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Producing International Documentaries: Marion Renk-Rosenthal of Renk-Rosenthal Media Production

Part 1: Four countries’ business and social practices.

Marion Renk-Rosenthal

Documentaries are a tool to change the world. Marion tells the story of Corky, an Orca from British Columbia, and the discovery of long-buried historical site, the Lost White City in Honduras. As she creates these documentaries, she navigates the rules of private and state-run media. She also explores social, business and cultural norms in the US, the UK, France, Germany and Luxembourg, with critical do’s and don’ts in each country.


Successful documentaries made by Marion over the years.

The story of the lost White City

Business expectations in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany.

Formal introductions in Europe vs American

Luxembourg life and expectations

Marion Renk-Rosenthal Bio:

Marion is a California-based, American and German multi-lingual and cultural TV producer and project manager who has lived in the UK, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. She speaks fluent French and German and excellent Spanish and works in media, PR, and tourism. Her projects range from producing European documentary films to managing international VIP business travel programs in the US. In all her projects she bridges linguistic and cultural gaps between global clients and their audiences or participants.

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Full Transcript

Hello everyone. Most of our bloopers are wonderfully amusing, but this one is not. It’s not hilarious, but it illustrates how, when amateurs and nonprofessionals do translations, they don’t quite turn out the way they should … the way they’re intended. 

A sign in France said in French, “For the respect of everyone, please leave the toilet in the state in which you would like to find it upon entering.” And the sign in English said very similarly, but not exactly the same, “For the respect of all, thank you to leave the toilets in the state where you would find the entrance.” So that’s not exactly what it was supposed to mean, but it’s an example of what happens when we don’t translate information correctly. 

Today’s guest is very special. She is Marion Renk-Rosenthal, and she’s a California-based, American and German multilingual and cultural TV producer and project manager who has lived in the UK, France, Germany, and Luxembourg. She speaks fluent French and German and excellent Spanish and works in media, PR, and tourism. Her projects range from producing European documentary films to managing international VIP business travel programs in the US. Marion bridges linguistic and cultural gaps between global clients and their audiences or participants.

Welcome, Marion. We’re delighted that you’re with us today.

Hi Philip, thank you so very much for having me.

So perhaps we could start by having you tell us some of the most successful or interesting documentaries that you’ve made over the years.

Yes, I had to think about that because obviously I’ve been at it since 1986 when I came to the United States, and shortly after European media were privatizing. So, I got a lot of work immediately. I’ve made over 50 films and countless reportages, and I was thinking about the ones that have had the biggest impact on me. 

The one that was really outstanding was about Corky, an orca. She was captured in British Columbia, and she’s part of SeaWorld’s attraction in San Diego. It was a film that won a commendation from the Genesis Awards, The American Humane Society’s annual awards for nature and animal protection, and we’re very proud of that because it had an impact long before Blackfish. It raised awareness about the problems of orca captivity, and it was a beautiful story to tell.

And we got to travel to meet a biologist in British Columbia. Paul Spong, who has an Orca lab on Hansen Island and who is still an advocate for freedom, release, and anti-captivity, and it has an impact on the industry, on the Display industries, of course. 

Another one I really remember fondly was the most adventuresome production we tracked through the Mosquitia Jungle in Honduras, and we were the first people in there for many, many years looking for the legendary Lost White City. And back in the mid-90s, we did not find it. We had a very adventurous trip and a lot of great footage, and it was an interesting film. However, we couldn’t find the Lost White City. We may have walked right over it because it was just incredibly green and muddy everywhere. It was a really physically challenging job for us. 

Meanwhile, my then director of photography, Steve Elkins, became obsessed with that legend, and he had studied anthropology in college. And he is fascinated with the historical aspects. So, he started researching like crazy, and by 2012 he had determined what area would be most likely the site, and he had, you know, gone to the Smithsonian and interviewed multiple scientists and anthropologists and researchers at various universities had, while LIDAR technology which existed in the meantime had evolved and he organized financing, worked with the University of Houston, TX, and the Honduran government, and they located the structures completely overgrown by jungle. 

Meanwhile, that site has become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So the documentary we did originally, came up with the idea because he knew some adventuresome types in Honduras. I proposed it to a German client who I knew would probably be interested. German universities have a strong involvement in Honduran research, and history and assisting the Honduran scientists. So, there was an interest in the German public already about the country, although nobody knows how to pronounce the capital, and I had to learn it. It’s Tegucigalpa. Germany was interested in that film, which became successful and launched Steve’s massive venture. 

Steve, meanwhile, is president of the Explorers Club in South Southern California, and the project has enjoyed worldwide success and media attention, and it was all launched by that one US documentary about schlepping through the jungle.

It’s marvelous. Perhaps you could tell our listeners and our viewers what the Lost White City is, because many people may not know.

