Case Study: THE SIEGE OF MECCA, A French / German Coproduction of an Investigative Documentary with a 600,000+ Euros Budget

THE SIEGE OF MECCA is a compelling investigation into a violent event that has shaped recent history, but that is still wrapped in secrecy in France, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and elsewhere.

This Sunny Side of the Doc / DocumentaryBusiness.com Case Study reveals a 5-year commitment to a German/French copro with a €620,000+ budget.

THE STORY

  • At 05:30 am on November 20, 1979, hundreds of heavily-armed men assault the Grand Mosque of Mecca.
  • Led by the messianic Saudi Juhayman al Utaybi, the mainly Bedouin insurgents transform the holiest shrine of Islam into a fortress.
  • 100,000 pilgrims inside the mosque become hostages.
  • The ensuing siege and battle cost hundreds if not thousands of lives, shake Saudi Arabia to its foundations and threaten the global balance of power.
  • The Siege of Mecca sparks a new cycle of religiously-motivated terrorism and counter-attacks that have gripped the world since.

OFFICIAL TRAILER

CONCEPT & DEVELOPMENT

  • In 2011, whilst filming in the Middle East, producer Dirk van den Berg briefly travels to Saudi Arabia.
  • He is given a USB stick that contains evidence about an event at the Holy Mosque of Mecca unknown to him but that appears to have been the largest hostage-taking event in modern history.

EDN Pitch

  • In a confidential online pitching session organized by EDN (European Documentary Network) in 2012, Dirk presents the story idea to Peter Gottschalk of ARTE GEIE, who encourages him to find evidence and witnesses for his story.
  • Dirk finds his first eyewitness, a former American ambassador, who agrees to meet.
  • The diplomat corroborates the event in great detail in a filmed interview.
  • He confirms both its historical significance and the deep secrecy imposed on the Siege of Mecca by multiple political, religious, security and military parties.

Needing a Partner

  • Dirk realizes that the story is too big to deliver by himself.
  • He contacts the experienced French producer Pascal Verroust.
    • Verroust is initially very skeptical about the story’s credibility and the feasibility of making a film about it.
    • However, during the Jewish supermarket attack in Paris, Pascal’s two daughters remain trapped in their school located nearby.
    • When the family finally reunites, the girls ask questions about the motives of the attackers.
    • Their intense curiosity is the final trigger for Pascal to join Dirk as a co-producer.

First Sizzle

  • Dirk and Pascal cut a sizzle that combines extracts from the diplomat’s interview and fragments from the USB stick.
  • They show it to ARTE FRANCE commissioning editor Mark Edwards.
  • ARTE France immediately commits to the film.
  • Dirk, Pascal and Mark agree that secrecy over the project should be maintained until more witnesses and evidence could be found.

Access and Approach

  • “I already had strong contacts inside the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), and I knew that this event is still one of the greatest ‘taboos’ of Saudi and Middle Eastern history. There was no way this film could be done without speaking to people and filming in KSA. But how much we tried, Saudi authorities didn’t respond to our requests. They didn’t reject us, they just completely ignored us.
  • “We didn’t give up, but we wanted to remain in the open. Any kind of ‘undercover filming’ or similar actions would have compromised our stance with our Muslim witnesses and our potential Muslim audience. You can’t be fair only with some people, you have to be fair with everybody, and that of course includes the Saudis. So we waited. And waited… for two and a half years. This ultimately was what made the project take five years to complete.” Dirk van den Berg
  • The filmmakers were granted access to Saudi Arabia immediately after Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) became Crown Prince, and were allowed to film without restraint in the Kingdom.

“Sunny Side of the Doc is pleased to launch a full-year content partnership with Peter Hamilton’s DocumentaryBusiness.com. Through case studies, podcasts and our conference sessions, we will inspire international documentary professionals with the information they need to create, co-produce and successfully distribute their stories.” Yves JeanneauCEO of Sunny Side of the Doc

FUNDING

Arte

  • In June 2015, ARTE FRANCE joined the project, committing 150,000 Euros

IDFA 2015 Central Pitch

  • Dirk and Pascal applied for the IDFA 2015 Central Pitch shortly after ARTE France committed.
  • “The IDFA Central Pitch felt like the right place to reveal what we were working on and to gather more partners who would share our understanding that this is a complex, investigative project about a story that many powerful interests wanted to keep a secret.”

