Tales of corporate malfeasance, humanitarian efforts to help victims of natural disasters, the international struggle for an independent press, public land use that threatens to exacerbate income equality, conditions at Chinese factories, the unclear future of healthcare in Afghanistan, the history of “Sesame Street”: All these topics are prominent in the documentary world in recent months. And they were all subjects of films shown on “Independent Lens.”
There’s a part of the documentary world that always has its eye trained on the stories of tomorrow. For the better part of two decades, “Independent Lens” has given those forward-looking stories a home, thanks to executive producer Lois Vossen, who has been with the series since its inception.
“I think all great documentary filmmakers are usually ahead of the curve. They’re down in the communities, hearing what’s happening with people, and starting to tell those stories. What we have found time and time again, is that they’re actually ahead of the zeitgeist,” Vossen told IndieWire. “We had this great film, ‘The Black Panthers,’ that Stanley Nelson made. He worked on that film for years and years and we funded it years before that and then we picked the broadcast date a year in advance. The day before, Beyonce showed up at the Super Bowl dressed as a Black Panther. There’s something about these filmmakers and what they see.”
Watch how Lois Vossen picks, supports, and encourages the forward-thinking filmmakers who make the films she loves to champion for “Independent Lens” in the video below.
In the nearly 20 years that “Independent Lens” has been on the air, there have been different approaches to the programming of the annual series, which runs regularly over nine months every year. At the outset, the emphasis was on casting a wide net and ensuring that each new week brought a look into a different facet of life around the globe. In the decades since, Vossen has recognized that revisiting certain subjects isn’t just a luxury, but a necessity.
“It’s always a balancing act. I used to joke that our audiences don’t want to see five films on any topic, they want to see the best film on that topic,” Vossen said. “But a year later, there’s another take on that same topic and so you want to bring that forward.”
One tragic part of American life in the time since the premiere of “Independent Lens” has been a decades-long spate of gun violence around the country. In the wake of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, director Kim A. Snyder began documenting life in the surrounding community in the years after. She said that being able to tell the subjects of what would become “Newtown” that this film was financed in part by ITVS and was an Independent Lens production helped provide some stability during a tumultuous media environment.
“There were signs that said ‘Media Go Away.’ There were a lot of people in there, not just the regular throngs of media, but there were other competitive projects,” Snyder said. “The kinds of films I make, the intimacy with the subjects is so important and so the trust-building process is extremely important. It was really important that I could keep my word to people who had lost children. The whole town had been so traumatized. Once ITVS came on board, it was helpful to be able to talk about how I would retain more control and decision-making.”
Snyder’s previous film, “Welcome to Shelbyville,” had also aired as part of the series. On “Newtown,” that creative relationship with Vossen existed from the earliest part of the project. Even while dealing with extremely sensitive subject matter, in a film that could easily be used as a more overt, explicit call for gun control legislation, Snyder said she was never pressured to make a certain kind of film.
“There were no fights or anything. Lois had my back, and so there was a lot of trust,” Snyder said. “It’s a long haul. These films were three or four years of life with, you know, all your waking hours. I never went through what a lot of us have gone through many times in this kind of career — of ever feeling like I had to look over my shoulder or there was going to be backstabbing or the project could be taken away from you. And that felt great.”
“It’s not about the story I want to tell or Noland Walker, my co-programmer [wants to tell]. It really is, ‘What is the story they want to tell?’” Vossen said. “I work with incredible colleagues at ITVS, a group of supervising producers who do extraordinary work every day to help filmmakers find their voice and tell the story they want to tell. People like Dave [Eisenberg] and Michael [Kinomoto] and Michael [Ehrenzweig] and Shana [Swanson] and Amy [Shatsky-Gambrill], are really also just completely committed to that idea of, ‘How do you let the filmmaker tell the story?’”
The freedom to pursue the optimal path for a project can also be found in “Philly D.A.,” the fascinating documentary series that aired earlier this year on PBS. Following the rich tradition of Frederick Wiseman (another filmmaker frequently featured in the “Independent Lens” canon), directors Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar spent two years chronicling daily life inside the offices of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner.
What began as a short film project following an upstart, long-shot political campaign eventually morphed into a complex look at the American criminal justice system at large.
“We’re so lucky that this series got made. So many things had to go right for this even to happen. To make a series out of reality like this, it’s so, so messy, and [we] essentially [made it] from a local production model. A bunch of executives didn’t get together at PBS headquarters and say, ‘We should follow Larry Krasner,’” Brook said. “The fact that this was in Philadelphia, this was from our backyard, meant it became a different kind of documentary series than TV is used to making right now. To do it the way we did it, to shoot over 500 days over multiple years with a crew of three people, it’s a little nuts.”
Though “Philly D.A.” might be the highest profile “Independent Lens” docuseries to date, it’s far from the only one in that tradition. Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert won an Emmy in 2007 for “A Lion in the House,” a four-part presentation look at five different families living with the effects of childhood cancer. Five years later came Connie Field’s “Have You Heard from Johannesburg?” an extensive history of the movement to overturn apartheid in South Africa.
“We didn’t call them docuseries back then. We had this old-fashioned name ‘multi-part series,’ which sounds so boring and really not sexy at all. But we’ve had that as part of our DNA since the very beginning,” Vossen said.
One of the biggest shifts in the years since “Independent Lens” premiered is the acquisition climate. Being a funding partner in as many “Independent Lens” films as possible has been a prime ITVS goal from the outset. But for films that come through the festival ranks that might be a good fit for the series, there’s been a steady change in the structure for making that happen.
“I used to just literally call a filmmaker, ‘Hey, I like the film! Can I acquire your film?’ They’d say yes, and then we’d negotiate a price. Now I talk to a sales agent then I talk to a sales rep then I talk to a lawyer, then I finally get to talk to the filmmaker about three months later. It feels like the game has just changed completely,” Vossen said. Even with those added layers, she’s stuck to a core principle not always found amongst the other prominent venues for documentaries. “ITVS is an organization started by filmmakers, for filmmakers. So the filmmakers always own copyright in perpetuity. We never do.”
In turn, Vossen said, that helps foster an ongoing relationship. Among the impending new docs on the Independent Lens slate are projects from Nelson and from members of the Brown Girls Doc Mafia. Fostering that communication also helps make sure that, when some of these films become newly relevant again — Vossen cited past films covering gender disparities among firefighters and the rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan as more recent examples — there’s a mechanism in place to try to put those in front of 2021 viewers.
“What we are doing more and more is bringing back films from our back catalogue to stream on our website on the PBS website, and then also working with PBS distribution on a larger streaming platform that they have for documentaries,” Vossen said. “Even the films that seem as though they had their moment, they come back.” —Steve Greene