Non-Fiction to Go

February 1, 2000


Dark tales

One of the newest projects for ZDF Germany’s Guido Knopp will be a 6 x 52-minute series dubbed Holocaust. Making use of footage not seen since WWII, the series will concentrate on the years leading up to the initiation of Hitler’s `Final Solution’. The series is being helped along with the guidance of Simon Wiesenthal, the famous Nazi hunter.

Holocaust is an MPR (Munich) production for ZDF/ARTE and ZDF Enterprises, in association with EO in the Netherlands, The Cobo-Fund (a Dutch film fund for international copros), The History Channel (U.S.) and SBS (Australia). Ready for the end of 2000, the series carries a budget in the neighborhood of US$4.4 million.

Also for ZDF, ZDF Enterprises and S4C in the U.K., Gruppe 5 in Cologne is producing Dead Men Tell Stories. The 2 x 52-minute series follows the development of forensic medicine, and will combine contemporary footage with stock and dramatic reenactments to tell the tale from the first forays into forensics in 1303, right up to the present. The series will especially focus on developmental milestones, the tools of the trade and the growth of forensics as a science.

Brothers in arms

By Simon Bacal

The United Kingdom will be the shooting ground for HBO’s US$100 million 11-hour miniseries, Band of Brothers. Based on a Stephen Ambrose non-fiction best seller about a U.S. Army unit in World War II, the mini-series will film throughout 2000, and debut on hbo in 2001. Band of Brothers is produced by The Playtone Company and DreamWorks SKG, with Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks (executive producer of the Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon) serving as executive producers.

The decision to shoot in the U.K. is the result of long negotiations between HBO and 10 Downing Street, the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, the Ministry of Defence, British Aerospace, Arlington Property Development, and the British Film Commission.

The main production facilities will be located at the former Hatfield Aerodrome, which also served as the location base for Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. Work is currently underway to build a backlot of sets that will recreate European cities and villages such as Bastogne, Belgium Carentan, France; and Eindhoven, Holland. Other U.K. locations will be used as Camp Toccoa, Georgia; Aldbourn, England; and Mourmelon, France.

Co-executive produced by Gary Goetzman of The Playtone Company and Tony To (co-executive producer of Moon), Band of Brothers revolves around Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army. It recounts their rigorous training in Georgia in 1942, as well as the elite rifle company’s achievments in Europe.

Cast, writers and directors will be announced as they are confirmed.

Looters and Heroes

By Simon Bacal

Los Angeles-based Digital Ranch is producing two segments on World War II for The History Channel’s History’s Mysteries, a series which explores history’s best-kept secrets. Allied Looters, a one-hour segment, examines European art and treasures stolen by allied forces during the final days of the war. The project will feature reenactments, archived film footage and interviews with army personnel.

‘[Author] Ken Alford has written quite extensively about this subject,’ says executive producer Rob Kirk about the US$200,000 project. ‘He discovered that the allies were indeed stealing European artifacts and shipping them back to the United States. We’ve compiled a number of stories which explore this topic.’

Among the incidents covered in the program (tentatively slated to air next spring) are the allied seizure of Austrian crown jewels in Nuremberg; the theft of 7,000 paintings and 3,000 boxes of art objects; and the `liberation’ of 728 gold bars.

‘One of the most sensational incidents occurred when U.S. forces took over the Hesse castle near Frankfurt, and opened an officers club,’ Kirk continues. ‘The officers who ran this club found hidden treasures and sent them back to Chicago, where they were ferried by the Chicago underworld. Eventually, they were caught and prosecuted after one of the Hesse children returned to the castle to retrieve some treasures and discovered that they were missing.’

Digital Ranch is also working on The Fighting Sullivans (w/t), an account of five brothers who died in the same Japanese attack on the American anti-aircraft cruiser, the U.S.S. Juneau. The Juneau had been stationed in the Pacific Ocean.

Around $150,000 has been spent of the project, which includes interviews with relatives of the Sullivan brothers, Norman Polmar (a naval analyst and historian), and Jack Satterfield, author of the book We Band of Brothers. The doc is currently scheduled to air next Spring.

‘The Sullivan brothers hailed from Waterloo, Iowa,’ explains Sullivans producer Arthur Drooker. ‘Within days of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, they enlisted in the Navy together – even though the Navy tried to discourage members from the same family from serving together in the same unit. The Juneau was hit by two torpedoes. The first strike put the ship out of commission, but the second strike killed the majority of the 700 crew members. There were approximately 100 survivors, one of whom was a Sullivan brother. But he and many others died in the water because other U.S. warships fled the area, thinking that no one survived the blast. Basically, the survivors died off one by one due to exposure, shark attacks and the general hazards of being in the sea over a six or seven day period. Eventually, only ten men were rescued. Later, the Sullivans’ parents embarked on a major campaign to encourage people to support the war effort – their sons had given the ultimate sacrifice.’ Simon Bacal

Natural History

Elephant-sized angst

By Carl Mrozek

Allison Argo, president of Washington’s ArgoFilms, has gotten up close and personal with many an elephant over the past decade, and has been dying to put them in a film similar to her award-winning Urban Gorilla. She recently got her chance when National Geographic and New York’s WNET/Nature agreed to coproduce an hour-long follow-up entitled Urban Elephant. The program will profile eight different elephants, all of whom have only ever lived in captivity, but whose life stories have engaged the filmmaker.

In one sequence, a 52-year-old female apprehensively encounters other elephants for the first time in 25 years, having been confined to public display for her entire adult existence. ‘I feel privileged to get to know these elephants and to film their private lives,’ explains Argo. ‘They are so dignified, despite their lives of captivity.’

Although she visits Asia and Africa, most of the elephants profiled live in North America, where hundreds of elephants live long lives of quiet despair. Argo strives to capture both their desperate situation and their indomitable spirits in this urban animal doc, which is slated for a May completion. Urban Elephant will be shot entirely on Super 16, and will be mastered in HD, with Dolby 5.1 surround sound and a budget to match. (Argo recently wrapped Wisdom of the Wild, a 60-minute doc for Nature in which she visited East Africa and North America on a quest for wisdom in the natural world. The US$600,000 film premiered last December, and will run again Spring 2000.)

Bloody iguanas are everywhere

Bloody Suckers (w/t), a film about lawyers… or rather, animals that consume blood, is being undertaken by Natural History New Zealand and WNET. Delving into the dark world of animals that feed off the blood of others (leeches, vampire finches, humans…), the hour will address viewer concerns such as: how does the blood turn to food; or what happens to the donors?

Ready for the middle of 2001, the production has a budget in the US$600,000 range.

Also from NHNZ, in the form of a coproduction with Animal Planet, comes Shark Gordon (w/t). The effort is a 13 x 30-minute series which watches as Ian Gordon, renowned Australian shark groupie, looks for the underwater giants in the ‘shark capitals of the world,’ from Hawaii to the Southern Ocean. Ready for March of next year, the series will run to about US$2.5 million.

When sharks travel between capitals, they may consider staying at Hotel Iguana. A coproduction between NHNZ and Discovery, this hour is a wry look at a Venezuelan hotel in which the guests include 300 green iguanas. The hotel even has a full-time scientific consultant to care for them (and put mints on their pillows). Ready for the end of 2000, the hour is ballparked at US$500,000.


Thou shalt not use a tripod

Dubbed a `gonzo’ documentary by the filmmaker, The Name of this Film is Dogme 95 is a 50-minute look at the Dogme 95 movement in filmmaking. (A movement begun in Denmark which believes, among other things, that all shooting must be done on location, that sound must never be dubbed, and that all cameras should be hand-held…) Undertaken by Minerva Pictures in London, presenter Richard Kelly explains that the goal of his film is: ‘to hit the road to Copenhagen, hunt down these Danes and ask them what the hell they think they’re doing.’ Prospective interviews include Dogme-ists Thomas Vinterberg, Lars von Trier, Soren Kragh-Jacobsen, Harmony Korine and Jean-Marc Barr.

Kelly, a journalist by profession, is also working on a book on the subject for Faber & Faber. The film is being coproduced with the help of Channel 4 in the u.k. and the Independent Film Channel in the U.S. C4 will also be handling international distribution. The film will run to about US$300,000 and will be completed by April.


Birdy num-nums

For three decades, Peter Sellers starred in films and television programs which have become part of the Western canon. With his roles in Dr. Strangelove or The Party, or his portrayal of the bumbling character of Inspector Clouseau, Sellers captured audiences with his odd and sometimes awkward comic style.

Los Angeles-based Crew Neck Productions is producing a 55-minute look at the actor called The Unknown Peter Sellers. The hour will not be a Seller’s biography. Instead it will focus on the people who worked with the actor, so that viewers get a better sense of who Sellers was, rather than just his chronology. Crew Neck has been granted exclusive access by the Sellers estate for the rare footage in their archive, including the actor’s first appearance on U.S. TV, which was long thought to be lost.

