On the Slate

April 1, 2005



In The Manchurian Candidate (the 1962 film starring Frank Sinatra, not last year’s Denzel Washington vehicle), a group of American POWs escape and return from the Korean War only to discover that they’ve been brainwashed by their communist captors. Worse still, their decorated sergeant has been programmed to act as a Soviet mole and instructed to assassinate a presidential candidate.

It’s a fictional tale, but it’s rooted in fact. In real life, the soldiers were released at the end of the war and nobody tried to assassinate a president (that we know of). However, 22 POWs – one British, the rest American – chose to stay in China rather than be repatriated, a decision that led to speculation back home that the men had been subjected to new forms of thought control.

Though seemingly far fetched, the suspicions tapped into the paranoia that ran rampant at the height of McCarthyism. In his latest doc, Chinese/Canadian filmmaker Shuibo Wang will move beyond these fears to find out what really happened in the pow camps, why the soldiers decided to stay with the enemy, and what their lives were like in China. Through arrangements made by the Chinese Red Cross, many of the men were sent to Jinan to work in a paper pulp plant. Others, like David Hawkins, the youngest of the 22 pows, went on to study at the People’s University in Beijing and work in Wuhan.

They Chose China – a 52-minute coproduction between Canada’s National Film Board (NFB), ARTE France and Marseille-based 13 Production, in collaboration with The China Intercontinental Communication Center in Beijing – follows Hawkins on his first trip back to China since he left in 1957 at the age of 23. There he will meet former staffers from the prison camp and learn their perspective of events. Digitally remastered archive footage and photos along with kinestatic animation and CG images will also be used to reveal what happened to Hawkins and others when they returned to the U.S., and they will be asked if they ever regretted the decision to remain in China.

Wang, director of the Oscar-nominated Sunrise Over Tiananmen Square, brings a unique perspective to the project: he was born in Jinan and grew up in China during the Cold War. One of the pows that stayed behind, James Veneris, was the first Westerner he ever saw.

The film will be completed in July, 2005 and has a budget of CDN$700,000 (US$570,000). Ragnar van Leyden, who cut Murder on a Sunday Morning for hbo, is editing the doc. KB

A Nazi walks into a bar…

Word is, the Führer didn’t have a great sense of humor. Werner Finck learned this the hard way. Famous for his mumbled puns, the German comedian once performed a mock Hitler salute while muttering that it meant ‘lifting one’s rights.’ The joke landed him in a concentration camp.

Finck was lucky – he was eventually released and continued to perform veiled subversive humor. But many other comedians met a violent fate. Jewish film funnyman Kurt Gerron was gassed at Auschwitz after being deported from the Theresienstadt camp. His death came despite having complied with the camp commander’s demands to set up a comedy troop (seems he was a fan) and make a propaganda film on the charming life Jews led in Theresienstadt. One year earlier, on June 26, 1943, a woman was beheaded after a colleague reported her for telling a two-line joke: Hitler and Goring are on Berlin’s radio tower, overlooking the city, when Hitler says, ‘I really like the Berliners, I’d like to do them a favor.’ Goring answers back, ‘Then why don’t you jump?’

Humor in the 3rd Reich (w/t) is a 45-minute documentary being produced by Wiesbadan, Germany-based Ilona Grundmann Filmproduction that will explore comedy during one of the most violent and oppressive periods in modern history. Like Finck, many courageous comedians dared to oppose Hitler, though lots of others supported him. With filming planned in Berlin, Vienna and Amsterdam, the doc will delve into both sentiments through historical archive and dramatic recreations. German pubcaster ard-ndr is backing the doc, which will wrap in August, 2005. The director, Rudolf Herzog, estimates the budget will be about E260,000 (US$340,000). KB

Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition…

During the Inquisition, dissidents had a lot at stake. Namely themselves.

