MIPCOM Diary 3: Growing up across the globe

Project: Becoming a Man
October 1, 2004

Project: Becoming a Man

Description: A 3 x 52-minute series that follows six teenaged boys in different countries as they perform traditional local initiation rituals that earn them adult status in their communities. The regions featured include Melanesia, Africa and Siberia/Mongolia. Each episode compares the struggles of two young men as they attempt a challenging rite of passage, such as plunging from a high tower or jumping over bulls.

Producer: Manuel Catteau, Zoo Ethnological Documentary (France)

Director: Jerome Segur – Melanesia (France); Jean Queyrat – Africa (France); Benoit Segur – Siberia/Mongolia (France)

Copro partners: Discovery International; France 3 (France); Rai Tre (Italy); RTSI (Switzerland); RTBF (Belgium); TSR (Switzerland); NDR (Germany); WDR (Germany)

Budget: US$400,000 per hour

In many countries, a teenaged boy is considered a man when the government says he’s old enough to handle his booze. In Papua, a young male must capture a shark with minimal equipment before his community accepts him as an adult. Armed with only a handmade lasso to loop around a shark’s neck and a wooden propeller, the boy must knock the shark over the head and bring it back to his village.

While working on God and Demons: Sharks in late 2000, Manuel Catteau of Zoo Ethnological Documentary (ZED) in Paris stumbled across a shark capture sequence in a 1978 film shot in Papua. After some digging, he discovered it was what boys in that region do to become a man in their community.

Catteau was so fascinated by this discovery he decided to send an assistant to Papua to see if the shark captures still took place. They do, and the assistant had located the same man from the aforementioned ’70s film. ‘We had the story and a great character, so we decided to find the six most incredible initiation trials that exist today and build a [series] concept,’ says Catteau, adding that these ordeals had never been shot or photographed before.

The result is Becoming a Man, a 3 x 52-minute series that features six stories unique to their region, two per episode. In Becoming a Man in Melanesia, young Junior attempts the shark capture trial. In Vanuatu, brave Wabak ‘bungee’ jumps from a 26-meter tall tower using vines tied around his ankles. The second episode takes place in Africa, where at the end of a long trek, Ethiopian boys must leap over the backs of a dozen bulls. In Central Africa, honey is collected by scaling 30-meter high trees. Facing the opposite climate, in Becoming a Man in the Great North, boys from Siberia and Mongolia endure a tough migration to learn to become either a reindeer or a camel breeder, respectively.

Although Catteau originally budgeted each film at $300,000, unexpected return trips for footage pushed the project over budget, forcing Catteau to deficit-finance. He lost $100,000 on each, but has made his money back since.

February 2001: Catteau attends the Discovery Producers Workshop in Berlin and pitches Becoming to a panel of CEs. He wins one of three development contracts worth $10,000 to be used for additional scouting and writing the treatment.

On the flight back to Paris, Discovery Networks International VP of development and production Maurice Paleau suggests Catteau make three 52-minute films rather than six 26-minute films (Catteau’s original plan). Paleau later suggests each episode compare and contrast the stories of two geographically linked teens. Catteau agrees. ‘In docs, it’s hard to find one story strong enough to support 52 minutes, but two stories weaved together doubles the rhythm of the film,’ he explains.

August 2001: After working with Washington, D.C.-based script doctor Steve Zorn to help customize the project, the completed treatment is sent to Discovery. Scouting for the Melanesian film also finishes.

September 2001: Already familiar with ZED’s work on previous projects, Comano-based pubcaster RTSI, which is aimed at Switzerland’s Italian-speaking viewers, signs on for CHF5,000 ($3,970) per film.

October 2001: After two pitches from Catteau, Rai Tre in Italy joins with $55,000 per film. Under the direction of Patricia Boutinard Rouelle, the doc unit at France 3 signs a contract for the first film for $110,000. Fabrice Puchault, France 3′s commissioning editor for nature, wildlife and science, thinks the Becoming series is a perfect fit for the channel’s Sunday evening wildlife ‘Explore’ strand.

