Non-fiction to go

October 1, 2000


Samurai spirit

Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa once said, ‘As a storyteller I have no secrets.’ Known for such films as Seven Samurai (1954), Red Beard (1965) and Dreams (1990), Kurosawa was determined to depict Japan as it was – from its uncertain period after the war to its rebirth as a society founded on an urban industrial economy.

Now, two years following his death, a two-hour doc (Kurosawa) will turn the camera on the life and work of the filmmaker. Coproduced by Japan’s NHK, New York-based pubcaster Thirteen/WNET, the BBC and N.Y.-based distributor Winstar TV & Video, the us$2 million project will look at Kurosawa’s emergence as a director and his development over the next 50 years.

Often criticized within Japan for producing films that were ‘too Western,’ Kurosawa won international acclaim for his work as early as 1950 with Rashomon. The director enjoyed two decades of success, but by the late ’60s his career began to falter. Following the box-office failure of his first color film Dodes’Kaden (1970), Kurosawa hit his lowest point with a suicide attempt in 1971.

In the early 1980s, Kurosawa’s career received a boost from a group of American admirers – including Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas – who helped organize financing for two of his projects (Kagemusha and Ran). A second golden period followed, and in 1990 he was awarded an honorary Academy Award. By the time of his death in 1998, his status at home had also been restored, and at his funeral in 1998, he was honored with a handwritten note from the Japanese Emperor.

Kurosawa, which is being shot in high definition, has a December 2000 delivery date.


Mysteries of all sorts

Terranoa Worldwide, a Paris-based distrib, hopes to find an audience for a number of adventures and mysteries it has on its upcoming schedule.

Produced by Gedeon Programmes of Paris, Easter Island is a 52-minute film about the enigmatic isle that was

discovered in 1722 by Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeven. The film will focus on the work of Italian archeologist Giuseppe Orifici, who has worked on the island for a decade, trying to unravel the mysteries of the people and giant statues that populate the region. (Fortunately for Orifici, Survivor has not made it to the island yet, or he might have been voted off…) Ready for January 2001, the project has attracted both arte and La Cinquième in France, as well as Discovery International. The budget for the piece is about us$415,000 (ff3 million).

Also from Gedeon is a 52-minute film called The Giant of the Hidden Valley.

A skeleton has been uncovered in Northern Pakistan

by French paleontologist Jean-Loup Welcomme. It is almost complete, and it may have once belonged to the largest mammal to have ever walked the Earth. The baluchiterium, an ancient version of our modern-day rhinoceros, measured more than five meters high (15 feet), and weighed as much as 20 metric tons (a lot). The discovery has touched off an investigation into how the animal lived and how it was wiped out. Ready for January, the project has grabbed the attention of Canal+ and La Cinquième in France, the BBC, and National Geographic. The budget for this project is also about us$415,000.

On a completely different note, Terranoa will also soon be handling Ache L’hamo, a 52-minute project from Paris-based Galatée Films. The film follows 40 artists from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts in Dharamsala, who are performing a traditional Tibetan opera throughout the ancient Sikkim Kingdom (which is now an Indian province between Bouthan and Nepal). Also ready for the beginning of next year, the film has the involvement of French broadcasters arte and Odyssée and a budget of about us$200,000 (ff1.3 million).

Reality/Human Interest

A rat by any other name

Rats to Roses is a one-hour special zeroing in on New York’s flourishing gardens, and the citizens dedicated to keeping them in top shape and free from destruction by the city. Budgeted at approximately us$150,000, the special will cover the gardens’ history, community efforts and tips on urban gardening. The program is the vision of Big Apple-based producer/director Tamra Raven. Raven currently works as a post-production producer for Mad Mad Judy, a facility that specializes in agency commercials and feature films. Her pet project is likely to remain in production until the end of the year. At press time, Raven and her crew (which includes editor Steve Hamilton and filmmaker/advisor Barbara Kopple), are in talks with various distributors.

‘Community gardens have taken over sites once occupied by horrible urban eyesores filled with illegally dumped bottles, rusted cars and trash,’ says Raven, who has also supervised post on TV shows, feature films and commercials for such companies as Citibank, and Goldman Sachs. ‘But, the City of New York has earmarked many gardens for destruction so room can be made for new housing development. It’s quite an emotional struggle.’

