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DOC COLUMN | Showing Movies, Making Change: P.O.V. at 20 Years

DOC COLUMN | Showing Movies, Making Change: P.O.V. at 20 Years

As film lovers, we tend to remember our significant film moments. One such moment for me was Elizabeth Barret‘s “Stranger with a Camera.” In it, Barret revisits the 1967 murder of filmmaker Hugh O’Connor by a Kentucky local who was fed up with what he considered exploitation of people and poverty in his hometown. Barret, who grew up in Appalachia herself, uses her personal and regional history to explore the relationship between filmmaker and subject, with profound results. The story is at once personal to the filmmaker, and to me having grown up in West Virginia, while it also explores our nation’s collective ambivalence and fascination with poverty and relationship to media. My experience with the film steered me toward a career in media because, like the staff of P.O.V. which aired the film in 2000, I whole-heartedly believe that media has power to change the way that we think and influence our actions.

This year marks the 20th anniversary for P.O.V./American Documentary, a curated strand of documentary films shown on American public television each summer. “P.O.V. films are artful, courageous and personal,” says executive director Simon Kilmurry. “They reveal hidden aspects of contemporary life and challenge how we see the world.” Broadcasts garner millions of viewers, one of the largest exhibition platforms for any independent film in the country. To honor this milestone year and the organization’s contribution to the television landscape, P.O.V. was awarded a Special Emmy for Excellence at this week’s 28th annual News & Documentary Emmy Awards.

Though P.O.V. is no stranger to recognition–having garnered 18 Emmys, 11 George Foster Peabody Awards, eight Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Broadcast Journalism Awards, three Academy Awards, and even a Webby Award, among others–beyond awards, press releases and parties, are over 250 of the best independently produced documentary films of the last two decades. As if being a part of this prestigious strand were not enough, P.O.V. is also unique in its commitment to “leveraging the potential of multimedia venues to inform, engage and entertain audiences around specific issues,” as vice president Cynthia Lopez describes their mission.

Filmmakers who are fortunate enough to garner a slot on this slate not only have their work exhibited to millions of viewers, a rarity in these days of niche markets and on-demand viewing, they also have a team devoted to extending the reach of the message of their film as far as possible over many years. Gordon Quinn, whose “Refrigerator Mothers,” about three strong mothers dealing with autistic children, broadcast in 2002, notes that the website for the film is still available and accounts for an incredible “long tail” life for the film.

It is the idea of outreach and P.O.V.’s particular commitment to engaging audiences “beyond broadcast” that makes it so unique in the world of television. In the early days, P.O.V. staff would hold community screenings pre-broadcast and tape viewer responses for their “Talkback” segment following the broadcast. Time and technology now allow for more immediate online discussion, interviews with filmmakers aired before the show, and updates from the films’ subjects and other important viewpoints and commentary through streaming videos and podcasts. Says filmmaker Aaron Matthews who has had two films on the strand, “With both ‘My American Girls‘ [2001] and ‘A Panther In Africa‘ [2004] it was exhilarating to have the sense I was making a contribution to a national conversation.”

Kilmurry noted that one of his special film moments was watching “Silverlake Life.” Producer Doug Block said, “It was 1993, at the height of the AIDS crisis in America, and the film was a very intimate video diary of a longtime gay couple living with and dying of AIDS. It was a powerful and groundbreaking cinematic experience, but not an obvious one to broadcast to a national audience.” Crediting the strength of conviction by then-executive director Ellen Schneider with bringing the broadcast to fruition, he went on to describe a viewer’s response, “one of the many letters we received was from a Mormon housewife who wrote that she had always felt homosexuals were sinners who would go to hell. But after being so moved by ‘the plight of the two magnificent gentlemen,’ she was ashamed of herself and determined never again to pre-judge anyone.”

Cory Booker in a scene from Marshall Curry’s “Steet Fight.” The Star-Ledger, photograph used with permission

Another aspect of working with P.O.V. that has many alumni singing their praises is their commitment to the filmmakers’ vision, allowing varying times and final cut to rest with the filmmaker, as well as tapping their knowledge and vision to guide outreach efforts. Marshall Curry said of his 2005 “Street Fight,” about Corey Booker’s underdog mayoral race in Newark, NJ, “Some people who I pitched just saw a story about a three-year-old election in a medium sized city. But P.O.V. saw a universal story about race, the health of democracy in America, dirty tricks, and political bravery.”

Others have similar stories. Juan Carlos Zaldivar, who directed “90 Miles,” a story of coming to grips with his Cuban family’s separation between Florida and Cuba, said, “Though there had been lots of material produced on Cuba up until 2001, most of it got caught in an ideological war. I was interested in developing conversations that got to the root of existing attitudes towards Cuba and U.S.-Cuba relations from a personal and multi-generational point of view.” “90 Miles” ended up screening in over 60 cities, most with Q&As or panel discussions–and with a recent DVD release, Zaldivar reports continued interest in the film, rooted in those early efforts and continuing support by P.O.V.

When reaching out to filmmakers for this article, I wanted to hear from filmmakers whose work was shown some time ago, like Matthews and Block, but recent projects. Robert Bahar and Almudena Carracedo‘s “Made in L.A.” was broadcast this month in honor of Labor Day. Their film follows the activism of three Latina garment workers who challenge sweatshop conditions in Los Angeles. “For months before the broadcast, P.O.V.’s Community Engagement Department worked with community groups and national partners to screen the film for community groups. In some cases, these screenings were at large venues like the Brooklyn Museum, or the Roxie Theater in San Francisco in partnership with Active Voice [founded by Schneider], while in other cases they were small screenings that brought people together at their local public libraries. This couldn’t have been more important, as part of our goal was for immigrants and non-immigrants alike at events to experience the film together.” The result? Already they have received viewer feedback and even have comments from politicians and activists alike on the film’s P.O.V. website.

Jolene Pinder, associate producer of “Arctic Son” which also aired this season, made clear how helpful it was to their team to have P.O.V. staff help in creating their discussion guide, doing press outreach and coordinating screenings. The production company, Big Mouth Productions, had already toured with the film in a successful festival run and needed to start investing in new projects. “Outreach is what the P.O.V team does, and they have relationships that have been developed over time that are so valuable. I gave Eliza Licht [Director of Community Engagement] a list of contacts and she ran with it.” By becoming members of each films’ team, P.O.V. not only becomes part of the distribution effort, they assist in executing the outreach dreams of the filmmakers.

Do documentaries make a difference in this difficult world we live in? Lopez said, “Our success takes a large group of people who have done their part to see the world differently. If each of us went the extra mile to make things better, we would live in a better place. P.O.V. tries to go the extra mile.”

To mark the 20th anniversary, Docurama produced a collector’s set of 15 P.O.V. films including many never before available on DVD. The limited edition set of films is available from Shop PBS. For more on P.O.V. also read an interview with series producer Yance Ford. And listen to Docs That Inspire interview with executive director Simon Kilmurry.

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