On the Slate

Of summits and specters
August 1, 2005

Of summits and specters

Should you suddenly be stricken by the urge to conquer Everest, there are plenty of things you may need – but try not to forget the O2 tanks. Without them, the average mountaineer will only last two minutes at the summit before succumbing to oxygen depravation.

Some climbers, however, can survive that strain, and those remarkable few, believes Dr. Hugh Montgomery, might hold a genetic key that could significantly improve the chances of intensive care patients. But Montgomery needs blood samples – taken at the top of Everest – in order to continue his research. So in May, 2007, he and six doctors from London will climb the world’s highest mountain in order to draw a few drops of blood.

In the 2 x 1-hour Dying for Air, London prodco Little Green Men will follow the lengthy preparations for the climb, and then trail the team up 7,000 meters and beyond – into a region quaintly dubbed ‘The Death Zone.’ Distributed by London’s Indigo Film & Television, the US$1 million project will be ready for air in late 2007.

Indigo and LGM are also teaming up on another project that pushes the boundaries of our understanding. Tales From the Other Side is a 6 x 30-minute exploration of spiritualism during Victorian times. Despite the protestations of both the church and scientists, Victorians were gaga for the paranormal. LGM will tell the stories of the mediums, scientists, charlatans and skeptics who contributed to the supernatural tapestry of the time. Budgeted between $180,000 and $245,000 an episode, the series will be ready for primetime next year.

Indigo will also soon be ready to distribute Australian prodco Big Island PicturesStock Squad early next year. The 4 x 30-minute series (or one-hour one-off) travels to the Australian Outback, where cattle rustling has become epidemic. Yearly losses are estimated to be around AUS$47 million – and the criminals have gone high-tech. Rustlers use helicopters to drive cattle, and satellite phones and the Internet to coordinate their nefarious deeds with international buyers. They then use huge ‘road trains’ to snatch up the stolen booty and transport it across borders, or turn it into ‘product’ overnight with mobile abattoirs.

Fighting the wave is the Queensland Stock Squad, a police force that patrols an area 1.7 million square kilometers large – six times the size of England. Well-trained but overworked, these modern-day cowboys are all that stand in the way of ruin for many in the Aussie cattle industry.

The project has already attracted the participation of SBS Australia and NDR in Germany, and carries a budget of about $350,000. BC


You give, you learn

Albert Schweitzer earned significant credentials throughout his life: philosopher, author, physician, musician, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize recipient. (Not to mention fab dinner party guest.) Despite the many paths open to him, Schweitzer trained as a doctor, and sailed to Africa to help sick villagers and lepers in Gabon. He remained devoted to this noble post for the rest of his life.

Produced by Alexandria, Virginia-based Journey Film, in cooperation with New York-based Lightworks Producing Group, the one-hour special Albert Schweitzer: The Grand Doctor is being distributed by Faith & Values Media, and will initially air on Hallmark Channel. The US$600,000 docudrama will be told from the point of view of Helene, Schweitzer’s supportive wife, and will reveal the life of a man heralded as one of the most notable humanitarians of the 20th century. Over 150 extras decked out in period costumes will also be used in the special, along with photos from the Schweitzer archives. To be filmed in the U.S., Strassbourg and West Africa, Doctor will feature interviews with Albert and Helene’s 84-year-old daughter, and is set to wrap in December. AA


The rich and philistine

As the world’s third-largest exporter of oil, Norway ranks as one of the globe’s richest countries, per capita. As a result, its citizens enjoy a high quality of life, and the Norwegian government has invested its current windfall to ensure the same will hold true in the future. The state Petroleum Fund – money set aside to help fund Norway’s extensive social welfare system once its oil and gas resources are inevitably depleted – exceeded US$119 billion in April, 2004.

Oslo-based prodco Fenris Film isn’t complaining, but it has also noticed the country’s accountants have overlooked a significant loss. As Norwegian society becomes increasingly materialistic, it’s letting fragments of its political, cultural and spiritual identity slip.

Producer Tore Buvarp and director Aslaug Holm (who shot 2001′s Cool and Crazy) intend to investigate the matter in the feature The Rich Country. To do so, they’ll follow Norwegian Labor Party leader Jens Stoltenberg on the campaign trail as he shakes hands with the people he hopes will reelect him as prime minister. After holding the post for only one year, Stoltenberg was ousted from office in September, 2001, when Labor posted its worst performance since World War I.

The documentary is being financed by the Norwegian Film Fund, Norway 2005 (a government fund), and Fenris. Distributors SF Norway and TV2 are also backing the €630,000 ($830,000) doc, which will be released in early 2006. KB

Hate, fate and the power of ideas

On December 10, 2004, the Danish branch of the Hizb-a-Tahrir organization posted an article on its website calling for the murder of Jews. In November, an 81-year-old man in France was verbally assaulted by the doorman of his building, who called him a ‘dirty Jew, dirty race.’ Eight months earlier, in Canada, more than 5,000 library books were damaged in a fire after a Molotov cocktail was tossed through the window of a Jewish school in Montreal. The arsonists posted a note explaining the act was in revenge for the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yasin. Anti-Semitism, it seems, is on the rise. While many treat any opposition to Israel’s political policies as anti-Jewish, others are blaming Israel and its policy of occupation for the increase in hate acts.

Israeli director Yoav Shamir plans to follow up his award-winning feature doc Checkpoint with a film that aims to deconstruct the concept of anti-Semitism in contemporary society by searching for its effect, its state, its genesis and its face among ordinary individuals. It Used to be a Great Flag will be shot in a hand held cinema verité style, without archive or reconstructions, and will use incidents like those mentioned as a starting point to discovery. The narrative will be propelled by the individual stories and themes, with experts helping to establish the big picture. The feature doc is being produced by Copenhagen’s Zentropa Real and is budgeted at US$500,000.

Producer Karoline Leth took over as head of Zentropa Real after Carsten Holst left the post to join Thura Film as CEO. Under Leth [yes, she's related - documentary filmmaker Jorgen Leth (The Five Obstructions) is her father], the Danish prodco has been ramping up its slate. Guerilla Girl, a doc that follows a young woman who enters the Revolutionary Armed Forces in Columbia to train to be a guerilla fighter, is scheduled for release in time for IDFA in November. KB


Heart to Hart

The exit of principal dancer Evelyn Hart from Canada’s Royal Winnipeg Ballet in March marked the end of a unique moment in ballet, an era when the names of its top talent were as well known as those of pop stars. After defecting from Russia, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev became the most famous men in tights. In Canada, three ballerinas shared the spotlight: Karen Kain, Veronica Tennant and Hart.

In October, Vancouver-based Dilemma Productions Inc. (DPI) will wrap production on Life & Times of Evelyn Hart for the CBC. Budgeted for CDN$312,000 (US$256,000) and funded by the CBC, CTF, BC Films and others, the one-hour doc will present an intimate portrait of Hart and her contribution to dance. Hart rose to stardom with the Royal Winnipeg Ballet, and in the process brought the prairie company newfound fame on the international stage. Her departure from the rwb at age 48 was decidedly acrimonious, highlighting one of the hidden cruelties of this youth-driven art form.

DPI, which released Life & Times of Arthur Erickson earlier this year, is also in development on a one-hour documentary about a group of kids preparing to perform Brundibar, a childrens’ opera that was staged at a Czech concentration camp during World War II. Brundibar the film will capture how the opera is still a political event as much as it is an artistic one, and has already been picked up by local Channel M. KB

Natural History

Helping hooves

When Graham Heffernan looks at a buffalo, he doesn’t just see a gargantuan mammal, he sees potential to help people who have lived through a disaster.

It’s not an obvious assessment, but Heffernan is on a mission to round up a selection of wild buffalo in Australia to train them to yolk and plough so they can be sent to Indonesia – an area now being rebuilt after it was struck by the tsunami more than half a year ago. Originally Indonesian buffalo, these behemoths were introduced in Australia in the early 1800s, and now Oz has the largest number of wild buffalo in the world.

The 50-minute hd doc The Buffalo Whisperer will show viewers just how strong Heffernan’s relationship is with these animals. After all, it takes a lot of trust to navigate and herd several tons of fast-moving wild buffalo. Produced by Brisbane-based Gulliver Media Australia, the US$300,000 film is set for release in January, 2006. Funded by Gulliver Media and the Pacific Film and Television Commission, it is being distributed by Amsterdam-based Off the Fence and has pre-sold to ZDF/ARTE and Animal Planet in the U.S. AA

The sounds in the silence

Although humans tend to interpret the world visually, the rest of nature is far more aurally fixated. Nature is a cacophony of sound. Silence, despite what our mediocre human ears might tell us, is a rarity.

Producer/director Stéphane Quinson of Paris’ Films Avenir plans to explore the audible world in a 3 x 52-minute series called The Animal Symphony. (There will also be a 90-minute primetime special and a 52-minute making-of component.) The first episode, dubbed ‘The Sound of War,’ will examine how sound is used to defend or attack – fooling competitors with erroneous auditory cues in order to lure them in or chase them away. Next, ‘The Sound of Romance’ demonstrates how audible suggestions help animals choose mates, frighten off other suitors, or teach offspring. Lastly, ‘Word and Music’ tries to uncover if animals can talk to each other. We know they can make themselves understood with auditory cues – growls, purrs, meows – but how much information can they convey, and can that be considered language?

With a budget of €1.5 million (US$1.8 million), the project has attracted an army of international support. Films Avenir, Glacialis Productions (Canada) and MBC (Korea) are producing the doc in association with ARTE (France), CBC (Canada), FTD (France), France 2, Melchior Studios (Russia), RTBF (Belgium), Sagrera (Spain), TSR (Switzerland), and TV5 (France). Symphony is being distributed by France Television Distribution, and will deliver in December of this year. BC

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