In Ebola’s Wake: Case Study of a High-risk, Fast Turnaround Documentary

In Fall 2014, producer Antje Boehmert was in post-production with Berlin-based director Carl Gierstorfer on Rise of the Killer Virus, a medical detective story on the pre-history of HIV.

The team closely followed the breaking news on the Ebola outbreak in West Africa.

  • Carl began to look for opportunities to cover the story.
  • His research went into high gear when the International Medical Corps granted the crew access to an Ebola Treatment Unit in Central Liberia

This Case Study reveals how the producers created a fast turnaround film without any initial financing in place, and filmed in a very high-risk location.

Our Case Study is also a tribute to Al Jazeera America‘s documentary team, who backed the film, and learned just last week that their network will be shuttered.

Here is the Ebola Case Study, told mainly in Antje Boehmert’s words.

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1.DEVELOPMENT

Concept

For a documentary on Ebola, Carl Gierstorfer wanted to go beyond typical coverage in Western media.

  • He envisioned a film about the difficult choices that the Liberian people were forced to make during the outbreak….
  • A story of survival, guilt and forgiveness told by Liberians whose lives were turned upside down when Ebola attacked their homes, hospitals and communities.
  • Not a Science or Investigative story, but one about the human toll of the Outbreak.
  • An intimate portrait of a community in crisis.

Why This Film Matters

We wanted to give a voice to the Liberians who confronted the virus.

IN EBOLA’S WAKE is a film about the difficult choices Liberian people were forced to make during the Ebola outbreak.

It’s a tale of survival, guilt and forgiveness told by Liberians whose lives were turned upside down when Ebola attacked their homes and communities.

Ebola is a “social” virus. It infects those, who look after their loved ones or care for their patients. An invisible enemy, that randomly kills, Ebola sowed hatred and distrust in communities that had only recently managed to live together peacefully.

The film also tells the aftermath – it provides an important insight into the long-term consequences of the worst public health disaster in recent history. Antje Boehmert

Pre-production Planning

  • We made the snap decision to go ahead, knowing it had to be a quick turnaround.
  • We had to prepare the in-country production, and that meant finding answers to several very tough questions including:
    • Special health insurance
    • Risk assessment
    • And how to cash flow the trip without a signed-up broadcast partner.
  • As soon as we could, we completed a treatment and taster reel, and started our search for funders.

2. GREENLIGHT

  • We started reaching to funders out while the crew was already on the ground in Liberia.
  • PBS International took on the film right away.

 The reason was quite simple: we had very good success with Carl Gierstorfer and Antje’s previous film The Bloody Truth (The Rise of the Killer Virus).  Knowing the unique, and very personal and local, access they had, we decided to take the film.

While it is true that we had Frontline’s Ebola film by Dan Edge, we thought the two films complemented each other.  The Frontline film was an examination of the political, medical and social failure that exacerbated the spread of the virus.  Indeed, this is a very powerful film and an indictment of the global public health efforts to find reasonable coordination,  finances and help when disease outbreaks of this magnitude occur.

Ebola: Death in a Village takes an entirely different approach by looking at a set of very specific cases of individuals in one community in Liberia as they struggled to cope and overcome the virus.

We thought the two films gave a top-down and bottom-up view of the outbreak and were rewarded by placing both of the films with broadcasters globally. Tom Koch, PBS International

  • Eight weeks after kick off, we were in conversations with Al Jazeera America

We supported In Ebola’s Wake because it told an underreported story about how Liberians were coping with the aftermath of the Ebola virus.

The filmmakers had access to a unique and compelling story about the village of Taylor Town and one man’s struggle to reunite with his village after bringing Ebola to the town via his infected son.

From some early footage we saw, we knew Carl had a strong eye for telling intimate, character-driven stories and that the story would be handled with the sensitivity it deserved.

We also liked that the film was told entirely from the Liberian perspective as that fit with the Al Jazeera America mission of giving voice to the voiceless. Diana El-Osta, Al Jazeera America

  • SWR (a member station of Germany’s ARD public television network) learned about the project and instantly supported it.
  • SWR took the project to ARTE.
  • S4C Wales was interested very early on.
  • The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting supported the project from the beginning.

3. PITCHING

Where were the pitches made?

The producers prepared a set of pitch materials:

  • Promo reel: 3 min and 1 min.
  • Treatment: 10 pages.
  • An iPad presentation, including visuals and the promotional reel.

Pitches were made at:

  • Asian Side of the Doc – March 2015.
  • Sheffield Doc/Fest – June 2015
  • Sunny Side of the Doc’s Global Issues Pitch – June 2015

The pitch session formats varied:

  • Sheffield
    15 minute One-to-One meetings, with 8 minutes to present the overview and sizzle reel, and 8 minutes for conversations.
  • Sunny Side
    7 minutes for producers to pitch, and 7 minutes for decision makers to ask questions and to express their level of interest

Taster reel

Don’t miss: The Rise of the Killer Virus.
Our unique Case Study of a complex international co-pro, republished for World AIDS Day, 2015

 4. BUDGET

Total Cost

  • 300,000+ Euros

EbolaChart

Breakdown

  • Development, Rights & Salaries: 46%
  • Travel & Accommodation: 22%
  • Equipment & Postproduction: 20%
  • Insurance, Auditing, Overheads: 12%

Contributions

  • NA right now.

