On the Slate

March 1, 2003


Killing me softly

What is the traditional response among southern Italy’s Calabrian Mafia when a new member is admitted, an old member is released from prison or an act of vengeance is successfully carried out? Croon a tune – if one believes the folklore.

While it may be hard to picture the Godfather warbling, German label Pias Recordings offered ostensible proof in the form of Songs of a Life of Crime – Music of the Mafia, a CD released in 2000. Song lyrics such as ‘Blood cries for blood/And your soul will never find peace’ stoked the public’s – and the media’s – imagination, as did rumors about the CD’s underground status in Italy. Distributed throughout Europe, Songs of a Life of Crime sold 70,000 copies in one year and inspired a follow-up disc, Discretion, Honor and Blood.

But, is there any truth to the existence of Mafia music, or is it simply a clever marketing tool concocted to ratchet up sales? GA&A Productions of Rome, Italy, plans to investigate in Killer Tunes, a 52-minute film. Confirmed partners in the project include pay channel Planète in Italy and Spanish prodco New Atlantis. Budgeted at about 200,000 euros (US$215,000), Killer Tunes is scheduled to begin production this autumn and deliver in spring 2004. SZ


This marsh is making me thirsty

When getting a glass of drinking water involves simply twisting a tap, it’s easy to forget that the human species lives and dies by the availability of this natural resource. The residents of Buenavista and Nueva Venecia don’t have the luxury of lethe, however, because accessing life’s essential liquid is a 48-hour ordeal.

Located in Colombia’s Cienaga Grande of Santa Marta, the second largest marsh in the world, these two villages are surrounded by water their residents can’t drink. For years, the marsh was fed by the Magdalena River, whose bubbly flow oxygenated the water. But, a road built nearly 30 years ago blocked several arms of the Magdalena, slowly rendering the water supply unfit for human consumption.

Rather than leave their homes and their roots, the villagers decided that if the water won’t come to them, they will go in search of it. Water Carriers, a 52-minute film directed by Carlos Rendon Zipagauta and produced and distributed by f for film in Paris, France, follows Tabaco and Pedro, a father-and-son team, as they travel aboard a makeshift boat to fetch fresh water from a small watercourse buried in tropical vegetation. They have made the exhausting two-day trip to the other side of the marsh countless times over the past 20 years, often in scorching heat.

Brussels, Belgium-based Scarfilm and Farra Vox in Paris are coproducing the 258,000 euros (US$278,000) project, which is scheduled to wrap in June. Broadcasters on board include France 5 and RTBF in Belgium, as well as Danmarks Radio. KB

And baby makes four

Gone are the days when the definition of a nuclear family was limited to mother, father, children. But even by modern standards, one mother and two fathers is not run-of-the-mill. Family Matters, a 60 to 75-minute documentary, is the story of three people involved in just such a triangular relationship.

Dafna is a single heterosexual woman who became friends with Itamar, a gay Israeli man, last summer. Kai is Itamar’s longtime companion. One of their common bonds is a strong desire to have children. So, after much consideration, the three friends decide to pursue their dream together. That’s when their lives get complicated. Dafna, Itamar and Kai have to cope with the reactions of their respective families, as well as the tensions that develop among the three of them as Dafna nears her due date. At the delivery, Kai is not permitted in the room to witness the birth of their son; emotions peak at the baby’s circumcision ceremony.

Family Matters follows Dafna, Itamar and Kai’s relationship from the initial attempts to conceive to becoming a family. Produced by Tel Aviv, Israel-based Cinemax Productions, the US$130,000 film has already secured support in Israel from Noga Communications/Channel 8 and The New Foundation for Television & Cinema as well as Tel Aviv-based distrib Cinephil. Its expected release date is June 2004. SZ


No fanny packs allowed

Fans of the Lonely Planet travel guides know the difference between a tourist and a traveler. The former hopscotches from destination to destination, content to see the officially sanctioned sights and then return to the safety of an all-inclusive resort. The latter understands that the best way to learn about a place is through its people.