Yes, the Lost White City, was a legendary archaeological site that had been reported by multiple sources over the centuries as something they had seemingly seen or spotted. The Mosquitia people had a different climate zone and climate changes, and it is most likely a culture that predated the Maya and Olmec. It was in a very, very, very remote area of Honduras in the jungle, which is now protected by the government and international entities.

Well, right now there’s too much turmoil in Honduras to visit, but generally speaking, they’re trying to develop it as an eco-tourism and historical tourism site, and they are trying to excavate a little, but there is, of course, the past problem that you can see the structures … large building structures that are completely overgrown by vegetation on the LIDAR images. 

Douglas Preston wrote a book about it. The City of the Monkey Gods has many legends surrounding it. The problem is, though, if you excavate everything, you destroy the jungle. So, what takes precedence here? And at this point, Honduras has had a lot of problems in recent years, politically and economically, and it also has very high crime rates, so I don’t know how many entities can possibly work there at this point. But right now, it’s not exactly recommended for tourism.

Right. That makes perfect sense. Since you’ve worked and lived and worked in the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, perhaps you could tell us about the business expectations in each of those cultures, and how they are similar and, perhaps, different.

Well, similar is always the case. Everybody wants to arrive at a positive result as a positive outcome. Whether it’s the film, you know they want everything to go well, for the production to work out as planned, and for the film to be successful with the viewers and audience numbers. And in the tourism, business, and incentive-travel industries, the expectation, of course, is that guests have a wonderful experience, and everything goes smoothly. 

What happens behind the scenes is the communication and the understanding of different cultures, different perceptions, and different understandings of situations. There’s no such thing as one reality. Reality is always your personal perception. And that depends completely on your cultural background. And even if you speak a language fluently, if you learned it in a foreign country, you may not have the same connotations and possibly the background information you need to understand what is going on for each participant in your international setup, which can take very different forms. 

The social norms are very different. For instance, in the UK, it’s expected and accepted to have quite a few drinks after work, and it’s part of the business culture and that has completely changed in other countries. When you look at the television series Mad Men back in the 1960s, all of the advertising industry in New York was drinking martinis at lunchtime. This is no longer the case. It’s frowned upon in the US. You don’t get smashed at work. Bottom line.

You can have a beer in Germany, but beers at lunchtime are a thing of the past, whereas it’s completely acceptable in England. France you may have a little glass of wine, but if you’re ordering three martinis, at lunch, while your French counterpart is maybe sipping a little bit of a rosé they will have a certain opinion of you, so you need to know the social mores and boundaries and what’s acceptable and not acceptable. Will you decide whether to shake hands or not with your French clients, even if you’ve only known them for a short time? If you’re at ease, they will become acquainted with you and provide you with kisses on the cheeks that don’t really kiss. Americans then do the lipstick imprint on their cheek, as do the French. It’s more on the air kiss side. Depending on the area of France, it can be two to three or even four kisses. So, you have to be aware of the differences in order to avoid having your face in front of everyone else. 

Obviously, since the pandemic, there’s more distance. In Germany, Germans are very attached to their own way of doing things and frequently compare themselves, saying, “Well, we do it this way. Why is it different in another country?” So, you have that challenge, yes, to avoid being offensive, but also to say, well, I really appreciate how you do that in Germany. However, because we’re more familiar with it here, it will work better if we do it this way, so there you have it. At all times, there is a negotiation at all levels between the lines.

That’s fascinating. Americans are known… Well, the United States is known for having a very informal business culture. You know, we can pick up the phone and talk to you. You’re in Southern California. You can talk to someone in Maine and instantly you’ll do business together even though you’ve never met the person and have no formal introduction. And we also do first names all the time. And in Europe, of course, that’s quite different. Could you explain some of those differences in that way?

Yes, it’s in Europe as a structure in society and also at work, which is still very vertical. So you have the boss and then a couple of people under him or her. And then you know about the different departments; department heads who have their employees under them and are a lot more vertical, so you just don’t go to the boss. First of all, linguistically, in French and German, we have two forms of addressing somebody. The polite forms [of saying “you”] Vous and Sie as well as the familiar Tu and Du. You have to really be comfortable with somebody prior to going informal. You do not address your superiors in the familiar form unless invited to do so, which varies depending on industry boundaries. If you’re in a creative field, people become easygoing, pretty quickly, but in corporate Germany and corporate France, that’s not the case at all. And so, you have to go. It’s Mr. and Miss or Mrs., and it’s polite form, and you don’t just burst in with an idea or a project. You have to warm up the contact and work through the different levels of hierarchy. You may never see the boss.

And what about the UK?

In the UK, it’s a bit more Anglophile and more relaxed. However, it seems relaxed, but that doesn’t mean that you’re socially accepted into the royal circles, and it’s become very clear if you watch all that drama in the media right now about how formal certain levels of society are and how entrenched a way of thinking of the Commonwealth and the older generation, so there’s a big generational gap. 

