On the Slate

October 1, 2003


Norman of the North

The fittingly named Norman Winter is the subject and title character of an ambitious feature-length doc, The Last Trapper. Winter and his companion, Nebaska, live off the grid in the Canadian Rockies, hunting and fishing for food, and using a team of dogs for transportation. Nebaska, a woman from the Nahanni tribe, tans the leather they use to make their snowshoes and canoe. For the 90-minute doc, the mainly French crew was flown to the Yukon and spent nearly a year filming the couple. Trapper pays tribute to a way of life that defined Canada, when it was still an unexplored frontier.

Director Nicolas Vanier is a longtime adventurer who met Winter and was inspired to make the doc. Winter agreed to participate ‘to leave behind a trace less ephemeral than all those he’s so often left in the snow.’

Coproduced by Canada’s National Film Board and Paris-based prodco/distrib MC4, The Last Trapper is budgeted at a hefty cdn$7.5 million (US$5.5 million). The Canadian partners, which include Télé-Québec, are responsible for 20% of the budget; MC4 has taken the lead in raising the remainder. Those on board include TF1 Cinéma, TF1 Télé, Canal+ and Canal+ Cinéma. Distribs so far include Mikado in Italy and Pandora in Germany. The Last Trapper is slated to wrap in December 2004. DW

Seek and ye shall find

Nomads lead a life that is the antithesis of that followed
by the city dweller. Where the latter seek comfort in the accumulation of material goods and convenient services, the former adhere to a minimalist philosophy and live stoically on whatever the land provides. In the international copro The Camel, the Marabout and the Girl, Frankfurt’s Pegasus Film and Arnhem, Netherlands’ Art Cam explore a world that most urbanites will never visit, except from the vantage point of a living room couch.

The 100-minute one-off’s central figure is Noehi, a member of the Taureg, a Muslim Berber-speaking clan who inhabit the Sahara and Sahel deserts of Africa. The narrative revolves around Noehi’s hunt for his missing camel, a search across a variety of landscapes that offers insight into the Taureg’s worldview and culture. For example, in Taureg mythology there exists a hidden city that offers salvation to the truly lost; perhaps Noehi’s misfortune is in reality the beginning of a journey to redemption. During his travels, Noehi meets several people, including a Marabout (an Islamic hermit) at a remote mosque and Targia, a mysterious young girl.

Budgeted at approximately 850,000 euro (US$941,000), the doc is coproduced by Swiss broadcaster SF-DRS, Swedish broadcaster SVT, its Finnish equivalent YLE and a variety of funds. It will be completed in January, 2004. Art Cam is distributing. MS

Heaven and Earth

From the Middle East springs many things, but religion is undoubtedly the region’s most prolific export. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all evolved in and around the Fertile Crescent and continue to dominate its landscape. However, in their shadow thrive alternative beliefs, some off-shoots or mixtures of the three headliners, and others that are considered heretical by them. My Faith (Imani, in Arabic) is a 15 x 45-minute series commissioned by Al Jazeerah Television that aims to provide a deeper understanding of these lesser known religious communities sprinkled in and around Morocco, Iran and Yemen.

Each episode carries a budget of about US$75,000 and will explore a different group. The first looks at the Druze in Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. It’s followed by an examination of the Copts in Egypt; the Maronites and Syriacs in Lebanon and Syria; the Waha’ibis in Saudi Arabia; the Alawites in Syria; and so on. The approach is up close and personal: an individual or family from each community will shepherd viewers through the daily life of adherents, addressing education, the status of women, social and political structures, as well as each religion’s unique rites and rituals. The history of each group will also be explored, as will its future.

The series is being coproduced by System TV in Paris and Firehorse Films, a U.K./Lebanese prodco with offices in London and Kesrouan. The first episode is due to be completed by March 2004, with the entire series wrapping in early 2006. KB


Poison or politics?

Live under the Nazi regime or take your life? The option, when presented to German philosopher Walter Benjamin, seemed a fatal one. However, a new film from Barcelona-based Área de Televisión and Milagros Producciones takes a closer look at the social and political environment surrounding Benjamin’s apparent suicide and raises the question: Was the literary critic – whose writings include The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction and Paris Arcades Project – allowed to answer for himself?

