The Affliction of Alzheimer’s

Project: The Alzheimer's Mystery...
October 1, 1999

Project: The Alzheimer’s Mystery

Description: First discovered in Germany at the beginning of the twentieth century, Alzheimer’s continues – almost 100 years later – to elude scientific efforts to find a cure. This 54-minute/48-minute coproduction (two versions) looks at an illness that knows no national borders.

Executive Producers: Hervé Chabalier, Paul Cadieux

Director: Laurence Serfaty, with Jean-Paul Billault

Coproducers: France 3, CAPA Presse TV (France), Greenspace Productions (Canada) Turnkey Productions (Belgium)

Budget: Fr 1,648,453/US$265,000

Producer Laurence Serfaty wanted to talk about Alzheimer’s disease. Millions of people around the world suffer from the degenerative illness that attacks the brain, resulting in impaired memory, thinking and behavior. For years, this most common of dementia disorders had been spoken of only in whispers – if at all – shrouded in the same cloak of embarrassment and shame affixed to most forms of mental illness.

While Serfaty, a former journalist from APM (Agence Presse Medicale) Internationale in France, was determined to get the word out, she first had the challenge of convincing others.

In 1992, as a researcher for Paris-based documentary production house and news agency CAPA (Chabalier & Associates Press Agency) Presse TV, Serfaty suggested Alzheimer’s disease as a program subject. However, she soon discovered the topic was taboo.

‘When I started in television and I started to talk about Alzheimer’s, everyone would say `No, Alzheimer’s is too awful…people won’t look at it, it’s too desperate,” Serfaty says. Seven years later, though, she has succeeded in making her film for audiences not only at home, but around the world.

1997/1998: Serfaty gains a reputation as a director of medical documentaries, such as The Tale of the Human Heart in 1997 (about heart transplants) and The Incredible Story of Test Tube Babies in 1998 (about in-vitro fertilization), for French television.

April 1998: After encouragement from Alain Wieder, then director of development at capa, Serfaty decides to revisit the topic of Alzheimer’s.

April – June 1998: Serfaty begins research, hitting a Gallic brick wall while searching for a patient to interview. ‘In France, at least, it’s only the families who testify about the disease and…[they] say, `Yes, it’s a terrible disease: my husband is like that or my wife is like that.’ But I wanted to have the testimony of someone who has Alzheimer’s, and it was impossible because doctors [in France] don’t tell the patients that they have Alzheimer’s,’ says Serfaty, adding, ‘In Italy, France, Spain – all in southern Europe – the idea [in medicine] is always `Please don’t frighten people, so don’t tell them everything.” Realizing that she’ll have to look beyond the Seine to interview patients, Serfaty starts investigating North American facilities.

Research stops in June when CAPA is unable to come up with full financing for the project.

October 1998: Interest and money starts pouring in at MIPCOM. Serfaty and Anne Escure, director of sales at CAPA, pitch the project to Isabelle Marin, a producer who specializes in coproductions at Greenspace Productions in Montreal, Canada. Serfaty has included a number of North American subjects in the project’s synopsis and Marin quickly recognizes the international appeal of the subject. ‘As soon as your documentary is social or political…it becomes harder to coproduce it, because politics and social [issues] are very tied to the country they’re being produced in…but a subject like Alzheimer’s affects [people] the world over.’ Marin proposes a coproduction between Greenspace and CAPA, and the negotiation ball is set in motion.

Says Escure: ‘One of the reasons why CAPA decided to coproduce the program with Greenspace is that, with part of the program being shot in Canada, our film was of interest to Canadian networks. Greenspace appeared to be a good partner, able to find money in Canada to finance the production.’ It is CAPA’s first coproduction with a North American company.

Unlike many copros, this partnership is a true creative and financial match. As Paul Cadieux, president of Greenspace Productions and executive producer of The Alzheimer Mystery, explains: ‘There was a real geographical reason to come here and shoot. Sometimes coproductions are artificial…[i.e.] `Let’s go do such and such section of the show in Canada, or somewhere, because we need to generate that 30% expenditure,’ but in this particular case there were fundamental reasons for the coproduction.’

Other fortuitous meetings for Serfaty and Escure at mipcom include those with producer Johan Op de Beeck, chairman of Belgium’s Turnkey Productions, and André Zalbertus, president of Germany’s Center TV, the coproducer of Serfaty’s earlier documentary on heart transplants. Turnkey’s Op de Beeck discusses coproduction arrangements. Center TV’s Zalbertus agrees to contribute a license fee towards the production.

December 1998: Hervé Chabalier, president of CAPA, signs an official France-Canada coproduction deal for The Alzheimer’s Mystery with Cadieux, detailing a 79% French majority and 21% Canadian minority. Greenspace is responsible for supplying 21% of the US$265,000 budget, in exchange for broadcast rights to all English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Canada and the U.K., as well as French-speaking Quebec. CAPA gets broadcast rights for all other countries of the world, including France, the rest of Europe and Japan.

As France is a member of the European Economic Community, capa is able to include production houses and broadcasters from other European countries in their side of the coproduction. Paris broadcaster France 3 comes in as a coproducer, with 24% of the budget, and Belgian-based Turnkey Productions joins the coproduction ranks, contributing 6% of the budget. CAPA accesses a French federal subsidy from the C.N.C. (Centre National de la Cinematographie) and pre-sells the program to German broadcaster Center TV, Channel Four Finland, Spain’s RTVE and Swiss broadcaster Television Suisse Romande to top up their contribution to the project’s total budget.

