On the Slate

September 1, 2001


Worst-case scenario

Wild Eyes Productions and 44 Blue Productions (both of California) are in the process of coproducing a two-hour film for The History Channel in the U.S. called Six-One Down: The True Story of Blackhawk Down. Based on the best-selling book Black Hawk Down by Mark Bowden, the film tells the tale of one of the most violent episodes in recent U.S. military history. On October 3, 1993, American Special Forces helicopters went into Mogadishu, Somalia, on a ‘snatch and grab’ mission – a raid intended to capture warlord Muhamed Farrah Addid’s most important henchmen. What was supposed to be a 30-minute mission lasted 18 hours, and quickly degenerated into the worst firefight involving U.S. troops since the Vietnam war. Among the startling images to come out of this incident, most viewers will remember the footage of American soldiers being dragged behind trucks that was broadcast on cnn after the raid. Although it lasted less than one day, the botched mission has affected U.S. foreign policy ever since.

Ready for this fall, the budget for Blackhawk Down is about US$400,000. Coincidentally, and probably to the producer’s advantage, a feature film of the book is also being worked on by producer Jerry Bruckheimer (most recently of Pearl Harbor) and Ridley Scott (Gladiator).

From humble beginnings…

The paper clip is a fairly useful tool. It holds things together. You can poke people with it. In a bind you can use it to get into your house if you’ve forgotten your keys. It can also be used to demonstrate the degradation of the human species…

When Norwegian inventor Johan Vaaler twisted some metal into the form of a paper clip in 1899, little did he suspect the use it would be put to a century later. In a school in Whitwell, Tennessee (a town of 1,600), students decided to stay late one night to take part in what was originally intended to be an exercise in tolerance (the school has no Jews nor Catholics, no Asians, no Hispanics and only six African Americans).

It began with a voluntary effort that attracted 15 students on the first day. Their English teacher read personal accounts of the Holocaust, and the students struggled to find a perspective. When they heard Norwegians wore paper clips on their lapels during the Second World War as a silent protest against Nazi occupation – an act of defiance significant enough to get them deported to camps themselves – the students discovered a way they could relate to the deaths. They would collect six million paper clips to commemorate each of the camps’ victims.

At the end of the first year, only 100,000 paperclips had been collected. But, when two German journalists doing research at the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., heard of the project, they began writing articles that put the quest into high gear. The students began to receive international contributions (some from stars like Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and even former president Bill Clinton). To date, they have collected 17 million paper clips and have gathered thousands of letters. What began with a group of 15 students has gone beyond anyone’s wildest expectations, with students now having to compete in an essay writing contest for the right to participate.

Paper Clips is a 52-minute doc about the history of this movement and the students who created it. Produced by The Johnson Group in McLean, Virginia, the film should be completed by the first quarter of next year. Paper Clips is being undertaken for Memphis Public Television and carries a budget of about US$500,000. The producers have plans to take some of the Whitwell students and teachers on a tour of the concentration camps of Poland for the film.

The starting gun

Providing the historical account of one of history’s most dangerous periods, The Cold War and Beyond looks at the ideological conflict that existed between the United States and the Soviet Union. Public TV stations koce of Orange County, California, and Las Vegas’ KVLX are partnering with the non-profit Chronicles Group to develop, broadcast and distribute the two-hour special. Though no firm air date has been confirmed at this time, the US$600,000 film is expected to air on PBS in 2002.

‘The show begins in 1945,’ says Jim Thebaut, who is executive producing the project alongside Ed Dunford, former president of TRW. ‘Besides examining the ideology of the United States and Soviet Union, we explore the Cold War’s foundation, the Soviets’ knowledge of the bomb during the Manhattan Project. We also explore the rogue states, such as Iraq and Iran, which could potentially acquire the bomb.’

The project also features interviews with former U.S. President Gerald Ford, Robert M. Gates (former director of the cia), and General Brent Scowcroft (National Security Advisor to Presidents Ford and Bush). Other interviewees include former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Georgy Arbatov, advisor to Soviet Leadership.

‘The Cuban Missile Crisis, the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War and other events generated the escalation of the arms race,’ says Thebaut. ‘Whereas the U.S. and Great Britain reduced their forces after WWII, the Soviet military machine remained massive in size – so the Soviets expanded their influence into Eastern Europe, Greece and many other places. That scared the West. The Soviet Union became scared after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – so the Soviets built their own bomb. That really started the arms race.’ Simon Bacal

Everybody wants to change the world…

Devillier Donegan’s ‘Empires’ strand is becoming an empire itself, with the seventh and eighth installments almost ready for TV screens around the world.

