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In this monthly interview series EDN focuses on one of its many members to show both members in the spotlight and the diversity of the EDN membership group. Our EDN member of the month for May 2016 is Alexander Behse, producer, Monsoon Pictures International, New Zealand.

Alexander Behse: Producer at Monsoon
Pictures International, New Zealand

EDN met with Alexander Behse at the New Zealand Film Commission office in Cannes during Le Marché du Film and talked to him about his company, current projects and the possibilities for documentaries in New Zealand.

Born and raised in Germany, Alexander Behse settled in New Zealand in 2002 after graduating with an MA (Producing) at UTS, Sydney. Behse furthermore holds an MA in European Audio-visual Management from the Media Business School, Spain (2005).

After building a reputation as an off and online editor at one of New Zealand's leading production houses, Behse turned his hand to producing. The result was two long-form documentaries that established Behse on the creative landscape and earned him his first accolades. The Flight of Te Hookio (2009) recreated the journey of two Māori rangatira (chiefs) to Austria in 1859 and was nominated for Best Documentary Director at New Zealand's 2010 Qantas Film and TV Awards. Allan Baldwin: In Frame (2011) an intimate and affecting work that profiles a local photographer’s work documenting traditional Māori tā moko (facial tattoos). In Frame would go on to win the Special Jury Award, FIFO Film Festival (2013), as well as Best Documentary - Aotearoa at the Wairoa Māori Film Festival (2013). After the two first successes Behse’s exploration of indigenous subject matter continued with The Road to the Globe: Troilus & Cressida, a documentary that follows a Māori language production of Shakespeare's play to the Globe theatre. Other projects he produced more recently are the one-off docs Paddle for the North and Freezing Works.

Besides feature docs Behse also produces mainstream programming including series such as Davey Hughes – Untamed and Radar Across the Pacific – a prime-time factual TV series, which in 2015 won the team a Silver Medal at the New York World TV Awards and a Best Factual Series awards. Their latest series it the upcoming Radar’s Chequered Past – a dramatized history series.

Aimed at a Sundance 2017 release, Behse is currently in post on Annie Goldson’s feature documentary Kim Dotcom: Caught in the Web, a theatrical doc represented by XYZ Films. Currently in production, Behse also acts as Executive Producer on Gaylene Preston’s My Year with Helen (Tramsmission ANZ distributor). It's the inside story of the United Nations through the eyes of Helen Clark and her quest to become the first female Secretary General.

EDN: Can you start by telling a bit more about your road into documentary producing?

AB: I used to be an editor for factual series and long form docs and then I slipped into producing documentaries. I did not have formal training as an editor, but while I was a student in Germany, I met a German TV producer in need of an online editor … and I claimed to be able to do that. I got the job and had a couple of weeks to learn what turned out to be a stable income for me for a decade.

As an editor I only worked with docs. I like real life stories – stories based on true events, and the urgency of live events unfolding. This is also a tactic in terms of financing – convincing the investors of the now and never aspect.

EDN: What was your motivation for setting up Monsoon Pictures International?

AB: I launched the company 11 years ago when I arrived in New Zealand and after having studied two Master degrees. In NZ I met a boss of a company who told me I was unemployable - “too overqualified”, so I decided to start my own business and be my own boss.

EDN: Is there a common thematic focus for the films you get involved in?

AB: I work a lot with indigenous stories, Māori themes. Up until the feature docs I am currently working on my projects have been revolving around identity – e.g. language and where home is.

The Road to the Globe: Troilus & Cressida about the journey to show the Māori language adaptation of Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida' at the world-renowned Globe Theatre in London is mainly about language and how language is important for cultures.

My next project to be released Poi-E, directed by Tearepa Kahi, is also about language & culture. It tells the story about the first ever No 1 Māori pop song, which hit the charts thirty years ago. The film is funded by NZFC, TMP, MTS, NZonAir and being released by Sony Pictures this August.

EDN: Your company produces both feature docs and TV series. How do you find the projects to get involved in?

AB: It is about 50 - 50 at the moment. Either I come up with the idea, which for example was the case with the above-mentioned Kim Dotcom project. Or more often in recent times the NZFC gets approached with ideas from directors for drama or documentary and then NZFC does the match making and approach producers such as me with projects they think might fit. Or directors themselves come to me directly. If I like it I pick it up.

EDN: You and the company are based in Auckland, New Zealand. Can you give some insights to the current situation for documentaries in New Zealand?

Which type of funding is available for documentaries and how is the collaboration with the local TV stations?

AB: There are possibilities for funding for documentaries through The New Zealand Film Commission and NZonAir - both independent government-funding agencies. The NZFC predominately does theatrical docs, and NZonAir funds programming for local TV channels.

When you shoot/work in NZ it is also possible to obtain a 40 % tax rebate, which becomes producers equity. That can apply to both TV and theatrical projects.

There is no special regional focus or special funding bodies focused on the Asia-Pacific region, but New Zealand has a number of treaties with countries around the world. These include: Austria, Canada, China, Denmark, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Poland, Korea, Singapore, Spain, South Africa, the UK and currently in negotiations with Brazil.

The TV situation is not at its best. TV one off docs barely exists. There is no public service broadcaster in New Zealand and there is no quota. The focus is on returnable series, which are easier to programme. It is also really hard for a foreign idea to make it to the screen. There must be a New Zealand angle or relevance, so in that sense it is a fairly narrow POV.

There is possibility for acquisition on Māori TV and they pay around 1500 € for a broadcast hour. The national airline Air New Zealand is also an option, and pay about the same. The other channels are TV ONE & Two, TV-3, Prime and Choice.

EDN: What are the possibilities for foreign producers in New Zealand in terms of co-production? Do you have advice for a foreign producer interested in working in New Zealand or with a project / subject of relevance for the region?

AB: It is possible to do larger co-productions where New Zealand is the minority co-producer. There is always an eagerness to find the first kick off projects when a new treaty has been signed, and I for example don’t think there has been one with Denmark yet and this treaty was signed 2 years ago.

A way to enter New Zealand is to contact the film commission or the individual producers based here and they/we can help with the match making.

I can also be a contact / provider of service productions equipment and crew in NZ – particularly given I speak German & English.

EDN: You are currently producing the documentary My Year With Helen a feature documentary following Helen Clark and her journey from one of four children on a remote New Zealand farm to becoming New Zealand’s first elected female Prime Minister, and the next chapter, as she attempts to become the United Nations’ first ever-female Secretary-General.

How did you get involved with this project and what is the current status?

AB: NZFC recommended me as executive producer for the project. I liked it and got on board. It is again this now or never story where history is unfolding as we speak. The film follows Helen this year – from Christmas to Christmas.

The project is funded and I have used Cannes and the market here to look for foreign sales. And then we aim to finish it around this time next year.

EDN: And last but not least what lies next for you and Monsoon Pictures?

AB: After Cannes where I have been focused on international sales for My Year With Helen, Kim Dotcom and Poi-E I will next head to Venice and the Architecture Biennale where I am screening Ever the Land. The film maps the Tūhoe journey to self-determination through their landmark architectural undertaking to build the first ever “living building” in Aotearoa.

Then in June I will go to Sheffield and the MeetMarket and hopefully meet a lot of you there.

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