Lonely Planet Six Degrees is a 7 x 1-hour series that will take viewers on a seven-city tour (Sydney, Australia; Hong Kong; New York, U.S.; Havana, Cuba; Mumbai, India; Paris, France; and Buenos Aires, Argentina) from a traveler’s perspective – but with a twist.

Presenters Toby Amies and Asha Gill (the designated travelers) begin their journey in each place armed with the phone number of one contact. After meeting this individual and experiencing the city from his or her perspective, the travelers are introduced to someone connected to their first contact, whether friend or family, priest or piano tuner. Over the course of each episode, Amies and Gill will have six of these bump-along encounters and amass a collection of intimate insights.

Produced by Singapore-based VHQ TV for Lonely Planet Television in Australia, Discovery Networks International, London, U.K.-based distributor Fireworks International, French cablecaster Voyage and the Economic Development Board of Singapore, Six Degrees carries a budget of AUS$2.2 million (US$1.3 million) and is set to wrap in July. SZ


On your mark

Filming on the third series of Great Sporting Duels is now under way and it promises to profile as many interesting rivalries as the previous two series. Produced by Paris, France-based Ethan Productions for European broadcaster ARTE, the lineup of 12 one-hour episodes includes: the battles of will between U.S. army and navy teams on the American football field; the long-standing rivalry between Japanese automotive manufacturers Honda and Yamaha for preeminence in the world of motorbike racing; and match footage from the 1970s and early 1980s of sumo wrestling legends Kitanoumi and Wajima. Budgeted at about 140,000 euros (US$150,000) per episode, Great Sporting Duels is slated to wrap by the end of the year. Terranoa of Paris, France, is distributing.

Terranoa is also involved with Monkey Mafia, a one-hour one-off by another Parisian prodco, Boréales Productions. Director Frederic Fougea has been following the lives of Jeela and Bobo, monkeys in the same Indian mountain clan, for a decade. Born in the same year, the two primates grow up as fast friends, but their paths diverge dramatically: Jeela rises to the upper echelons within the hierarchy, while Bobo is expelled. Monkey Mafia carries a budget of 1 million euros ($1.1 million) and will be delivered in May. Broadcasters on board include France’s Canal+, the U.K’s BBC and France 3. SZ


A helicopter ride down memory lane

Every war has an icon that both veterans and historians peg as the symbol of the conflict. For the Vietnam War it was one helicopter – the UH-1H ‘Huey’. With In the Shadow of the Blade, a 120-minute feature, Austin, U.S.-based prodco Arrowhead Film & Video documents the poignant relationship U.S. veterans have with the multipurpose chopper.

The story revolves around one restored Vietnam-proven Huey that is now the property of the Grand Prairie, U.S.-based Texas Air Command Museum. In the Shadow documents its 16,000-kilometer trip across America in 2002 and the stories of the veterans who meet and remember in its presence. At one ‘landing zone’, three former Huey pilots reunite and share 30-year-old jokes, as well as a flight down memory lane; at another, a woman whose brother was killed in action rides alongside the man who was his commander.

The US$500,000 production relied extensively on the goodwill of volunteers – two pilots in particular – and corporate donations. (U.S. Helicopter and government contractor DynCorp footed an additional $350,000 in restoration and flight costs but had no creative control in the film, the producers say.) As of press time In the Shadow of the Blade, which has an array of branded ancillary products, including a book and CD, had not secured a distributor or a broadcaster. It will be released in November at an as-yet-unspecified Veterans Day event. MS

Oh, Nelly

All those who dream of freeing themselves of their material possessions and heading to a remote location to write poetry should know that such actions could lead to a whole new career and possibly fame – but, only if you bring your mother along.

