EXCLUSIVE: Epic Pictures has secured life rights to the almost unbelievable story of the unlikely friendship between an elderly Brazilian man and a Magellanic penguin whose life he saved after an oil spill. The company is planning a two-pronged documentary project about the pair set to begin production in 2016, and lasting through 2017.
In 2011, retired bricklayer Joao Pereira de Souza happened upon the penguin covered in oil and floundering on the beach of the small, sparsely populated island where de Souza makes his home. de Souza spent a week cleaning the penguin, who he named Jinjin after the way his young grandson pronounced “pinguim,” the Portuguese word for penguin, and nursed it back to health before returning it to the wild. Several months later however, Jinjin returned to the island and apparently recognizing the man who saved his life, followed him home. Since then, Jinjin spends approximately 8 months out of the year with de Souza, swimming back to Patagonia in February to breed, and returning to the island in June, a journey of over 5,000 miles.
The story went viral in the fall of 2015 thanks to the video above, which depicts their close bond and has since been viewed more than 5 million times. To get the rights to tell it, Epic went to, well, epic lengths to track de Souza down and verify his story. In an effort spearheaded by Paula Moreno, Epic’s Director of US Distribution who first brought the video to the company’s attention, a contact in Brazil was found who was willing to do the legwork. Driving seven hours to reach a nearby island, he walked hours across the beach and crossed two rivers to reach a fisherman on the opposite side who would ferry him the four-hour trip to de Souza’s island – in total it took two full days to find de Souza.
“It holds all the elements of a great story, but [it’s also] an important story from a documenting perspective,” says Epic co-founder and CEO Patrick Ewald. “Any time you can have a story [like this] and make it sort of a larger universal message, that was automatically a beautiful conduit. Obviously there’s an environmental message, but there’s a story behind it of enduring friendship.”
The documentary project will chronicle both de Souza and the penguin at de Souza’s home, and the efforts by Epic to help fulfill de Souza’s dream of visiting the Patagonian nesting grounds Jinjin returns to each year. To that end, Epic is currently working on setting up communications infrastructure necessary to coordinate the efforts, as de Souza’s island has, Epic says, only one phone. But, says Epic co-founder Shaked Berenson, “we also want to be responsible not to hurt the village itself, and to do this responsibly.”
Epic will be leading the development of the project and plans to begin production this summer when Jinjin returns to De Souza’s island, with the documenting of his efforts to visit Patagonia to commence in 2017. Further details about the project will be announced in the coming months.