Production News

The Forum for International Co-financing of Documentaries in Amsterdam took place from November 27 to 29, and featured 58 projects picked from among 122 applicants. Producers from geographic locations as diverse as Brazil, Norway, Spain and Russia had seven minutes to pitch their film and seven minutes to gather financing. This month's On the slate section represents a sampling of these projects.
January 1, 2001

Moderators Norm Bolen (Canada’s Alliance Atlantis), Chris Haws (Discovery Networks International), Karolina Lidin (Danish Film Institute), Jan Rofekamp (Montreal’s Films Transit) and Steven Seidenberg ( London’s Café Productions) kept their eyes on the clock and ensured the attention of the over 100 commissioning editors present by randomly calling on them for advice, input and, most importantly, money. Not an easy job, but one well done.

It should also be noted that this year’s event marked a milestone for Forum director Jolanda Klarenbeek. After eight years, she is stepping down from her post to take on new challenges as director of finance for the IDFA. She hands the gavel to Forum producer Fleur Knopperts.


That healing feeling

Although soaking in a tub of flower petals or having rose oil massaged into the skin sounds infinitely better than climbing into a hospital nightie and being asked to cough, India’s government does not allow traditional healers to practice these Ayurveda methods.

Interspot Film’s Heavenly Medicine – Ayurveda follows one such healer, a 73-year-old man named Gopalan, during his struggle to continue practicing this ancient art. The film will be 50 minutes in length and has a budget of about US$130,000. Around 40% of the financing has already been secured, with Austria’s ORF1 and ORF2 contributing about $30,000 each.

Peter Flemington, VP of programming and development for Vision TV in Canada, announced that the broadcaster had recently been granted a digital license for Wisdom, a channel that will focus on mind, body and spirit. As a result, he was interested in the project. Fellow Canadian Rudy Buttignol, creative head of docs, drama, network branding and membership for TVO said he was into secular suffering rather than spiritual healing, so he would pass. Anna Glogowski, deputy director of docs for Canal+, in France, didn’t think the subject was new enough for her station, but Bettina Hatami, development editor of Discovery Channel Europe believed it could work for Discovery Health. Bryan Smith, senior VP of production at National Geographic was more interested in an insider’s perspective on the matter rather than a Western one, but acknowledged that India was an important market for Nat Geo, and alluded to the fact that they were actively seeking appropriate topics.


Table Talk

As the kitchen is inevitably the hub of most parties, Belgian production company Zie Ze Doen BVBA is betting the key to good conversation is gastronomic. In the 6 x 30-minute rockumentary Rock & Casserole, music legends such as James Brown, Joni Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen, Van Morisson, Bono and Paul Simon will nosh their favorite fare while waxing poetic on music, food and life (although hopefully not while chewing). Set up like a road movie, each episode will begin and end en route to and from the restaurant, home, or taco stand of the artist’s choosing.

Alexander Homes, creative director of documentaries and investigations at the BBC thought the anonymity of the program’s on-screen presenters would make it difficult for him to entice U.K. viewers to tune in, and his colleague Celia Taylor, commissioning executive of independent commissions, was confused as to whether the film was a food program or a rock doc. However, SBS Australia’s preview manager Mark Atkin, said he had previously met success with a similar program, and was interested to see the film on completion as his station is desperate for cooking shows. Bettina Hatami of Discovery Channel Europe was also interested in the program for their ‘Home and Leisure’ channel, although she was concerned as to whether or not the producers would be able to deliver such high-profile musicians.

The program is budgeted at about $370,000, $90,000 of which will come from VRT TV1/Canvas of Belgium. Delivery is planned for late 2001.

Oh, and for those of you who thought Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire was about something other than spicy meatballs, think again.


Cattle calls

The footage Brazilian prodco Zazen previewed during the pitch session for Pantanal Cowboys had commissioning editors drooling for a piece of the pie.

Shot on Super 16, cinema verité style, the film follows real life cowboys – or Boiadeiros – as they move cattle across Brazil’s breathtaking Pantanal region to the city where they are sold at the Campo Grande auction market. However, these are not Marlboro men. The Boiadeiros are descendants of the Guatos Indians and Portuguese colonizers. As a result, they have a unique culture and a unique world view. They hunt for their food and make very little money – the loss of a single animal can result in the elimination of a large portion of the journey’s earnings. What money is made is meant only for fun and is often spent at the nearest brothel in a single night. (Nothing of this nature ever happens after a successful pitch in Amsterdam, however.)