Key Terms

  • Al Jazeera America: U.S. rights
  • SWR/ARTE: Germany and France
  • PBS International: International Sales

5. TIMELINE

  • 13 months from the first conversation about the project to final delivery.

Negotiation

  • “Six months to get greenlight and to negotiate the agreements with our broadcast partners – by the time we inked, we had a rough cut ready.”
  • “We knew this when we started and it was a risk we were willing to take to make the doc happen.”
  • “The story dictated our production schedule – there was simply no time to wait.”

Pre-production

  • 8 weeks (24/7)

In-Country Production

  • Two trips: November/December 2014 and February/March 2015
  • Carl Gierstorfer researched and directed the film. He is also the Director of Photography. Carl was accompanied by journalist Laura Salm-Reifferscheidt who field-produced the film.
  • Back at the office we were busy financing the film, creating the reel and communicating with our potential broadcast partners.
  • We had a local driver who was very helpful but we did not hire any local talent.

Challenges in the Field

There were so many logistical and creative decisions to sort out, for example:

  • How do you do Sound if you cannot touch your interviewee?
  • How do you create an intimate portrait while keeping a security distance?
  • How not to trapped by the ‘nightmare’ visuals – body bags and Health workers in PPEs?

Edit

  • Four months for the four versions we created.
  • While the crew was still on the ground, editor Marcel Ozan Riedel immersed himself into the rushes the crew sent back from the field. He created great reels that helped pitching the film.
  • As soon as director Carl Gierstorfer was back from Liberia, they started editing.

6. DELIVERABLES

Versions

  • 52 Minute ARTE (subtitles and German voice over).
  • 54 minutes version to PBS (English, subtitles).
  • A 48 min cut to clock to Al Jazeera America.
  • The crew also created a beautiful 75 minute version of the film.

Key Contacts

  • Al Jazeera America Presents – Diana El-Osta
  • SWR/ARTE: Bernd Seidl
  • PBS International: Tom Koch, Tracy Beckett

7. BROADCAST

Titles

  • AL JAZEERA America:  In Ebola’s Wake
  • Festival: We Want You To Live – Liberia’s Fight Against Ebola
  • PBS International: Ebola: Death In a Village
  • ARTE:  Ebola: Das Virus Ueberleben / Survivre à Ebola
  • NRK Norway: Livet Etter Ebola
  • DR Denmark: Døden I Landsbyen
  • SVT Sweden: När Döden Kom till Byn
  • … and more to come

Peter’s Takeaways

  • The broadcast of In Ebola’s Wake in the very month of Al Jazeera America’s announced closure underlines the sad loss of an important U.S. window and funder.
    • AJA’s Documentary team commissioned/acquired 26 films / year.
    • Producers of films that address challenging social issues have fewer options than ever.
  • The key role of European broadcasters highlights the increasing importance of Europe in the documentary sector. The message to producers from other countries is: “Get to European markets, like Sunny Side and Sheffield. Make European friends. Particularly German and French ones, since their markets have scale.”
  • It’s interesting that the Current Affairs documentary genre is returning to favor amongst global buyers, perhaps reflecting the desire of audiences everywhere to better understand world events in troubled times.
  • Al Jazeera English remains very committed to documentaries. We’ll cover their strategy soon.

Media

One comment

  1. Ebola Instamentary

    John Ford and Steven Weinstock shared a very interesting perspective on a production about Ebola.

    John was GM of TLC from 1991-’99. In 1995, he had the idea to commission a fast turnaround on the Ebola outbreak.

    “The budget was $70,000 and the Timeline was six weeks!”

    “It was relatively easy to pull this off back then — from the network standpoint — I called Steven Weinstock’s company VNI and gave them the order. But the producers had to get into Zaire, Ebola Ground Zero, talk their way past the health officials, get the story and, not so incidentally, not get Ebola.”

    “We added segments from Puerto Rico (Dengue Fever), New Mexico (Hanta Virus) and Australia (equine virus) to round out a global insta-update on killer viral outbreaks.”

    “The film won TLC is first National Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary.”

    “VNI, owned by The New York Times was the only company capable of pulling off such a global production in such a short time. That success led to Trauma: Life in the ER, which later led to Steven and Glenda founding True Entertainment.”

    “Plus: Trauma: Life in the ER became the training ground for countless nonfiction producers.”

    “So True owes quite a bit to…..Ebola.”

    Steven Weinstock is President & CEO of True Entertainment and Original Media

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