You have that to a lesser degree also. Younger Germans and French are less formal than the older generation. In the UK, a lot of people still have a big attachment to those very formal ways, so even though they seem easygoing and only have [one version of] “you” as a pronoun, you still have to be really careful about how familiar you get. It’s actually more of a guessing game than in France or Germany.

When visiting Europe, I always advise people to assume formality and address this person as in the UK, Mr., and Ms., or Mrs. whatever, and of course in Germany, you go to Mein Herr, Meine Frau, Monsieur, Madame, Señor, Señora, whatever. Always start with the formal until you’re invited to be informal. Is that a good rule? 

That is perfect, yes, and I would encourage global companies to work with a company like yours because you have local staff everywhere.And even if somebody speaks the language fluently, localization of web content for advertising means that the marketing content differs from region to region, even between the various German-speaking countries. Austrians, Swiss, and Germans aren’t necessarily alike. I’m originally from Hamburg in the north of Germany. Munich is a totally different ballgame. Bavarians have their own mindset and culture, so work with a company like yours to have local experts who know how to address that specific market.

No, thank you very much. I did not pay you to say that, by the way. 

No, you didn’t, but I encourage people to do that because I see really weird, uh, translated web content. And I’m like, ooh, that’s not good. That’s where you know you can’t just go to Google Translate and hope for the best. It looks tacky.

 Yeah, we did a very interesting project. As an aside, it’s a German CPA firm with a US office, and they translated their website into English for the US market, but it was so… It was formal; it was stiff. A lot of run-on sentences. It was simply not the way that Americans would speak, and there were no benefits or appeals to the American market. So just because it can be translated, doesn’t mean that it’s acculturated. 

You have also lived in Luxembourg and that’s very unusual because, of course Europeans live in Luxembourg, but most Americans don’t. They haven’t, so perhaps you could tell us a bit about Luxembourg and the culture there, as well as the business expectations if there are any differences as well.

Uh, yes, it’s a really small country and pretty much right in the middle, bordering on Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, and France, and part of being in Luxembourg. However, there are only about 300 thousand genuine, ethnic Luxembourgers, as well as a workforce. We require it to be a major banking center for Europe. Has been for a long time. 

It was also Europe’s first country to privatize media. That’s how I got there. I got a job with RTL, Radio Television Luxembourg. So, because they were a small country with their laws, they were able to create extensive private channel content long before other countries privatized their media. So, it was like a rock-and-roll pirate station in the days before the other privatized countries had to deal with Luxembourg. I was there for two years. 

My aunt and uncle had worked for the European Parliament. They had spent their whole life there, pretty much, and I have cousins who were born and raised in Luxembourg. So that helped me a lot to adapt and learn about the culture and meet Luxembourgers because Luxembourgers feel a little threatened by the fact that they are such a small country surrounded by much bigger ones. They’re multicultural and multilingual, and their own language is a dialect that’s a bit of a mix between French and German called Luxembourgish, and it’s now also in written form more often than it used to be but it’s mostly used verbally. 

And in business, the languages are French and German, and they all speak it fluently. Both languages are taught in all schools to everybody, and they don’t dub television programs for Luxembourg. So, like the Dutch people, the kids grow up listening to everything in its original format, so a lot of Luxembourgers speak many languages. And Luxembourg has its  own culinary specialties, its wine region, its cigarette brand, its beer brand, and its brewery, actually several breweries, and in that small country, you have to be very aware of the fact that it has its own culture and language. The Schengen [Inter-Europe, visa-free travel] area should not affect Luxembourg, so [many people think they are like the French] It’s like, “No, you’re not.” You’re not like the Germans, either; they’re Luxembourgers, or they have… it’s a beautiful country. 

Because it’s a Duchy, they have a Duke who’s still a very big presence in political circles and diplomatic circles, and it’s an intriguing mix, and it’s at a fork in the road. A lot of trains and roads cross between different countries at this point. From my local friends, I understand that they’re actually perturbed by that because it’s become a hub for criminal activity in drug dealing and human trafficking et cetera. So, there are a lot of international intelligence services involved at this point.

Are there any specific business dos and don’ts when dealing with Luxembourg?

Try to learn a few “Letzeburgesch” words that are required to greet people in their native language. Because if you walk into a meeting and immediately begin speaking in English, French, or German without making any effort, that is considered rude if you want to develop warmer relations, ask questions and be interested in Luxembourg. Learn about Luxembourg and learn at least a few phrases of Letzeburgesch. And now I always do a deep dive on every project before I get into it with Luxembourg. Same thing. Learn about its history. Learn about the elements that comprise the country. Specific and be aware of that and do not explore it with people.

Absolutely. Well, thank you so much, Marion. it’s a pleasure to meet you and gain your superb insights as well as to hear and have your wonderful experiences.

Thank you so very much. It was wonderful to meet you. Thank you very much for the opportunity and the invitation.

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