Investigative Strategy

“When IDFA selected the project for the Central Pitch, our strategy became threefold:

  • Contact historians and researchers who had studied the event and its consequences. We wanted their help to uncover the truth about the event. AND we wanted to discover the motives of the alleged terrorists.
  • Find more key witnesses on all sides of the story: From the rebels to the KSA government; from the diplomats, journalists and civilians to the Saudi military; and from the secret services of the KSA, France and U.S. that were involved in the event.
  • Find visual material that would help strengthen the pitch.
  • As we pursued this strategy, new and contradictory facts constantly forced us to re-write the basic pitch.” Dirk van den Berg

More Funding

  • In early summer, the Hamburg Film Fund FFHSH committed 15,000 Euros for story development.
  • The French National Institute INA committed 50,000 Euros for archive and post-production.

Terror Attacks Threaten

  • “One week before the IDFA Central Pitch, on November 13 a series of coordinated terrorist attacks struck Paris. 130 people died. ISIS claimed responsibility. We briefly thought about withdrawing from IDFA.
  • However, INA significantly increased their contribution to 75,000 Euros, declaring that now more than ever they wanted to be part of this project.
  • ARTE also encouraged us to stand by our position.
  • We completely changed the Central Pitch presentation, attempting to avoid the impression to want to profit from the horrific events that just occurred.
  • We abandoned the teaser we had originally prepared for IDFA; 48 hours before the pitch we edited a new one that was less emotional and focused on the international investigation.” Dirk van den Berg

The IDFA Central Pitch

IDFA Triggers Commitments

  • During IDFA Central Pitch, NDR’s commissioning editor Barbara Biemann officially committed to the film with 130,000 Euros.
  • The BBC’s Nick Fraser declared the story very interesting but that the film “should not be done as an investigation”, causing an intense debate that split the IDFA audience down the middle.
  • The producers raised significant funding at IDFA, including from:
    • NDR / ARD
    • PBS International for global sales
    • Presale agreements were signed with Belgian, Swiss, Norwegian and many other broadcasters

Key Appeal to Funders

  • “We at ARTE France felt this project has the potential to provide a missing link that would finally begin to explain the connections between the crisis that happened in 1979 at the Great Mosque in Mecca, and the spread of Islamic terrorism around the world today.” Mark Edwards presenting the project at IDFA.

Funding Highlights

  • ARTE: 150 000 €
  • INA: 73 326 €
  • CNC: 50 000 €
  • ARD: 130 000 €
  • FFHSH (Hamburg Film Fund): 65 000 €
  • PBS: 43 250 € (Minimum Guarantee)

BUDGET

  • Final Budget: 623,657 Euros

Partial Breakdown of Costs

  • Research Cost: 22%
  • Production: 47%
  • Post Production & Delivery: 25%

TIMELINE

  • Committed to production: Summer 2014
  • Pre-production: Fall 2014 to Summer 2015
  • Production: Summer 2015 to Summer 2017
  • Post: Summer 2017 to Christmas 2017 (24 weeks of editing for 3 versions)
  • Delivery: January-March 2018

VERSIONS

  • THE SIEGE OF MECCA premiered in a 52-minute version on ARTE FRANCE / GERMANY on August 21, 2018.
  • The 75-minute version premiered on the ARD German public television network on August 27, 2018.

Trailers

More Reading

DISTRIBUTION

  • PBS Distribution has sold MECCA worldwide.
  • However, neither PBS or any American network has licensed THE SIEGE OF MECCA. Perhaps the Khashoggi murder created a distribution redline around the film?

LISTEN TO THE PODCAST

  • My podcast with producer Dirk van den Berg reveals his 5-year project with Pascal Verroust to accomplish a complex investigative documentary.
  • We focus on how the producers secured European funding, beginning with a quick 150,000 Euros commitment from ARTE network.

PODCAST (29 min)

 


 THE FILMMAKERS

Dirk van den Berg

  • A director who graduated in Rome, who switched from fiction to documentary film in 2007 when he moved to Berlin.
  • Experience includes 6 months as a director/producer in Saudi Arabia for Aramco.
  • Dirk has directed and produced international projects in Europe, Ethiopia, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan.
  • With his company OutreMer Film, he has received funding from the European MEDIA Fund, broadcasters and film funds in Germany, France, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, Poland.

Pascal Verroust

  • A producer of cinema and television films for 30 years.
  • With his companies K2 Productions and ADR, his editorial line has been the curiosity and passion for outstanding and atypical feature and documentary films
  • Pascal has produced 100+ documentaries and 30+ feature films, including “L’homme sur les quais” by Raul Peck (Official Competition, Cannes Film Festival), “Karnaval” by Thomas Vincent (best 1st film prize, Berlin Film Festival) and “Rien à faire” by Marion Vernoux (official Competition, Venice Film Festival).