Seventh in the collection is Kingdom of David, a 4 x 60-minute series set to wrap in October of 2002. Produced by Oregon Public Broadcasting and Los Angeles-based Red Hill Productions, in association with DDE and PBS, this series tackles the creation and development of the Jewish faith – the first monotheistic religion on the face of the Earth. Shot on locations throughout the Middle East, the series will tackle new historical discoveries and also tell stories of the origins of Judaism that are as old as the Hebrew Bible, including the proposition that it was this document that set down a new and revolutionary interpretation of what it truly meant to be human. The series will also trace the role Judaism has played in the development of modern society.

The eighth installment in the ‘Empires’ strand will be Luther, a 2 x 60-minute series being produced by London’s Lion Television, in association with dde and PBS. Martin Luther challenged an empire that had remained unchanged for 1,000 years, and in the process unleashed a chain of events that pulled the world from the Dark Ages. As Luther was a German Catholic priest, filming will take place in Germany and in Rome, hitting all the noteworthy locales necessary for story development. Ready for September of 2002, this series (as does Kingdom of David) carries a budget of about US$600,000 per hour.

The head of a nation

Today, relatively few people know the name Mkwawa, but in Tanzania he is worshiped as a national hero, with streets and schools named in his honor. Chief Mkwawa was the leader of the Wahehe in the former German colony of East Africa. Dismissed by Europeans as a savage, he led the Wahehe in great battles against the European colonists, and cost the Germans the lives of hundreds of soldiers. Sensing the end of his resistance was near, however, Mkwawa shot and killed himself. As proof of his death, the German Schutzgruppe returned his severed head to Germany where it remained until the end of the first World War. It was repatriated as a condition of the Treaty of Versailles.

Headhunting is a 52-minute (or 45-minute) film being undertaken by Egoli Tossell Film of Berlin for WDR and ARTE. The film will recall the incidents that led up to the decapitation, will reflect on the society of the times, and enjoys the direct support of the great-great-grandson of Mkwawa, Haka Mkwawa. Ready for this fall, the US$150,000 film was developed with the support of the E.U. Media Program.


Brain storming

Spin Free Productions of Toronto is doing what many have tried before – and have failed at miserably. They are attempting to get inside the head of a teenager to see what makes them tick.

Inside the Teenage Brain is being produced with (and distributed by) Vancouver’s Sextant Entertainment Group. Running to 52 minutes, the doc unearths new evidence that suggests the human brain actually undergoes physiological changes in the teenage years. (Versus, blaming it on, say, alien abduction, which some have suggested…) The goal of the film is to scientifically illuminate what causes the remarkable behavior witnessed in the average teenager. The film is destined for the ‘Frontline’ strand on PBS, and is one of the new docs being picked up by CTV in Canada. Ready for late fall, Inside the Teenage Brain has a budget in the US$300,000 range.

International emergency room

In every city around the world, hospitals and trauma centers are full of people in need of life-saving attention. In most places, the causes are familiar: domestic violence, accidents or substance abuse. But in some countries, the trauma center is a direct reflection of the social conditions inherent in the surrounding community. In Cape Town, gang warfare and alcohol abuse are rampant. In Moscow, trauma victims reflect the violent chaos of the neighboring streets. In Jerusalem, politics and terrorism turn into life-and-death stories for emergency room doctors and nurses.

Trauma: Hot Spots is a 6 x 50-minute series about daily life in the world’s emergency rooms. Produced by Absolutely Independent of Amsterdam, the series will look at the above-mentioned cities as well as Washington, D.C., and two others. A pilot is currently available, but the series is waiting on confirmation of new partners to continue. (A broadcaster had signed on and then backed out, but talks are on with several others.) Shot in high definition, the series carries a budget of approximately US$1 million.

Natural History

Conflict and conservation

Amsterdam’s Nature Conservation Films is currently in production on two theatrical wildlife films, both of which will enjoy worldwide release and significant support from Dutch funding bodies. The first of the films, Whale Songs, portrays man’s enduring relationship with whales and dolphins – both to their detriment and their advantage. Part wildlife and part drama, the film has attracted a long list of partners: from PBS, Uncommon Films and Intrepid Films in the U.S.; to AVRO in The Netherlands. The music for the film is being composed by Emmy-award winner John Barry. Ready for summer 2002, Whale Songs carries a budget of about US$2.5 million.

The Old Masai attempts to tell the entire life story of a Masai warrior, with footage of authentic Masai rituals carrying the viewer from birth, through many stages of growth, and into old age. The film blends the people with their surroundings, and concentrates especially on the close ties the Masai have with lions. At press time, the project had attracted avro as the sole broadcaster for this $1.5 million film, but the producer is looking for additional coproduction and broadcast partners for both films. Masai is scheduled to be completed by the end of 2002.

