Special Report for MIPDOC: Egoli Films

March 1, 1998


A MIP of its own: Golden Age or Fleeting Frenzy for Non-Fiction?

Like its kiddie cousin, non-fiction now has a market of its own in mipdoc. Dedicating two days of screenings, meetings and greetings prior to miptv, Reed Midem has officially bought into the idea that this is, indeed, a Golden Age for documentaries. Gaggles of sellers and buyers will be hitting the Hotel Martinez (in the daytime, even), hoping to cash in on this widely heralded boom. On the trail of the cable explosion, new global links for production and distribution, and an ever-changing, ever-expanding definition of what’s in the genre and what’s out, RealScreen goes tri-continental and quinti-national and asks five very different Cannes-bound production companies: ‘Is this golden, or what?’


Alongside the rest of Europe, the German film market is growing localized. Paradoxically, the outlook of Jens Meurer, one of the country’s most-talked-about young documentary makers, is resolutely international.

Ask Meurer, who set up Egoli Films in 1993, where he hopes his company will be in five years, and he predicts an alliance with a large non-German European independent.

‘Egoli is really a very small company,’ he says. ‘If we are going to have more clout we need to have a strong, international alliance. At the moment we’re being held back. There’s not a lot of money to be made from producing six documentaries a year.’

This may be so, but Meurer, who spent the formative years of his life in Johannesburg (Egoli is Zulu for ‘the place of gold and happiness’), has come a long way since taking his first tentative steps as a filmmaker at the beginning of the decade, following a history degree at Oxford and a course in journalism and film at Columbia University.

He left South Africa when he was a teenager after refusing to serve in the country’s army. Four years later he returned to work as a journalist in Johannesburg, then still in the grip of apartheid.

His 1997 film, Egoli – My South African Home Movie, portrayed life as it once was for the country’s white elite (Meurer’s father was a German entrepreneur who never left South Africa), as well as the reality for the black majority.

Egoli, which now has offices in Berlin and Munich, was originally formed to spearhead Meurer’s own career as a director; nowadays, the company produces both his and other directors’ films.

At mipdoc, Meurer’s award-winning Jeckes – Distant Relatives (jeckes is the name for Jews of German origin) and Made In Germany, an account of modern Germany, will be showcased by The is an association of seven European producers who have joined forces to flex their collective muscle in such areas as distribution, marketing and development.

In common with most Egoli projects, Jeckes – Distant Relatives and Made In Germany are pan-European coproductions. The company’s partners have included some of the most respected names in European documentary making – Channel 4, arte, the bbc, and leading u.k. independent Mentorn Barraclough Carey.

‘We’ve been putting together international coproductions since day one,’ says Meurer. ‘Coproduction may have got harder overall because the national markets have become more introspective. Also it’s hard to find the big international topic. But it’s got easier for me because we have a track record in doing it successfully.

‘It can be difficult because some people are touchy about editorial control, but if it is a genuine collaboration and you have a strong producer it can work. It can be a bureaucratic nightmare when you have people like ard and the bbc working together.

‘Haggling over rights can be problematic. There is also the difficulty of who signs first. No one wants to sign unless they are sure the film can be made.’

Two Egoli films in production, Fatherland, the story of a communist and his ex-Nazi son, and Off The Pigs!, the lives of three famous Black Panthers, are also partnerships: Fatherland, with the bbc, svt and nrk; and Off The Pigs!, with Archipel 33/La Sept arte. Each is budgeted at us$560,000.

Many of the company’s films are designed for theatrical release as well as television screening; Meurer is confident that Off The Pigs!, in development for a decade, will win a theatrical showcase in the u.s.

He is skeptical when people refer to the present as the Golden Age of Documentary. It is, he says, boom time for people who want to make natural history and travel films for outlets such as Discovery. Filmmakers who are interested in traditional documentary, however, are finding life challenging, to say the least.

‘Genuinely creative documentaries are being squeezed right, left and centre,’ he says. ‘It’s not just in Germany, it’s the same in all markets. They get lousy slots. You feel almost apologetic for doing proper, creative films.

‘Ironically, the networks’ conservatism is not borne out by the facts. The films I make may not achieve the ratings that the nature films get, but they are highly appreciated by the people who see them.

‘At the moment we’ve got two films playing in German cinemas (Made In Germany and Jeckes – Distant Relatives). It’s not Jurassic Park, but we’re covering our costs. Audiences like well-made, high-profile documentaries, where you can see the money on the screen. That’s the business we’re in.’

Also in this report:

-Australia’s Emerald Films

-U.S.: ABC/Kane Productions

-France: Gedeon Films

-U.K.: Lamancha Productions

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