On the Slate

October 1, 2005


The Amazing Spider Man
Following up on the Deep Jungle mini-series, which saw spider enthusiast Martin Nicholas explore a Peruvian jungle for creepy crawlies, Thirteen/WNET in New York and U.K.-based Granada Wild are planning a second show to be titled True Adventures of the Ultimate Spider-Hunter. Nicholas, who is a member of the British Tarantula Society and the Theraphosid Research Group, is an authority on spiders – especially tarantulas – having conducted independent research and participated in joint research projects on five continents.

Nicholas obviously has spider issues, as the plan for this 60-minute special is for him to strap on his trademark ‘spidercam’ and go after the biggest and most exotic arachnids going – including the so-called goliath bird-eater that lives in the rain forests of French Guyana and Mexico and the Arizona desert. In Deep Jungle, Nicholas discovered the famed ‘chicken-eating spider,’ a tarantula more than 10 inches in diameter. The goliath is rumored to make it look like an ant.

Ready for February, the special has a US$300,000 budget. For those with enough sense to be squeamish about eight-legged bugs larger than their heads, the special will also feature a unique one-on-one with Stan Lee, creator of Spider Man, who is not at all terrifying. BC

Any reservations?
Africa’s wildlife reserves aim to protect animals and preserve their shrinking habitat. But the people evicted from these lands lived in ecological balance with their furry or feathered neighbors for hundreds of years. When a line was drawn between them, Africans began to view wildlife resentfully, since they continued to suffer attacks by predators but had little recourse. By the 1980s, the conflicts between rural people, government policies and wildlife had escalated to include a shoot-to-kill policy for poachers.

Director/producer David Simpson of Chicago’s Kartemquin Films (Hoop Dreams) will look at contemporary conservation issues in Milking the Rhino… and Other Tales of Community Conservation. Budgeted around US$750,000 – of which $350,000 has been secured from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation – the feature will focus on three community-based conservation (CBC) initiatives in Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya, as well as similar programs in the U.S.

CBC intertwines the goals of conservation, development and poverty reduction. But it also raises concerns about endangered species. And, do the benefits of such programs really trickle down to the average household? By turning the camera on the people normally found beyond the frame of traditional wildlife docs, Milking the Rhino will find out what’s working and what’s not.

Production will wrap by the end of 2006. The prodco is seeking broadcast and distribution partners. KB

Monarch mystery
It’s a long haul from eastern Canada to the mountains of Mexico – 3,000 km, if you want to get really technical – yet Monarch butterflies weighing only half a gram battle treacherous obstacles to make this grueling trip south every year. Overcoming a myriad of predators, storms and other natural threats, the perseverant insects manage to locate the branches of the Mexican oyamel fir trees they inhabit while awaiting winter’s end. Even researchers are baffled by how the butterflies find their way on this epic journey.

In Four Wings and a Prayer, a CDN$1.2 million (US$1 million) HD doc, aerial photography and CGI animation will be used to show the trek of the distinctive orange and black butterflies. Produced by Toronto’s Primitive Entertainment, Paris-based Films A Trois and Canada’s National Film Board, the 90-minute feature will examine death, rebirth and the trip that stumps scientists. Wrapping in February, 2006, Wings will be released theatrically, with Celluloid Dreams as international distributor and NFB distributing in some Asian territories. It will premiere in Canada on The Documentary Channel, in France on France 2, and in Japan on NHK. AA

A ‘Bond’ with Keiko
Actor Pierce Brosnan will soon be back as the smooth talking 007 in From Russia with Love, but next spring he’s also putting his name behind Free Keiko: The Next Wave with Pierce Brosnan and Keely Shay Smith (w/t). Produced by The Outpost and MVI Productions in Washington, D.C., Keiko is a one-hour special that will spotlight worldwide efforts on behalf of whales and dolphins. In particular, it will look back at the Keiko Project, which saw the star of Warner Bros.’ 1993 movie Free Willy saved from his miserable living conditions in a Mexican amusement park and slowly reintroduced into the wild. Sadly, Keiko, which means ‘lucky one’ in Japanese, died of acute pneumonia in 2003, about one year after his release. The special will also look at more recent efforts, including the controversy around Kshamenk, a captive orca in Argentina.

