PBS documentary series “Independent Lens” officially kicks off its 2012-2013 season tonight, October 29th, with “Love Free or Die,” a film from director Macky Alston about Gene Robinson, the first openly gay bishop in a Christian church, a man who wore a bullet-proof vest to his consecration in 2003. It’s a portrait of both an individual and an extremely timely issue, and this round of Independent Lens is filled with similarly relevant films in a moment in which public television itself is coming under political fire. Indiewire spoke with Independent Lens’ founding and senior producer Lois Vossen about the docs, the series’ move to Monday nights after a problematic shift to Thursdays last year and new host Stanley Tucci.
Can you tell me about the new timeslot [Monday nights at 10pm] and what you expect from it?
We feel PBS definitely demonstrated a commitment to independent film by giving us one of its key timeslots — Monday night is one of the highest nights for television viewership. We’re following their highest rated series “Antiques Roadshow” and the spin-off “Market Warriors,” so it’s a pretty great timeslot. Our goal is to build on the audience as they come for those two great series, but also to bring a new audience. “Independent Lens” has always brought a younger and much more diverse audience to PBS, because of the nature of and the way we market our programming and the work that filmmakers do. So far our viewers have been very responsive, and I’m very pleased with it.
“Antiques Roadshow” and “Market Warriors” are stories about really interesting things and “Independent Lens” is about really interesting people, and so what you get is this peek behind the curtain with all three of these series. Maybe you wouldn’t look at them and think they’re a perfect fit, but we think that there’s more similarity there than people realize. We’ve been having a really good time trying to find those similarities and to take advantage of Monday nights because its such a great night for television.
The previous move to Thursdays had caused some problems because it’s such a crowded night for television. Will this move to Mondays take care of some of the issues that had been experienced before in terms of scheduling irregularities?
We’re very confident it will. We have commitments from most of the major markets across the country to air us on Monday nights. There are always a few stations that have a long-standing night where they’ve always done independent programming that they’ve supported and marketed and so are sticking with, but by and large the majority of stations have really embraced the Monday night and are very positive about the move. We know that we have carriage in those markets. The other great thing is that we’re going to consistently be on at 10 o’clock. In the past there have been time differences because of other series, and its great for us to know that every Monday night at 10 we get to start a new show. We want to make sure we’re hanging on to that primetime audience, so we’re optimistic and very pleased with how stations have responded to the decision.
You have Stanley Tucci as the host introducing the films this year. Can you tell me a little bit about bringing him on?
There are other series that have hosts, but we began doing it from our very first season because our shows are so unique. Each one is a different storyteller, different style and obviously a different subject matter, so we’ve always had a host to unite them and present the series so that viewers would come to feel like every week they have a consistent voice welcoming them in. In picking this year’s host Stanley was just an obvious choice. He’s somebody whose work I’ve admired for a long time, since back when I worked at Sundance, and he’s just an astounding actor, but he’s also a great writer and director who really understands what it means to be an independent filmmaker.
He’s a part of the independent community in a very big way and so even though he’s had success with Hollywood films he’s remained this strong voice in the independent community. I was really pleased when he accepted this invitation, and his response to the films has been outstanding. It’s a perfect match given the extraordinary slate we have this year. I wanted a host who could handle the warmth and humor of “Beauty Is Embarassing,” but also deliver on the gravitas of “Invisible War,” “The House I Live In,” “The Waiting Room,” and the other extraordinary films we have that look at deep social issues, and of course he can do all that because he’s such an extraordinary actor.
How did you decide to kick the season off with “Love Free or Die”?
It’s a film I’ve been following for a long time before PBS became a funder of it and was obviously pleased when they came up to support it. We’ve worked with Macky Alston before — he’s such a generous filmmaker to work with. He’s smart and engaged and understands how to tell a story that will reach an audience and really move them. We’ve had a lot of films over the years on different issues that relate to the gay/lesbian/transgender community, but we hadn’t done gay marriage and we hadn’t done, even more interesting to us, this intersection between faith and gay rights. Gene Robinson’s story encapsulates everything. It felt like a great way for us to talk about an issue that is a very central conversation that is happening in cities all over the country.
One of the things that I’m most proud of this season is that we have so many films that are about issues that are at the forefront of our conversations. This is one of them — cities, towns and states all across the country are talking about it and looking at legislation and trying to figure out where to go with this issue. We felt this was a great way to be part of this conversation and add information that would encourage more dialogue. We put it on early in the season because we didn’t feel that it should be an issue that’s just talked about during Gay Pride month, it’s should be talked about 12 months of the year.
“Independent Lens” and “POV” provide a platform for both these films and for audiences who might not have access to them otherwise. With PBS in the spotlight in this election season, how would you describe the importance of your series?
Our mission is to present filmmakers who are telling stories about communities that don’t traditionally get to tell their stories told, and in an election year that is more critical than ever when so much money is being spent on campaigning. It’s the wealthiest, the people who have the largest megaphone who get to dominate the news cycle, and it’s critical in an election year and in every year that the small voices also have a chance to get out there. I think our series, with “POV,” is committed to making sure those stories get out there every year, every week, and PBS is the perfect home to do that.
PBS is driven by a mission that’s not dollars and cents. They’re driven by ideas, and the idea that any democracy needs public media where there’s a discourse. Our two series along with our great colleagues hold that mission dear, and I think this year you can really see that. The filmmakers wanted to talk about these issues because they felt that somebody wasn’t, that either in the mainstream media it hadn’t been thoroughly vetted and discussed or that the issue is so deep and complex that you need to look at it from different perspectives. We feel as though our role has never been more clear and really never been more ideal — “Independent Lens” as a series and what our independent filmmakers stand for, but also PBS and this larger commitment to public media to serve the public.
In a day and age where pretty much anything can be bought and sold, you can’t buy and sell democracy. You have to allow people to have conversations and come to conclusions about how they feel or what they think is best for their family, their community, their state and their country. People can’t do that if they don’t have information.
I don’t want to make you go through all of the films in the lineup, but are there any in particular that appeal to you personally or that you think are worth a particular calling out?
That’s always a tough question, but this season it’s almost impossible because its just an extraordinary slate. Every week we have an extraordinarily exciting story to share. We have five films that were award-winners at last year’s Sundance Film Festival — I believe of the six documentaries that won awards five of them are going to be on our season — “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry,” “The Invisible War,” “The House I Live In,” “Detropia,” and of course “Love Free or Die.”
Add to that “The Island President” which is an interesting look at the environmental issues that we face but also political justice around the world, and “The Waiting Room,” which is such an incredibly engaging way to talk about health care and how it’s run in this country. Then we have films that seem lighter but actually are about deep issues — “Wonder Women! The Untold Story of American Superheroines” is fun and great, its about girls dressing up as Wonder Woman but it’s really a film about the role of women in our society and equality.
And “Beauty Is Embarassing” is so well made and so much fun to watch, but it’s a really important issue in terms of talking about how artists make a living and how artists survive in a culture that is not always supportive. “The Undocumented” by Marco Williams — he’s been on our slate before with his last film — is an incredible new way to talk about immigration because it looks at the men and women who will do anything to come into this country to find a better life, often at the cost of their own lives. I literally could go on for hours and hours because the slate is so rich.