The proof is in Nobel Prize-winner Nelly Sachs, the title-subject of a one-hour doc-in-progress from Swedish pubcaster SVT and Stockholm-based prodco Lena Einhorn Film. As the doc will show, Sachs was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin, Germany, at the end of the 19th century. But, like many of her contemporaries, she was forced to flee her homeland when the Nazis took power. She escaped with her mother to Sweden in May 1940, where they settled into a dingy studio apartment. At the time, she was 50 years old; her mom was 70.

To occupy her evenings, Sachs began writing poetry, often in the near dark, since she shared the space with her mother. At 60 years old, Sachs was published and in 1966 she was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.

Nelly Sachs carries a budget of about US$55,000 and is scheduled to air on SVT in late autumn, shortly before this year’s Nobel Prize ceremony in December. KB


Puss ‘n’ shoot

Love cats, but deathly allergic to them? Live vicariously through Cutest Kittens, a one-hour one-off from Sydney-based prodco Grainger Television Australia. The US$150,000 film will examine kitty behavior, training methods and breeds. It will also reveal a bevy of feline facts. For instance, scientists have identified 25 different visual expressions used by cats in at least 16 combinations.

But, there’s more to some cats’ lives than chasing tail. Viewers will glimpse the world of the pampered pussy that’s treated to fur-lined hammocks and a hot fish dinner. (Too many jokes, so let’s move on). There’s also the celebrity cat that earns a living appearing in commercials, films and TV programs, and the adventurous kitty that swims and fetches objects. Through it all, these cuddly creatures interact with people ranging from children to vets.

Cutest Kittens has a September 2003 delivery date. Sydney, Australia-based Southern Star Sales is distributing. KB

The Himalaya’s Great White

Snow Leopard is a 60-minute special about the titular Himalayan predator. Of all the big cats, this one caught the fancy of Washington, D.C.-based Devillier Donegan Enterprises. Greg Diefenbach, DDE’s VP of production and development, explains: ‘Stories and legends swirl around this great hunter; but, almost no one has seen it.’

Veteran wildlife filmmakers Hugh Miles and Mitchell Kelly are leading the challenging production. Notes Diefenbach, ‘They’re at very high altitudes, and they’re struggling under heavy loads. Last winter, Mitchell tore some muscles in his rib cage because he was breathing [hard] at such a high altitude. He had to undergo a period of recuperation, but now he’s back on the mountain.’

A coproduction between dde, U.S. public broadcaster Thirteen/WNET in New York and the U.K.’s Granada Wild, Snow Leopard is budgeted at about US$1 million and will be in production until mid-2004. Simon Bacal


The lure of the other woman

Face it: Men are horny and sometimes have a hard time being faithful to their spouses. Then again, men can’t cheat alone (well, there’s another term for that…), so who are the women they find to share their adulterous behavior? In Mistresses, a 9 x 30-minute factual series, Imago Productions of Norwich, U.K., looks at a range of temptresses, from British actress Sally Farmiloe, who had an affair with writer Jeffrey Archer, to for-hire dominatrices and ‘virtual’ online mistresses.

Led by presenter Lisa Rogers, Mistresses also focuses on the myriad ways affairs blossom, how the parallel life is kept secret and how some women pursue rich married men as a way to make a living. The perspective of the cheated-on is also examined, probing the emotional issues of betrayal and forgiveness.

Distributed by the U.K.’s Carlton International and made for £27,000 (US$43,000) per episode, the series will air on the U.K.’s ITV1 starting in June. MS

Is ‘best hot dog’ an oxymoron?

Michael Hoff Productions of Emeryville, U.S., recently got the greenlight on a raft of new projects. Two up for the Travel Channel are World’s Best and Demolition Devils. World’s Best is a 9 x 1-hour series that will include episodes such as ‘Hot Dog Heavens’ and ‘Places to Meet a Millionaire’. Demolition Devils is a one-hour special about the quest to find the biggest, baddest and most powerful machines of destruction. Both programs are expected to wrap by February 2004.

