Non-Fiction To Go

September 1, 2000


Lights, camera, jail time

Have a need to explore the dark underbelly of society? New York’s Gabriel Films has you covered.

We start our trip to the dark side with New York Justice, a 5 x 1-hour series looking at the criminal justice system in the Big Apple. The episodes will focus on public defenders, district attorneys, how closing down mental health hospitals has impacted crime rates, and police brutality, among other topics. Ready for the end of this year, the series is destined for A&E in the U.S. and Channel 4 in the U.K. (A&E plans to run the doc with a drama called 100 Center Street.) The budget for the series is in excess of us$1 million.

The Big Easy is a 3 x 1-hour series delving into the way politics and crime interweave in New Orleans. Produced for Court TV in the U.S., the series should be wrapped for the end of this year at a budget of about US$200,000 per hour. As the filmmakers point out: ‘There’s something very special about the way things get done in Louisiana. In New Orleans, everybody knows each other – whatever side of the justice system they’re on. It’s incestuous, sometimes corrupt, sometimes noble. Our cameras have been given unprecedented access to the courts, jails, police, and smoky rooms where deals are done and the backs are scratched.’ Don’t blame us if you wake up with a horse’s head in your bed…

Discovery u.s. has already come aboard Casino, a 13 x 30-minute docusoap that is scheduled to start next January. Budgeted at about us$1.6 million, the series will be shot in Las Vegas, and looks to get behind the scenes in the world of the high rollers, entertainers and colorful management that makes Vegas… well, Vegas.

In a different vein, Gabriel Films is teaming up with Tamouz Media in New York on an 2 x 1-hour series called Body Piercing (w/t), a look at both ancient and modern practices. Filming is taking place in Ethiopia, southern India, Sri Lanka and across the U.S. So far Granada Media International in the U.K. and Discovery in the U.S. are involved in this US$280,000 per hour series, which is set to wrap at the end of the year.

Greed and redemption

A coproduction between Dunedin-based Natural History New Zealand and the Discovery Channel, International SOS (w/t) is a one-hour film about a company that is the world leader in evacuation and emergency medical services. Singapore-based International SOS operates a network of global alarm centers in 45 cities in 37 countries around the world, and tackle over 10,000 calls every day. Ready for the end of next year, the project is being distributed by Twentieth Century Fox International Television, and carries a budget in the US$375,000 range.

Ready for mid-2001, Ships of Greed (w/t) is a 2 x 1-hour series that follows the search for 300-year old Spanish galleons sunk off the Cuban coast. Using remote vehicles, and with the help of Russian scientists, NHNZ plans to tackle the search and recover the sunken cargo. With the green light from the Cuban government, the project hopes to find treasures for international exhibition. The budget for the effort is about US$900,000 per episode.

Marvelous undertakings

Paying tribute to the many achievements in architecture, engineering and cutting-edge technology, the fifth season of Modern Marvels (seen on The History Channel), is now in production at Actuality Productions in Los Angeles. To date, the series has explored the technical, architectural and engineering feats behind ocean liners, roller coasters, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Great Wall of China, the Alaskan oil pipeline, and other remarkable creations. Each episode is budgeted between US$100,000 and $200,000.

‘Modern Marvels is really a collaboration between us and The History Channel,’ says executive producer Don Cambou. ‘We’ll pitch a bunch of ideas to the network and say ‘Let’s do a Modern Marvels on this, this, this and this.’ They’ll come back to us and say ‘Go ahead, they’re good ideas. But, we also have some topics that we’d like you to do.’ Once a topic is green-lit by thc, the episode, which is comprised of interviews and archival footage, undergoes a series of developments.

‘The episode starts at our three-person research department. They’ll search the Internet and research library books on the particular subject. In addition, we delve into the topic’s archival material to help tell the story. It then goes to an associate producer, who develops the story further, and works with a writer and producer to assure the show’s completion. After reviewing the outline and script stages, we shoot the entire hour, study the footage, put together a rough-cut, review the material further and send it to the network. Once the network is happy with the show, we record the narration, add music, and another one’s done.’

Whatever the topic, Cambou says it’s important to enhance the given episode with a human story of ‘achievement, sacrifice and ability to push the technology envelope.’

‘We did a show about the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which was constructed during the 1930s. Its two suspension bridges are held together by a massive block of concrete located about 200 feet below water. One diver, who was a hard drinker and smoker, went down repeatedly to check the footings and make sure that it was safe to bring in the concrete. He really is an unsung hero, who did an amazing and incredibly brave job.’ Simon Bacal


Given half a chance…

What happens when 150 kids are thrown together and effectively set up to fail? In the case of the Freedom Writers – the title given them in both a book (The Freedom Writers Diary, published by Doubleday) and an upcoming feature documentary (produced by brothers Adrian and Roko Belic of Vallejo, California-based Wadi Rum Productions) – they surpass all expectations.

