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

Part 2: Latin America, the Philippines, Relationships and Taboo Subjects

Marion Renk-Rosenthal

Documentaries are a tool to change the world, but certain rules must be followed. Some countries have taboo subjects that could lead to legal ramifications. Choosing a topic is a large part of the process as is whether a budget for security is included. Marion explains the do’s and don’ts of working in Latin America, Poland, and the Philippines as well as subjects and filming methods that appeal to Europeans vs. Americans. 

Highlights:

Business dos and don’ts when dealing with Luxembourg

Business in Latin America.

Working with Filipinos

Taboo subject matters for documentaries

Choosing a topic for documentaries

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.

I know you’ve also done business in Latin America. Although you haven’t lived there, could you tell us a little bit about how that business climate operates?

Very different from Northern European or Northern American norms, and you have to be aware of the feelings, such as how time is handled in a cultural context, in a social setting, if you’re invited to a party and it’s like, “6 o’clock,” nobody’s there at 6:00 o’clock. If you arrive at 6:00 o’clock like a good German, you will be the first one there. It’s more like 7:00, 7:15 and onward. However, for business meetings, if they say 12 noon, it’s 12 noon. The distinction is how they handle punctuality. In the US, you can jump into a business meeting. It’s like, “Hey, good to see you. Let’s get to it. So today we’re talking about when to launch branding colors and PR protocol. What fonts are we going to use?”

 In other countries, it’s different. That applies to the UK, France, Germany, and Latin America. I have worked in Honduras, Costa Rica, Mexico, and south of the border. Actually, Mexico, geographically, is still in North America. However, it’s a Latin country. As we know, you would first approach it with some personal, friendly conversation. You spend a few minutes getting to know each other to get a bit of the temperature of the room, so to speak. Find out about someone. If you’ve already met the person and some information about you has been exchanged, learn about kids growing up as if they were going to college. How are they doing? You have a few moments to chitchat before you launch into the business conversation, and that’s Cons: It would be considered very blunt and abrupt if you just walked in like that. OK, let’s get right to business. That’s not the way we do business. 

This is a very American approach.

Yes, and in America, it’s perfectly fine. It’s like, “don’t waste anybody’s time,” especially in the larger cities because nobody has time. So, it’s like, “boom, boom, boom.” In other countries, that’s still considered, but like, well, how about hello? First, like now, how are you doing?

Perfect. 

And if you ask a German, how are you doing? You’ll get the whole story.

That’s funny. 

One of the cultural traits of Latin Americans and Latin American business, as well as in other parts of the world such as the Middle East is that personal introductions are critical before you can really meet someone or do business. The same trend applies elsewhere such as Africa, and particularly in Asia. 

It could be, “Oh, my mother went to school with your father,” or “we have a common classmate,” or “my cousin has a friend who introduced us” or something like that.” 

Do you find that this is critical to do business in Latin America?

Uh, yes, you need to work on your relationship. Since I was California-based for the Honduras production back in the 1990s, I started working with the consulate staff here in Los Angeles, and they referred me and developed a relationship with me. They referred me to contacts within their country, and diversities, and the Institute of Anthropology and History for instance.

Steve Elkins had contacts with Americans who were based in Honduras and who had their own network. One organizer was handling operations on the ground, like getting boats to go traveling into the Mosquito area, transfers, equipment, etc. His wife, a Honduran, had family members who had gone to school with the then-president, so that helped a lot, and it’s through those contacts that you spend a lot more time preparing a story. You have to get to know people before you can actually put it together, so you have to have that extra time to build the infrastructure.

Build the relationships. Yes, and you mentioned the embassy, which is a wonderful source. 

Yeah, the consulate embassy would be in DC, but we do have a general consulate here. 

Yes, I was thinking of people who have no contacts in parts of the world where personal contacts are critical. One place to begin is with either our embassy in that country or, if there are any of those countries’ consulates or embassies in our country, just to say I plan to go and this is my project, can you introduce me? Usually, the embassy people are extremely helpful in making those kinds of introductions.

Then there’s the Global Chamber, which I happen to be a member of, and Doug Bruhnke, who is one of our interviewees on this podcast and the CEO of the Global Chamber, so that’s another wonderful, wonderful source of introductions all over the world. 

The Filipinos are other people you’ve worked with. I know you haven’t worked in the Philippines, but since the Philippines was basically a colony of the United States for about 50 years ending in 1946, are Filipino and American business styles similar? What do you think?

In some ways, because of the amount of contact and so on. Filipinos are well aware of how Americans conduct business because cultures have been blending in the Philippines for so long. They’ve been accustomed to that from Day One. The Filipinos who do well in business usually attended American schools in the Philippines. They’re fluent in American English. 

The people I work with usually work in international business for large American companies. Or they work in import or export. Very many have family here or have spent several years living in the US. Having gone to college in the US, there’s a lot more contact prior to business, so they’re very accustomed to it. 

However, in their own culture, it’s still more respect for the older generation that has a different meaning. How you treat superiors. It’s more vertical in that sense internally. While all my guests have always been very good at navigating the American business world and its very horizontal structures, internally it’s more vertical from who is in charge, and how that affects the rest of the organization. 