Animus Entertainment Group in Miami holds worldwide distribution rights outside the U.S. for Keiko, which is budgeted at about US$500,000. Production is set to wrap in March.

Animus is also distributing two series: Romancing your Palate (w/t), a 6 x 30-minute cooking and recipe show that dispenses important nutritional information; and Pulse, a 13 x 30-minute TV magazine about extreme sports. Both are coproduced by aeg, which partnered with Buenos Aires-based Claxson Interactive Group for Romancing and Miami’s Pulse TV for Pulse. Romancing recently wrapped, and Pulse is in production until December. KB

Enviable sloth
It’s been said that you’ll live longer if you just play it cool and not get too worked up about things. While it may be good advice for humans, it didn’t help the giant sloth. Scientists now believe this huge, lethargic beast once roamed the prehistoric Brazilian savanna.

In Tracking America’s Giant Sloths, a 52-minute doc from Sao Paulo’s Grifa Mixer and Paris-based Gedeon, a team of three top paleontologists explore a flooded cave to retrieve the bones of one of these animals. Using micro-cameras, the divers uncovered more than 20 different prehistoric species, including mammoths, a relative of the rhinoceros and a giant sloth.

Ready for March, the project carries a budget of about US$760,000. BC


City of sport
Turin: A Hundred Years of Sports is a one-hour look at the tradition of sports and athletics supported by the Italian city since 1844, when the Royal Society of Gymnastics was established. Turin has been described as the father of sport in Italy: it hosted the first cycling race (1876), the first Formula One (1946), the inaugural Italian football championship (1898), and at one time or another was host to the headquarters of most of the country’s sporting associations. The story of Italian sport, to a large extent, is the story of this city.

Turin is a coproduction between the Associazione Cinema Spotivo, Orisa Produzioni, RAI Trade and Istituto Luce, in association with Regione Piemonte, Comune di Torino. The special will wrap at the beginning of January (before the start of February’s Winter Olympics), at a budget of about €200,000 (US$240,000). BC


The long way home
Magellan’s voyage around the globe is a well-known tale. In 1519, he set out from Seville with five ships and 277 men and spent years exploring the far reaches of the world. His final voyage ended in 1521, when he met his end at the hands of Filipino warriors.

But how many know the story of Enrique, Magellan’s slave, the first of his countrymen to circumnavigate the globe? Bought in 1511 at the age of 13 in a slave market in Malacca, Enrique spent a decade with Magellan travelling the world until the explorer’s death near the Samar Islands. There, Enrique found people who spoke his own language and was able to find his way back to his native Sumatra, from where he had initially been taken into slavery. After years as a captive, Enrique was free again.

Produced by Aix en Provence-based Saint Thomas Production, Magellan’s Slave will be a feature-length docudrama shot in HD that is based on an imaginary diary kept by Enrique. Supported by a team of historians, this epic film will rely heavily on re-enactments. The budget is about €4 million (US$4.8 million), and the project has already attracted the participation of director Peter Nicholson, who recently helmed Pompeii: The Last Day. BC


Davids and Goliath
Some stories are like tapestries – stand close and you only see a few threads. But get perspective, and a whole vista is revealed. Take the Mapuche people of Argentina as an example.

Earlier this century, the Mapuche were pushed off their land by the national army, and forced to relocate to cities. But in 2003, two of them decided they had had enough. Atilio and Rosa were Mapuches who had lived in the city of Esquel for decades. When a plant they worked at closed, they found themselves without money or options, so they decided to return to their ancestral land. Problem was, it’s owned by the Compañía de Tierras del Sur Argentino, an outfit of the famous Benetton family of clothing fame – and the largest landowner in Argentina. Undeterred, however, Atilio and Rosa picked a remote, uninhabited plot of land, notified local authorities, and built a hut for farming and raising animals.

