Non Fiction To Go

June 1, 2000


Down a lazy river

About 30 years ago, filmmaker Russell Porter built a raft, pushed it into the headwaters of the Rio Napo river, and drifted for three months – covering over 100 miles in the process – floating until the Napo joined with the Amazon River. For some odd reason, Porter wants to repeat this harrowing and dangerous journey for a film called La Balsa. Produced by December Films of Fitzroy, Australia, the 57-minute effort will retrace the filmmaker’s steps and explore the effects of time on the landscape of the Amazon, on its culture, and on his own memory. This inward and outward journey will be cut together with the 16mm film that Porter shot on the original trip, and will feature excerpts from his journals.

Set to wrap in June of 2001, the trip carries a budget of about US$240,000. So far, Australia’s SBS1 is in for about US$45,000, and the Australian Film Finance Corporation is in for $120,000.

Discovery’s Chris Haws liked the idea and wanted to see the filmmaker’s previous work. While he said he wanted to see the filmmaker after the session, he did caution against making the film too evangelical. On behalf of the CBC’s Nature of Things, Michael Allder expressed definite interest. ARTE Germany’s Antoinette Spielmann thought the film would be good for her geo strand, but wanted a 4 x 26-minute version, to which the filmmaker said he would comply. Paul Black from Regina, Canada-based Mind’s Eye said he’d also get in if there was any room left.

And now we dance

Dreamtime to Dance will explore a year in the lives of a group of young Aboriginal dancers who are entering one of the world’s premiere Indigenous dance colleges, Australia’s NAISDA. As many of the students hail from small communities, the 55-minute film will follow them as they learn to survive in a metropolis, how they overcome racism, and in some cases how they come to terms with their own personal histories. It is also a film about the college – its struggle to find funds and survive, and its efforts to carve a niche for itself. Firelight Productions of Sydney, which is producing the film, cautions that the project will not be a film about the downtrodden, but rather a film about the survival of culture against overwhelming odds.

The project will be completed by May 2001, and has a budget of about US$150,000. A third of that is being covered by the ABC.

Jim Compton of the Aboriginal People’s Network in Canada called his decision a ‘no-brainer’ and said he had committed to the project the night before. The CBC said it was a solid pitch, but they were looking for the Canadian angle. Wolter Braamhorst from AVRO in the Netherlands agreed his audience would need a point of reference. Heimir Jonasson from Channel 2 in Iceland said he would wait to see if the spirited pitch translated into a good film.


All in the family

Don’t call them hicks. Don’t call them Hillbillies. They’re Appalachian.

From Toronto’s Requisite Pictures comes Appalachian Journey, a 90-minute documentary about rural life in Kentucky. The film will dig deep into a culture that is slowly disappearing – a culture suspicious of outsiders, rejecting the trappings of the modern world (TVs, cars, running water…). The film will seek to dispel the stereotype that these people are mean and stupid, and uncover their culture and history.

Ready for March 2001, the film comes with a budget of about US$210,000. TVOntario is involved for about $40,000. Canadian tax credits cover another $11,000, and Discovery Germany has committed to $10,000.

Braamhorst from AVRO said that it would take some pretty stereotypical images to jump-start the film for a Dutch audience (Deliverance, Beverly Hillbillies sort of stuff). The BBC, Mind’s Eye, CNN and the Soros Documentary Fund said they would want to see the completed film. Flemming Grenz from DR TV Denmark reflected the opinion of many of the Euros when he said it would be a tough sell as his audience would not be able to relate. Tom Koch from WGBH Boston, on the other hand, believes his audience identifies with Hillbillies to such an extent that GBH is already hard at work on a six-part series on the topic.

Attention… or else

One of the ‘Mountie’s Hat’ (Moderator’s Hat, Canadian-style) picks was The Way of the Warrior, a 6 x 30-minute effort from Josette Normandeau of Montreal-based Ideacom International. Normandeau has practised martial arts for 20 years, training and competing in Japan. The series will look at martial arts from countries like the Philippines, Korea and Brazil, as well as from more familiar centers. One of the producer’s goals, she explained, was to get behind some of the myths of martial arts. The budget is about US$135,000 per episode.

