church and family values going head to head against a thriving industry which everyone seems to want – as long as they don’t know anyone involved.

Sexpolo is a 90-minute film which should be completed by the Summer of this year. Budgeted at US$230,000, Nick Fraser from the BBC has already jumped in for a quarter of the cost. The fact that Porembny himself is featured in the film, as well as a few troubling moments from the trailer shown during the pitch, touched off some heated discussion around the commissioners’ table. Nonetheless, Planete wanted in.


In a style similar to their popular film The Death of Yugoslavia, London’s Brook Lapping Productions is using witnesses to key events to tell the history of Irish unrest. Regardless of the blatant lack of nudity in this production, the BBC (via Paul Hamann) has already committed to a quarter of the US$3.5 million budget. Endgame in Ireland is planned to be a 6 x 50-minute series, and should be completed by the Autumn of 2000. The series spans several decades of Irish unrest, from the bomb which nearly killed Thatcher to the one that shattered recent peace talks.

Bear facts

What makes Russians the way they are? Many in the West have puzzled over this question since the turn of the century. Mosaic Film, the pride of Lydney, are working on a 3 x 52-minute series called Russian Roulette, which tries to find an answer. Dubbed by BBC’s Fraser as the ‘anti-Peter Ustinov program,’ and expected to be ready for the Spring of 2001, the series will look at mystical Russia and the search for the Russian soul, the Russian character and culture, as well as the Russian psyche. The BBC are in for half of the US$760,000 price tag.

In general, buyers from France were concerned about the presenter style, and some who were attracted by the style were worried about the length. Both Flemming Gretz from Denmark’s DR TV and Eddie Manzingana from South Africa’s SABC expressed clear interest in a pre-buy.


Do not pass go

Following on the heels of his successful film, The Farm (a project which originated at the forum in ’96) Jonathan Stack and Gabriel Films of New York are working on a follow-up called St. Gabriel: Women’s Prison. This 90-minute ‘female version of The Farm’ is destined for A&E, who put up half of the estimated US$430,000 budget. Ready for the Spring, the film looks at the women prisoners of Louisiana’s penal system in a similar way The Farm looked at their male counterparts. The doc, described by Stack as a ‘more emotional, more intimate film,’ spotlights five of the 900 women currently incarcerated in that state. While the problem is largely ignored by the press, women are being sent to prison more frequently – four times more often compared to 20 years ago.

Not surprisingly, response was enthusiastic. NPS, ARTE (for an acquisition), Fox Lorber, SVT1, YLE TV1, and ZDF/ARTE all expressed an interest in getting in somehow.

PRODUCTION PROFILE – Burrud gets more Bizarre: Discovery takes a liking to the weird

by Simon Bacal

Discovery Channel has recently ordered six new episodes of Beyond Bizarre, a one-hour show investigating the paranormal, and other forms of strange and unexplained phenomenon. Currently in production, the roughly US$300,000 episodes are slated to air on Discovery during the early portion of 2000. Explains Bill Cosmas, executive producer, Discovery Channel: ‘Beyond Bizarre is perfect [for our viewers] because it enables them to gain insight and information about those things which are not considered normal by most people.’

The brainchild of Burrud Productions, a production company based in Huntington Beach, California, Beyond Bizarre (hosted by veteran actor Jay Robinson), debuted as a one-hour special on Discovery Channel in 1992. High ratings prompted Burrud to release two more hour-long specials in 1995, while four additional episodes premiered on Discovery in mid-1998. To date, the show has explored topics such as forensic sleuths, modern day primitives, spontaneous human combustion, urban myths, alien implants and ghostly visitations.

‘Each show is comprised of five or six segments,’ explains John Burrud, president and owner of Burrud Productions, ‘and each segment is about eight minutes in length. When it comes to finding material, we rely on a strong research team, the Internet and a solid database of international contacts. Oftentimes, we hear about things which can only be documented through interviews, but they aren’t as appealing because we want to provide as much hard evidence as possible.’

Besides exploring unexplained activity across the United States, the series visits such locations as Mexico City, Malaysia and Thailand. ‘The new episodes include a segment on Thai flower pods which contain what appears to be the mummified remains of small human females,’ Burrud continues. ‘In Thailand, there’s actually a legend which tells of Thai flower-pod women who are supposed to be akin to little fairies – so this discovery seems to substantiate the legend. Obviously, that’s pretty far fetched, so we’ll hopefully go to Thailand, talk to some scientists and try to determine what these things could be.’

The latest Beyond Bizarre adventures also tackle subjects such as stigmata – wounds or scars which apparently bleed in the exact areas of the human body where Jesus Christ was said to have been wounded during his crucifixion. Additionally, viewers will learn about structures, walls, chandeliers and chapels that have been constructed out of human bones.

‘Another segment involves the Body Farm, a plot of land where Professor William Bass, acquires corpses of those people who leave their bodies to the study of science,’ explains Drew Horton, the show’s supervising producer and Burrud’s VP of production. ‘He deposits them in the Body Farm in a variety of contexts. In some cases he’ll bury bodies deep into the earth, while on other occasions, he’ll bury them shallow. Over the following weeks, months and years, he’ll record the bodies’ decomposition. Walking beyond a barbwire fence and seeing bodies in various states of decomposition is obviously very shocking, unusual and bizarre to many people, but we’re presenting a `beyond the edge’ and very real place.’

Summing up the Beyond Bizarre experience, Horton says, ‘As we wade through the investigation, we eliminate the bizarre elements and present the subject matter as truthful, important and something which offers unique sensibilities about the human psyche.’

About The Author
Jonathan Paul is a Toronto-based writer into creativity, content, advertising, tech, comics, video games, film, TV, time and space travel.