“Short and sweet just doesn’t cut it!”

How a TV crime series developed into an aid project

Prostitution, violence, street children – this is the stuff of which detective stories are made. Crime and injustice, reduced into a palatable portion fit for a 90-minute television slot. In the end the murderer has been caught, the misery is over and the viewer can lean contentedly back into the soft cushions of their sofa, suffused with the warm feeling only a happy ending can provide. Screenplay writers often find inspiration in the problems of the real world and weave them into plots suited for the masses and the medium of TV.

Sometimes, though, the story does not end with the closing credits; sometimes real deeds follow fictional ones. Like in this story: The "Tatort" (literally "crime scene") crime series has run on German television since 1970, and many German cities enjoy their own local versions of the popular show. It is always broadcast on Sunday in the choicest primetime slot at 8.15 pm. One of the most popular series is filmed in Cologne, where the team has been "investigating" together since 1997. In the early years of Tatort Cologne, the detective team took a trip to Manila to film an episode about child prostitution and human trafficking. The idea to make an episode with little of the usual local Rhine colour, and focus instead on events involving development policy in an actual developing country, was the brain child of a former employee of the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). This collaboration between the WDR broadcasting company and the Ministry ultimately resulted in an extensive media package that is still being used in education today.

Filming in Manila began in the winter of 1997 – a very memorable experience for the stars of the series, Dietmar Bär, Joe Bausch and Klaus J. Behrendt. It would turn out to be an experience that would haunt all three: their encounters with the real world of young Filipinos whose fate could not be turned around in the time allotted by the clapper board left too deep an impression. For Bausch, not actually on location for the filming, his colleagues' descriptions brought the experience to life. During the trip the decision to take some sort of action was made. Clearly some form of institutionalised assistance was desperately needed.

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"Let's just do something!"

Back in Germany the actors, part of the film crew, and the journalists who were along for the filming, implemented their plan to create a foundation to address what they had experienced in Manila – a foundation designed first and foremost to assist street children. The name of the rapidly founded organization hints at its genesis: "Tatort – Straßen der Welt e.V." (Crime Scene – the Streets of the World).

The organisation is now in its 14th year, a pretty long time. The original founders are a little taken aback by its continuity and development: "'Let's just do something rather than talk about it' – that was our motto back when we founded the association. That it would still be around today – honestly, we would not have thought it possible," Klaus J. Behrendt reports. "We were relatively naive," adds co-star Dietmar Bär, "about the amount of work we would have to invest in managing, lobbying and building it up – we had no idea going in. 'Let's just found an association' wasn't enough," he laughs. Today the group is amused by their own naiveté.

We are surrounded by the set of the most recent Tatort episode. On television this is the conference room at police headquarters. In reality, it is an old office building in the centre of Cologne. All around us props are being packed into boxes until the next filming. Three of the best-loved TV detectives in Germany are sitting across from me, three men who once decided to set out and make the world a little bit better.

Despite the long day of filming and the late hour, one thing is immediately apparent: the more the three talk about their foundation and its projects, the livelier they get. Throughout the interview they have to bridle their enthusiasm to keep from interrupting each other constantly – each can add to and expand on what another has said. They burst with enthusiasm and it is clearly contagious. That initial spark, that "we have to do something" impulse, obviously never wore off. All three identify with the project with every fibre of their beings.

From almost the very beginning, the Tatort foundation has primarily supported the PREDA human rights organisation located in Olongapo, a port city 250km north of Manila and run by Father Shay Cullen. Their activities are not limited to Olongapo and social workers travel to Manila a few times a week. In the beginning, Bär recalls, when they were looking for adequate partners, they initially fell victim to some black sheep, institutions where the foundation was never quite sure if funds were actually finding their way into the projects. PREDA, on the other hand, has proven to be a reliable and efficient partner in implementation.

Behind bars

A few years ago Bär, Behrendt and Bausch visited the prisons in Manila – home to around 20,000 imprisoned minors, 20,000 horror stories behind bars. As they talk it becomes clear that all three are still moved by the experience even after all this time. The children and youths live crammed together in cells, in the closest of close quarters, and at times together with the hardest hardened criminals. The hygienic conditions are catastrophic. Hens confined to cages in laying batteries have more freedom, Behrendt exclaims with disgust.

Joe Bausch plays the coroner in Tatort. In real life he has worked as a prison physician for over 25 years. Not an easy job; there too he is confronted with the negative side of the human condition on a daily basis. But though he has plumbed the depths of human despair and depravity, he too was honestly moved. On the trip, Bausch examined the children in the prisons. This visit proved the foundation for the Prison Children campaign, which, with the help of PREDA, is aimed at freeing innocent children or those thrown in jail for truly petty crimes. A living centre was built to house these children and additional buildings are currently under construction. 70 people are involved in the project in the Philippines, including a whole array of therapists who care for the often severely traumatized children. At the moment 12 programmes are underway that assist child prostitutes, children who have been released from prison, and victims of abuse. The foundation is involved in fair trade and human rights for indigents as well.

"Just start up a great campaign, take some awesome photos and put it out there – 'short and sweet' just doesn't cut it! You have to muck in for the long haul, otherwise it is not fair to the children and not appropriate to the situation." Bausch confesses. On average the boys in the "Boy's Home" stay for 18-24 months and undergo intensive counseling. Generally the centre houses around 60-70 boys at any given time. Two of the boys they freed from prison once explained that they initially thought the actors were sex tourists who had bought their freedom in exchange for sexual services. They were very relieved when they arrived at the centre and realised that was not the case at all. For the actors this was distressing, but also positive reinforcement for their actions – the boys' fears very poignantly illustrated the reality that confronts street children in the Philippines.

With the support of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, which recently allotted funds for the foundation's work abroad for the first time, a centre for girls has now been financed. Construction is scheduled for completion around Christmas of this year. It will have space for 75 girls who will be rescued from the red light district or domestic abuse.

A few years ago the age at which children were tried as adults was raised in the Philippines from 9 to 15. Now it is supposed to be lowered back down to 12, a political decision that shocks and appalls all three. "Fatal" they agree as one. But here too, rather than talk, they act. They attack on all fronts, sending letters to politicians and calling for a protest email campaign on the foundation's homepage.

Mango Monkeys

All this costs money. Lots of money. In addition to donations, the foundation has found another way to assist the people in the Philippines and create another source of income to fund the project: they market Mango Monkeys, gummy bears or, in this case, gummy monkeys. Together with PREDA and the Ravensburger Fair Trade Association dwp, they help bring mangos grown by the Philippine's native population to the German market where they are sold at a fair price. This ensures the farmers' income, which in turn means the mango farmers can send their children to school and spare them the fate of a street child. Part of the money earned through the sale of Mango Monkeys flows back into the project.

I want to know how many appearances they make on behalf of the foundation in a year. The three count and arrive at 25 per year. "Hmm, not all that many..." they mutter. But 25 means one of them is on the road drumming up support for the foundation every two weeks. That seems like a lot.

The Tatort episode was based on a real case –a boy in the show, though in reality it was the fate of a small girl. The change in the living conditions of this very girl numbers among the foundation's most resounding successes. All grown up by now, she works in Manila for PREDA counseling and helping child prostitutes. Because of her personal history, the girls view her as a special role model. She is not the only one either; many of the children the foundation has saved return to work in the projects as adults. For these kids, the projects organised by the Tatort foundation are a saving grace, a lottery jackpot – so much so, that they want to give something back and fight the good fight too.

14 years of the Tatort foundation. It all started with three men who once left Germany and set out to improve the world. It seems they have actually succeeded. To be continued...