”Becoming’ is a universal topic, an issue that can be shared in all civilizations,’ he explains. ‘[France 3] wants to help viewers look at the world in a different way through good storytelling.’ He adds, ‘Manuel had the same goal.’ The first French broadcaster to air the series, France 3 also eventually signs on for the second and third films in May 2002 and February 2004, respectively, again contributing $110,000 for each.

Winter 2001: Becoming has made its way through Discovery’s internal committees and budget evaluations; they commit $55,000 for each of the three films.

Mid-2002: A scouting endeavor for stories starts in South America – the original location proposed for the third film. The efforts are unsuccessful because only one strong story is found.

Spring 2002: Production starts for the Melanesian film. Shooting is risky, because the crew has to climb up trees with rickety scaffolding to film the ‘Gold Slip’ jumps, which only happen one day a year. Director Jerome Segur films almost everything he needs except for shots of jumpers other than Wabak, for which he’ll come back.

Summer 2002: During Papua’s shark fishing season, ZED’s five-person team follows Junior for more than five weeks while he attempts to catch a shark, but no shark is captured. ‘They didn’t even see the fin of a shark,’ says Catteau. ‘It was very depressing. This project was my biggest international copro, and when we started it was a disaster because the [Gold Slip and shark] shoots were incomplete and I knew we had to go back.’ Discovery’s Paleau isn’t surprised. ‘Sharks show up when they are ready. There is no way to speed up the process.’

Late 2002: Scouting begins in Africa for the second film, directed by Jean Queyrat. In Central Africa, Catteau looks for boys he’s heard hunt crocodiles, but can’t find any. Instead, he finds the bee-collecting story.

January 2003: Since scouting in South America didn’t pan out, the producer takes the project in a new direction (literally) and heads north to Siberia and Mongolia. Although Catteau lost a lot of time, he remains confident because zed knows several useful stories exist in the region – a great place to film breathtaking ice storms.

Spring 2003: The crew returns to Vanuatu to get the last of the Gold Slip footage for the first film. As well, production for the second film starts.

The logistics for the Central Africa shoot are tricky, because the action takes place at the top of tall trees. In Ethiopia, the location is extremely remote. Like the Melanesian shoot, both African shoots require subsequent trips. Catteau says the broadcasters didn’t pressure him to deliver, because they understood the exceptional circumstances under which he was working to film these time-sensitive rituals.

Summer 2003: The second trip to shoot the shark capture in Papua is a success. Disappointingly for Junior, it’s his teacher that ends up nabbing two sharks.

The second trip to Ethiopia for the African film is also made to get additional sequences.

Fall 2003: After a year and a half of production, the Melanesian film is delivered. While this first film was captured in DigiBeta, Catteau decides to produce the next two in hd, which further increases the budget. (Discovery gives a pre-approved overwrite.)

Catteau uses Becoming a Man in Melanesia to get other broadcasters onboard. Having previously rejected the series, Discovery Europe reconsiders after seeing the first film and pre-buys the other two episodes for $15,000 each.

The second trip to Central Africa is made to do the majority of shooting.

March 2004: The crew encounters problems shooting in Siberia when all the regular shipping companies refuse to ship the hot air balloon needed for aerial shots from Paris to Siberia. Such unusual equipment requires tedious custom procedures, but the team lucks out when they find a cab driver who is friends with the customs officers at the Moscow airport. The driver manages to quickly get the balloon out of customs – ‘a miracle’ says Catteau. And all he had to pay the cabbie was $200. Benoit Segur (Jerome’s brother) directs the third film.

Spring 2004: RTBF in Belgium and TSR for French-speaking Switzerland each sign on for E5,000 ($6,000) per film. German broadcasters WDR and NDR come onboard by acquiring the first film and coproducing the second and third ones for a total sum of E200,000 ($245,000).

Becoming a Man in Africa is delivered.

October 2004: The Discovery versions of all three films are complete, and Becoming travels to MIPCOM as a completed series.

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