Leap of Faith: Anatomy of a coproduction (Rio La Venta) Part I of IV

April 1, 1998


After glimpsing 1,000-year-old human remains in the caves of a remote canyon in Chiapas, Mexico, speleologist Tullio Bernibei launched a large-scale scientific expedition. In the summer of 1997, a team of spelunkers and archaeologists headed downriver for a gruelling, but exhilarating, adventure. The explorers macheted their way through dense rainforest, hoisted tons of gear up rope ladders and rappelled down sheer 450-foot cliffs to be rewarded with remarkable finds. While not death-defying, the international coproduction to document the expedition had its own risks. Rio La Venta was initiated by Italy’s Paneikon in partnership with Gedeon in France; NOVA became involved shortly thereafter. Here follows the project’s evolution from the viewpoint of the collaborating parties, in their own words…

In the beginning there was Paneikon, by Marina Cappabianca, producer, Paneikon

If one elects to produce a quality documentary in Italy, it is obligatory to go the way of coproduction. The national market, unlike other European countries, dedicates few resources and scarce attention to documentary production. Thus, the birth of this coproduction follows the course of almost all Paneikon films, with the exception of the subject matter.

Tullio Bernabei, documentary journalist and explorer, came to see us, having returned from an expedition into the heart of Mexico. He brought with him pictures of a canyon, as beautiful as it was unknown. With a group of geologists and speleologists, he had explored some of the caves which spangle the canyon walls, finding archaeological remains of a society which he suspected to be connected to the Mayan civilization.

The place was extremely intriguing, as was its story. Above all, and with the same enthusiasm which had gotten all of us involved, Tullio managed to put together an archaeological expedition to deepen understanding of the discovery he had made.

Thus began the great race to find partners willing to put together the means to film and, in time, accompany the international archaeological expedition. The first Italian broadcaster to come in was rti. Andrea Broglia, producer of scientific and nature programs for Canale 5 and Rete 4, appreciated the opportunity to catch the story of an archaeological discovery at its very beginning, and provided a notable production incentive for our market, but it far from covered the cost of the operation.

The major difficulty in presenting an idea in an international context is staying faithful to the idea. Every producer and every broadcaster follows the demands of the public and of a program format – which are sometimes very different. As well, the project goes through a process of writing and rewriting, the fruit of a struggle – often completely interior – between the author’s original project vision and that of the possible coproducers.

In our case, there was the additional difficulty of cultivating interest in the story of an almost forgotten civilization. On our part, we found this particularly interesting: the archaeological discovery of a mysterious people, the Zoque, who leave only scant traces in the archaeological records. The only familiar element was the nearness of their area with that of the Mayan development, and certainly a cultural affinity between the two, perhaps even a formative influence of the first on the second. But these elements sometimes served only to generate even more confusion:

‘Ah interesting, a film on the Maya… ‘

‘No, not on the Maya, but on their neighbours, the Zoque.’

‘On who?!’

In the presentation of an idea, a question of moments, some words provoke magic effects, but unknown words generally have an undesired result: the collapse of interest.

Decisive in this phase was the meeting with Gedeon, a French company with whom we shared an almost pioneering coproduction and a number of production affinities. A rapid investigation of the site at the canyon of the Rio La Venta convinced us all not only of the interest inherent in this story, but also the exceptional nature of the place and the value of an archaeological expedition to the dizzying walls of the canyon.

With that sensible emotional detachment with which one takes someone else’s idea and assimilates it into one’s own, Gedeon developed a working script which was convincing to all concerned, and, in a short time, wgbh’s nova entered into the productive fusion.

Thus, there was born a coproduction with sizable financial backing and an expedition which united, around a single objective, a group of archaeologists, speleologists and a television crew, communicating with each other in four different languages. The alchemistic mix was not always easy to manage, above all when the work was taking place in the heart of the jungle or at brushstroke in a dusty cave. But the extraordinary nature of the discoveries and the pleasure at overcoming the physical difficulties, day after day, catalyzed the enthusiasm and propelled us forward to reciprocal collaboration, which went well beyond differences of language and profession.

I feel that the major merit of this work has been derived not only from the ability to harmonize requirements of the television market around a high-quality production of great scientific interest, but also in the co-operation and dialogue it stimulated between such diverse elements.

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.