The fight has also captured the heart of the celebrity world. Last year, singer/actress Bette Midler teamed up with local conservation groups and donated $4 million in an attempt to stop the destruction of community gardens. To date, ten gardens have been bulldozed in the East Village. Among them is the Esperanza Garden, a popular landmark for more than 20 years. Says Raven, ‘The Esperanza Garden was being bulldozed while residents were in court obtaining an order to spare it. Now it’s being transformed into high-end housing – something that is going to change the neighborhood completely.’

Besides teaching children a new respect for Mother Nature, the gardens have hosted theatrical performances, weddings, concerts, outdoor barbecues and movies, and served as garden classrooms for children and senior citizens. ‘Many gardens have put a stop to the sale of drugs,’ explains Raven. ‘Riverside Valley in Washington Heights was initially a very undesirable place filled with drugs, gangs and other horrible things. One lady commandeered the space, cleaned out the trash, and transformed it into a beautiful garden. Originally, it was a vegetable garden to help feed the homeless, and eventually became a flower garden. So now people can walk around this place – which was once a very scary and dangerous area – without fearing drug dealers, prostitutes and other forms of crime.’

The special includes interviews with Green Guerillas, Greenthumbs, the New York Horticultural Society and Fresh Youth Initiatives, organizations that support the gardens’ preservation. Also interviewed are Bronx councilman Wendell Foster, attorney general’s office; Henry Stern, Central Park commissioner; and the Puerto Rican Defense Fund. Simon Bacal

A rocky challenge

Why would a handicapped man – and one who has failed twice before – look to attempt Everest for a third time? Because, as Tom Whitaker puts it: ‘Life is not a spectator sport. You need to get out and live it, and live it as big as you damned well can.’

Climber and adventurer, Tom Whitaker lost his right foot, kneecap and quadricep in an accident with a drunk driver, but he never lost his capacity to dream. Forming CWHOG (the Cooperative Wilderness Handicap Outdoor Group), a group dedicated to empowering individuals like him through daring outdoor challenges, Whitaker looks to lead the way by tackling the biggest of all challenges – Everest. He’s tried it twice before and failed, but he hopes the third time will be successful. Plus, this time he has an added incentive. On his second failed attempt, Whitaker had to turn back from the summit while friend and fellow climber, Tom Child, continued on. Child cut a piece of rock from the summit and gave it to Whitaker, challenging him to put it back.

The Tom Whitaker Story: One Step At A Time is being produced by New Jersey-based Janson Films and Reelife Films for Discovery Health Media. It is a 50-minute one-off, and has the support of the Inter-Cal Corporation, an Arizona-based vitamin maker (which also funded the expedition). Set to air at the end of November, the project carries a budget of about us$290,000.

For challenges of a different sort, Janson Films is early in development on a 50-minute film called The Magic of Mazes. Currently on the hunt for partners, the hour explores the history and mystique of mazes. Whether created in stone, in living greenery or on a computer screen, the mystery of the maze seems to be irresistible for most people. The ancient Greeks had their Minotaur. The Native American Pima have myths of the Noah-like Titoi who hid from evil spirits in a maze. In Peru, ancient labyrinth markings have been found on the plains of Nazca and have been dated to between the fifth and 13th centuries.

The film will also meet the master of modern mazes, Adrian Fisher, an Englishman who has created over 135 mazes, including one made of maize (corn) that spread out over 400,000 square feet. Many maze owners and visitors will be interviewed, including the Duke of Marlborough, owner of the largest hedge maze in the world (at Blenheim Palace). While no partners have signed on as of press time, the budget for the doc is projected to be around us$250,000.


Obsessive bloody humans

The Jones Entertainment Group of Washington, D.C., is hoping to wrap Extreme Conditions OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) by February. The 60-minute special is a copro with Discovery Channels International. Obsessive compulsive disorder can make people do strange things – from repeatedly washing clean hands to constantly checking to make sure doors are locked. Is it brain chemistry? Is it learned behavior? Is it just plain crazy? The hour will examine cause and treatment, and has a budget of over us$200,000.

Jones has teamed up with Mediabridge Entertainment of Toronto to produce a one-hour special for Canada’s History Television called The Bloody Aleutians. Few people know the Japanese attacked North America directly – with an invasion of the Aleutian Islands (west of Alaska) that resulted in the death of thousands. Challenged by the elements and the enemy, the Canadian and American troops were able to repel the invaders – little realizing that the whole attack was only a distraction for the battle of Midway. Ready for the beginning of next March, the project has a budget of under $200,000.

