Haydn Keenan options Geoffrey Robertson book on stolen treasures

Haydn Keenan’s Smart Street Films has optioned Geoffrey Robertson’s book which argues that treasures that were forcefully or lawlessly acquired over centuries should be returned to their rightful owners.

Keenan and British/Australian executive producer Amanda Groom are planning an international docuseries as a co-production with the UK’s Spring Films, an Oscar nominated, Emmy Award winning production company specialising in high-end feature and television documentaries.

Headed by André Singer, Spring Films’ credits include Meeting Gorbachev, co-directed by Werner Herzog and Singer; the Channel 4 trilogy Prison, set in women’s prison Foston Hall; and Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds, co-directed by Herzog and Clive Oppenheimer.

Robertson’s Who Owns History?: Elgin’s Loot and the Case for Returning Plundered Treasure makes the case for returning the Parthenon Marbles from the British Museum to Athens.

Fronted by Robertson and to be shot in Australia, China, West Africa and the Middle East, each episode will look at one treasure, including the Benin bronzes in Nigeria, the million pieces of porcelain stolen from the Summer Palace in Beijing and the Gweagal shield taken by Captain James Cook from First Australians in Botany Bay in 1770.

Local experts and people in the street will press the case for return of their heritage, while human rights barrister Robertson will cross examine museum directors who are refusing their requests.

Keenan will be the set-up director and will co-write with Singer. He tells IF he is keen to hire local directors for the segments filmed in Nigeria and China.

Geoffrey Robertson.

On a trip to London the filmmaker discussed with Robertson his idea for a one-hour film based on Robertson’s book Stephen Ward Was Innocent, OK: The Case for Overturning his Conviction, which focussed on a central figure in the Christine Keeler affair.

They dropped that idea after the BBC’s Panorama program ran a story, so instead turned their attention to Who Owns History?

“With statues being torn down, place names changed and historical truth being reassessed around the world, the zeitgeist for change is happening now,” Keenan says.

“Geoffrey’s book spun out of a report he and lawyer Amal Clooney did for the Greek government about the Elgin Marbles and how they could be repatriated from the British Museum.

“Wherever you look in the museums of Western Europe and North America you find treasures pilfered by colonial powers under the guise of academic study, punishment or straight out loot to pay the troops.”

Keenan says the series, likely to be a six-parter, will be aimed primarily at young people. He is yet to decide whether to pitch it to broadcasters or streamers.