Early January 1999: Marin pitches the project to French Canada. Figuring that she’ll be able to raise approximately $10,000 in Quebec license fees, Marin enlists the help of distributor Muriel Rosilio at Montreal-based Filmoption International to pitch it to English Canada, but all English Canadian stations decline.

However, Marjoaline Lord, the officer in charge of programming and development at TeleQuebec, offers Marin a late Christmas gift in the form of a $25,000 license fee. Greenspace rounds out the rest of its 21% of the budget through the combo of a Canadian federal tax credit, a Quebec provincial tax credit and an undisclosed distribution advance from Filmoption (in exchange for English-language world rights).

Mid-January 1999: Filming begins in Europe. Serfaty, with director of photography Jean-Paul Billault, begins in France, filming Alzheimer patients with their families. The crew then travels to Germany to film the original Alzheimer’s patient, Auguste D. – or rather, her brain, which has been preserved in a bottle of formaldehyde.

Lost for more than 50 years following the death of Auguste D.’s doctor – Dr. Alois Alzheimer – Auguste D.’s brain had been discovered in the basement of a Munich hospital in 1998 by German neuropathologist Dr. Manuel Graeber. Also filmed is Konrad Maurer, an Alzheimer specialist who found the file on Auguste D. in Frankfurt. File and brain are reunited in the documentary.

February 1999: The North American leg of the shoot begins. In addition to accessing archival footage of Nancy and Ronald Reagan at an Alzheimer’s Conference, Serfaty films clinics and people associated with the disease. Highlighted is Carpe Diem, a unique Alzheimer’s research and care-giving center in Trois Rivieres, Que., that provides patients with a non-clinical environment to work through the confusion that comes with their disease. Serfaty’s team spends days at the facility, interviewing staff and patients.

Other North American interviews include one with Princess Yasmine Aga-Khan, daughter of the late Alzheimer’s-afflicted film star Rita Hayworth. For Serfaty, it was the disclosure that Hayworth was suffering from the disease in the early 1980s that lead to Alzheimer’s current place in the r&d spotlight in North America: ‘Then there was someone very well known [with the disease] – a lady from Hollywood.’ Serfaty also suggests that the swelling number of aging Baby Boomers contributes to the renewed interest in Alzheimer’s disease on this side of the pond.

March 1999: The crew travels back to Europe to continue filming, this time including an interview with American researcher Dr. Alan Roses, discoverer of the ‘susceptibility gene,’ a genetic marker that may indicate a predisposition to the disease. Filming ends March 17.

In order to get a decent English-language version to sell to her territories, Marin convinces her colleagues to ‘double shoot’ the French and German subjects (referring to the technique of filming interviews twice, once in the mother tongue of the speaker, followed by an encapsulation in a second language). As Marin explains, ‘After the first interview, you usually know what your news bite is, so you tell the person, can you repeat that in English?’

Double shooting is an essential selling tool for Marin: ‘I find in coproductions it’s essential. When it comes to the Anglos of this world, especially Americans, forget subtitles…. America does not have a subtitle culture. Broadcasters are more inclined to buy something with original English in it.’

Marin illustrates by example: ‘Our series Walk On The Wild Side…was pre-sold to the world. The reason we got Discovery International on board before the fact was because I was doing double, triple, quadruple shooting. I was going to give them an English program, but with original Japanese footage, Spanish footage – other additional footage.’

Late March 1999: The project’s editor Pamela Gallant travels from Quebec to Paris with an Avid in her luggage. Settling in to cut the film with Serfaty at CAPA, she immediately experiences culture shock: the French begin their edit with the music track. Gallant finds the technique at odds with the North American method of cutting the picture, layering sound and narration, then adding music as a final step. Recalls Marin: ‘That was the biggest difference and we had a few good laughs about it.’

But for Serfaty a preliminary music track provides an editorial structure to footage that would otherwise have an arbitrary cutting point: ‘For example, if you need [a sequence of a man walking through a lobby] to explain who this man is…you have to let him walk a bit, but why should you stop there and not three seconds later?… I write the commentary later. The music gives the rhythm to that type of footage, the `glue’ sequences, the scientific pictures that have no particular emotion.’

A compromise is achieved, as Gallant cuts the French way but imposes a North American structure of build-up and payoff to the film. Marin elaborates on what she considers the North American style: ‘You have a teaser in the beginning that sets up the thing – so you already know how it’s going to end, but you forget it – then you build it up all over again and have a payoff in the end. We [in North America] structure our documentaries like fiction for the simple reason that you want to keep your audience. People aren’t in it just for the information, they want to be entertained.’

Late May 1999: The picture and sound edit are completed, and two versions are cut: a 54-minute international version for CAPA Presse’s territories and Quebec, and a 48-minute version for English North America. Serfaty narrates the original French version. North American content is boosted for the shorter version, reducing interviews with patients and pumping up interviews with researchers and other specialists.

July 1999: Although double shooting has reduced the need for total language dubbing, it is still necessary to record narration and some voice-overs for the English version. English narration and dubbed voice tracks are recorded at Greenspace’s new recording studio in Montreal.

September 1999: Final sound mix for Le Mystère Alzheimer/ The Alzheimer’s Mystery.

October 1999: The Alzheimer’s Mystery is presented at MIPCOM.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor-in-chief and content director for Realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to Realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.