Mary Ellen Iwata from TLC in the U.S. said she was very interested and that TLC loves martial arts stories. Chris Haws agreed, but warned against making a North American story, as the film would be broadcast into some of the countries featured in the story. TV2 Denmark’s Mette Hoffman Meyer said she would be interested in a 52-minute version. Peter Flemington from Vision TV in Canada was also interested, as long as the film covers the spiritual side of martial arts.

Big Brother is watching

Forget about fighting City Hall, Big Picture Media Corporation of Vancouver, Canada, wants you to think about big business. In The Corporation, a 4 x 55-minute series destined to wrap at the beginning of 2003, the prodco will be exploring the rise of the corporation as a power in society. Only 100 years ago, monarchs and the Church controlled society, now it’s big business. The filmmakers will look at the evolution of the corporation and see how it has impacted the world in which we live. Endeavoring to tell both sides of the story, the series has been divided into four parts: ‘Corporations are People Too’; ‘Democracy Ltd.’; ‘Planet Inc.’; and ‘Backlash to the Future.’ Joel Bakan, who is writing the series, also has a contract with Penguin Canada for a book timed to be released with the film.

The series has a budget of about US$1.2 million. TVOntario is in for about 10%, and an equal amount of money will come from Canadian tax credits. The Rogers Doc Fund is in for $70,000. Canadian broadcasters Vision TV ($30,000), Access TV ($5,000), SCN ($5,000) and The Knowledge Network ($8,000) are also involved. Foundations have come in for $27,000. The balance comes out to about $800,000.

In response to the pitch, Nick Fraser said he was offered the project a year ago but felt it was a trifle Canadian, and that the visuals appeared a bit ’70s, although he said he would still like to push it to the BBC again. Tom Koch from WGBH said his channel is doing a similar project with the Harvard Business School, ‘so it may be a bit more pro-business.’ Also at PBS, Mary Jane McKinven thought the length and format might mean a scheduling problem, and that the film-makers should consider a two-hour version. Iikka Vehkalahti from Finland’s YLE TV2 also liked the idea of the two-hour format, and thought economics was an appropriate topic for a pubcaster. He was concerned, however, that the producers appeared to know all the answers.


Baby trials

Following up on the success of Children of Gaia, Denmark’s Milton Media pitched another story about Alison Lapper, a strong-willed woman determined to thrive despite being born with no arms and truncated legs. Lapper is a talented painter and sculptor, but she faces a new hurdle which she isn’t certain she’ll be able to overcome – raising a baby. To complicate matters, a welfare committee assembled to deal with her case has the power to take the child if they feel she’s unfit to care for it.

Alison’s Baby is a 52-minute film which should be wrapped by this September. TV2 Denmark is already involved for about one third of the US$180,000 budget.

At the pitch, Nancy Abraham of HBO said the American broadcaster was in. TVOntario and the CBC also expressed interest. Channel 4′s Ros Franey said that although she normally might foresee some difficulties in generating interest in a program focused on a person’s disabilities, in this case the personality is so strong it doesn’t matter. Dasha Ross of the ABC said Lapper is so inspirational she transcends disability, and although she was not sure if ABC could come in as pre-buy or if they could only pick it up upon completion, the ABC is very interested. Ed Hersh of A&E said this was a case in which the treatment doesn’t do the pitch or the trailer justice. The producer agreed the treatment was awful.

Over-sexed and over there

Angel Productions of Copenhagen, Denmark, began the Forum with a pitch for a 60-minute doc about sex. Dubbed North of Eden, the film looks at the sexual liberation of Scandinavia (producer Thomas Gammeltoft said during the pitch that after the ban on porn was lifted, people began referring to his city as Porno-hagen) and more specifically at the differences between Sweden and Denmark. What does the future hold for the hotbed of sexual freedom? How do the citizens of both countries view themselves and each other? All questions will be answered through the use of both archive material and feature interviews with the people who helped to bring about the sexual revolution in the first place.

Expected to wrap in the spring of next year, the film comes with a budget of about US$203,000, a quarter of which is being underwritten by the BBC.

Considering the subject-matter, the idea received a lukewarm reception. Nick Fraser, who assisted with the pitch, speculated ironically on why the sexual revolution happened in Scandinavia and not the British Isles. Dasha Ross of the ABC liked the pitch, but thought the theme of the program would be difficult in primetime, which is the slot she’s looking to fill. Rudy Buttignol of TVO confessed he was familiar with the director’s last film, Naughty Boy (which, he said, ‘had enough pubic hair to carpet Canada’) and was interested, depending on how the film was cut. Hans-Maarten van den Brink of Netherlands-based VPRO was also interested in the topic, but would prefer to see the differences within the rest of Europe drawn out.