Approximately 70% of this 60-minute documentary is shot and in the editing room, with delivery expected for September 2001. The budget is around $350,000, only $90,000 of which is outstanding. Brazilian broadcaster Globo provided $45,000 and holds the rights for Brazil and Portugal.

Chris Haws, senior VP and executive producer of Discovery Networks International (DNI) invited the filmmakers to chat after the session, remarking that the footage was exceptional. Anna Glogowski of Canal+ noted that this was the first time a Brazilian prodco had pitched at the Forum and was also interested in the film. Marie Natanson, executive producer for independent documentaries with the CBC in Canada revealed that prior to the pitch she wasn’t interested in the project, but now wanted to see a rough-cut. In the event she was unable to finance the project herself, she recommended the filmmakers show it to CBC’s ‘The Nature of Things’.


Still life with Warhol

Director Jorgen Leth teamed up with photographer Dan Holmberg in 1981 to create 66 Scenes from America. The film quickly became a classic and won a place among the best 100 documentaries of the 20th century. Leth and Holmberg now wish to repeat their previous success by revisiting the U.S. at the beginning of the new millennium. Over 52 minutes, shots of apple pie and burgers, swimming pools in Beverly Hills, Indian reserves and New York street scenes will be interspersed with icons of the present. In the original film, Andy Warhol sits in front of the camera and eats a fast-food burger. Leth hopes to substitute Madonna as today’s equivalent persona. Produced by Copenhagen’s Bech Film, New Scenes from America has a budget of about $265,000 and will be ready for Spring 2002.

In spite of (or because of) the success of 66 Scenes from America, the pitch received a luke-warm response from commissioning editors. Thierry Garrel, head of documentaries at ARTE France, complimented Leth’s previous films, but questioned how applicable methods that were successful 20 years ago are to today’s viewers. Canal+’s Anna Glogowski agreed, explaining she had reservations about revisiting the classics. Nat Geo’s Bryan Smith thought North American audiences needed films that were more narrative driven, and TVO’s Rudy Buttignol felt road movies of the U.S. were everyday fare for Canadians. However, Nicholas Fraser – who commissions for the BBC2′s ‘Storyville’ slot – liked the idea and said he would recommend it for the pubcaster’s digital channels.


An Iranian in Texas

Have you heard the one about the Iranian, the Texan and the CIA agent? Helsinki-based prodco Tarinatalo has and they’ve secured two thirds of the $315,000 budget required to tell you about it.

In 1977, around the time Khomeini began his campaign against the Shah, and ‘Down with the U.S.A.’ became a slogan of the Iranian people, Betty – an American woman – married Dr. Mahmoody in a mosque in Houston, Texas. In 1979, Betty gave birth to their daughter Mahtob. Shortly thereafter, students in Tehran stormed the U.S. embassy, taking 66 American hostages. When Mahtob was five years old, the family traveled to Iran. Only 18 months later, Betty ran away with her daughter, escaping through the mountains. Three days after her arrival in the U.S., she signed a book deal with the William Morris Agency for her story, raising speculation as to the true nature of her escape, her motives for going to Iran and her possible involvement with the CIA.

Without my Daughter is a 60-minute doc that will trace this time and attempt to solve some of its mysteries. The main thrust of the film, however, will come from the pending reunion of Dr. Mahmoody and his now 21-year-old daughter, with whom he has had no contact since Betty’s alleged escape. The producers expect to deliver in the fall of 2001.

Commissioning editors around the table were intrigued. Peter Dale, head of docs at Channel 4 in the U.K., and Marie Natanson of the CBC said the narrative was promising and expressed interest. Mark Atkin of SBS also liked the story, but wanted to know how willing the daughter was to be made the subject of the film. Anna Glogowski of Canal+ echoed this sentiment, noting that for the film to work there needed to be a strong desire on the part of at least one of the protagonists for the film to be made. YLE TV1 of Finland and arte G.E.I.E. have each committed about $75,000 to the project.