Distributed by Virginia’s Adler Media, the hour will be completed for this spring at a budget of about US$450,000. The special has already found a home on American Movie Classics (AMC) in the U.S., as well as a window on PBS.

Paradox shoots Soldier Boys

By Samantha Yaffe, Playback

Imagine waking up one morning in time to see your 12-year-old son sink a machete into your brother’s skull. Instantly awake, you then notice that the boy has already hacked his aunt and your two nieces – both still toddlers – to pieces.

This grisly scene is precisely what greeted George Oboma on March 11, 1998, in Kitgum, Uganda. His son, who had disappeared three months earlier, had been kidnapped and turned into a killer by the Ugandan warlord General Joseph Kony and the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army. These events have become the subject of Toronto-based Paradox Productions’ Soldier Boys.

Written by David Hallam and currently in development with Canadian national broadcaster CTV, the CDN$450,000 (US300,000) one-off will investigate the lives of some of the roughly 12,000 young boys (mostly under the age of 16), wrapped up in Kony’s army in Northern Uganda.

The production also intends to meet up with Kony, who put out a public invitation in the independent Kampala paper The Monitor, on July 18, 1998, which welcomed ‘anyone who can dare to come out without fear and meet’ him.

The team will travel with Betty Begumbe, the former minister of northern affairs in the Ugandan government of Yoweri Museveni, ‘and one of the only people in the world Kony trusts,’ says producer Joel Awerbuck.

The doc, which is expected to start shooting in Toronto, April 2000, and then in Uganda for seven weeks starting in June 2000, is a coproduction with Halifax-based Triad Film Productions.

Paradox holds a 75% interest in the project, while Triad is a 25% shareholder. Peter d’Entremont of Triad is exec producing. Paradox principals Awerbuck, Hallam and Christa Schadt are producing. Schadt is also directing. The doc has been presold to Denmark’s Bech Films and Vision TV has the second window in Canada.

Handel retraces Reichmann odyssey

Leo Rice-Barker, Playback

Montreal-based doc filmmaker and TV producer Alan Handel is currently editing The

Reichmanns: Faith and Fortune. The two-hour presentation traces the ultra-orthodox Jewish family from nineteenth century Hungary to post-war Vienna, the flight from the Nazis to Paris and Tangiers, and the emigration to Montreal and Toronto after wwii. The doc is based on Anthony Bianco’s penetrating book, The Reichmanns, a Random House 1998 National Business Book Award winner. Bianco is a senior writer with Business Week in New York.

‘What’s unusual and what attracted me is this combination of faith and fortune,’ says Handel. Handel’s lean crew shot in Montreal, Toronto, New York, London, Paris and Tangiers, Morocco. ‘Anthony Bianco traveled to most of the locations with us but does not appear on camera,’ he says.

‘Tangiers, where the Reichmann’s spent the war years, was the center of flight capital, espionage, ex-pats and refugees from Hitler’s Europe, and was every bit as exotic as Casablanca,’ says the producer.

As developers, the family is perhaps best known for massive undertakings such as First Canadian Place in Toronto and the World Financial Center on Wall Street in New York, one of their crowning achievements in the U.S.

The production considers Olympia and York’s CDN$10 billion (US$7 billion) bankruptcy, and patriarch Paul Reichmann’s eye-opening, high-finance comeback as managing partner of the mammoth Canary Wharf project in London’s East-End docklands. The new generation of Reichmanns are also part of the story.

Handel says he received some assistance from Reichmann family members, but the profile is essentially unauthorized.

‘The truth of the matter is, historically they have not been people who ever sought the limelight,’ he says. ‘They have a reputation for reticence. tv, unlike a book, is not necessarily a big part of the ultra-orthodox world. I assume, if they could, they’d be just as happy not to see this project done.’

Archival images are sourced from CBC and SRC in Canada, BBC and ITN in the U.K., Archive Films in New York, and Pathe in France. ‘We’re doing ambitious research in unlikely places,’ says Handel. ‘We had two researchers working full-time for the past three-and-a-half months, and they made contact with people in places like Hungary and Vienna. And we have had some luck, including [the discovery of] 70-year-old stuff from Hungary near where the Reichmanns lived.’ (The production team includes dop Andre Khabad, editor Denis Papillon and line producer Sylvia Wilson.)

The Reichmanns: Faith and Fortune has been licenced in Canada by the Global Television Network and Reseau TVA. Handel says the London and New York elements of the story should lead to sales in those markets as well. The shoot is budgeted at CDN$1.2 million (US$800,000) with funding from Rogers Documentary Fund, Quebec funding agency SODEC, Telefilm Canada and the Canadian Television Fund.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.