Not ones to bandy words with the local infidel, the Catholic church responded to 200 years of unprecedented upheaval with a crack-down of biblical proportions. The Inquisition was meant to silence dissents and preserve the purity of the faith and the authority of the Pope. And if a few heretics had to burn to achieve that, well…

Produced by Toronto’s Inquisition Productions, Insight Film in Vancouver and New Atlantis in Madrid for Canada’s Vision TV, France 5, YLE in Finland and PBS in the U.S., Secret Files of the Inquisition opens long-locked documents from European archives for an unprecedented look at a dark moment in the history of the church. Files will combine reenactments, expert interviews and period art to tell the tale. Slated for an August, 2005 delivery, this 4 x 1-hour HD docudrama is budgeted at just over US$2 million. Australia’s Beyond International is distributing. SM


Shoring up in Thailand

Hikari Productions is a Paris-based documentary company with offices in Beijing and Tokyo, and invaluable connections across Asia. The prodco is putting this network to use for the making of New Dreams After One Year. Beginning December 27, 2004 – the day after the tsunami hit – and continuing for one year, this 52-minute program follows three survivors of the Southeast Asia disaster as they try to rebuild their lives.

The first is Kao Lak, a fisherman whose hometown was washed away by the massive waves. With no means to make a living and nowhere to go, he struggles to regain the life that was swept out to sea. The second, a Westerner with restaurants in Patong beach in the Phuket province of Thailand, lost his businesses, but not his compassion. He organizes an international aid center at a local hospital, provides tourists with tents to sleep in while they search for lost loved ones, and takes care of orphaned children.

As the disaster’s urgency wanes, he turns to the task of reviving the Patong area. Lastly, a Buddhist nun in Thailand helps to get people back on their feet by providing structure – and structures. Those whose families were among the more than 280,000 victims of the tsunami are hired to help restore schools and construct houses for people living in tents.

Broadcasters France 5, Net TV in Greece and EBS in Korea are already supporting the E350,000 (US$458,000) doc, which is scheduled to wrap this November. KB

Freeze, dirtbag

On the wild streets of Indianapolis, citizens lived timid, fearful lives… That was, until the Fugitive Recovery Agency was formed. For rewards offered by authorities, this band of ex-cops, former military and bail bondsmen track down and apprehend criminals who have managed to evade police. And this sort of collective might be gaining popularity. As government budgets get squeezed, mercenary outfits will likely play a bigger role in capturing bail jumpers and fugitives in many more jurisdictions.

Over 150 hours of existing on-the-scenes footage will be interwoven with new interviews to create 15 half-hour episodes, each of which will feature three separate cases. In addition to the stories of runaway bad guys, the episodes will reveal the tactics bounty hunters use to take ‘em down and bring ‘em in.

Produced by Bullseye Television in London, US Bounty Hunters will deliver to Bravo in the U.K. in July. Each episode is being brought down for about £300,000 (US$575,000). BC

Swept away on a rush of tears

Earth-shattering events might change the world, but they do so one life at a time. That’s the way Tel Aviv’s GN Communications has chosen to tell the story of the tsunami that recently struck Asia: through the voices of the individual Israelis who witnessed it. With plans for an October wrap, Fate is a 50-minute film directed by Yalon Gurewitz. The film will air on Israel’s Keshet TV (Channel 2) and carries a budget of about US$240,000.

The film’s cast of characters includes Eran, a pilot in the Israeli air force who was in Thailand with his girlfriend, Zohar, for a week on the beach. When the wave struck, they were torn from their bungalow. Eran managed to grab hold of a tree branch, but Zohar vanished. The cameras follow as Eran and family members return to the disaster-stricken region to hunt for her.

David Politi, an Israeli diamond merchant and a father of four, was hugging his wife one moment. The next, she had disappeared in a wall of water. Politi had clung to her for as long as he could, mumbling the deathbed prayer under the water until the wave passed. Now he searches for his missing family.

Fate demonstrates the impact of the tragedy in real-time, following the characters as they try to pick up their lives. As the producer points out, when Aristotle defined the rules of tragedy, he said it was important that the viewer be able to sense that the events could have happened to them but for the whims of fate. That’s exactly the notion gn hopes this film will evoke. BC

The attack of killer fires, floods and fog

The biggest annoyance for circus-goers these days is sticky, popcorn-covered floors. But on July 6, 1944 the audience watching the Ringling Bros. Circus in Connecticut faced a much more devastating predicament. During the show, the main canvas tent – waterproofed with paraffin and kerosene – ignited and 168 people were killed. The ensuing fury over the tragedy ultimately ended the big top era.

