Watching the leopard go home

SUNDAY SNAPSHOTS

Careers: Teacher and writer...

September 29, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach

Watching the leopard go home; Careers: Teacher and writer 0) Michael Olmert is the author of a documentary film about a young jungle cat, narrated by Sir John Gielgud

Michael Olmert knew he had made it as a documentary writer when he started telling Sir John Gielgud what to do -- and the legendary British actor listened.

"He was very generous to me," says Olmert, who teaches English at the University of Maryland's College Park campus when he's not writing. "I had to write the stuff and direct him in reading the narration. That put a lot of pressure on me, and whenever I get nervous, I talk too much. I would start saying something about how he'd read something, and whenever I did that, he was always so gentle. He would say, 'Right you are, Mike. Let's do it again.' "

That's pretty heady stuff, even considering Olmert has written more than 50 documentaries in the past 15 years. But this one's unusual, and not only because of the man behind the microphone: This script is the narration driving "The Leopard Son," the first theatrical film from Bethesda-based Discovery Communications, the cable television folks responsible for the Discovery and Learning channels.

The documentary film was shot in Africa during a three-year period and will open at several Washington-area theaters this week (there are no plans as yet to open the film in Baltimore).

It follows a young leopard in Africa as he leaves the care of his mother and fends for himself in the wilds of the Serengeti. Later, he returns home -- a development that stunned the filmmakers, who had no idea leopards behaved this way.

"It's a film about all of us and the way we live," says Olmert, 56. "The leopard has to go away, then come back -- and that's when he learns to appreciate his parents, just as humans often do.

"In many ways, the film is like 'Hamlet.' Hamlet goes away and comes back, and finds his home is completely changed. I tried to turn it into a fable rather than a standard wildlife film."

Not that Olmert is calling himself a Shakespeare; he teaches the Bard to students at College Park, and knows better than to venture such comparisons.

But Shakespeare never did much with documentaries. Olmert has done plenty, beginning with a handful he wrote for the Smithsonian Institution's "Smithsonian World" series in the early 1980s.

Before that, he was a print journalist with more than 50 articles under his byline appearing in Smithsonian magazine and covering topics in history, literature and nature. Olmert thought he'd settled into his niche, but found the world of documentary writing just as comfortable a fit.

Olmert keeps pretty busy.

In the next month, he will continue teaching Shakespeare and 17th- and 18th-century literature at College Park; await response to "The Leopard King"; follow the progress of his latest book, "Milton's Teeth and Ovid's Umbrella," a study of the nature of history published by Simon & Schuster; prepare for the Oct. 7 debut of his PBS documentary on retired Supreme Court Justice William Brennan; and push on with his next project, a documentary about lions scheduled to air in November and narrated by actor Malcolm McDowell.

That last item could lead to yet another career: technical adviser. McDowell is starring in a new TV series, "Pearl," where he plays a particularly nasty, if also brilliant, college philosophy professor.

"The last time he was talking to me, he said, 'You're a real professor. I can get some hints from you,' " Olmert recalls with a laugh. "I told him, 'Malcolm, if I acted like you do on that show, they'd stone me.' "

Mimi Bennett likes it raw. Really raw.

In fact she won't have it any other way. Raw is good. Raw is good for you.

That's the way the bees like it. It's the way they make it, and Bennett has always listened to Mother Nature and her minions.

"Nobody can improve on nature," she says with perky certainty.

It was this conviction that got her and her husband, Victor, now retired, into the honey business. About 20 years ago, when they were living in Manhattan, Victor brought home a 60-pound tub of raw honey from upstate New York. They loved it. Their friends loved it. Then their friends' friends, and so on. They began selling it at fairs, flea markets.

Today, Bennett sells her Really Raw Honey mostly to perfect strangers, those who deal in some 800 to 1,000 shops (health food and gourmet stores mainly) up and down the East Coast. She still gets it from New York, from areas where there is little farming or orchards (thus no pesticides or chemical sprays) and distributes it out of her Really Raw Honey Co. headquarters right here in Baltimore, where she was born.

She believes in honey. Bacteria won't thrive in it. Nothing spoils it, except water, which causes it to ferment (that leads to mead, which has its own compensations). Bennett uses it liberally. She puts it in her hair. She is 60 and hardly has a gray one. She puts it on her skin. She is convinced it has medicinal values long unappreciated.

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