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In the danger zone
TV/film producer searches for gripping stories in world’s hotspots

By JUDITH STEININGER

September 2013

How do you get invited to Vanity Fair magazine’s party at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York? Travel to the most dangerous place on earth (Puntland, an autonomous portion of Somalia); spend two-plus years focusing the unblinking eye of your Canon 5D camera on a rogues’ gallery and willingly risk your life alongside other participants to make a documentary. That’s how Milwaukeean Adam Ciralsky earned his glass of expensive champagne.

Ciralsky’s documentary, "The Project," was created in partnership with Shawn Efran, his fellow veteran producer of numerous CBS "60 Minutes" stories. For years, Ciralsky has flown in and out of the hellholes of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s won three Emmys for reports on "NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams," including one on Hurricane Katrina. But the Puntland story about the Somalia pirates was rough as it gets.

Ciralsky is an intellectual bottomless pit. He has to know and tell. Years ago he worked at the CIA and Department of Defense studying weaponry proliferation. In November 2010, he began filming in Puntland, one of four countries comprising the Horn of Africa. The lawless region is without a military and piracy has long plagued international shipping along the mostly uninhabited coastline. The pirates, who are from the area, board ships, kidnap, imprison — sometimes for months — and occasionally murder. They demand exorbitant ransoms. Nations do little to nothing; shipping corporations ante up payoffs.

Fed up, the Puntland president hired South African mercenaries to train a counterinsurgency to fight the pirates. In high definition footage, the 90-minute "The Project" shows malnourished young men learning to wear shoes and handle weapons. South African mercenaries conduct training. An American former counter-insurgency adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan arrives to give advice. The notorious Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater, is involved. The United Arab Emirates help foot the training bill. Families of kidnapped sailors are interviewed in their home countries. People are hurt; others die. The camera keeps recording.

"The Project" almost didn’t happen when the advance crew was arrested and held for 12 days on charges of "impersonating a camera crew." Ciralsky bit his fingernails waiting in Nairobi, Kenya, for a flight to Entebbe, Uganda, one of two airports from which to fly into Puntland. Wryly, Ciralsky says, "The insurance on this endeavor was enormous."

Ciralsky was invited to premiere the film at the Tribeca Festival in April. The Vanity Fair party was icing on the cake. The paparazzi lines were blocks long outside the Supreme Court Building in lower Manhattan where the party was held. Fashion gurus like Zac Posen and Vera Wang attended, along with media types like Rupert Murdoch’s wife, Wendi Deng. Movie and TV stars took dainty bites of appetizers, but Ciralsky gravitated toward intellectuals like novelist Salman Rushdie and actor/organizer Robert De Niro. After the first of three preview showings, the rush ticket lines were long and abuzz with the cinema verite quality of "The Project."

Ciralsky hopes the film makes people think about what the world might look like as major powers pull back their militaries. Will the role of mercenaries expand, and what does that mean for world order? "The film asks what your Plan B is if you don’t like the mercenary approach to the world’s hot spots. The U.N.? I’ve seen the Congo, which has the largest U.N. forces. Child sex trafficking and rape are way up. The Congo is awful. Whatever your preconceived notions about this topic, you’re going to have to reconsider them after you see ‘The Project.’"

For years, Ciralsky has traversed the globe doing serious stories. His passport is stamped so much it looks like a city phone book. How does a kid who graduated from University School of Milwaukee end up in 10 to 20 countries a year, some of them multiple times. Therein is a cautionary tale for parents. "I was lucky. Starting in seventh grade, my parents sent me to a different country every summer until I graduated from high school." He stayed put long enough to graduate magna cum laude from George Washington University and law school at the University of Illinois.

Ciralsky, his co-producer and agent are shopping "The Project." "We’re in talks with some big names in a variety of venues." There’s shelf space left for an Oscar amongst the three Emmys, Peabody, Polk, Loeb, Barone and DuPont-Columbia University Awards. Ciralsky says he is "platform agnostic. I like TV as much as movies." Planning ahead, while editing his next article for Vanity Fair, he is off to Norway for a global conference; he’s also mulling a TV series.

Physics Package Productions, the anomalous name for his company, begs for analysis. "Working at the Pentagon, I learned the physics package is the business end of a warhead." Perfect name. Ciralsky is some kind of truth-seeking missile. If you see a slender, intense young man boarding a plane at Gen. Mitchell International Airport, he’s probably Ciralsky leaving home — again.


This story ran in the September 2013 issue of: