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Docs Lead the Race for Relevance, Post-9/11

By Michael Rose

From 'Into the Forbidden Zone', Charles Poe and Michael Davie, producers for National Geographic

Entertainment companies reeled in films and canceled dramatic shows that might remind people of the horrors of September 11, while channels that primarily broadcast documentaries clamored for programming that could explain the tragic events of that day.

Documentary buyers, producers and distributors began grappling with this shift at last fall’s television market, MIPCOM, in Cannes, France, the day American bombs started to fall on Afghanistan. “A new reality has set in,” according to documentary production executive Ron Devillier. “We don’t know what it is exactly, but it’s there.” Even before the market, Devillier’s US based documentary company, Devillier Donegan Enterprises, felt the change. It was besieged with requests for copies of its PBS series, Islam, Empire of Faith.—even from the White House. Vice President Dick Cheney wanted a copy as part of his briefing before appearing on the American current affairs program Meet the Press. Devillier sent him a tape by courier, and before the week ended Devillier Donegan Enterprises had sent more than 100 copies to members of Congress.

The demand for a sweeping series that tells the story of the first 1,000 years of Islam was surprising. The common wisdom was that television buyers were averse to serious subjects, craving celebrity-driven “reality” shows instead. Ever the optimist, Brian Donegan, Devillier’s partner, is confident that every broadcaster will now strive to give the public more programming that increases its understanding of the world. “I think they will tune it up,” he maintains.

The tune-up was already underway at National Geographic, the venerable organization long known for wildlife documentaries. Producers convinced the decision makers there to gamble that an audience existed for timely subjects that no one else was reporting. Almost one year before the terrorist attacks, National Georgraphic producers committed to tell the story of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” whose Northern Alliance forces were waging a war to defeat the Taliban.

The program was ready to premiere two weeks after the events in Afghanistan reached across the globe and sent the world scrambling for answers. “We risked our lives to tell a story nobody cared about, came back, cut the story and suddenly everybody cared,” explains producer Charles Poe. Poe accompanied journalist and best-selling author Sebastian Junger and photographer, Reza, who only uses his first name professionally because his dissident activities had made him a target for authorities.

Junger and Reza were fascinated by the fact that Afghanistan, a tiny country in Central Asia, had repelled the Soviet Army. They wanted to tell that story and show how one of the architects of that monumental victory, Massoud, was holding off the Taliban. Their interest dovetailed with the desire of National Geographic producer Michael Davie, who brought the resulting documentary, Into the Forbidden Zone to MIPCOM. This program launched National Geographic’s “Frontline Diaries” series, which, according to a press release, chronicles the experiences of journalists who take viewers to the heart of the “world’s political, social, cultural and environmental battlegrounds.”

Davie responded to Junger’s and Reza’s passion for the story because he sensed that the situation in Afghanistan was becoming desperate. Years of drought and conflict had displaced so many people. He was convinced that something was going to give. He felt this was a story National Geographic had to tell. “Its motto last century was exploration, and this century it’s conservation, and that also means conservation of the human species,” notes Davie. He also felt that this kind of programming was what the country desperately needed. “I think a lot of American foreign policy problems stem from the fact that Americans aren’t particularly well educated about the rest of the world,” he observes.

Davie found a willing ally in Poe, who signed on to produce the episode. Once underway, Poe began to see Massoud as one of the “hidden heroes of the 20th century.” He was someone who helped to “topple the Soviet Union and now battled the Taliban while the world turned its back.” Later, Poe wouldn’t be surprised when terrorist Osama bin Laden’s people assassinated Massoud two days before the September 11th attack. “They expected that the US was going to come to Massoud,” he says.

Nor was he surprised when the Taliban forces collapsed. Massoud had told the film crew that people were ready to rise up against the Taliban. The contrast between the people under the Taliban’s rule and those in Massoud’s territory was readily apparent to Poe. “When you go to the Panjshir Valley, people are happy, there’s food, people appear to building for the future and not just for boys but for girls.”

The crew encountered a nurse at a hospital who had escaped from Kabul. The Taliban wouldn’t allow her to work in the Kabul hospital or let her leave her apartment without her husband. She told the film crew that she ended up begging on the streets and was beaten by the Taliban for doing that. Finally, she fled with her husband and children and found sanctuary in Massoud’s Panjshir Valley. Massoud heard about her plight and arranged a job for her and a place for her and her family to live. Poe admits that while Massoud was somewhat enlightened about women’s rights in comparison to the Taliban, there were limits. “You can’t say that it was a Western regime where women were walking along the streets without a burka on,” he says.

Not all refugees fared as well as the nurse and her family. The conditions in the refugee camps moved Poe. Winter was approaching and the air had begun to chill but a mostly barefoot collection of hungry people were living exposed to the elements, under little plastic coverings. “It was just astonishing to me that so many people could live like this without the world knowing about it or doing anything about it,” says Poe. “It brought home the need for the media to be there. There was this travesty of people starving to death as winter approached, and no one was reporting on this.” His colleague Davie is also concerned about the lack of serious media coverage of stories that matter. “I hear people in the networks and big broadcasters say our public doesn’t want that, isn’t interested in that kind of thing.” He feels it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If all you do is promote “Survivor” and don’t give them any alternative, then they are not going to know what’s out there.” He’s committed to insuring that National Geographic will continue its commitment to timely programming, “so we understand what it’s like to be in the skin of someone on the other side of the world.” National Geographic’s film library was inundated by requests for footage that could be used to explain world events. The huge increase in demand, post-September 11, astonished Matthew White, who heads the library in Washington, DC. “There’s been a change in the way people see the world,” he notes. “Before September 11, it was all MTV.”

Even executives at MTV have seen a shift, and they are finding that being a “material girl,” may no longer be enough. Tom Freston, chairman and CEO of MTV Networks, after receiving MIPCOM’s Personality of the Year Award, called the tragedy a “911 call to stay in touch with people.” He explained how he canceled normal programming and switched all eight MTV networks to the CBS newsfeed. He was surprised to see how many loyal VH1 and MTV viewers stayed with those channels to watch the CBS feed. He expected that an incident like this would have an impact on programming. Freston bemoaned the fact that there are millions of Muslims in America, yet we don’t know very much about Islam, and acknowledged that his channels needed “to ramp up and get more aggressive in this area.”

The programmers at the Discovery Channel must have been listening to Freston. They announced a one-hour special, Muslims in America, that profiles the lives of six Muslim families who live in different areas of the United States. This special aired around the world in December and comes on the heels of other programs the channel raced to air after September 11, such as Behind the Terror: Understanding the Enemy, produced with the BBC, which aired on September 19. It ran commercial-free on eight Discovery Networks, as well as BBC America.

Will this climate of increased interest in relevance last? Or will the broadcasters slip back to what they consider safer, more commercial fare? Not if Poe has any say in the matter: “I hope that some of the decision-makers realize that it’s worth taking those kind of risks, and it’s also our responsibility to take those risks.”


Michael L. Rose is an independent documentary writer and producer who also writes about the nonfiction production world for several publications.