MHP is also at work on a series for HGTV called How’s That Work? Appliances such as the microwave, hair dryer and dishwasher are so common in most homes that we seldom stop to consider what makes them function. This 26 x 30-minute series will take a closer look at the origins of and technology behind these modern-day conveniences.

The prodco’s budgets generally range from US$50,000 to $115,000 per half-hour, and from $115,000 to $350,000 per hour. How’s That Work? will be delivered in April. SZ

Pitch It!

By Matthew Sylvain

What would a doc event be without a pitching forum? Such was the reasoning at the fifth annual RealScreen Summit, held in Washington, D.C., from February 5 to 7 (see Upfront, page 14). Guided by moderator Gary Lico of Stamford, U.S.-based distrib Cableready, four filmmakers gave it their persuasive best for seven minutes, followed by seven minutes of feedback from a panel of seven commissioning editors, all before a packed ballroom.
First up was Bob Hercules of Chicago, U.S.-based Media Process Group with Forgiving Dr. Mengele, the US$240,000 60-minute story of Eva Mozes Kor. An Auschwitz survivor, Kor Mozes and her sister Miriam were among the countless twins on whom Nazi doctor Josef Mengele conducted ghastly experiments. Both girls lived through the ordeal, and their walk to freedom as 10-year-olds was caught on film by Russian forces in April 1945. As an adult, Kor Mozes has made the incredible and controversial decision to forgive Mengele and the Nazi regime, and she publicly urges other Holocaust survivors to do the same.
Lisa Heller, HBO’s VP of original programming, said Hercules needs to explain why he’s the one telling this story and advised him to include more details about Mengele’s experiments. Ann Julienne, head of acquisitions and coproductions at France 5, noted that the demand for Holocaust films remains strong, but added that Forgiving struck her as too emotional for her own daytime slot.
The next pitch participant was Steven C.F. Anderson, presenting 25/25 – a kinder, gentler reality format. Displaying a showman’s flair, the producer from New York, U.S.-based APL Anderson Productions described the show’s premise: The contestants have to spend $25,000 in 25 hours, but abide by certain rules. For example, an individual can spend only $1,000 in any one location and must be able to carry all purchases across the finish line. The series is budgeted at about $250,000.
Like all the commissioning editors, Dan Salerno, VP of programming at Discovery Networks U.S., said he enjoyed the pitch. (25/25 was voted the best pitch by the panel.) He noted that the format wasn’t right for his operation, but urged Anderson to approach TLC. Likewise, Susan Werbe, The History Channel’s VP of programming, said her counterparts at A&E are in the market for formats. Australian Broadcasting Corp. director of programming Marena Manzoufas cautioned that the rules may be too confusing for viewers.
Mary Conlon (of Warren, U.S.-based C Media) presented Holy Water-gate, a $390,000 doc that investigates the Catholic church’s decades-long cover-up of clergy-perpetrated pedophilia. In her pitch – which was preceded by a brief intro from distrib Louise Rosen – Conlon featured clips from victims and a scene from a church meeting on the subject. The common thread was the predatory nature of the crimes and the impact on the victims’ lives.
Steven Anderson, controller of news, current affairs, arts and religion at U.K. broadcaster ITV, observed that it wasn’t a new story and that the treatment wasn’t exciting. However, Discovery’s Salerno disagreed and said he wanted to follow up.
Hans Rosenwinkel of Moscow, U.S.-based Evolution Media pitched On the Lookout, a 90-minute special on the historical lore and present-day debate about forest fire lookout towers – manned observation stations perched in remote western U.S. mountains. Budgeted at $450,000, the film includes interviews with former fire spotters and footage from recent burns.
Salerno noted that despite the inherently powerful visual appeal of fire footage, fire docs have not done well for his channel. Margaret Drain, an executive producer with WGBH’s ‘American Experience,’ noted that the story appears more regional than national in scope, which may limit its ability to capture a U.S.-wide audience.

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