Jumping on the problem

Following the wandering path of a stream can lead you to many places. In the case of Vadim Siderovich, a biologist from Byelorussia, a stream led to a life-long dedication to preserve natural environments. Triggered by the desire to show his fiancé the stream he played by as a child (only to find it destroyed and the environment around it industrialized), Siderovich began a quest to study both the science of biology and the almost unspoiled ecosystems of Byelorussia. In the process, Siderovich found himself in conflict with poachers and the victims of a spent political system who are forced to hunt for food to survive. Eventually, he begins to realize that it is industry which acts as the mechanism for environmental destruction, and begins his work with international partners to try to preserve the environment.

The 52-minute film, SOS… Once Upon A Time There Was A Small Stream, will use both original wildlife footage and re-enactments to tell the story of Siderovich’s life and work. CGI will be used to recreate childhood memories, and also describe imaginary concepts of nature. Produced by Rome-based Paneikon Productions and Pixel Productions (also of Rome), the film has a budget of US$320,000.

Tiger, tiger, in the night

Tall tales of dinosaurs and dodos still roaming the world are usually given the same credibility as Loch Ness Monster sightings, but in Germany, ZDF is on the hunt for a tiger that has been dead since 1936. The Thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger, is a marsupial predator that used to range Down Under. The last specimen was said to have died in the Hobart Zoo before the Second World War, but even today, witnesses continue to swear they’ve seen one.

Acting on these sightings, ZDF sent a crew to the Tasmanian wilderness to see what’s behind the accounts. Are they really only sightings of Tasmanian devils (close relatives of the tigers); or dumbats, a rare striped anteater; or even dingoes, a more modern mammal that now ranges the tiger’s former habitat? Even as one rumor is laid to rest another appears: dog-like animals with striped backs have been seen in New Guinea. Maybe the tigers are still alive after all…?

Desperately Seeking the Tasmanian Tiger is a 50-minute film that will wrap by the end of 2002. It is being distributed by ZDF Enterprises, and carries a budget of about US$205,000.

Social Issues

Not in my backyard

From New York-based Log TV comes a tale of environmental corruption. Between Baton Rouge

and New Orleans, the Mississippi River is home to a string of petrochemical plants that emit plumes of toxic chemicals into the air and water. This witch’s brew of pollutants has adversely impacted the health of residents for decades, resulting in a higher than normal incidence of asthma and cancers, and has inspired a nickname for that stretch of water: Cancer Alley. The African-American community of Norco, Los Angeles, is bisected by a huge oil plant, and residents have been petitioning the company for decades for funds to relocate from the fence line of the plant to a safer locale, but they have met with little success. A major corporate taxpayer has enough clout in Los Angeles to gain the cooperation of state and local officials and have local political districts redrawn so as to keep company-friendly politicians in power.

Never underestimate the determination of victims of injustice to have their day in court, however. The 56-minute (or 87-minute) Fenceline: A Company Town Divided highlights the struggles of Margie Richards and fellow Norco residents to convince the oil company to buy their homes at a fair price and relocate them to safer environs. It follows her to the Hague where she presents her community’s plight at a global conference on Eco-Justice. Hanging the company’s dirty laundry out on a global dais captures their attention and motivates them to settle fairly, giving this sordid tale a happy ending.

This US$300,000 to $350,000 documentary is funded primarily by ITVS and is scheduled to wrap in fall 2001. Carl Mrozek


Extra! Extra! Read all about it!

According to the Washington Journalism Review, Jim Bellows has ‘the longest resume in the history of journalism.’ With a CV that includes editing roles at the New York Herald Tribune, The Washington Star, and the L.A. Herald Examiner, as well as top positions at Entertainment Tonight, ABC World News Tonight, TV Guide, Prodigy, and Excite, Bellows has established himself as a legendary figure in American media.

From Bellows’ cub reporter days (during which time he was once drugged by the KKK), to his conflict with Star publisher Joe Allbritton, who wanted to run a front page endorsement of President Ford after dinner at the White House, The Last Editor – produced by Steven Latham and Christopher Carson of California-based Reverie Productions – will trace Bellows’ dynamic career through interviews with colleagues and the media guru himself.

Scheduled to deliver in January 2002, the US$672,000 doc will air on PBS in April 2002. The 90-minute television debut will coincide with the publication of Bellows’ memoirs The Last Editor: How I Saved the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the L.A. Times (from dullness and complacency).

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