Ancient Chinese secret

In 1922, botanist Joseph Francis Rock made his first foray into China. For the next three decades, he explored remote regions of the county, collecting hundreds of plant specimens and bird skins, resulting in studies that are still quoted today. Fortunately, approximately 500 photos taken in regions that are no longer accessible to foreigners since China came under communist rule, still exist from Rock’s travels.

The Adventurous Travels of Joseph Francis Rock gives a portrait of this man who spoke more than 10 languages, witnessed civil wars, tribal wars, and world wars, as well as a national revolution, and who not only studied, but lived among China’s ancient Buddhists long before Hollywood made this culture fashionable. People & Places, Cologne-based production company is planning a 52-minute and a 90-minute version, both of which will be ready for release in July 2001.

SBS Australia is in for about $4,500 of the roughly $345,000 budget. Mark Atkin said he was drawn to the film’s eccentric character (Rock’s baggage caravan often included table linen, china, and a portable rubber bath tub) and his curiosity for regions less traveled. History Television’s vice president of programming Sydney Suissa admitted he too was a ‘sucker’ for films such as this, and offered to come in on a pre-buy. Anna Glogowski of Canal+ said she was impressed with the quality of the archival photos and footage, but would like the story to be more about the journeys and less about the man who took them. Nick Ware, editorial executive for BBC Knowledge, also thought it was a beautiful film, but didn’t see a spot in the schedule for it.

The Netherlands

Out! Out! Damn Spirit

Nicholas Fraser of the BBC introduced the latest project from Amsterdam’s Kasander Film Company by announcing that he should apologize on his knees for not making a program as good as Hoover Street when he was head of religion at Channel 4. The 60-minute doc profiles the impact of preacher Bishop Noel Jones on his congregation at Greater Bethany Community Church in South Central Los Angeles – home of the Rodney King riots in 1992 – and is planned to air on the Beeb’s ‘Storyville’ slot.

The preacher is a dynamic speaker who shouts out inspirational goodies such as, ‘Touch three people and say ‘hold my mule, Amen! ‘cos I need a space to dance!” Using gospel, God, Socrates and song, Jones grows his congregation and shepherds them through the problems faced by 21st century society. The film will weave the lessons of Jones’ sermons with the individual lives of his people, resulting in a rhythmic look at modern faith. The BBC has given about $80,000 to the doc’s budget, which comes in around $300,000, and will finish shooting Christmas 2001.

Commissioning editor Anna Glogowski of Canal+ considered working the program into a theme evening as she liked the pitch, but didn’t have an appropriate slot where it could stand alone. Marie Natanson of the CBC also thought of building a theme around the program, possibly running it in the same season as another faith-focused program currently in production. Frank Peijnenburg, who deals with acquisitions for NPS in the Netherlands was enthusiastic about a 90-minute version (which is in the works), and Peter Flemington of Canada’s Vision TV was also interested – remarking that he hopes his channel is living proof that religion is groovy.

South Africa

A face to fear

Amagents and Abocherry is a 2 x 55-minute film that goes behind the scenes of South Africa’s criminal gang activity. Shot cinema verité style over four months, the first part will focus on the Amagents (a slang term for criminal gangs meaning ‘the guys’) and the second will follow the Abocherry (slang for the girlfriends and female cohorts of the Amagents). Rather than capture the crimes of these young adults – who range from 16 to 25 years of age – producer Indra de Lanerolle, of Clear Media in Johannesburg, intends to humanize them by putting a face to their deeds and exposing their motivations. In so doing, the film casts a critical eye on today’s South Africa and challenges common perceptions surrounding the perpetrators of violent crimes.

Budgeted for about $200,000, the film will be ready for delivery in October 2001. South African pubcaster SABC3 is in for about $55,000 and the pitch received interest from the BBC’s Nicholas Fraser, who was given a thumbs-up for a single 70 or 52-minute version for the Beeb’s 2002 digital channel line-up. TV2 Denmark’s Mette Hoffmann Meyer, head of sales and coproduction, was also interested in an hour-long single. Nathalie Verdier, a commissioning editor for ARTE France’s ‘Thema’ strand, questioned why the doc was split down gender lines, but wanted to see a rough-cut. SBS’ Mark Atkin said he was looking for South African topics, but a two-part series would be difficult to schedule.

