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First Look: Films Sans Frontiéres: 'No Borders' Begins Traveling the Globe This Summer

By Tamara Krinsky

Mir Hussein, subject of Phil Grabsky's 'The Boy Who Plays on The Buddhas Bamiyan' which premieres in July as part of National Geographic Channels International's new 'No Borders' anthology series. Photo: Phil Grabsky

This summer, National Geographic Channels International (NGCI) launches No Borders, a new anthology series showcasing a collection of bold, provocative, creative feature documentaries.

"The films in the series are all strongly driven by a good story, as opposed to being driven by an idea or an opinion or a view on some kind of issue," says Sydney Suissa, NGCI's executive vice president for content. "They all have fantastic access to the characters, so we are experiencing the story directly, vicariously, through that great access. The third thing that links the films is that the anthology truly is international. It really reflects the modern world today, where there are No Borders."

Suissa explains that No Borders builds on the original mission of the National Geographic Society, which was founded over 100 years ago to expand geographic knowledge to the world. Originally, this manifested itself in the rich and detailed stories and photos that appeared in the magazine.

"The explorers of today are filmmakers, so we're helping them fund their projects so they can come back and show us some amazing portraits of parts of that world that they know quite well," Suissa continues. "We use our channels as the vehicle to show this."

The projects shown as part of No Borders are a mixture of commissions, co-productions, pre-sales and acquisitions. The series will premiere with the film State of Fear (Paco de Ons, prod.), director Pamela Yates' powerful telling of the story of Peru's battle against the brutal terrorism of the Shining Path movement. She blends personal testimony, history and archival footage to effectively show how the fear of terror can undermine democracy. Other films that are part of the strand include On Dede and his Daughters, from independent Chinese filmmaker Wang Quinze; Marco Baliani's Black Pinnochio; and The Longest River, about the first rafting trip down the entire length of the White Nile.

No Borders will launch in various regions in July, August and September, and will air weekly. At press time, there were 17 different titles either completed or in various stages of production. There are currently no plans for a US broadcast of the anthology, as the domestic and international channels are managed and operated separately.

Current Launches in August

Current, the new television channel created by former US Vice President Al Gore and entrepreneur Joel Hyatt, launches into living rooms on August 1. The channel is being touted as "the first national network created by, for and with an 18-34 year old audience."

Gore, who serves as the network's chairman of the board, said in a statement, "The Internet opened a floodgate for young people whose passions are finally being heard, but TV hasn't followed suit. Young adults have a powerful voice, but you can't hear that voice on television yet."

Current aims to "democratize" television and give those voices an outlet through the airing of short-form, viewer-created content (VCC) that will air as part of different programming strands. The VCC pieces will be mixed in with professionally produced segments. The channel has compared the format to the television equivalent of an iPod shuffle, and plans on including blocks such as "Current Playlist" (music for the digital generation), "Current Parent" (advice to newbie 'rents), "Current Gigs" (careers) and "Current Soul" (trends in spirituality), among others.

These pods will be anchored by news updates each hour, aka "Google Current," that will range in length from 30 seconds to three minutes. The network has partnered with the ubiquitous search engine to address topics which are currently being searched, the idea being to report on "what the world is searching to learn" rather than what a network thinks people should know. This may prove challenging, as six of the top 10 Google searches while writing this article were Star Wars-related.

Those interested in submitting content to Current can upload their videos through the network's Current Studio, available through the website, Internet viewers rank the videos, potentially voting their favorites to air. At press time, Current was offering a payment of at least $250 for any viewer segment used on the broadcast channel. The channel has also run several contests that include either prize money or mini-development deals, and has partnered with the South X Southwest Film Festival to create the 2005 SXSWClick Festival, a new online venture that incorporates mobile technology.

Canadian Film Board Develops Co-Production Pact with Israeli Foundation

The National Film Board of Canada (NFB) has signed an agreement with the New Israeli Foundation for Cinema and Television (NFCT) to provide development funds for five documentary proposals.

The NFB/NFCT agreement is a pilot project, providing a total of $60,000 CD, with each organization putting in half of the money. To qualify, projects must have strong interest, at the very least, from both a Canadian and an Israeli producer. Projects are not limited to shooting in either Israel or Canada, and there are no constraints on subject matter. According to Tom Perlmutter, NFB's English program director general, "What matters is creative vision, the sense that the project has a theatrical potential and that it is a genuine collaboration between Israeli and Canadian producers and talent."

While it might seem unusual for national filmmaking organizations such as the NFB and NFCT to reach beyond their borders, it is both a philosophical and a strategic move. "We exist in a media universe that is not limited to national borders," says Perlmutter. "We can ignore that or decide that we want to be instrumental in setting some of the agendas for a globalized media. We are taking the latter position by forming alliances with like-minded organizations." He adds that international agreements like this one actually increase available resources for Canadian producers and filmmakers.

David Fisher, NFCT Director General, adds, "International partnership is important when it comes to finalizing the worldwide recognition for the merit of the NFCT's work. NFB has an ongoing tradition. We have the chutzpa. This is an important window of opportunity to develop our networking."

Development is often one of the most difficult phases of filmmaking for which to raise money. Funds from the new pact will go towards activities that help define the nature of the proposed stories and explore the realities involved in getting them onscreen. This may include research-related travel, identifying and negotiating access to subjects, researching the availability and costs of archival materials, finding additional co-production partners, creating a demo, hiring experts in a particular field and preparing materials on marketing and distribution possibilities.

Those interested in submitting proposals must do so by September 15, 2005. Canadian inquiries should be addressed to the NFB English Program Director General, c/o Tom Perlmutter, at or 514.283.9501.

‘The Aristocrats' Takes Humor to New Highs and Lows

Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza's The Aristocrats, being released in August by THINKFilm, combines two unlikely genres--comedy and documentary--resulting in a hilarious, dirty, joke-telling journey with some of the biggest names in entertainment. The film has a simple premise: comedy stars of the past and present deliver their version of "the world's dirtiest joke," an old burlesque routine that has become a rite of passage within the comedy community. Familiar faces include Bob Saget, Gilbert Gottfried, Sarah Silverman, George Carlin and Whoopi Goldberg, among others. Some of the most unusual interpretations come from performers whom audiences may not recognize, such as a street mime.

While watching the same routine repeated continuously for 86 minutes might not seem like a sustainable premise, Provenza and Jillette have skillfully crafted the different deliveries into a study of style and sensibility. And when Gottfried does the joke at a Friars Club Roast shortly after 9/11, the film goes a step further and demonstrates how even in the most horrific of times, sometimes a belly laugh is very, very necessary.


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.