Staying Power

Project: Champions of the Wild, Season III...
October 1, 1998

Project: Champions of the Wild, Season III

Description: A 13 x 30-minute series about people working for the preservation of animals around the world. Seen in Canada, Germany, Italy, Spain, Latin America, Scandinavia, France and the U.K., Champions is produced by Omni Film Productions of Vancouver, Canada.

Executive Producer: Michael Chechik

Producer: Christian Bruyere

Distributors: Europe Images International (outside North America), Water Street Releasing (the distribution arm of Omni Film Productions).

Budget: Approx. CDN$160,000 per episode.

The origins of Champions of the Wild are almost as dramatic as the series itself. Producers battled Mother Nature, soldiers in Rwanda, corrupt government officials and wild animals, but the biggest challenge for Omni Film Productions was dealing with the broadcast regulator and broadcasters in Canada. Producer Christian Bruyere recounts their adventures and misadventures.

July, 1994: Bruyere accepts a lunch invitation from John Taylor, then Telefilm Canada’s Western Region director of operations, to talk about developing a series. Bruyere is excited by the prospect of doing something other than a one-off, ‘An addiction from which all too many Canadian producers suffer,’ he says.

Taylor wants to see a few documentary series produced in Western Canada and suggests Bruyere give it a shot. Bruyere takes the idea back to Michael Chechik, president of Omni Film Productions, and they decide to do a series about people working for animals. A rough outline is created.

August, 1994: Chechik and Bruyere find 13 Canadian wildlife conservationists working in various parts of the world, who protect endangered species and their habitats. They pitch to several international distributors based in Canada and receive a variety of responses, but no one is willing to provide the advance they need. Bruyere and Chechik focus their sights overseas. Amaya International (now Europe Images International) expresses interest. The distributor provides a ‘generous’ advance and secures international rights outside of North America.

September, 1994: Looking for support back home, Bruyere and Chechik pitch Champions of the Wild to CanWest Global VP of Canadian productions, Loren Mawhinney. She likes the concept and offers a Canadian broadcast license.

Their luck changes, however. Mawhinney withdraws the offer after finding out the Canadian Content Rulings of the Canadian Radio and Telecommunication Commission disallow the category of ‘documentary’ for Canadian content credit.

Spring, 1995: Chechik and Bruyere finally secure a small broadcast license from Discovery Channel Canada. But it’s not enough to cover the costs.

April, 1996: After a year of knocking on the doors of Canadian broadcasters, the pair manage to put together enough regional and educational network broadcast licenses to augment the Discovery license and put together an adequate budget for the first season.

May, 1996: Travel plans are for Borneo (orangutans), Southern China (pandas), Madagascar (lemurs), the Bahamas (sharks and dolphins), the Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia (whales) and Princess Royal Island, B.C. (white spirit bears).

Fall, 1996: Production begins in the Khutzeymateen Valley in B.C. ‘Within only a few hours, our crew was able to obtain some great grizzly bear behavior, including feeding, courtship and mating,’ says Bruyere. ‘We were off to a terrific start.’

December, 1996: Bruyere and Chechik track down a Canadian woman, Pascale Sicotte, who replaced the late Dian Fossey as director of the Karisoke Research Centre in Rwanda. Fascinated by Sicotte’s bravery in saving the mountain gorilla during and after Rwanda’s brutal civil war, they feel compelled to film her story. Plans are made to travel to Rwanda on December 22.

‘This is the only relatively safe time to go to Rwanda,’ says Bruyere. ‘It is just after the beginning of the trials of the Hutus involved in the genocide, and just before their death sentence appeal hearings.’ His cameraman bails out at the last minute, citing ‘family problems.’ Bruyere finds another cameraman and they arrive in Kigali on the afternoon of December 27.

December 27, 1996: Upon arrival in Kigali, the crew meets Sicotte and their Rwandan contacts at the Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN). ‘They tell us that they will not honor their previous written commitment to allow us five days of filming in Volcanoes National Park for US$5,000 cash – which I had stashed in my underwear,’ recalls Bruyere. They will allow him to shoot as long as he agrees to also shoot a tourism promotion video for them. ‘They make it very clear that I have no choice in the matter, so I agree, but I insist we be allowed to do our filming of the mountain gorillas first.’

En route, the crew is stopped at several military roadblocks.

December 29, 1996: The crew arrives near the entrance of Volcanoes National Park and is mobbed by over 100 destitute men hoping to earn a day’s wages (US$1.50) carrying equipment up the mountain.

After three hours in the bush, they encounter Pablo, the reigning silverback, and his mountain gorilla group foraging near the remains of Dian Fossey’s Karisoke Research Centre.

As a cameraman sets up a shot of Pablo, Bruyere wanders off to find a better position. As he pushes his way through the foliage, he is startled to hear something very big and very fast crashing through the bush towards him.

‘I immediately dropped to my knees in a submissive position and started munching on a leaf and making the grunting sounds that Pascale taught us to make if we found ourselves in such a predicament,’ he says. ‘Without looking up, I sense the presence of a 200 pound mountain gorilla bending over me, inches from my head. I can smell his breath as he wheezes and towers over me.’

After a few tense seconds the gorilla retreats back into the bush. One of the trackers finds Bruyere and reprimands him for leaving the group. When Bruyere insists that the gorilla was just having a little fun, the tracker points to the ground and says in broken English: ‘Still very many landmines from the war!’

December 30-31, 1996: The crew has several good days, even managing to get footage of Sicotte, in the midst of Pablo’s group, providing details of their behavior, including eating, grooming, various forms of aggression ‘and a lot of flatulence.’

Upon return to the base of the mountain, the crew discovers their car is missing. Bruyere is concerned; this is the area where Hutu militia are known to sneak back and forth across the border after dark. Sicotte suggests they go to a nearby adobe house and buy everybody a round of drinks to keep on their good side.

No sooner said than Bruyere goes outside to find a soldier with the barrel of his rifle pointed at his soundman’s stomach. The cameraman is being pushed away as the soldier prods the soundman into the bushes. Bruyere shouts for Sicotte, who talks to the soldier in French. The soldier grabs the still camera out of Jim’s hand and displays it angrily. Sicotte takes it from his hand and pulls out a long length of film, exposing it in front of him. The soldier relaxes his rifle and reluctantly allows Sicotte to take him into the house. Turns out that the cameraman had taken a flash photo of the doorway, not realizing that the soldier was standing there in the dark – and it’s a big no-no to take photos of military personnel in Rwanda.

The New Year’s Eve celebrations come to an abrupt end when soldiers force everyone to leave. ‘As time progresses, I become more and more convinced that I won’t be alive to see 1997,’ admits Bruyere.

Eventually their driver returns with the car. He had been attempting to have the steering fixed. Not able to find any garages with the right parts, he fixed it himself using Crazy Glue.

January, 1997: Bruyere and an official from Rwanda’s Ministry of Tourism and Economic Development start filming the tourism video, using the back-up Sony 1000 camera. They head south to film the National Museum of Rwanda and the University of Rwanda, where almost all of the students and professors were slaughtered in 1994. They also head north to film what is on the top of Rwanda’s list of tourist attractions, a morbid shrine to the brutal 1994 massacre – an enclosure draped by a UN tarp containing thousands of skulls and bones and an abandoned church which is still filled with the rotting corpses of other Tutsi massacre victims.

‘I asked my escort how the ORTPN could possibly think this a tourist attraction,’ says Bruyere. ‘No sooner did I utter these words does a bus arrive filled with gawking New Zealanders and Europeans.’

January 8, 1997: Before leaving Rwanda, a driver picks Bruyere up and takes him to the ortpn office to ‘settle accounts.’ His escort and the escort’s boss want ‘tips’ for their services. Bruyere refuses to pay, to which the escort’s boss replies: ‘It would be a shame for you to miss your flight home.’

Bruyere makes a dash for the door. ‘I opened the door and ran back to the hotel and got to the airport just in time for my flight.’

Back in Vancouver, Bruyere finds that 60% of his mountain gorilla footage was ruined by airport security x-ray. Using a frame-by-frame correction process and archival footage, Bruyere ends up with enough for an episode on Pascale Sicotte and her work.

April, 1997: Telefilm Canada notifies Discovery and Omni Film Productions that funds have been set aside for the second season. Europe Images International is pleased with initial response to the first season and offer a larger advance for the second season.

June, 1997: Bruyere and Chechik learn that the Telefilm funds which had been set aside went instead to a new dramatic series. Both fly to the Banff Television Festival to confront Francois Macerola, executive director of Telefilm, and Danny Chalifour, Telefilm’s director of finance and administration. Chalifour informs them there are funds available in Telefilm’s Commercial Production Fund, which carries a 65% guaranteed recoupment condition. Desperate, Chechik agrees to put his house up as collateral.

Fall, 1997: Production of the second season begins.

January, 1998: Producers try repeatedly to send a crew to Kenya to film the elephant and rhino episodes, but torrential rains force them to postpone several times.

February, 1998: They begin filming at Solio Ranch, a sanctuary for black and white rhinos. The owner, Courtland Parfet, and his late wife, Claude, are credited for saving the African black rhino from extinction. The shoot is cut short on the fifth day of filming when the crew is ordered to leave the reserve. They are told poachers had broken into the reserve – only the second time in over 20 years – and shot at a rhino. The rhino was distressed, but not physically harmed. Solio’s entire 20-man security force was sent out on the manhunt. ‘We never did find out the fate of the poachers,’ Bruyere adds.

April, 1998: The rules of the current Canadian television production financing game dictate that if you don’t have your broadcast license commitments in place by April 15, you can forget about being in production until the following year. Proud of their success to date with Champions II, Omni contacts Telefilm Canada seeking funding for season three. Pleased with the Canadian interest in Champions II, and the foreign sales reports from Europe Images International, Telefilm commits to an amount, contingent on securing adequate broadcast licenses. Europe Images commits to providing Bruyere with a larger distribution advance for Champions III.

Discovery Canada, however, wants to wait until it sees what the audience numbers are for season two, which doesn’t air until September, 1998. This, of course, would be too late to secure financing for the current year.

Canada’s Outdoor Life Network agrees to provide Champions with a small broadcast license, but it isn’t enough for a sufficient production budget. Bruyere asks OLN’s parent company, Baton Broadcasting, to provide him with the remainder of the license amount needed, but he gets nowhere over the telephone.

Bruyere travels to Toronto, where he sits himself in the lobby of Baton’s offices, awaiting an unscheduled meeting with one of the executive decision-makers. By early afternoon the Baton receptionist asks him to vacate the building. ‘I left and returned to my hotel room and continued to try to reach a program executive by telephone, but to no avail,’ recalls Bruyere. ‘I finally checked out of my room and headed for the airport. At the airport, I tried one last call at 6:00 pm and finally reached who I needed to reach, and succeeded in getting a commitment for another small broadcast license.’

Back at his office, Bruyere secures the remaining broadcast licenses he needs just hours before the deadline. Season three is guaranteed.

June, 1998: At the Banff Television Festival, Chechik and Bruyere are told by Discovery Canada that the re-runs of Champions of the Wild’s first season are garnering larger audience numbers than the first. They now want season three and have just worked out a sub-licensing deal with Baton to keep the series on Discovery Channel Canada.

October, 1998: Europe Images represents season three at MIPCOM, looking for pre-sales.

See also:

The War That Wasn’t: World War III (pg. 58)

Family Drama: Mountain Rivals (pg. 70)

Days of Wine & Pre-Sales: Wine World (pg. 74)

The Neverending Story: Operation Free Ranging Lions (pg. 76)

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.