Another disaster, this one caused by a force of nature, occurred in 1972 in Rapid City, South Dakota when the state endured the worst storm of its history. In under six hours, 14 inches of rain fell. The water poured its way into the core of the city, uprooting homes, cars and businesses in its path. The flood caused 238 deaths, and prompted rebuilding in Rapid City to prevent future floods from taking the same horrific toll.

Disasters of the Century 5, a 13 x 1-hour series by Regina-based Partners in Motion, uses interviews, reenactments and real footage to examine the effect of natural and man-made disasters, such as plane crashes and avalanches, as well as their implications on social history. Shot in locations such as Australia, France and the Philippines, each episode focuses on two disasters. Slated for delivery in September, 2005 the CDN$1.1 million (US$901,000) series is being distributed by Harmony Entertainment with the NFB acting as agent. Century will broadcast on History TV in Canada for the fifth season. AA


China: Pei it forward

While the focus of most museums is on the gems within, the exterior of the building can also be a work of art. Take, for example, the Suzhou Museum currently under construction in China. Celebrated architect I. M. Pei is presiding over the design crew working on the world-class museum and its surrounding gardens and urban space.

Pei, now 86 years old, admits that the project is the biggest – and likely the last – challenge of his career. It’s a powerful statement considering he designed Hong Kong’s Bank of China, Paris’ Pyramide du Louvre and the East Wing of Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery.

Produced by L.A.-based Pacem Productions, Building China Modern: I. M. Pei and the Transformation of an Ancient City will follow Pei and his two sons through the design and construction of the museum over a four-year period, from Pei’s first visit to the site to opening day. One part of the US$2.1 million film, which will have one- and two-hour versions, will contain the demanding expeditions Pei’s teams undergo to find rocks to be used in the museum’s garden – the emotional core of the Suzhou Museum complex. The trips involve navigating mountain ranges in China to search for suitable boulders, which are judged by size, shape, color and strength.

Slated for an autumn 2006 release, Building is being distributed by Massachusetts-based CS Associates, and backed by PBS, Chinese Television, the NEA, Japan’s Miho Museum, Beijing’s China Intercontinental Communication Center and supporters of arts and culture from the U.S. and Hong Kong. AA


That’s a 10-4, good buddy

They are the behemoths of the highway, the titans of the tarmac – 18 wheels of transportation that form the backbone of the world economy – and viewers will now get a peek inside the cabins of these giant trucks.

In a new feature called Big Rig, director Doug Pray (Scratch) takes an unprecedented look into the life of the American truck driver. Distributed and funded by Venice, California-based production/distribution company Ocule (which produced the award-winning Porn Star: The Legend of Ron Jeremy), with Brad Blondheim serving as producer, Big Rigwill offer hilarious as well as disturbing trucking stories and profile the legendary characters for which the subculture is famous. Yet it will also offer an ‘unflinching portrait of America during a time of great challenges for our nation,’ says Ocule MD Kirt Eftek. ‘It will be a fascinating look at a profession that faces impossible government regulations, drug abuse and parking-lot prostitution, and swarms of bad drivers in little passenger cars all around them… Ultimately, the film will be a deeply philosophical investigation of people who are allowed to think, by themselves, for days, weeks and months on end.’

With a budget of about US$1 million, the film will wrap in August and hit the festival circuit early next year.

In the meantime, look for Ocule to deliver the 52-minute flick The Mars Underground in time for MIPCOM. Using incredible CG and 3-D graphics, the doc relates the dreams and struggles of Dr. Robert Zubrin and his ‘Mars Direct’ plan for the human settlement of the red planet. Zubrin has spent a career designing a craft and promoting the idea of humans on Mars – not as an eventual possibility, but as an attainable goal for the next decade. Zubrin believes Mars can be terraformed and transformed into another blue planet. Needless to say, he has vocal critics, including NASA. But Zubrin isn’t moved. He believes this journey is a must for the future of mankind.