Forced into exile by the Nazis in 1933, Benjamin immigrated to France, where he lived for seven years. But in 1940, he was again forced to escape the fascist party.

He fled across the French-Spanish border through the Pyrenees, reaching the Catalan town of Port-Bou. Here, a sudden change in legislation impeded his entry into Spain and instead of escape, he found capture. On September 27, guarded by three police officers at a hotel and facing deportation the following morning, Benjamin overdosed on morphine – or so the story goes.

Who Killed Walter Benjamin? looks for answers in the suspicious nature of the philosopher’s demise. The local doctor declared Benjamin’s death as natural, thereby allowing a Catholic burial, yet Benjamin was buried in the municipal cemetery under the wrong name. His final manuscript, the only possession the philosopher carried with him across the border, is also unaccounted for. And, skepticism looms over whether new legislation was indeed the reason Benjamin was stopped in Port-Bou.

Shooting for the 52-minute documentary is scheduled to begin in March 2004, with post-production wrapping by the end of July. TV3 in Spain and NIK Media in the Netherlands are already on board the project, which carries a budget of about 155,000 euro (US$170,000). Área de Televisión will distribute. KB

One fateful day

June 6, 2004, will mark the 60th anniversary of the launch of Operation Overlord during World War II, otherwise known as D-Day – the beginning of the end of Nazi Germany’s occupation of Europe. With more than a half-century separating the world today from Hitler’s reign of terror, the success of the Allies seems a given. But looking back, that outcome was far from certain.

In D-Day in Colour, London-based prodcos TWI and Carlton Productions explore how events played out during the months of planning for Operation Overlord, including tensions in the Anglo-American alliance and the fatal errors during the dress rehearsal for the Allied troop landings. To tell the story, the prodcos employ the trademark of their previous collaborations (The Second World War in Colour, Britain at War in Colour and The British Empire in Colour) – original color footage. The personal tales of the many soldiers and officers involved are also key, including the experience of the French, Americans, Canadians and even Germans, as well as the British.

D-Day, a one-hour special, is budgeted at approximately US$625,000. ITV1 will air the program in the U.K.; other commitments are pending. TWI/Carlton will deliver D-Day in spring 2004. TWI is distributing. SZ

Witness to history

The past few years have been high-profile for British explorer Ernest Shackleton – he was the subject of a major PBS/’Nova’ doc (Shackleton’s Voyage of Endurance), a big-screen film (Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure) and a TV drama, (Shackleton). Inextricably linked to the explorer are the black and white images from his 1914 voyage to the ice-capped Antarctic. These famous photos were taken by Frank Hurley, an Australian who is not quite a household name. Sharp and dramatic, Hurley’s photos captured the expedition in all its glory – and ignominy.

The expedition on the ship Endurance marked Hurley’s second time to the Antarctic; the previous year, he had filmed an Australian expedition to the frozen tundra. It was after seeing this film that Shackleton decided to hire Hurley to accompany his crew and document their adventures. An explorer in his own right who traveled to Papua New Guinea, the Middle East and throughout Australia, taking photos all the way, Hurley was more than just Shackleton’s picture-taker.

In Frank Hurley – the Man Who Made History, Sydney-based Real Pictures will use photographs and moving pictures taken by Hurley himself to tell his story. Helmed by veteran doc-maker Simon Nasht, the 52-minute doc was shot in the Antarctic, Belgium and Israel, among other locations, and is budgeted at AUS$708,500 (US$460,700).

It is slated to wrap in May 2004 and has been sold to Aussie pubcaster ABC, the BBC, AVRO in the Netherlands, Canada’s History Television and Germany’s NDR. ABC Content Sales will distribute. DW


Hide and seek

Who as a child didn’t enjoy the secret thrill of snooping around a parent or sibling’s room without getting caught? That mischievous sense of adventure is the idea behind The Spying Game, a new reality format dreamed up by prodco/distrib Action Time and producer Miles Ross, both based in London.