Their story begins when, as freshmen hailing from the wrong side of Los Angeles (that’s assuming there’s a right side of L.A…), they were made to attend a high school in a ‘better’ neighborhood, then were stuck with first-time teacher Erin Gruwell.

Faced with a classroom full of refugees from the city’s urban war zones, Gruwell introduced her students to books like The Diary of Anne Frank, and lit a fire inside them. The kids began to write about their own experiences, and upon graduation four years later (a feat all 150 students achieved), saw their book go into print. But the story doesn’t end there.

A wealthy patron promised each student who went on to college and began giving back to the community a trip to Europe in July/August 1999. Fifty-two of the students were able to accept the offer, and toured such places as Warsaw, Sarajevo and the Hague. This is the point at which the Belic brothers picked up the story, filming their trip as a favor, then later becoming wholly absorbed by their experiences.

The doc-makers have continued to track the students’ progress, and expect to wrap The Freedom Writers around the middle of 2001. To date, the US$200,000 to $250,000 project has been self-financed by the Belics. Their last film, Genghis Blues, was nominated for an Academy Award last year. SR


And the winner is

Munich-based distributor True Stories will soon be offering a number of new natural history and science productions. Among them is Nobel – The Inventor, The Prize, a 2 x 52-minute series being produced by ECO Media TV Production in Hamburg.

Ready for spring of 2001 (the 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize will be celebrated in October of next year), the project has already attracted the attention of German pubcaster NDR.

The production will be a retrospective of the life and work of Alfred Nobel, and the history of the prize given in his name every year. Despite a life of both dizzying highs and desolate lows, Nobel himself believed that he could influence mankind

positively with the help of his enormous fortune. Little did he know…

The series carries a budget of about US$200,000. True Stories is still on the hunt for coproduction partners.

Nina, Pinta, Discovery?

Norwich-based Imago Productions has been given access to the U.K.’s fleet of Royal Research ships, one of the largest fleets dedicated to scientific exploration in the world. The four ships (The Discovery, The Challenger, The Charles Darwin and the British Antarctic Survey Vessel – bit of a let-down on that last name) sail the oceans of the world in the name of scientific research.

Ready for the beginning of 2002, Sea Quest is a one-hour effort that will follow these ships as they carry out their appointed rounds – searching the deep trenches of the Atlantic, and trying to gather information to predict earthquakes.

The project has a budget of about US$250,000 and has attracted the interest of an international cablecaster.


Love and conflict

When Clara met Chaim (or La Rencontre de Clara et Chaim) is a one-hour doc being undertaken by Montreal’s Beitel/Lazar Productions. The film is a WWII love story of a young communist militant and her refugee husband separated by the war and Canadian immigration policies.

Set in Canada, Poland, Russia and Germany in the years spanning 1938 to 1948, When Clara met Chaim takes us inside the struggles of a newly married couple who are forced apart for almost ten years. Using letters, photos, interviews, personal diaries, public archives and official correspondence, the film tells their story against the backdrop of both the war in Europe, as well as Canada’s closed door policy to Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution.

Set to wrap by April 2001, the US$215,000 film has attracted the involvement of Société Radio-Canada, the Women’s Television Network, and SCN in Saskatchewan.


Climb Every Mountain

Why climb a mountain? Because it’s there. Why climb a mountain and build an environmental sculpture? Well… why not?

Toronto’s White Wave Productions and Making Movies in New Zealand are coming together to produce The Fine Line, a 13 x 30-minute high definition series which falls somewhere between fine art, environmentalism and adventure programming. The goal of the project is to scale 12 high points in a symbolic line circling the planet, and then build environmental sculptures on each peak, creating a symbol of global interconnectedness. The two climber/artists featured will be Martin Hill and Philippa Jones, and they will be tackling climbs which will include Mount Ngauruhoe in New Zealand, Half Dome in California, the Bugaboos in the Canadian Rockies, the French Alps and Mount Kenya, to name only a few. Once the sculptures are completed, they will be left to the mercy of the wind and rain.

So far, the project has been picked up for distribution by Mind’s Eye International in Regina, Canada. A number of international broadcasters have expressed interest, but as of press time, none had signed on the dotted line. The producers are also in the process of seeking sponsorship, and hope to take the project online and also develop interactive media. Principal photography begins this month, with November 2002 as the projected wrap.

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