But I love working with Filipino groups because it’s a wonderfully gracious culture—incredibly kind, gracious, and polite toward me as well as everybody else. It’s just a very warm, welcoming culture, and I found it kind of refreshing to see that they’re still in this world. Everybody wants to be successful. Everybody works hard, but you can do that with kindness and politeness, which you don’t have to be blunt, like some Germans or Americans. 

I discovered the same thing. The people of the Philippines are delightful, extremely polite, and gracious, and always seemed to have no rush at all. Very relaxed. 

Yes, yes, but they get things done, and it’s always been the same every single time I get a job with a Filipino client.

I’m like, “Yes, thank you.” And because they do so too, even if we’re working very hard, If it’s a convention or something, there’s time for a little fun stuff on the side to just refresh, and there’s a better understanding of the need to balance long hours with, you know, even a beach walk. There are those little things, like a nice relaxing dinner. It’s not…

Outside of the US, food is a much bigger issue for all cultures in which I work. A 20-minute lunch break with a sandwich in the hallway doesn’t cut it, and Germans may adapt to that. The UK may also be OK with it for a short time. Well, that’s how they do things here, but you don’t do that with Filipino groups or with the French. If you work with the French, you will have lunch. and you’ll sit down for it. It’s not a burger.

Filipino food is outstanding. French also, of course. 

You’re talking about “vertically,” and I think what you mean is a hierarchy.

Yes, a hierarchy where you have your CEO or company owner on top, you know, and then the different department heads, and then it fans out into the different subdivisions, et cetera. And there you have it. 

In the US, it’s much easier, and I love that about here because if you have a great idea, you can cold-call almost anybody if that’s of interest to that person.

Right. 

They will take your call and respond. 

In Europe or the Philippines, it is much more difficult because you don’t get past the receptionist, so you can’t just walk in with an e-mail, a phone cold call, or in person.

Yes, and I assume it’s very difficult to talk to the boss, so to get to the boss for the same reason

Yes, yes. 

Very interesting, too. 

Since you’ve made at least 50 documentaries all over the world, are there any subjects that are considered taboo and should be avoided in the various countries you’ve worked with?

For the western markets, I’ve worked in all of the countries where I’ve produced films, some of them primarily for the US, there are no off-limits categories. In Europe, there are differences in editing speed in the visual language, as we call it, how to film something, and how fast the images move. The different images are cut, so European television is a lot more beauty-oriented. BBC documentaries are a very good example of how it looks versus much faster American content. Editing for an American product is much faster, harder than geared toward a European audience. Our educational systems are different. 

So, I went to school in France, England, and Germany, so I’ve had contact with those education systems. The approach is much more analytical and focused on getting the big picture, which audiences prefer to see all angles of a story and want questions answered from all angles, whereas in the US you are urged to keep things more streamlined on one topic. You don’t spread out that far, so there’s a different approach in style and in patience for how fast things move.

That’s very interesting as well, in terms of the style. I’m not a filmmaker, but I’ve heard and read that In the United States, it’s basically 5 seconds on that one angle, and then the camera has to shift and shift and shift again, so there’s constant movement. Whereas I think in Europe it’s much more long-focused in one position. Is that true?

Yes, yes, because the five-second cuts make people nervous, and we even have a huge resurgence of what we call Slow TV. One of my cameramen now works for Cineflix, a German-based international company that specializes in real-time filmings, such as on river trips. He spent a whole week following one freight ship on the Elbe River from Dresden down to Hamburg. And all the different stages are broadcast in real-time, so you’re just going along. You’re watching the birds fly by and the animals along the shoreline scamper about, and there are little ripples in the water. It moves extremely slowly, and there is a huge demand for that started in Norway with slow TV, and European youth are fascinated by that. It’s very soothing, and it’s a huge trend.

That has translated into the tourism world. The agencies that we work with in Europe are now all about low carbon footprints. Low-impact travel takes longer. It’s no longer possible to see the entire world in eight days; instead, choose an experience and truly immerse yourself in a culture in an area, exploring the smells, foods, and local culture, not just the viewpoints, and getting back on the bus.

There was an old US movie, “If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium” that reflects what you are talking about.

Back to the subject. A few of the taboo topics. And you’re talking about how the Europeans want to look at things from different points of view, which makes perfect sense. 

But take the subject of World War Two, for example. In the West, it’s portrayed very much as total good versus total evil. And in Poland, there are now laws that say you can’t criticize the Polish people for aiding the Nazis, for rounding up the Jews and aiding the Nazis. So, if you would want to make a documentary in Poland about that, would that be prohibited?

I would have to check into Polish laws to see if I was a foreign broadcaster. If I join the team, I will not be sent to Poland because that is not my specialty. I don’t speak Polish. But we have to ascertain… we have to get filming permits. To work in many countries, you must first obtain a visa. So, first and foremost, I must learn about the laws in each country. 

And if Poland has a law that makes it illegal to mention the collaboration, then would we be arrested while filming stories interviewing people on that subject matter? Do we have to do it clandestinely? We can’t be sued for broadcasting in a foreign country about the subject matter, but it could be potentially dangerous depending on what the laws are. And my team’s safety is always the highest priority. And there are guerilla-style private production companies that will take enormous personal risks and potentially put their teams in danger. I don’t work with those companies. 