MORE ON THE EDITORIAL CHALLENGES
Extracts from my interview with producer Dirk van den Berg:

Did It Really Happen?

The first challenge was to prove that this story was actually true. The was a huge discrepancy between what seemed to have happened in Mecca and how little was actually known. Broadcasters and potential partners I talked to asked me openly: “How come that we know nothing about it? Is it even true”? This story seemed to be “too much”: the biggest hostage crisis of all time with 100,000 hostages, an armed battle over the holiest shrine of Islam that was resolved after 15 days with the help of French special forces who until today do not officially admit their action ever took place. And above all this, it might also have been the trigger for the subsequent rise of Al Qaeda, ISIS and religiously motivated terrorism as we know it today. All that in ONE story?

The Key Witness

We had to find someone who was involved in the event and could possibly give his testimony in English, so that our potential backers would have no doubts. And we found him in former U.S. Ambassador Mark Hambley, who in 1979 was the American political-military liaison officer in Jeddah, 35 miles from Mecca. The first interview with Mark turned out to be key to convince everybody that our story was true, and that it was big.

Financing an Investigative Project

The next big challenge was to get enough financing for a project they would take a significant amount of time to convince people to speak with us, let alone in front of a camera. After all, the Mecca siege is still “the greatest taboo” of the Middle East.

Breaking Taboos Means More Resources

We had uncovered a former member of the rebel group who still lived in the city of Mecca, luckily outside of the holy area forbidden to foreigners, and who wanted to talk. We literally waited for him in front of his house because he didn’t return our phone calls. When we talked to him and told him why we were doing the film and that we wanted to give a voice to all sides, he was satisfied and agreed to do an interview the next day. But when we came back, his son shielded him completely from us, saying “My father decided against talking to you”. I didn’t believe this because in our previous meeting the old man told me that the interview with us for him would be the moment to come clear with his family: he had never spoken to his sons about what he did in 1979.

So we once again drove to Mecca and actually met both of them. But his son’s resistance was too strong: he didn’t want to know his father’s story, and the father respected that wish. We understood it would cause them – and probably us – too much damage if we insisted. That whole episode had cost us 6 or 7 days in Saudi with the whole crew present and ready to film. If you don’t have the resources for that, you can’t do a film like this.

Helped by MBS’s Moment of Change

We had already filmed in the UK, the US; France, Germany and several countries in the Middle East. From the start we knew that the key for this film was to get into Saudi Arabia and talk to people there who had lived these events, people “from all sides”: government, military, the rebels, inhabitants of Mecca, and possibly even the Royal family of the Al Saud.

I had told Saudi authorities privately and officially about the project and that I didn’t want to smuggle ourselves into the kingdom under a false pretense. But for 2 ½ years the Ministry of Information and Culture ignored us. It’s a typical Saudi thing, you neither say yes nor you say no, you just don’t react, hoping or that the request sooner or later gets dropped or that someone “higher up” decides at your place.

Then we got lucky: Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) became Crown Prince in early 2017 and reshuffled almost all ministries. The new minister of culture and information knew about the project from the time he had been Saudi ambassador to Germany, and he was inclined to help.  We got our visas less than a week after MBS made him minister.

When MBS became Crown Prince, in one of his very first interviews with Western media he mentioned the Siege of Mecca as the pivotal moment that marked the beginning of a dark and negative time period for his country. Many young Saudis in his and the later generations associate the event with the complete religious and the rise of an oppressive religious police that applied draconian methods of religious ultra-orthodoxy, and that in the almost four decades after 1979 grew in importance, budget and bluntness. The young generation wants closure about this. MBS in fact abolished the Religious Police in 2017, an event that not many in the West gave the importance it actually has for the Kingdom. My film finishes with this yet unanswered question: will MBS truly deal with the past and with the responsibilities of his own family, or will he simply put a lid on the Siege of Mecca and move on?

Time and More Time

TIME had always been the crucial factor of this project: time to build up your contacts, to make people understand why you do a story – especially if that story is touching a taboo as big as the Siege of Mecca. And time on the ground when you film your protagonists. In the Middle East, things happen when you are physically present, not by email or phone call. People consider you “a reality” only if you really show up in their home town. So you can’t do a lot of prep before. You have to go there, drink tea with them, make them understand who you are and why you are doing what you’re doing, and you have to make them understand this is not all about you and your film. Eventually, time comes to start talking with a camera rolling. Your team can’t be called in just then, you have to have them standby all the time. That’s what cost more than two thirds of the budget. But it was worth it.