By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
Counterfeit drugs that can kill you, organ donations that can save you and a spectacular African fig tree beloved by tiny wasps are three subjects that garnered Peabody Awards for BBC2 this year.
“Queen of the Trees” reveals the complex web of dependency between the sycamore fig tree and the fig wasp. The husband-and-wife team of Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone, experienced wildlife filmmakers, wrote, directed and produced it, supported by international co-producers, including NHK, WNET-TV, Granada International, ZDF and the BBC. The BBC’s Tim Martin was the series editor and, said Mr. Deeble, “very supportive and insightful throughout the post-production.”
For their previous film, “Mzima: Haunt of the Riverhorse,” which won an Emmy and a Peabody, the filmmakers spent two years beside a fig tree and realized it would be a wonderful story if they could figure out how to photograph the “macro-micro elements.”
“Our films are very much about ecological relationships, and having just made a film centered around large animals, hippos, it seemed a good time to do something on a completely different scale which would challenge us in different ways,” Mr. Deeble said.
At their rustic campsite, where they spent two years and home-schooled their two children, Mr. Deeble noted that he and Ms. Stone had their “fair share of malaria, plane wrecks and predators in camp … but they go with the territory.” They used high-definition cameras to document the tiny wasps that seek refuge in this stately tree, marking the first wildlife film for the BBC Natural History Unit to be shot entirely in hi-def.
“For us, the magic of the story is to see how interrelated the whole system is,” Mr. Deeble said. “It is really a metaphor for the eco-complexity of the whole natural world, of which, as humans, we are an important part. We hope the audience feels that the fig tree symbiosis that revolves around the intricate behavior of an almost microscopic insect is both extraordinary and humbling. I think it demonstrates how little we know about the complexity of many natural relationships, and how fragile they are, and how easily phenomena like climate change could upset them.”
The subject of counterfeit drugs is a considerably grimmer topic, tackled by veteran BBC reporter Olenka Frenkiel and producer/cameraman Iain Overton. In the 50-minute “Bad Medicine,” Ms. Frenkiel took the editorial lead on a story that has fascinated her for years: counterfeit and fake drugs. “In the film ‘The Third Man,’ the essence of the plot is how someone is watering down penicillin in postwar Austria so that the children suffering from meningitis are suffering brain damage,” Ms. Frenkiel said. “What’s happening now is exactly that, but writ much larger, with fantastic amounts of money to be made.”
Ms. Frenkiel uncovered the widespread infiltration of counterfeit drugs, a disturbing story that took her to Nigeria, India, the United Kingdom and the U.S. The genesis of the program was a news item she read about a Nigerian government official who declared war on counterfeit drugs. She heard a news item about Dr. Dora Akunyili, the regulator of Nigeria’s Food and Drug Agency and a former pharmacist, who determined that 60 percent of pharmaceutical drugs in Nigeria were counterfeit, some of them made from flour or chalk and others made with a reduced amount of the active ingredient, which created drug-resistant strains of tuberculosis and HIV. Ms. Frenkiel knew she had the bones of a compelling story.
“Bad Medicine” traces the source of counterfeit drugs to China and India, where the proliferation of cheap generic versions of name-brand drugs has helped get HIV drugs to thousands of poor people in developing nations. “But parallel to that is unregulated copied generics, which may contain some active ingredients but not enough to be absorbed into the body-or perhaps none of the active ingredients and maybe even something toxic,” Ms. Frenkiel said.
“It’s always difficult, nearly impossible, to prove the link between a counterfeiter and a death,” she said. “The person is already sick and the drug has already been consumed.” But Ms. Frenkiel was able to do just that through serendipity. A team of U.S. doctors had performed heart surgeries on children at a Nigerian hospital, but the adrenaline they used to restart their hearts didn’t work. Four children died on the operating table. Footage of these children already existed, and Dr. Akunyili went to the hospital with Ms. Frenkiel and her cameraman to confront the head of the hospital.
“Dora proved they were buying drugs from an open market in an attempt to save money,” Ms. Frenkiel said. “The story only came out because the visiting Americans were so angry and appalled. We got the testimony of the U.S. doctors, who said there was no doubt in their minds that it happened because of the counterfeit drug.”
“Bad Medicine” also brings the story closer to home, where U.S. drug counterfeiters supply U.S. pharmacies with fake cancer, HIV and other drugs. “There’s an endless number of intermediaries in the U.S. between the factory and the pharmacist,” Ms. Frenkiel noted. “It’s impossible to track.”
Topics of Wide Interest
Encouraging people to sign up as organ donors is the call to action in “Life on the List,” a five-part documentary that was part of the BBC’s DoNation season, which highlighted issues around organ donation and transplants. “Life on the List” tells personal stories of a wide range of people who are on the list for an organ transplant, including 7-year-old Justin, who needs a heart; married father of six Trevor, who needs a double lung transplant; and 6-month-old Emma, who will die in 48 hours without a new liver. Intertwined in these stories of children and adults desperate for healthy organs, “Life on the List” also tells the story of Rona Raphael, whose 15-year-old daughter died four years earlier. Ms. Raphael made the decision to donate her daughter’s organs and, in the concluding episode, she meets the mother of a 9-year-old boy whose life was saved by the donated kidney.
These intriguing documentaries all bring topics of international concern to U.S. audiences, and the BBC filmmakers are acutely aware of the allure of their programs for audiences outside the U.K.
Ms. Frenkiel noted that BBC World will launch in the U.S. the week of June 3 and will run “Bad Medicine” as part of its launch week. Though Ms. Frenkiel has already won two Peabodys, the thrill isn’t gone. “I’m so happy to win the Peabody Award,” she said. “They so value good journalism, and I’m proud of that.”