I’ve had a few requests, and the conversation devolved into the fact that there was no budget for security. There was no budget for creating a network to keep things secure for pre-production times for a news organization that did a lot of stories about border crime and smuggling. And also, gang wars in the United States—those types of stories require building up relationships so that you can enter that world safely. 

And there’s no point in doing it if you don’t have the time or budget for it. I had one request to film illegal drug dealing at night in gang-controlled areas in Los Angeles for a French broadcaster, and I’m like, “Well, what’s your preparation budget? What’s your security budget?” And they said, “You just go in there and film clandestinely.” Bye-bye, bye. 

And it is a huge risk because you’re observing something illegal and being a witness to something they don’t want you to be a witness to. And, as we all know, that can end deadly In the United States. 

Well, as anywhere else in the world for those subjects.

Yes, yes, or you’re out. I could end up arrested, and you know I don’t want to be arrested in a foreign country and end up in some horrible prison.

Exactly right. 

There are countries where people have been abducted or kidnapped. One of my colleagues got kidnapped in the Philippines in a rebel Islamist-controlled area.

In the Southern Philippines. Right.

When you’re thinking of doing a documentary, do you do research? Do you conduct preliminary research to make your decision? I would do market research to determine the audience’s receptivity, as you would do for a product. Or do you find funding first? How does one go about determining the subjects that they’re interested in documenting?

{21:03}

Well, there are always trends in culture. We are considering “Zeitgeist” and companies I have previously worked with. We’ve known each other and many others for many years. Most of my coworkers and I have known each other for 20–30 years, and we still work together, so it’s a lot of back and forth and observing the mediascape and Germans… Europeans at large have a huge interest in the environment, and nature and conservation. 

And actually, we just finished the first broadcast of a series of five films about Hawaiian nature and conservation last Thursday night, December 22nd, and a big thank you to film Hawaii for assisting us and a huge amount of protagonists and Native Hawaiians who worked with us. Hawaii has the highest…

It’s just for a German company?

It was for a German company. It was produced by Spiegel TV. They had the idea and the request from Arte TV. Arte TV is a pan-European culture channel, similar to public television in France and Germany, and its content is supplied by French and German networks. This one was for ZDF for Germany and ARTE for France and Germany. And it’s the first one broadcast this week. More to come in January.

Europeans are intrigued because Hawaii has the highest extinction rate. Hawaii is like Ground Zero for extinction, so it’s a huge issue that multiple organizations are trying to address… help flora and fauna survive. They study because it’s happening, and there are a lot of European universities involved in it through the University of Hawaii. 

There are international collaborations, so Europeans are actually quite aware because a lot of European universities are on the ground, aiding financially but also aiding with scientific exchanges. I had one French protagonist who was studying spinner dolphins, and I had an English protagonist, so there was a lot of back and forth.

That’s fascinating. I had no idea.

I don’t film something just because I’m just hoping that somebody down the line will be interested. I get requests from activists sometimes, and then if it’s a message film, I lay it out on the table beforehand. Well, this is going to cost roughly X dollars. Uh, what kind of outlet do you have? You’ve got to have a plan before you spend a lot of time, effort, and money in filming something and contacting people. In order to have an outlet and a plan in place you’ve got to know what story you want to tell and whom you want to tell it to, so you know what to do. 

We storyboard. We don’t just blindly go ahead and film away. Obviously, we are a documentary. We do not script per se, but we do have a storyline. We do a lot of research. These are effects, after all. Now what animals and what plants are affected? Who’s working on that? What subject matters are important for the overall theme of this film at this point? And then I searched for the people who could speak to that.

We have a game plan. We are not just jumping around, hoping for the best. Obviously, as much as can be expected, stuff happens, and then you have to have Plans B and C because things never go smoothly. However, there’s a game plan, and the broadcasters have an idea of what they want to have with the understanding that you know, if we say OK, then the sailboat goes off into the sunset. We planned on sailing into a deep blue sky with fluffy clouds on the day that we have that plan, and then it rains… we’ll have to come up with something else. The possibility exists, but, as you know, nature gets in the way and the dolphins may not be where you want them to be the day you’re filming. So, you try to plan a strategy as best you can.

That is incredible.

So much back and forth. Because of 2020, everything was, of course, put on hold, but not my core team. Three-four people. Most of the time, we were constantly exchanging ideas. With research, we found—and it’s like, “Oh, I saw this” or “one of my German counterparts did.” So, one of the directors would call up and say, “Hey, I saw this. Can you check to see if this is still happening?” Because sometimes stories on the Internet don’t have a date, and they could be from ten years ago, and then you know you’re trying to follow up, and it’s like, “Oh, that happened ten years ago. The guy left the island.” So you and I discussed back and forth, and it was a conversation. It’s a relationship.

Absolutely well. Thank you so much, Marion. It’s a wonderful pleasure to meet you, to get your superb insights, and to hear you share your great experiences.

Thank you so very much.

Thank you. 

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

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