Lion and cheatin’

On a lighter note, SABC3′s Eddie Manzingana treated Forum attendees to a live performance of Mbube and its famous rip-off The Lion Sleeps Tonight. The original song was written in the 1930s by a rural South African in honor of a lion mother whose cub had been killed. How this song became one of the most recognized melodies in the world is the subject of A Lion’s Trail, South African production company Undercurrent Film & Television’s current project.

Although The Lion Sleeps Tonight has grossed millions of dollars, none of its profits have gone to the family of the original creator, all of whom live in poverty in Soweto, South Africa. In tracing the evolution of the song, the 52-minute documentary will uncover the long history of crime and exploitation that lies behind it, and reveal the involvement of high powered music men like George Wiess, head of the American Songwriters’ Association. The prodco also plans to create an 80-minute version of the film. Taking all rights clearances for music and archive footage into consideration, the film’s budget is expected to total approximately $265,000.

SABC3 has committed $30,000 to the film and judging from the reactions of the commissioning editors, the remaining funds should be easy to find. Mark Atkin of SBS Australia said the project was completely irresistible and he would love to be involved. Bjorn Arvas, head of doc acquisitions for Sweden’s SVT1; documentary series producer Catherine Olsen of ‘CBC Newsworld’; The Netherland’s Wolter Braamhorst, commissioning editor for avro’s ‘Close-Up’ strand; and Mette Hoffmann Meyer of TV2 Denmark all announced they would come in on a pre-buy. TVO’s Rudy Buttignol was the lone dissenter, remarking simply, ‘I hate that song’.


Saving face

When producer/director Folke Ryden did a news report for Swedish Television in 1996 about a young Vietnamese boy whose face was badly disfigured by an un-detonated American phosphor bomb, he galvanized viewer Goran Arvinius to action. Shortly after the program aired, Goran began to raise money to help the boy, Hoa, get a new face.

Ryden’s film The Boy Without a Face, produced by his Stockholm-based production company Genibild AB, picks up the story after the first surgery arranged by Arvinius, which took place in Vietnam in 1998, leaves Hoa’s face even more damaged. Over two years, Arvinius arranges facial surgery in America. Presently, Hoa is recovering from this operation, which is said to be a dramatic success. The 52-minute doc will follow Hoa back to Vietnam to see how the experience affects both him and his sponsor, Arvinius. Budgeted at about $400,000, the film will be ready in September 2001.

Over the audible sniffles induced by Ryden’s footage of Hoa and Arvinius chatting shortly before Hoa is to head into surgery, the CBC’s Marie Natanson said she would be interested in seeing a rough cut, although she wasn’t in a position to be a coproduction partner. Commissioning editor Luca Pelusi of Tele+ in Italy was also interested in a rough cut as was Flemming Grenz, executive producer of factual programs for DR TV in Denmark. Peter Dale

of C4 thought the project was worthwhile, but wasn’t interested as ‘a syrupy saga’ about a South American boy without a face had recently aired in Britain.


Guilty, neutral or not guilty?

From 1942 to 1943, the Swiss government sent more than 250 medical doctors and staff to serve with the Wehrmacht on the Eastern front where they were eye witnesses to the crimes of the SS. against both the Jews and the three million Soviet war prisoners held there. Upon their return to Switzerland, they provided reports of these activities to the Swiss authorities, arming them with proof and information.

Ever since the true nature of the atrocities committed under Nazi rule was brought to light, people have asked how such things were allowed to happen. Implicit in this query is the debate as to when neutrality becomes negligence. A Mission in Hell, a 55-minute doc being shot by Swiss producer Frederic Gonseth of Frederic Gonseth Productions, tells the story of how the young doctors were deceived by the Swiss government – an institution famous for its neutrality – into thinking they were being sent to the Wehrmacht to work under the Red Cross. Once they arrived, however, they were prevented from caring for the wounded Soviets and, upon their return, were forced to respect the silence imposed by the Red Cross itself. The film, budgeted at about $385,000, will draw on diary excerpts and is expected to deliver in August 2001.

Alain Wieder of ARTE France’s ‘Thema’ strand was assured that Swiss documents supporting the thesis of a cover-up exist and are available. History Television’s Sydney Suissa thought the film’s great sense of moral ambiguity was wonderful and needed to be emphasized, but he questioned how the context of the film could be provided without a lot of commentary and invited Gonseth to chat later. Theirry Garrel of arte France thought it was a fantastic subject, but didn’t promise to assist with financing. Switzerland’s French-language pubcaster TSR has provided about $80,000 of the budget.

