The Vatican’s financial scandals and Pope Francis’s mission to renew faith in the Catholic Church are the focus of Al Jazeera America’s first international co-production, the 60-minute documentary Holy Money, airing March 30.
Produced by Rome-based GA&A Productions, the doc was co-produced with German net ZDF/ARTE and Al Jazeera America and supported by broadcasters such as Belgium’s VRT, Canada’s CBC and SRC, Sweden’s SVT, Denmark’s DR and Switzerland’s RTS. It aired earlier this month in Canada via the CBC’s ‘Passionate Eye’ doc strand and in Europe via ARTE.
Led by University College London historian John Dickie, Holy Money tackles the world’s richest religious institution, which receives international donations and owns extensive real estate in countries such as the U.S. and Italy despite allegations of numerous financial crimes. The doc exposes the extent of the Catholic Church’s turbulent relationship with money, through cases such as a monsignor arrested for money laundering, and reports of embezzlement of Sunday donations.
Shannon High, SVP of programs and development for Al Jazeera America – which launched August 2013 – says the channel wasn’t specifically looking to secure an international copro, but felt Holy Money was “very much a part of the Al Jazeera DNA.”
“I think what Holy Money will do is shed some light on things happening inside the church that people don’t know about,” explains High. “I’ve been in journalism for a long time and stay abreast of the news, and there were some things revealed in it that even I didn’t know about. Things that were interesting, but depending on where you’re coming from, surprising.”
The film – a follow-up to GA&A’s 2013 doc The Pope and I – also appealed to Al Jazeera America because of its onus on facts. Getting as close to objectivity as possible is a quality that is important to the channel and the journalism at the heart of its programming; it’s also a characteristic High says she’s looking for in future productions.
“One of the things I like about Holy Money is that it’s very investigative,” says the exec. “It’s just the facts – it doesn’t come with a point-of-view – and it really shows all sides.”
On the heels of the channel’s first international copro, Al Jazeera America is launching its first commissioned docuseries. The four-part Borderland – produced by Australian indie In Films and L.A.-based Muck Media – will debut April 13 and explore illegal immigration in the U.S. Other projects include the Radical Media-produced The System with Joe Berlinger, a series on the criminal justice system with the filmmaker that’s debuting May 18; and feature doc Freeway: Crack in the System, on the crack cocaine epidemic.
Ultimately, the types of programming audiences won’t be seeing on Al Jazeera America anytime soon is “anything sensational and anything that’s not real,” says High. Pressing social issues will be the impetus behind the channel’s programming choices.
“When we look at films, really what we’re looking at is the content,” says High. “It’s not like we’re going into it saying, ‘Oh, we want 18-year-old males to be watching.’ We’re really not doing that. What we’re [saying] is, ‘This is a fabulous film we think is compelling, and people will watch it.’”