Available in standard and high-def versions, the budget for the project is about $550,000. A feature-length version will also be cut. BC


Beastly babies

Parents have long compared their children to wild animals. One only needs to linger in the aisles of a supermarket to hear the plethora of admonishments – ‘Stop monkeying around!’ – that tie baby and beast in the minds of their caregivers. In Raising Baby (aka Growing Up), however, the little critters running around under the watchful eyes of their guardians are untamed animals.

A 6 x 1-hour series from Dunedin-based prodco NHNZ that’s due to deliver in December, the program follows an orphaned animal and its human caregiver during the first year of the creature’s life. Each US$200,000 episode is devoted to a single pair, allowing the nature of their relationship – as well as the bigger picture of that species’ place in the wild kingdom – to be fully explored. KB


Bend it like Chu Tsu

Madrid-based prodcos Transglobe Films, Wanda Films and Real Madrid have teamed up to coproduce Football: The Birth of a Passion, an E1.8 million (US$2.4 million) hd feature that will show the origins of one of the world’s most popular sports (that’s soccer, for all ye Yanks) and trace its evolution through to the 20th century.

The roots of the game date back to the 2nd century B.C., when the Chinese army played a version of the sport called ‘Chu Tsu.’ Football will recreate this early adaptation, plus others created by cultures around the world. Japan, for instance, practiced the more ceremonial ‘Kemari’ in the 6th century. Another, ‘Teotihuancano,’ was played by the inhabitants of pre-Columbian Mexico in the 2nd century. Later, during the Middle Ages, people in Europe participated in a refined sport called ‘Florentine Calcio.’ Modern-day football’s closest predecessor, however, began in the 5th century B.C. Called ‘Soule,’ it was an ancestral Celtic game that was played in France and the Britannic Islands and became a favorite sport in the English schools of the 19th century.

Spanish public broadcaster TVE is already onboard the doc, which will also be cut into a 3 x 1-hour series for TV. Delivery is scheduled for late 2005/early 2006. SM

Top-Notch Pitch Its

Five brave producers won a chance to pitch to a panel of programmers on the final day of this year’s RealScreen Summit. In addition to saying ‘yeah’ or ‘nay’ to the proposed docs, the broadcasters evaluated each producer’s pitching prowess, offering invaluable dos and don’ts for attendees. Below are the two pitches that won over the broadcasters.

Queens for a play

No woman, no football. That’s the twist that sets apart Peladao from other sporting events. A soccer tournament larger than the World Cup, Peladao is held in the heart of the Brazilian rainforest. More than 800 teams participate in the six-month-long play-off, and the rules are generous – even shoes are optional. But there is one mandatory canon: every team must have a beauty queen. Without her, a team can’t compete.

Produced by Swedish prodco Scandinature and pitched by Hungarian director Zoltàn Török, Jungle Soccer will be a 52-minute one-off that follows the struggle of three young protagonists who take part in the Peladao in the hope of changing their lives. Budgeted for about US$310,000, the film is set to wrap this December.

Responding to the pitch, Caroline Behar, director of international acquisitions and copros for France 5, noted that the doc presented a fresh way of discovering Brazilian society that was sure to attract male viewers. Richard Life, head of coproduction for Channel 4 International, admitted it’s hard to get foreign stories on U.K. YV, but said the World Cup connection would be a great way to slip such content on to skeds.

Peace by piece

Since 9/11, Americans have been exposed to the contemporary origins of Al Qaeda’s philosophy, but its roots run deeper. In fact, some Al Qaeda observers argue the myth surrounding the fall of Islamic Spain is a stronger rallying cry for sympathizers than any other issue, yet little attention has been given to this important period. Islamic Spain! Three Faiths in One Land is a two-hour hd one-off from Unity Productions Foundation and Gardner Films in the U.S. that will strive to present the triumphs and shortcomings of a centuries-long period when Muslims, Christians and Jews inhabited the same far corner of Western Europe. More than half of the approximate $1.1 million budget is funded, and delivery is expected for September, 2006. It will air nationally on PBS.

Deana Jordan Sullivan, director of program development for Discovery Networks International, said it was important that none of the funders – which include the El Hibri Foundation and the Sabadia Family Foundation – were invested in the doc’s content. Jerry McIntosh, director of the CBC’s documentary unit, wondered how the filmmakers would connect the past with the present. SM

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.