But the Compañía had the pair evicted, which lead to a trial that saw this duo of humble aborigines take on a multinational corporation that has branded itself to the world as socially responsible. Although Atilio and Rosa eventually lost, the trial gained international interest, and uncovered that the Mapuche land might contain substantial gold reserves. What began as a simple land claim has led to a storm of controversy over the natural resources in all of Patagonia. Produced by Buenos Aires-based Red Creek Productions, United Colors is a 90-minute film that will begin production next month. The US$150,000 doc already has the support of a development grant from IDFA’s Jans Vrijman Fund. BC

Watching the clock
How is it that we wake up on our 65th birthday and are considered ‘old?’ Suddenly, we’re ‘seniors.’ The day before, we were spry and useful; but 24 hours later, we’re unproductive pensioners.

In When I’m 84, Vienna, Austria’s Filmwerkstatt Wien will explore the phenomenon of aging as it was suggested by the Beatles: ‘Will you still need me, will you still feed me… When I’m 64?’ It’s not about one’s age, it’s about neglect and the fear of abandonment.

The 50-minute doc (also available in a 35-minute version) will examine a group of retired artists – aged 80 or older – all living together in a former monarchy military home near Vienna. The goal is to give viewers an insight into their lives, and maybe demonstrate along the way that despite their age, they’re not much different than younger folks. Ready for the summer of 2006, the €95,000 (US$115,000) film has the support of 3SAT, ORF, Bayern Alpha and financing from RTR Fonds.

Also from the Filmwerkstatt comes Backstage, a series of 33 five-minute films profiling dancers and choreographers, and offering behind-the-scenes looks backstage and during rehearsals. Each piece will culminate with the performance on stage, providing a glimpse into the creative process from start to finish. The series will wrap by January, and has a budget of about €250,000 ($300,000). Backstage has already attracted the participation of The Arts Channel in New Zealand. BC


Here comes the Sundance
The Sundance Channel has become one of the strongest non-fiction feature advocates in the U.S. Perhaps not unexpectedly it’s now behind a slew of original productions. Each film runs between US$200,000 and $500,000 per programming hour, and will help kick off the new year.

Ready for spring 2006, Follow My Voice is a feature being produced with New York’s Rainlake Productions that profiles select students of Harvey Milk High in the first year of the school’s existence. As the first openly gay high school in American history, it has naturally become a lightening rod for the left and right. The feature will also follow the recording of ‘Wig In A Box,’ an album of Hedwig and the Angry Inch songs put together to benefit the school. Voice is directed by Katherine Linton and Kim Connell.

Also arriving in spring is Heaven Come Down and An Ordinary Family. Heaven follows two groups of characters who belong to a sect of the Pentecostal church known for snake handling, strychnine drinking and fire walking. The film is directed by Gabriel Wrye and Michael Mees. Meanwhile Family, produced with Malmo, Sweden’s Westman & Gertten, tells a story about globalization through the eyes of one family in Argentina.

On the non-feature front, look for Iconoclasts to hit the air this November. A 6 x 1-hour series produced with New York’s @Radical Media, each episode in the series brings together two innovative leaders from different fields – including film and television, architecture and design, fashion, food, music, and sports – with the goal of using the pairings as a means to create evocative portraits of cultural leaders. The series is produced in association with Grey Goose Entertainment (of Grey Goose Vodka fame) and the Condé Nast Media Group. BC


Birth, death and the stupid stuff in between
How can something so small create such terror? That’s the question that haunts many parents as they face their first child. Cineflix International in London plans to ride that roller coaster with a group of new parents in Birth Days, a 26 x 30-minute series wrapping in March.

Days begins with the parents-to-be and stays with them through the birth and after, witnessing the chaos and upheaval (oh ya… and wonder) of their new lives. With a budget of about US$2.2 million, the project has attracted The Life Network in Canada and Living TV in the U.K.

At the other end of the spectrum, Cineflix is also preparing The Final 24 – a 6 x 1-hour look at the final hours of iconic figures such as Sid Vicious. 24 looks into the secrets, the psychosis and the incredible events that led these figures to their tragic deaths. Ready for February at a budget of $2.4 million, the series has a home on Sky in the U.K. and Discovery Europe.