The 10 x 1-hour concept sees three ‘spymasters’ – former secret operatives of the U.S.’s CIA, the U.K.’s MI6 and Russia’s KGB – recruit, train and deploy non-spies using the tricks and techniques employed by professional undercover intelligence gatherers. Nine novices are split into three teams, each under the command of one of the spymasters (who are free to sabotage their competitors’ plans). They must execute a variety of secret missions in a bid to win an ultimate cash prize. To complete the missions, the teams must collect clues and pass tests; after each mission is done, a wannabe spy is removed from the game. In order to take the final money pot, the contestant – along with his spymaster – must successfully perform an ultimate challenge.

At press time, Action Time had not yet sealed a broadcast deal for the format, although pitches were under way to a U.K. terrestrial broadcaster and to a U.S. channel. The estimated budget for The Spying Game is US$350,000 to $400,000 per hour. MS

Social Issues/Current Affairs

Guess who’s coming to dinner

Star-crossed lovers are the protagonists of many a tale. But in real life, Selim and Ezra are not just on opposite sides of the track – they’re behind enemy lines. As gay men, their love is also forbidden by their respective religions: Selim is a Palestinian Muslim and Ezra is an Israeli Jew.

Their story forms the center of Zero Degrees of Separation, an 80-minute doc by Toronto-based Graphic Pictures. Zero Degrees examines the lives of these two men as well as others in Israel and Palestine, showing how some couples have managed to emerge from the morass of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict with their relationships intact. Throughout the film, director Ellen Flanders explores her own attitude toward the conflict, and how her Israeli upbringing has shaped it.

Zero Degrees is budgeted at about CDN$200,000 (US$146,000). The project has progressed so far with support from the federally funded Canada Council for the Arts and private funders. Shooting is expected to wrap in early 2004. At press time, no distributors or broadcasters were yet on board. DW

Beauty is more than skin deep

It is an odd fact that some women are willing to risk death to look good. In Afghan Beauty School, a 90-minute feature, New York’s Lantern Media considers the implications of this reality in Afghanistan.

A copro with the BBC, Discovery Channel U.S. and New York-based Wellspring Media, the doc follows the August launch of a business that offers training in hair and makeup in war-ravaged Kabul. The school is spearheaded by a team that includes two Afghan-Americans (who fled the country 20 years ago) and several major cosmetic companies, and is loaded with contradictions: under the Taliban, women risked execution if caught operating a salon, yet many of these women resent the U.S.-led occupation of the country; some women struggle to support their families, yet budget for a long-sought-after trip to the salon. Specifically, the film will follow the first batch of students whose goals are to work as beauticians and support themselves.

Budgeted at about US$450,000, Afghan Beauty School will wrap in January. Wellspring Media is distributing. MS

Natural History

Fishy business

The Patagonian toothfish is a deep-sea fish found in the waters of Antarctica that can live as long as 50 years, grows up to seven feet long and weighs as much as 100 kilograms. It is considered a delicacy around the world, although it’s better known in the U.S. as Chilean sea bass, in the U.K. as Antarctic toothfish, and in Japan as mero. In other circles, it’s referred to as ‘white gold.’

Toothfish Pirates, from Perth, Australia-based production company Artemis International, investigates the secretive and illegal trade of this fish, and what is being done to prevent it. Orchestrated by multinational companies, the unauthorized catch of the toothfish is estimated to be three times that of the regulated catch, and is worth half a billion dollars per year. Its impact is both environmental and economic, threatening the livelihood of legal fisheries as well as killing thousands of the world’s largest flying bird, the albatross.

Produced in partnership with the Museum of Western Australia, the one-hour doc is budgeted for approximately AUS$450,000 (US$290,000). It is set to wrap by July 2004. KB


Gonzo gamers

The impact of video games and their addictive qualities for youth is the premise of Mind Battles, a 52-minute one-off by Berlin-based Zerofilm.

The doc looks at how video games have reshaped the lives of young people everywhere, particularly in Korea. There, elite players can earn up to US$100,000 annually; on the flip side are government-run treatment centers for addicts. Mind Battles delves into the video-game subculture by profiling two British boys developing a next-generation game; a 19-year-old Canadian making a fortune in Korea; and two Americans, who are both unshakably drawn to Everquest, an online role-playing game.

Budgeted at about 150,000 euro ($166,000), Mind Battles is a copro that includes broadcasters SWR (Germany) and ARTE (France/German). Montreal-based Films Transit is distributing internationally. The doc wraps in January. MS

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.