What’s my Linux?

In 1991, a Finnish computer wizard named Linus Torvalds created an ‘open source’ operating system for computers that he called Linux. The idea was simple – forget big business (a.k.a. Microsoft), people should have access to a free computer operating system which they could alter to suit their own needs. It was an open system which predicted the Internet-connected world, and it is currently being used globally by more than 15 million people.

Set to wrap in January 2001, Looking for Linux (or Penguin Tales) is a 52-minute documentary from Helsinki-based Making Movies Oy. The budget for the piece is about us$350,000. YLE TV2 Finland and Helsinki’s AVEK (the Promotion Centre for Audiovisual Culture) are involved for about $50,000 each.

While A&E’s Hersh turned the producers down, Soros Doc Fund director Diane Weyermann said she would be interested in seeing a rough cut as the foundation supports subjects that deal with freedom of expression. The project illicited a similar response from HBO and Catherine Olsen from the CBC, although Olsen warned that the subject shouldn’t just be another essay. Christoph Jorg from La Sept/ARTE wondered how much Linus himself would be featured in the film.


Images and Icons

At a festival which honored D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, a pitch about the filmmakers seemed timely. Pennebaker Hegedus Inc. The Story of a Generation is a 90-minute one-off from Stuttgart, Germany’s Ulli Pfau Filmproduktion.

Wrapping in Spring 2001, the film spans the 40-year career of the filmmaking duo that brought the world such films as Don’t Look Back, Primary and more recently, The War Room (among other titles). As the producers noted during their pitch, it is not a film about constant success, but rather about constant struggle.

The film is budgeted at about US$670,000. German pubcaster ARD will cover $160,000 while foundations and grants will take care of another $30,000.

During the follow-up to the pitch, John Hughes of SBS Australia lamented that although he helped develop the film, he couldn’t convince his colleagues to continue with it. Susan Lacy from PBS said the U.S. pubcaster has just put in motion a series about cinema verite (still at the preliminary stage) and based on that, they would be very interested in picking up where SBS left off. Ever quotable, Nick Fraser said he would rather see another Pennebaker film than one about him. He defended his opinion by explaining he wasn’t criticizing the producers, but they had to face the fact that not many people know who Pennebaker is. YLE TV2′s Iikka Vehkalahti thought that was the exact reason why someone should support the film.

United Kingdom

Grace under pressure

From Hexham-based John Gwyn Productions came a pitch for a 3 x 50-minute series called War Surgeons. The series uses re-enactments and personal interviews to tell the story of how surgery has evolved during times of war. Episode one, entitled ‘Mash’ examines the beginnings of medical organization. Episode two, ‘Butchers and Saw Doctors,’ discovers landmark moments in surgical history. Finally, ‘Beyond Repair’ looks at how surgery goes hand in hand with weapon development.

The series has a budget of close to US$1 million. S4C in Wales and S4C International are both involved for almost $200,000 each, as is French broadcaster La Cinquieme. The series should wrap this summer.

Sydney Suissa of Canada’s History Television thought the film covered a great and little-known story, and would therefore take advantage of seldom-used archives. Suissa wanted to discuss a Canadian pre-buy. Discovery’s Chris Haws saw potential interest from several Discovery arms, including TLC and Discovery Health, but cautioned the filmmakers to be careful with the treatment of any war stories, as Discovery broadcasts into both Germany and Japan. Tracy Beckett of National Geographic was concerned with the historical context (as Nat Geo films should only include a little bit of storytelling), but wanted to see a further treatment.

United States

Sopranos need not apply

If you’re looking for real grit, look no further than Brooklyn North Homicide. The 3 x 1-hour looks at the busiest homicide squad in the U.S., Brooklyn North. Between 10 and 15 homicides a month take place in the area, 40% of which are solved within the first week. The series will take viewers from the crime scene to the wrap, in the process introducing them to a cast of 25 characters, all of whom are obsessed with their work, and have offered the filmmakers access into their private lives to show how such a demanding job impacts the people who perform it.