United Kingdom

Playing the part

In an instance of life imitating art, silver screen stars Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, and Montgomery Clift came together in the early sixties as the cast of writer Arthur Miller’s The Misfits. The film tells the tale of three disenfranchised cowboys who capture wild horses for dog food, and the woman who captures their heart.

Here’s where the imitation bit comes in: Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller were married at the time, but their vows were in shambles. Monroe was also recovering from a miscarriage and eventually had a breakdown that resulted in a two-week production halt – The Misfits was her last film. Shortly after filming wrapped, Gable suffered two heart attacks and died on the set. Director John Huston, who had problems with drinking and gambling, was forced to defend against the notion that the stress of the role was the cause of Gable’s death.

Capturing all of this were the Magnum photographers who were commissioned to record the making of the film. London prodco Little Bird plans to use these photographs as well as clips from the movie, archive footage, and interviews (both historic and new, where possible) for The Making of The Misfits. Planned for 90 minutes, the doc will show the interplay between script and real life, comparing the relationships and personalities depicted in Miller’s story with their Hollywood counterparts. The budget is about $880,000 and will be delivered at the end of 2001, in time for the 40th anniversary of The Misfits’ release.

Canal+’s Anna Glogowski thought the story was great. She and the other commissioning editors present were duly impressed with the striking black and white photographs that flashed on the screen throughout the pitch, showing Monroe and others on the set. Chris Haws of DNE said India was desperate for documentaries on cinema, and Mark Atkin of SBS was interested in a pre-buy, although the film doesn’t technically meet the broadcaster’s mandate. Sydney Suissa of History Television and Rudy Buttignol of TVO were wary of PBS’ involvement (Thirteen/WNET in New York has contributed about $350,000) as the American pubcaster’s Buffalo-based signal crosses into Canada. Nonetheless, Buttignol was interested in the film for the channel’s new art strand, which will only run feature-length programs. Other broadcasters involved include avro in The Netherlands, NHK in Japan and Germany’s ARD/BR, whose contributions leave approximately $120,000 of the budget outstanding.


Behind every great invention…

That the Pentagon named its computer language after her, or that her image appears on the letterhead used by Microsoft should be proof enough that Ada Byron Lovelace is the grandmother of the modern computer. Lovelace’s parents, mathematician Annabella Milbanke Byron Lovelace and English poet Lord Byron separated when she was just an infant and Lovelace was raised by her mother, who encouraged her to pursue even her ‘unladylike’ interests, such as flying machines and mathematics. In 1834, at the age of 17, she met Charles Babbage, who had designed a device for calculating numbers and who later developed a more complex machine called the ‘Analytical Engine’ that could weave algebraic patterns. For the rest of Lovelace’s tragically short life (she died of cancer at the age of 36) she fought to secure funding for these early computers.

They Dreamed Tomorrow will trace Babbage and Lovelace’s efforts in a time when such ‘engines’ were considered worthless. It will also show how these early computers were no less advanced than the ones created a full century later, when massive funding for technology was fueled by the onset of World War II. Produced by Flare Productions in Adelphi, U.S., the 52-minute doc has a budget of about $380,000 and will be ready for delivery in the fall of 2001.

Theirry Garrel of ARTE France thought the film was interesting, especially given that computers have become ubiquitous, but he questioned whether the lack of footage from Lovelace’s time would result in a static end product. The BBC’s Nicholas Fraser took the liberty of responding to Garrel’s concern by referring to the production company’s previous film The War Within: A Portrait of Virginia Woolf/I Malstrommen as dynamic, pointing out that a kinetic film about Virginia Woolf should be an oxymoron. Fraser said he would urge BBC2 to take a look at They Dreamed Tomorrow and promised the project a home on the digital channels should BBC2 fall through. Kit Redmond, manager for independent production

at the Women’s Television Network in Canada was also interested in the project as she had attended many internet conferences where Lovelace was much loved. Mark Atkin of SBS Australia revealed he was always interested in showcasing the work of pioneering women, and Bettina Hatami of Discovery Channel Europe asked the filmmakers to chat with her later.

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.