With airplanes secure, team ready to safari through eastern African country Tanzania

ADRIENNE WAHL

There were numerous incidents of chance and coincidence that culminated in the hatching of an upcoming documentary that retraces the portion of Martin and Osa Johnson’s flying safari through the east-African country Tanzania. The cinematic composite will blend the history of the Johnsons with the current conservation efforts in the country. 

Director Haley Jackson, who has previously worked on projects with the likes of James Cameron, discovered the Johnsons by way of the Osa’s Ark airplane at an airshow in Nevada. The replica was decked out in the original zebra stripe paint scheme. 

“It was the coolest thing I had ever seen,” she said. 

Jackson was unaware of the history, but the owner of the plane, Tom Schrade, briefed her during the flight about the plane and the couple’s history. As an explorer herself, Jackson was inspired by the Johnsons from Kansas, where she also had family. The experience planted in her an idea to retrace the original route of the flying safari upon which the Johnsons embarked after purchasing their original planes. She wanted to include both replicas of Osa’s Ark and the Spirit of Africa, but at the time she didn’t even know if Spirit of Africa existed or where it was. Jackson estimated that this was in 2005 or 2006 before the economic downturn. Schrade then took the plane to Europe for airshows before selling it in 2012.

“I was pretty bummed out about it when Tom told me he sold it,” she said.

Kermit Weeks, an aviation enthusiast with the largest collection of vintage aircraft in the world, had purchased the plane. He reached out to Jackson in 2015. 

“Several people had told me I needed to meet him,” she said. “So when he reached out, I was on a plane and actually there the next day.”

Weeks not only had the replica of Osa’s Ark, he also owned the Spirit of Africa replica. He was on board for a project with the planes, but wasn’t fully committed to doing anything at that time. Jackson was busy with other projects at the time, including one that took her to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas. 

Michael Ruggiero, who describes himself as a serial entrepreneur, was also at the convention. Just before that event, he had a chance meeting in his lawyer’s office with the Minister of Tourism for Tanzania. The Tanzanian Minister told Ruggiero that he had a predicament. A main source of revenue for his country was tourism, but they didn’t have the budget to promote it properly. Ruggiero suggested possibly doing a documentary, and the minister asked him if he could do it. Ruggiero had little experience in the format, but he accepted the challenge.

“I felt in my heart that I could do it,” he said.

The convention itself came into play on a very crowded bus, where Ruggerio just happened to sit next to Jackson.

“I call that divine intervention,” Ruggerio said. 

The two made small talk about their respective fields and exchanged business cards, but Jackson did not expect anything to come of it. She realized he was serious when he followed up with a phone call a month later. Her idea of a documentary on the Johnsons meshed well with his mission to feature Tanzania, as the Johnsons had filmed extensively in the country. 

Ruggerio updated the Tanzanians on the new direction for the project, to overwhelming support from their government. 

“The whole government really wants this to happen,” he said. “They are making sure the airstrips and hangars are there. They are providing military protection, interpreters and guides. They need this to tell their story to the world.” 

With the concept, locations and airplanes secured, the project is now in full-on preproduction, with Jackson and Ruggerio coming to Chanute for in-depth research at the Safari Museum. Jackson wants to focus on recreating the very routes and shots that the Johnsons took almost 100 years ago. 

Museum Director Conrad Froehlich is excited about the upcoming project. 

“The more we can share the Johnsons’ story with the world, the better,” he said. “I am thrilled that a caliber of director like Haley is interested in the story.” 

With research underway, one of the final hurdles before filming is financing. 

“There has been a lot of interest, but not a lot of checks written,” Jackson said. 

She said that they have a champion at the IMAX Film Fund that has indicated the organization would match funds that were raised. Ruggiero said that he was sending out sponsorship packets to numerous international corporations, threatening to camp out on the doorstep of Coca-Cola to put the project in motion. 

“At the end of the day with streaming, film and theaters, this documentary will be seen by 60 million people in the first few years,” Ruggiero said.  “It is not about tourism, but the film will bring out the parks and beauty of the country based on Martin and Osa’s trips. It will bring more people to the country that will help the people and the animals.” 

Jackson is compelled to complete the project because she feels that it is both incredibly personal and topical as a female in a male-dominated field.

“Women in film is a very big conversation right now,” she said. “Osa Johnson did all of these things right alongside Martin and was very much an equal partner.” 

As they recreate shots from nearly a century old Johnson films, Jackson wants to inspire hope for conservation. 

“Conservation films tend to leave people very bummed out,” she said. “I am a strong believer in human ingenuity and that we can correct our course. I think matching some of the footage will show how things have and haven’t changed. At the end of the day, we hope that we leave people with the spirit of adventure.” 

 

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