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For as long as anyone in the film and TV industry can remember, Britain and France have been this country's best co-producing partners.

Today, that's still the case in terms of overall co-production volume. But due to many factors (the chummy -- read, exclusive -- European Union and a major tightening of British tax shelters), cinematic relations between Canada and those countries has taken on a distinct chill.

Recently, a new partner has stepped in to fill the void: South Africa, described by the folks who shoot there as a cinematographer's dream because of its varied topography, fabulous light and eternal summer.

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In the last 18 months, Canadians have teamed up with South Africa to produce several high-profile series for TV, including CBC's Gemini-winning Human Cargo, CHUM's sci-fi thriller Charlie Jade and the recent CBC doctor drama Whiskey Echo.

More productions are in the works, including a feature film on retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire's experiences in Rwanda, by Barna-Alper Productions and Michael Donovan; another feature film from Barna-Alper called The Bang Bang Club (about the photo-journalists who recorded the rash of murders immediately following Nelson Mandela's release from prison); and a big-budget CBC medical drama called Jozi-H, set in Johannesburg's Public Hospital, from Inner City Films.

The reason for the sea change in co-production is elementary, says Laszlo Barna of Barna-Alper in Toronto. "South Africa wants the business. The weather and the crews there are great. And the European Common Market has knocked us out.

"I believe we've gone from being the second most important partner with France to number eight," Barna adds. "And tax loss changes in England have made us, in very many ways, persona non grata. That has put huge pressure on us to find new countries to work with. Our subsidy dollars haven't grown in years, and if they have, they've grown only marginally."

Barna-Alper's Whiskey Echo, co-produced with Ireland and with some financial help from South Africa, was a "joy" to make, Barna says.

"I have to tell you, co-producing with a country that's our size was so fantastic. For once I wasn't getting the coffee."

In the case of Whiskey Echo, which starred Joanne Kelly, Callum Keith Rennie and David Alpay, South Africa provided the location and the local talent. "Really the whole country was open to us," says Barna of what was his first experience working in that country. "It was an extraordinarily good experience. I was apprehensive and now I can't wait to go back for the Roméo Dallaire project."

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Others share his enthusiasm. Veteran TV producer Alyson Feltes ( The Associates, Traders) is heading down in a few months to start production on Jozi-H. She's already been there three times scouting it out, and getting a feel for her co-producing partners, Johannesburg-based Morula Pictures. She says she's confident the end result will be a win-win for all parties.

"South Africa has really good crews, it's a beautiful place, it's relatively cost efficient and we speak the same language," says Feltes, who is executive producer on the series, working with Toronto's Inner City Films.

"Frankly, the only thing I'm nervous about is learning how to drive on the other side of the road."

A recent report from Telefilm Canada showed Canadian participation in international co-productions has plummeted by roughly 50 per cent over the past few years.

Canada co-produced just 60 titles in 2004, down 40 per cent from 2000, says Danny Chalifour, Telefilm's director of international operations and development. During the same period, production budgets slumped 59 per cent, to $367-million.

TV has been hit the hardest. Only 45 shows were done in 2004, down 40 per cent from 2000, while budgets slid 73 per cent to $173-million in 2004. Spending on feature films dropped some 23 per cent in the same time frame.

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Like Barna, Chalifour blamed changes to Britain's sale-and-leaseback program as well as the increasingly tightly knit production community of the European Union. While the U.K. and France remain Canada's most active co-producing partners, the numbers are slipping. According to Telefilm, the budgets of French-language co-pros dropped 77 per cent from 2001 to 2004, while the number of shoots fell 55 per cent.

British-partnered features fell more than half since the sale-and-leaseback changes, to just 12 films worth $192-million in 2004.

Amos Adetuyi, co-partner with his brother Alfons in Inner City Films, did his first South African shoot in 1997, called Ekhaya, A Family Chronicle, which aired on CBC-TV. "Ever since, we've been looking for the next authentic story to come out of South Africa," says Adetuyi.

"When Jozi-H came around, we said, 'Hey, this is it. A medical drama with a twist. We call it ER on crack." ( Jozi-H, in case you aren't aware, is the hip new phrase for Johannesburg.) The 13-episode series will cost more than $1-million per episode.

South Africa's government, Adetuyi adds, offers government tax incentives similar to those available through Telefilm and the Canadian Television Fund, only theirs are called the Industrial Development Corp. (IDC) and the National Film and Video Foundation (NFVF).

For Adetuyi and his brother, the motivation to shoot in South Africa is simple: "The language is there. The weather is there. You can practically shoot year-round, although there is a bit of a cold spell in June or July. There is no rainy season. Admittedly, though, it's not as cheap to shoot there as it was three or four years ago.

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"It used to be 10-to-1, or 8-to-1. Now the rand to the dollar is probably closer to 5-to-1."

And, thankfully, the crime is slowing. "Seven years ago, Jo-Burg was literally the murder capital of the world," he adds. "Whereas now some American cities have taken that title back."

Jozi-H is slated to air in January, 2006.

Diane Boehme, senior director of independent production for CHUM, says Charlie Jade, a 21-episode series now airing on Space, could not have been shot anywhere but South Africa.

"South Africa is a distinct character in the series," she explains. "It's Cape Town for Cape Town. And there are benefits to shooting in and around that city, with its mountains, desert, oceans and huge urban landscape."

Boehme agrees, however, that it's no longer as cheap. "It started out as a co-production five years ago, and there have been hiccups because of currency fluctuations and, well, costs have gone up everywhere.

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"But it was a very good, healthy collaboration," she adds. "I wouldn't hesitate to go back. . . . And we're trying to get a second season off the ground now. If South Africa is financially expedient, it will be our first choice because it has an exotic quality you would not otherwise see."

Barna, who spent two months shooting Whiskey Echo in South Africa last summer, said the highlight was the people.

"We were shooting on a game farm just outside Jo-Burg. When it got cold, I'd jump into one of the transport vehicles and chat up the drivers who were all from Soweto. It was like an entry into a history I had observed from a distance, and the door opened into lives that I had never imagined I'd be privileged enough to hear about."

He pauses.

"And then the lion attacked and bit me," he says. "No, I'm kidding."

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