At any given time, commissioning editors have a secret shortlist of film subjects they avoid, usually in reaction to a glut of similarly themed projects on the market. For Olof Dahlberg, who acquires programming for the ‘Documentaries From Abroad’ strand on Sveriges Television (SVT) in Sweden, orphans in Eastern Europe was such a topic.
‘We’ve had so many of these [films] in the last decade,’ Dahlberg says, which is why he originally passed over Convoy to Moldova, a one-hour BBC production, when it came his way in 2000. Almost a year later, however, a colleague saw Convoy at the Monte Carlo Television Festival and recommended it to him. Dahlberg belatedly gave the project a closer look and was so moved he immediately picked it up. ‘I was completely overwhelmed and decided it didn’t matter that it was a year later.’
The film follows Romanian Connection, a charity group from Northern Ireland, on a mission to deliver truckloads of food, toys and supplies to a girls’ orphanage in Moldova, a tiny state wedged between the Ukraine and Romania. The real story unfolds when they discover the orphanage’s authorities are stealing aid from the starving and destitute kids. When the charity director returns months later and learns that nothing has changed, she takes the issue all the way up to the president of Moldova. In the end, the head of the orphanage is dismissed and conditions substantially improve for the children.
Convoy cost SVT about US$6,000 as an acquisition. Says Dahlberg, ‘When you live in a small country [Sweden's population is around 8.8 million], you take advantage of these [opportunities], because to produce your own documentary it costs 10 to 15 times as much. That’s really very good sharing.’
The Swedish pubcaster aired Convoy last April and audience reaction was tremendous. Ratings for the show were 60% higher than the season average, and more than 100 people called in to ask how to help, Dahlberg recalls. ‘This is a good example of how a documentary can work very practically, [offering] instrumental information that makes you act.’
Fiona Murch, editor of BBC2′s ‘Correspondent’ strand (which produced Convoy), says the program provoked a similar reaction from viewers when it aired in the U.K. in April 2000, and later garnered several awards, including the Monaco Red Cross Prize 2001. ‘It’s one of those films that was totally unexpected. It probably should have been just a charity do-good film, a fly-on-the-wall about how they do their work. But because they had such adventures en route, it turned into a cracking current affairs film.’
Murch explains further the origins of the project: ‘[Independent cameraman Jez Higham] was asked to travel with [Romanian Connection] and make a film, which was going to be shown on the local network as a kind of thank you to the people of Northern Ireland.’ Armed with only his DV camera, she continues, he captured a tale of corruption instead. When Higham returned to the U.K., he brought his piece to Murch, who loved it but felt it was only half finished. At that point, the bbc took up the £60,000 (US$87,000) production, re-cut the rushes and sent Higham and the charity organizer back to Moldova. Murch acknowledges the pubcaster’s role in pushing the charity to take action. ‘I think we emboldened them. They probably would have gone back, but they probably wouldn’t have gone back quite as quickly as we wanted them to.’
SVT’s Dahlberg is pleased the program worked out so well and that it didn’t slip through his fingers. ‘Looking back at last year, that was the one [that stands out].’