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F&ME Completes Production on ‘Breathe – Umphefumlo’ (EXCLUSIVE)

London-based producer’s Rio productions underscore its cross-border zeal

RIO DE JANEIRO — With productions spread around much of the globe, and an enduring focus of social issues, Film and Music Ent. (F&ME), the London-based production company set up 15 years ago by Mike Downey and Sam Taylor, has concluded production in Cape Town on one of its flagship titles: Mark Dornford-May’s South Africa-set and shot “Breathe-Umphefumlo.”

It features the Isango Company, a famed opera company which has drawn rave reviews on its U.S. tour; Dornford May whose feature debut, “U-Carmen e-Khayelitsha,” won Berlin’s Golden Bear in 2005,

Meanwhile, on the other side of the southern Atlantic, F&ME is also nears completion of post-production on “Streetkids II- The Girls From Rio,” exec-produced by Stephen Daldry and Beeban Kidron, and announced at the 2013 Rio Festival.

This year at Rio, Downey will serve on the jury of fest’s centerpiece Premiere Brasil, where F&ME also has three films screening: Julien Temple’s “Rio 50 Degrees,” Mohsen Makhalfbaf’s “The President” and Ben Hopkins’ “Lost in Karastan.”

Produced by F&ME, Dornford’s label Isango Company and Vlokkie Gordon of Advantage Ent., with Propeller Film a minority partner out of Germany, “Breathe” “breathes F&ME’s ethos: It a culture graft, a co-production – F&ME, Isango and Advantage have signed a three-pic pact – and it produced in a part of the world which, like Brazil, few British companies dare to reach. As F&ME consolidates movies and partnerships, it is developing effective social-issue franchises.

“Umphefumlo” continues Dornford May’s mission of re-imagining opera –here, Puccini’s “La Boheme” – in contempo South Africa’s townships and a university. Opera is meshed with a orchestra of marimbas and steel pans, plus the voices and acting of the Ensemble.” Puccini’s Christmas Eve becomes South Africa’s June 16 Remembrance Day of the 1976 Soweto slaughter.

KykNET, the Afrikaans division of pay-TV operator M-Net, has acquired “Breathe.” Pic is also backed by ARTE, South African rebate funding, and the HOPE Project of the University of Stellenbosch, which supports the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation.

Per Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mimi ‘s final succumbing to tuberculosis in “La Boheme” will resonate with South African auds and pic’s above-the-line: “Many members of the cast come from areas of Cape Town where the disease is prevalent. In fact, in South Africa we have the highest TB incidence in the world, its incidence is rising (one of only two countries in sub-Saharan Africa where it is), and it is a leading cause of death in South Africa where more than 50,000 people die from tuberculosis every year.”

F&ME’s Rio-presence is a sign of its breadth, and how, in production terms, it mixes things up, culturally, geographically. This of course sometimes allows it to tap a bouquet of soft moneys and price economically. It also suggests a philosophy that the global culture mesh on the screen should be matched by another in production terms. Talent, including production talent, these days has no nationality. Anything else would be hypocrisy.

Exhibit A: A comedic study in post-Communist angst,

“Lost in Karastan,” is written by a Pole, Pawel Pawlikowski, directed by a Brit, Ben Hopkins, , shot in Georgia, post in the U.K. and Russia and premiered at Montreal in competition.

More examples: Turning on the fall of a dictators, and how to end dictatorships without people’s suffering, “The President” is directed by an Iranian, produced out of London by Brits, shot in the Caucasus and opened Venice Horizons.

“Rio 50 Degrees,” a politically-motivated musical portrait of a city, is shot in Brazil, with post-production in Germany and the U.K.

Distributed by Universal, and a pioneering production between U.K.’s Working Title, PeaPie, Brazil’s O2 Filmes and Germany’s Universal, “Trash,” whose central set is a landfill outside Rio, is helmed by F&ME chairman Stephen Daldry. It world premieres at the Rio Fest Oct. 7, as the Rio Festival’s closing film.

During Rio, Variety spoke to Downey, who also doubles up as the European Film Academy’s deputy chair, on F&ME’s production philosophy:

Why F&ME’s reach? Was it just the attractions of individual projects, or that your enjoyment of producing way outside the U.K. which has become a competitive advantage?

When Sam Taylor and I founded the company with its launch on the Frankfurt DAX 50 movies ago, it was modeled on what we saw was happening in the music business in the area of “World Music” – that, in addition to our domestic home-grown U.K. and European business, we would actively pursue “World Cinema” projects. 15 years later and with a portfolio of films with budgets totaling in excess of $175 million, we have been successful in creative a company with a mixed portfolio, that does not depend for its existence on the three major U.K. cornerstone funders, the BFI, the BBC and Film Four – nevertheless we work regularly with all three – and has a very eclectic mix of creative and commercial partners all over the world.  Very few U.K. production companies have developed and made films with the likes of Nobel prize winner Gunter Grass, literary father of the Australian nation Thomas Keneally (“Schindler’s List”) and L.A.’s own Demon Dog, James Ellroy.

Did you manage finally to set up either “Rio 50 Degrees” or “Streetkids United II” as an official co-production with Brazil? Does TV Zero co-produce or co-finance? What is their distribution in Brazil?

Chris Pickard and myself originated the idea of the Julien Temple film – and by collaborating with Rodrigo and Roberto at  TV Zero as a full-on co-production partner, with funding from Sergia Sa Leitao’s RioFilme,  on “Rio 50 Degrees” we have truly embedded ourselves with the Brazilian film industry on a film whose subject matter demands that kind of participation.  On “Streekids United – The Girls from Rio,” produced by Jamillah van der Hulst and myself, – the construction with Total was somewhat different, they co-produced and invested resources and some manpower and kit, but in effect the deal was tending more towards a service deal.  Both companies took Brazilian rights and neither has an exclusive distribution outlet.  Rio 50 Degrees” will have its international premiere at IDFA – ideal for a documentary of this kind, and we are looking to repeat our “Streetkids” I success with II in the Berlinale’s Generation.

It could be argued that you are creating social-issue entertainment franchises, either explicitly – ‘Streetkids II” – or implicitly with your partnership with Mark in South Africa….

Part of our ‘mixed portfolio-world cinema’ goals since the inception of Film and Music Entertainment back in 2000 has been to have a social-issue mission.  My background in political theatre in the 80’s kind of dictated this.  There are two things at play: There is a market for this kind of issue driven entertainment, and that it is self sufficient enough to engender continuity in our being able to make a series of issue driven projects.  If you look at our catalogue, there are very few films that you can point to and say that they aren’t issue-driven in some way or another.  But our work with the Golden Bear winning Isango/Dornford-May franchise is the real “Music” in what we do, both literal and metaphorical.  I’m delighted to be with Stephen Daldry, F&ME’s chairman, Sir Ian Mckellan and Sir Simon Rattle on the International Board of Isango as well as their permanent European co-production partner.  Isango is one of the most important opera companies in existence in the world today.  The voices and music are world class – and the issues that these music films bring to a wider audience are key to understanding Africa as a place of potential and hope and not the basket-case that it is usually perceived as.  Isango is one of the most important – if not THE most important things we do.

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