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Friday, April 23, 2021

Get Ready for a Trailblazing Travel Documentary

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Filmmaker Malik Bendjelloul explained to the producers of At War Channel that what viewers can expect from the upcoming TV series is “intense, visceral, otherworldly storytelling.”

Speaking at the Project Producer: Original Programming session at The New Yorker Festival on Sunday afternoon, Bendjelloul said that the two previous documentaries the channel is debuting this week contain some of his most harrowing moments: in the first, “Killer in the Congo,” Mr. Bendjelloul traveled to the region with journalist David Rieff to cover the war and conducted 27 interviews while getting caught in the crossfire. (All three films are screening in Venice’s Horizons section.) The other, “Under the Wire,” which explores African modernity, contains a long-distance conversation Mr. Bendjelloul had with Rangi, an 18-year-old boy he met in Zambia and sent $300 of his own money to train for the Seattle marathon. “He reminded me a lot of Doré,” Mr. Bendjelloul said.

“You’ve talked so much about the physical pain and physical discomfort, but, but do you feel the emotional pain of making these documentaries?” moderator Joe Neumaier asked.

“As far as where I am in my personal life, there are moments of pain,” Mr. Bendjelloul answered.

If such direct emotion seems risky for a TV series, it’s not. At War Channel is a small production company based in Los Angeles and founded by executives Abigail Pogrebin, Danny and Caroline Sternheim. The founders are serial entrepreneurs who are also known for producing the TV series “Ugly Betty” and the new Apple series “Planet of the Apps.” In fact, the name of the startup also refers to another time in their lives: as teenage girls, they sold ping pong tables to raise money for college.

“We didn’t know what to do next,” Caroline Sternheim said in an interview with The New Yorker.

They were inspired by the idea of creating a channel that also focuses on “real human stories.” They settled on travel documentaries like “Killer in the Congo” and, in order to develop and scout locations, traveled to the places covered in the films. They have enlisted a range of actors and artists to play, along with sound engineers and editors to capture the authentic sounds of these regions.

“The more you put things together that are connecting, the more you see there’s an appetite,” said Abigail Pogrebin.

Ms. Pogrebin, who began producing documentaries after working in the hedge fund industry, also said it helps to be from the industry to understand why audiences have such an interest in films about extreme conditions and the lives of the subjects behind the cameras.

Mr. Bendjelloul first got interested in travel documentaries after watching travelogues like Robert Flaherty’s “Nova,” and he’s worked to bring that vibe to his series. His first film “Killer in the Congo” was shot entirely on the field. “If you want to have amazing filmmaking, you have to take away any distractions,” Mr. Bendjelloul said.

Mr. Bendjelloul will be at The New Yorker Festival’s latest New York edition on Monday night for a post-screening conversation with Barry Gifford.

The series “Intense, visceral, otherworldly storytelling” does indeed fit the genre of travel documentaries. The droning, ominous narration in the trailer for “Under the Wire” (which depicts Mr. Bendjelloul hiding in a cage while an armed man kills his guide), is unforgettable.

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