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California Dreamin': New PBS Miniseries Explores the Golden State

By Lily Ng

Election Night 2005, Antonio Villaraigosa celebrates winning the election to become the first Latino Mayor of Los Angeles in more than 130 years. From Lyn Goldfarb's The New Los Angeles, an episode from the four-part series California and the American Dream that airs on PBS

California is a state of dichotomies. Home to the world's tallest trees, it's also where logging efforts perpetually threaten to cut them down. The state has both the highest and lowest elevation points in the 48 contiguous states. California has more land under irrigation than any other state, but it's also been voted the No. 1 place to live by a 2005 Harris poll. As a result, soaring housing prices and suburban sprawl are encroaching upon some of the state's rich, high-yielding farmland.

The most populous state in the union, California contains four of the largest and most populous cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose. State institutions, like its universities and hospitals, consistently rank in the top 15. Politically, the state remains a Democratic stronghold, key to how the state's progressive politics eventually influence the nation. It's no wonder that PBS' new four-part series, California and the American Dream (airing on Thursdays from April 13 to May 4, 2006), focuses on California as the place where many come to find and live the American dream.

With 120 years of public television experience combined, the series producers Jed Riffe, Paul Espinosa, Lyn Goldfarb and Emiko Omori--explore the "real" California behind the popularity polls. Taking on the current topics of Indian gaming, urban and economic renewal, farming and the organic food movement, and civic engagement and the initiative process in Los Angeles, each episode tackles issues and trends relevant not just to California today, but to the rest of the nation tomorrow.

Why California? "There's an openness to innovation and enterprise in California," Riffe explains. "It's very much an open society. Things start here. People are more willing to create and try things out here." Espinosa adds, "The demographic changes in California anticipate national trends. These stories [we're telling] are stories that will play in different ways nationally."

Riffe's piece, California's 'Lost' Tribes, explores the controversial subject of Indian gaming and how casinos have created economic authority, independence and infrastructure for several sovereign governments despite the negative image such casinos have in the public eye.

California's Native Americans, originating from 108 different tribes, have all been forgotten, living on reservations in abject poverty. Successful casinos, like the one run by the Morongo Band of Indians in the desert town of Cabazon, and Cache Creek Casino, north of San Francisco, have become models of self-reliance for sovereign nations. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has sought to enforce a 25 percent tax on gross earnings of the casinos, while the state tax on corporations is 8.9 percent of net income. In fact, much of the proceeds from the casinos is used by the sovereign nations to improve conditions on the reservations. Casinos provide jobs and benefits in underserved rural areas. "They're revitalizing their communities; they're not on welfare," says Riffe. "They can be in control of their lives." How California deals with the Indian casinos and its revenues will set the stage for how casinos and gaming will be viewed in other states.

The next two films in the series, Espinosa's The Price of Renewal and Goldfarb's The New Los Angeles, focus on two specific California cities and examine the positives and negatives of urban renewal and community engagement from the perspective of its ethnically diverse neighborhoods.

The Price of Renewal examines how economic and political forces in the 1970s created an inner city out of San Diego's City Heights district, and how present-day benefactors and visionary real estate developers have come together to revitalize the ethnically diverse, but deteriorating neighborhood. Even with the best-laid plans, however, not all community members see the resulting village retail center as a positive. More City Heights residents face displacement as the city needs more space to rebuild, so the far-reaching goals of urban renewal have yet to play out.

In The New Los Angeles, Goldfarb wanted to debunk the myth of Los Angeles--the over-used images of glamour, lifestyle and richesse--and reveal the changing shifts in race and ethnicity that currently shape the city today. Using the last 30 years as a lens through which to view the city's progressive political movements, the film begins with Tom Bradley's rise as the first black mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, and ends with the election of Antonio Villaraigosa, LA's first Latino mayor in more than 130 years.

"I'm interested in the stories that haven't been told," says Goldfarb, of how Los Angeles became the largest minority-majority city in the US. "There was a political struggle in the '60s and '70s in Los Angeles. Plants were closing, white unionized people were moving out of the city. There was a loss in manufacturing and a rise in the service industry to take advantage of the influx of immigrants who were moving in." The film goes on to explore how these events have led to LA's strong labor unions and coalition-building models. As the economic and political center of the country shifts from East to West, "Los Angeles is the future," Goldfarb maintains. "It's such an important city as to what's happening in the US as a whole."

Since California produces 50 percent of the nation's food, the subject of agribusiness and the resulting organic food business was a natural topic for the series' final installment, Ripe for Change. Directed by Omori, this fascinating story of what we eat and where it comes from pits organic farmers, professors, chefs, lawyers and students against the activities of mega agribusinesses that govern the farming industry today. "I wanted to find a way to personalize this topic and come at it differently so viewers can relate to it differently," says Omori. "It's relatively easy to say that corporations are bad," she adds, so Omori, with an eye towards diversity, selected interview subjects who could talk about pesticide control, renewable resources, seed patents, genetically modified foods and the importance of eating locally grown produce on various levels. As California remains the breadbasket for the rest of the country, there's hope that mindful farming and food processing methods here will be adopted elsewhere.

Funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS, with matching funds from the Minority Consortia, ITVS and other foundations, the $1.8 million project took 10 years to make. "We started the series on an initial $40,000," says Riffe of early grants of $20,000 each from the Rockefeller Foundation and the now-defunct PBS Greenlight Project. Early on, the three original series producers (Omori would sign on later) made the difficult decision of working without a public television station between themselves and PBS. In essence, the team functioned as both executive producers and filmmakers.

"We felt that we had an independent vision and model for this series," says Goldfarb. In 2000, the series grabbed the last grant from the Diversity Initiative of $600,000 before the fund was phased out. An additional $400,000 from CPB rounded out the first $1 million. "It's difficult to raise $1 million and get a series off the ground without a PBS station involved," Riffe says. "With a station, they would handle and advance the funds, but as executive producers, we had to do it ourselves. On the other hand, if there was a station on board, they would get a portion of the budget. It's a trade-off."

"It's getting harder and harder for independent filmmakers to get projects on public television apart from the existing PBS series--P.O.V., Independent Lens, American Experience and Frontline," says Goldfarb. Riffe adds that to repeat the same feat today would be doubly difficult, as funding from and for PBS has dried up. Still, Espinosa sees the experience of the team members as a huge asset and advantage to the collaborative effort.

Instead of having one executive producer who oversaw the creative vision, all producers were equal partners on the series. "There was a collaborative sensibility," Espinosa recalls. In terms of being executive producers, he says, "We'd ask each other, 'Have you thought about this? About that?' When you've been a producer for such a long time, you respect other people's opinions." Adds Riffe, "We'd have three-, four-, five-hour conference calls every week!" Riffe and Omori live in the San Francisco Bay Area, Goldfarb in Los Angeles and Espinosa in Scottsdale, Arizona.

"In many ways, the broadcast is more the beginning and less the culmination of this series," Riffe maintains. He and his fellow producers are currently raising additional funding to get the series out to as wide an audience as possible. As more viewers are drawn to programs on cable stations--via on-demand and other media outlets--the producers are editing individual, downloadable video modules for viewing on the website and video iPods, and as podcasts and extras on the DVD, in addition to their community outreach efforts.

Goldfarb hopes for more than just viewers. "We can't do better than having the films be a catalyst to change by starting a dialogue," she asserts.


For more information about the four-part series, visit

Lily Ng is a filmmaker and producer living in San Francisco.