Some of those endings could have been avoided had Vicious and the others seen Psychics, a 15 x 30-minute series Cineflix hopes to wrap in January. Each episode of the $3.5 million series tells a different story of a crime solved partly by detective work and partly through the powers of a psychic. Psychics is a commission by ITV1, and a coproduction with Discovery Europe, A&E Biography (U.S.) and Canada’s W Network.

Last comes Stupid Science, a 20 x 30-minute series airing on Nat Geo International, Nat Geo Canada, Montreal’s Canal Z and Canada’s History Television. Science looks at the most insane experiments ever performed by scientists, and convinces the same scientists to repeat them in front of a camera. Can hard science come from the manifestation of crazy propositions? This $3.6 million series, wrapping next April, hopes to demonstrate that it can. What a nutty theory. BC

Building the better safety net
Washington, D.C.’s Fiveson Entertainment was recently in the news with a suit against Time Warner and Dreamworks over the studios’ flick The Island. Principal Robert Fiveson and former partner Myrl A. Schreibman produced a similar film in 1979 called Clonus, which also revolved around a plot in which human clones were raised for organs.

Despite legal wranglings, Fiveson is still hard at work on Escaping Death, an hour-long production with Toronto’s Summerhill Entertainment. The special looks at frightening disaster scenarios in which people can be killed (such as crashing planes or stampeding crowds), and counters them with an examination of the technology being designed to keep us alive. (What with us not having clones to harvest for important body parts… yet.)

The US$380,000 film is being co-financed by National Geographic Channels International in Washington, Nat Geo Canada, ARD/NDR Hamburg, France 5 and Canal Z in Montreal. Shooting has wrapped, and post has just begun at Toronto’s Bullseye Post for an end-of-year delivery. BC


Insurgery gains
It’s been 35 years since members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked five airplanes, eventually blowing up four of them. Those closely associated with orchestrating the acts deny comparisons to what occurred on September 11, 2001. And while the natural question people ask when a hijack is mentioned today is ‘How many are dead?,’ none of the almost 600 PLFP hostages were killed. Still, the event was long dubbed ‘the blackest day in aviation history.’

Through interviews with leaders of the PLFP, passengers, and others intimately involved with the event, Hijacked! - a one-hour one-off produced by New York-based Tamouz Media – will illustrate how militants began to use civilians as political pawns. A partnership between ‘American Experience’ for WGBH in Boston, ARTE France and National Geographic, the US$500,000 doc is expected to wrap in spring 2006. WGBH International will distribute.

Another project from WGBH International focuses on insurgents in Iraq. They have been accused of killing roughly 800 Iraqi civilians and police per month, yet it still isn’t known who they are, how many there are and how they are organized. The hour will explore how insurgency developed, its manifestations and where it is destined. The producers plan to interview hostages, undercover journalists and combat teams. Videos of insurgents themselves will also be examined in the $400,000 doc, entitled Iraqi Insurgents. Produced by London-based October Films in partnership with Frontline for WGBH in Boston and the BBC, Iraqi is set for a February release. AA

Lean on me
In 1989, Tamar Yarom was 19 years old and serving as a welfare non-commander officer in the center of Gaza. The sole female in a group of combat soldiers, it was her responsibility to emotionally aid her male peers. As with other female soldiers stationed in other units, Yarom was largely given non-combat duties, and her role as a listener gave her insight into the minds of the soldiers. As Yarom and others in her position nurtured these men, becoming mother figures in many cases, they witnessed the disturbing changes in them as they turned more violent. Yarom herself witnessed her boyfriend, a unit officer, attack an innocent Palestinian until the man couldn’t rise from the ground. Her boyfriend had been concerned about a ‘suspicious’ package the man was carrying, which turned out to contain only eggs.

In the 52- and 70-minute versions of No Place for a Lady, Yarom will tell her story as well as those of the other women who served in the idf during the Intifada. The conflicts that women from 1987 through to current day have faced in this emotionally draining post – as well as how the job has impacted their lives – will be shared in the US$150,000 doc. Produced by Tel Aviv’s July August Productions, Lady is set to be released in late 2006, with distribution handled by Tel Aviv’s Channel 8. AA

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.