21 - 24 JUNE 2021 / EDITION N°32


Sunny Side of the Doc

Interview with Karl Ammann & Laurin Merz from Tiger Mafia

The Tiger Mafia exposing wildlife trafficking

The Tiger Mafia was presented in the Wildlife Pitch at Sunny Side of the Doc Connected Edition (June 2020). Not only did the project win the support of decision-makers present, but it was also awarded with the Best Wildlife Pitch. For the past nine years, Karl Ammann has lead investigations for this feature length documentary produced by Laurin Merz (HOOK Film & Kultur Produktion GmbH). The film has since found a distributor and will soon be available on VOD on one of the biggest streaming platforms.

Karl Ammann is well known for his relentless dedication to exposing wildlife trafficking, poaching and other forms of brutal abuse and exploitation of the planet’s most emblematic species. It’s far from glamorous and certainly lacking in legal paperwork, as the photographer and filmmaker reprimands governments and supranational organisations for their inactivity. Meanwhile, Laurin Merz created HOOK Film in Switzerland 15 years ago. The company has more than 25 documentaries and around a hundred TV shows and reports to its name, all with an investigative angle.

Their meeting on “Tiger Mafia” was a coincidence.

How did you meet Karl Ammann and how did The Tiger Mafia come about?

Laurin Merz: It was a coincidence: Karl was looking for a production company in Switzerland since he already had kind of a rough cut of the film. But he needed some more inputs and support. He then approached Christian Frei, a well-known filmmaker from Switzerland and Christian did confirm that I could be the one to help Karl to make a film out of this tons of footage. After some additional shootings in Kenia, Zürich and South east Asia we were able to edit the film we have now.

When I met him, I was truly moved by his project. You could say that it had an impact on my work and in a personal capacity. As a director, it seemed only natural to collaborate on this project.

Karl Ammann (left) and Laurin Merz (right) in Laos.

Can you tell us a bit about The Tiger Mafia?

Karl Ammann: The film is an investigation into illegal tiger trafficking in secret tiger farms in South-East Asia. Our investigation work led us to areas controlled by warlords and triads in Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam, exposing facilities which breed and slaughter tigers for the illegal trade of animal parts in China’s underground traditional medicine and jewellery industries.

This documentary is the result of long and dangerous investigation. Why did you want to present it at Sunny Side of the Doc in 2020?

Laurin Merz: Sunny Side of the Doc is an international marketplace. We hoped that presenting it at the festival would generate the interest that it deserves. This was indeed the case, as it was part of the pitch selection and even went on to win Best Wildlife Pitch!

Karl Ammann: It is important that the documentary resonates with people and has a strong impact, especially with themes as important as this one. I’m not a filmmaker who films glamourous wild beasts. I’m someone who intends to shed light on often hard-hitting subjects that should have an impact on everybody, from governments to your everyday man on the street, hoping they’ll have a reaction. When it comes to burning issues like this, we must all share the responsibility.

The Tiger Mafia won Best Wildlife Pitch in June 2020, sponsored by Love Nature. What impact did winning the prize have?

Laurin Merz: Even before our pitch presentation, lots of TV channels and distributors (especially German and Asian ones) contacted us pretty quickly during the four days of Sunny Side of the Doc. In the end, we chose to go with Mediawan as our distributor. Their reputation speaks for itself and they have strong ties to the festival and a solid international network.

The film will have a world premiere in March 2021 at a major European festival and will then be available on one of the largest VoD streaming platforms for distribution in Europe, excluding the UK. We’re also starting to sell The Tiger Mafia in other territories, like the UK, Asia and Latin America.

Karl Ammann: During Sunny Side of the Doc, we were told that “you have to pitch in the Current Affairs session, as the subject goes beyond the Wildlife remit.” It’s true, our film is far from showing pleasant images of wild animals. But in the end, that made no difference to the positive feedback we received. And in any case, blue-chip documentary isn’t really my thing…

I would also add that, apart from the deal that Laurin mentioned, the ZDF also showed an interest in broadcasting The Tiger Mafia on its network.

What was The Tiger Mafia’s production budget? Did you have any co-producers?

Laurin Merz: Karl and I co-produced the film without any other initial funding. The budget is estimated to be around €600,000, but it’s hard to give an exact figure as Karl had already been working on the documentary production well before I came along. We received support from Europe as well as from a Czech NGO called Four Paws International.

What projects have you got lined up next?

Karl Ammann: I’m working on a documentary called Stealing Giants. It’s about elephant poaching in nature reserves, as well as elephant trafficking in Asia. They are traded in Laos, Thailand and China, exported to the latter to safari parks and zoos. Obviously, we’re talking about illegal trade. Governments are corrupt and turn a blind eye, allowing this trade to continue.

Laurin Merz: HOOK Film will be working on Karl’s new project of course. We’re also developing several other projects in the areas of public affairs and art and literature. As a filmmaker, I’m working on a series on countries that are officially – or unofficially – recognized as possessing nuclear weapons.

What do you believe are the keys to success for reaching a broad audience and having strong visibility?

Karl Ammann: For me, having a good distributor and VOD streaming platform really makes the difference.

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