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A Cinematic Time Capsule: Three Decades of 'American Experience'

By Laura Almo

From Barak Goodman's 'My Lai.' Courtesy of National Archives.

Since American Experience debuted in October 1988, a guiding principle of the PBS series has been a belief that history matters. History can help us understand not only where we've been as a nation, but also where we're headed. As Executive Producer Mark Samels explains, "By looking at the past through the lens of the present, we can draw lessons from it—not to justify anyone’s actions but to more fully understand the thoughts, decisions and actions of the people that came before us."

In the nearly 30 years that American Experience has been gracing audiences with historical documentaries, the flagship series has presented documentary films on wide and varied topics including US presidents (JFK; LBJ; Nixon; Reagan), war (War Letters; Two Days in October; My Lai; Last Days in Vietnam), pop culture (Tupperware; Ripley: Believe it or Not), counterculture (Summer of Love; Haight Ashbury) and the civil rights movement (The Murder of Emmett Till; Freedom Summer; Freedom Riders).

American Experience burrows down in the subject matter, regularly using archival footage to give audiences a visual sense of the time and place. "It is not just the 'what' but the 'why,'" says Samels, who joined American Experience in 1997 as a senior producer and has been at the helm since 2003. "History can bring us closer to the past and inform both our present and future." He sees the series as a way to bring audiences a "time capsule into the past."

Documentary spoke with Samels by phone about the role of history in American life, using archival footage to bring that history alive, and how understanding our contentious but shared history can bind us together.

If you were to compare American Experience now to 30 years ago, what conclusions would you draw?

Mark Samels: I think a lot of our DNA has remained intact over the last 30 years. I think the center of the whole enterprise—certainly in the 20 years I've been with this series—has been a real belief that history matters. Not only can history help inform us about the country that we live in but also help guide us, sometimes even comfort us.

It also provides some cautionary tales about the present and moving forward into the future. It's a belief that history is important and that we need to know the course that we've journeyed on as a people. And, even though we're incredibly diverse and the country is vast, there's a story to the American experiment.

As you see it, what is the American experiment and how does that inform the series?

We have a nation founded upon tremendously important ideals and it's been our quest since the beginning to live up to those ideals. Sometimes we've reached them and sometimes we've fallen short—I think that is the philosophical base of the series.

As for how that informs the series, we need to do everything we can to draw the past closer to the present through characters and moments in history that are poignant, meaningful and dramatic. We need to structure our films so that we take people back in a time capsule into the past, rather than look back on the past. We compare it to the present and draw lessons from it. We try to go back and see what the world was like for those people at that time.

How has American Experience changed and evolved over the years?

We've evolved as the documentary film form has evolved. We've experimented with different styles to a greater extent. We've done films that have a higher percentage of dramatic reenactments—sometimes even with written dialogue, which we really didn’t have at the beginning of the series as much. We've also evolved a theatrical film strand of films that can play at festivals and compete for awards such as the Academy Award.

I think what's always remained the same is the challenge to put all the resources together, the challenge to find the right talented people to work with, and the underlying challenge—which I firmly believe is that films tend to fall apart before they come together—and that it takes a strong, concerted and collective effort to bring them home.

You work with filmmakers such as Barak Goodman and Stanley Nelson who have been longtime collaborators. Do you have plans to expand your roster of filmmakers?

Over the last five to ten years we have really expanded our stable of filmmakers that we work with. I’m really happy that for close to five years running, more than half of our films are now being made by women.

We've been focusing on trying in our specialized little area to remove a barrier that had often been there for women who would rise up and reach the level of associate producer, maybe co-producer, but were not able to go to the next step, which is producer/director or producer. I'm pleased that we have so many women that are at the top of the teams that are making our films.

How do you work with filmmakers to bring the history alive through the archival footage?

You have to be able to read images. You have to know how they interact and what happens when you combine and juxtapose them. You have to know what impact music, sound effects and voiceover commentary make upon that image and how the image changes the meaning that you're getting. Any event takes place in a context and there are multiple things you could draw the audience's attention to.