Produced by Hybrid Films in New York, the budget for the series is close to us$1 million. Court TV has committed to just over half that amount. Channel 5 in the U.K. is in for $195,000, and Montreal’s Films Transit for $25,000. The series should be completed by September of this year.

Reactions were favorable in voyeuristic Canada. Rudy Buttignol of TVO said he was very interested and wanted to talk further. Barbara Williams of the LIFE Network confessed she thought the film would skew too male for her audience at first, but after seeing the clip was wholly engrossed. She hoped to share a window in Canada. The CBC said they’d like to see a 90-minute version. In Europe, AVRO’s Braamhorst thought subtitling the series would be a difficulty. ARTE’s Jorg liked the style, but said he hesitated because of the number of crime shows coming out of the U.S. (Mette Hoffman Meyer joked it was because they did not have proper sex ed – see North of Eden above.)


Rock Solid?

In June 1962, Frank Morris and brothers John and Clarence Anglin achieved the seemingly impossible by escaping from Alcatraz – The Rock – the notorious Federal penitentiary located on an island in the middle of San Francisco Bay. Home to Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelley, Mickey Cohen and countless other murderers, kidnappers, and bank robbers, Alcatraz was a maximum security federal prison geared to housing inmates with a history of trouble-making and repeated attempts to break out. But, Morris and the Anglin brothers (who were all serving long sentences for bank robbery) escaped from their fortress cellblock and mysteriously disappeared off the island. The convicts’ bodies were never recovered from the Bay, and reported sightings of the three men have raised the possibility that they may still be alive – nearly 40 years after their daring escape.

Their story is explored in Breakout from Alcatraz, a one-hour special that San Francisco based Indigo Films is currently producing for The History Channel. Budgeted at around US$160,000-plus, the doc is in production until September and may air in early fall. The special includes interviews with Alcatraz historian Jolene Babyak; Charles Hopkins, a former Alcatraz inmate; Arthur Roderick, chief of investigative operations for the United States Marshals Service; Allan Blasdale, interpretive ranger for the National Parks Service; and Robert Anglin, head of the family of the brothers who escaped. Also interviewed is Don Denevi, author of Riddle of The Rock: The Only Successful Escape from Alcatraz, and Leon ‘Whitey’ Thompson, another former inmate of the prison.

‘The United States Marshal in charge of the case claims that around six sightings of these guys – who are still considered fugitives by the FBI – are reported every year,’ explains producer David M. Frank. ‘The sightings are usually in south Florida and northern Georgia – the homes of the inmates’ families.

The doc offers a special composite of what the fugitives might look like today – a feat accomplished by the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Missing and Exploited Children. Morris, who was 36 years old at the time of the escape, would now be in his early 70s. John and Clarence Anglin would both be in their late 60s. Simon Bacal

Vision of the past

L.A.-based Vision Films is responsible for an extensive update of Legacy of Ancient Civilizations, a series originally produced by Italian publisher Instituto Geografico DeAgostini. Vision recently completed production on the first six hours of the series, budgeted at approximately us$120,000 per episode, while additional sets of six episodes are planned for completion later this year.

‘We have a relationship with Instituto Geografico, so we secured their permission to repurpose the show for the English-speaking markets,’ says Stephen Rocha, head of production for Vision. ‘The shows had excellent production values, thanks to some computer graphics, but the Italian approach was primarily first person. I re-organized the material in a clearer manner for English-speaking audiences, changed the chronology of certain elements and added stills – among other materials – to the project.’

Currently available in North America on World Almanac Video, the series features interviews with Brendan Burke, professor of archaeology at ucla; William J. Fulco, chair of ancient Mediterranean studies and Catie Mihalopopulos, professor of history, both of Loyola Marymount University in L.A.

The culture and technology of the Phoenicians, ancient Arabians and the civilizations of Troy and Pergamum are among topics explored. ‘We examine the manner in which these people traded with the great civilizations of the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans,’ Rocha says. ‘Then we move on to the earlier civilizations of the Bronze and Aegean Ages. For instance, in the Bronze Age, we visit the Minoans of Crete – a civilization responsible for the legendary Minotaur, a half man/half beast. We examine this myth’s origins and its degree of reality. The Minoans were a leading political power, and the bull was a very sacred animal. The Minotaur is a combination of their political clout and the bull’s religious symbolism.’ Simon Bacal

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.