Just ready to wrap is Misdiagnosis of Death, a one-hour copro between Jones and TLC in the U.S. When does death occur – and how defined is that line? There is ample historical evidence of people being buried alive – possibly leading to the myth of vampires, zombies and the living dead. The budget for this adventure in life and death is in the mid-$200,000 area, and it is being distributed by the CDC United Network in Belgium.

Natural History

Oh hell, now what?

Australian distributor Southern Star Wild and Real will be bringing a new partner to MIPCOM this year – U.K. indie Pioneer Productions. The prodco is currently working on a 2 x 1-hour series called White Out. Coproduced with TLC in the U.S. and Discovery Europe, the series will be available some time mid-2001. White Out travels back in time (to 1999) to one of the worst years on record for snowfall – and therefore avalanches – in the European Alps. In total, avalanches claimed the lives of more than 100 people, and destroyed entire villages that year. The series will look at the power of avalanches and find out the hows and whys. It will also talk to survivors to hear their tales.

Just wrapping from Pioneer is Storm Force 2, a 5 x 1-hour series about the worst natural disasters ever caught on film. Also soon to make an appearance is Volcano, a 2 x 1-hour series about the history and destructive power of the world’s most unpredictable destructive force. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear this world was out to get us.

Don’t bug me

In La Spezia, Italy, Aldabra Productions is focussing on some exceptions to the litany of environmental catastrophes we’ve become accustomed to. All around the world, coral reefs are being destroyed by global warming, but in Bunaken (off the northern tip of Sulawesi, Indonesia), the reef has somehow retained its pristine, colorful condition and diverse ecosystem. Sea of Colours – Bunaken: A Painter’s Palette is a 30-minute look at the life on this reef, and the ecosystem of the seas that surround it. Ready for early 2001, the project is being undertaken with the help of Documentaria and HTM Sports. Sea of Colours is likely a precursor to a 13 x 30-minute series, provisionally called Hidden Natural Hot Spots. Other locales to feature in the effort will likely include: the Cobourg Peninsula in Australia; Katavi in Tanzania; the Vara Valley of Italy; and the Andamane Islands in India (among others). This installment of the project runs to about us$200,000.

Aldabra has also begun work on a 30-minute doc on a big and small subject. Small because it’s about beetles. Large because there are 350,000 different species of them – almost a quarter of the known animals on our planet. Beetles – Evolutionary Machines will study the construction of these creatures and their remarkable ability to adapt. Doctors Arthur V. Evans and Charles Bellamy (authors of An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles – published April 2000 by the University Of California Press), are both consultants and hosts for the production, which should wrap in July of next year. So far, no partners have signed on for this us$270,000 production.

Social Issues

Reality Check on MTV

With hits like Road Rules and Real World firmly entrenched on the MTV roster, the u.s. music cablecaster has already proven it’s no stranger to non-fiction programming. But with Juvenile Boot Camp for Girls (w/t), a recently commissioned doc, MTV appears to be getting serious as well as real. Lauren Lazin, VP of MTV news and specials, says she feels the story is an important one to share with the channel’s viewers.

The focus of the film is Camp Scott, a regimented, military-style probation camp for girls age 12 to 19, located 45 minutes outside of Los Angeles. Campers march and drill, as well as go to school; they have three-minute showers and they shower 30 at a time. ‘This is the last stop before prison,’ says producer/director Susan Koch of Maryland, U.S.-based Koch TV Productions. ‘They’ve been sent there by the judge. It’s a lock-up facility – it’s not prison, but the girls refer to it as jail all the time.’

The rotating group of 115 Camp Scott residents come from all walks of life, and their crimes range from running away to prostitution. Many have been involved with gangs and virtually all are victims of some form of abuse, Koch notes. On average, the girls stay at the camp from six months to a year.

Set to wrap around November, Boot Camp will air on MTV as either a 60-minute or 90-minute one-off in the first quarter of 2001. The budget for the doc rings in around us$150,000 to $200,000.


Speak softly and train anti-terrorist units

Toronto, Canada’s Red Apple International will soon be distributing a 3 x 1-hour series called Counterforce. Billed as an inside look at the world’s elite anti-terrorist units, the series will give viewers access to some of the most mysterious crime fighters in the world. The short list of units included number such groups as Delta Force, Kobra and the Undercover Israeli Border Guard.

The series is being coproduced with Israeli producers Kol Ha’ Emet and Omer, in association with TLC (U.S.) and History Television in Canada. Other partners signed on include French Canadian broadcaster Canal D, as well as Tel Ad in Israel. Set to wrap in spring 2001, the project carries a budget of about US$270,000 per episode.

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