From John Maggio’s <em>Into the Amazon</em>. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

How do you and/or the filmmakers work with the different archival sources such as stock houses, boutique archives and personal collections?

The interface between archival footage and our films is really up to the production teams that we commission to make our films. I tend to not have a direct relationship [with the archives], but I can say that being aware of the resources that are potentially available is very much part of the design process.

The next film that Barak Goodman [Scottsboro: An American Tragedy; Oklahoma City] is making for us is a look back at Woodstock for the 50th anniversary in 2019. The launching of the project has been very much about what perspective we're going to take and the decision that we were not going to try to remake the Oscar-winning film that was made so many years ago that was primarily about the musicians.

We're going to make a film about the people who went, what they were drawn to, what happened and what that's meant over time. We wanted to do interviews with people who had experienced it from different levels: the [attendees], the townspeople, the police, the organizers, etc. in order to give a 360-degree view. We also wanted to bring it alive in a way that's not just focused at the stage. One of the things that I said at the very beginning when Barak and I were first talking is, "You know, there were 16 film cameras pointed at the stage at Woodstock; we want to point the camera the other direction."

We've worked out some deals to get unprecedented access to some material that was shot at Woodstock that had never before been seen and was not included in the original film.

We've gotten access to personal home movies. We've got a deal with a great museum in Bethel [New York, where the concert was held] that has collected photographs and home movies from people. It was very much about trying to put together a different picture of Woodstock than the one that you would know if you've seen the original film.

'American Experience' Executive Producer Mark Samels. Courtesy of WGBH.

Any other upcoming American Experience films that come to mind?

Another anecdote that illustrates the importance of telling stories with archival footage is that Robert Stone [Radio Bikini; Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst], who we work with quite a bit, is making a new film for us for 2019. It is a six-hour film about the space program called Chasing the Moon, which is entirely archival film-driven.

Both Chasing the Moon and Woodstock are so immersive in archival imagery that we decided to not put interviewees on camera, but rather just hear them, because we want to keep the audience immersed in the moment.

On the business end of archival footage, what have you observed about the costs of and accessibility to footage?

I'm not the best person to do a compare-and-contrast on that front. I'm at a more global level. I would say the biggest change has been that over time it becomes increasingly important to get a wider of array of rights for a longer period of time because there's been this explosion of platforms that were kind of unforeseen, so it's become much more complex.

How has fair use impacted the history/documentary genre?

Fair use is an active topic here. Fortunately we have some folks on our staff who are nationally known for their knowledge of fair use. In fact, our counsel for American Experience is constantly appearing at events to talk about fair use. It's critically important to get it right, and I think [people] can be a little sloppy and step over the line of what fair use allows and doesn't allow.

The main thing is, you have to be diligent. But, it's also an important tool because there are some things that really belong not to copyright holders but to posterity, to history, and you have to be able to get access to that.

Talk about the types of community engagement screenings American Experience does.

We're a pioneer in doing engagement campaigns. For many years we've tried to take our content to communities where they organize around the subject or have a strong interest in the subject matter. And, we hold screening events, have panels and bring people together to discuss these works. It's been very extensive.

A few years ago, Stanley Nelson made a film called Freedom Riders, which in some ways was symbolic of the work that we've done in engagement campaigns. In a way it is the epitome of it. In 2010 leading up to the broadcast in 2011, we did scores of community screenings around the country.

We decided we wanted to take it to the next level, and we actually recreated the Freedom Ride journey. We took a group of 20 college students on a bus ride from Washington, DC to New Orleans, recreating the route of one of the original Freedom Rides. At stops along the way we would bring on some of the original Freedom Riders and have a community forum. We took this multi-week journey, all the time documenting it for Facebook and for our website. It was such an extraordinary event that it eventually led to the show being featured on one of the last episodes of Oprah's show.

Do you have any plans to expand into other platforms such as short form or VR?

We have a really active digital team here that's been putting out some really short form [content]. This past summer we did a really nice countdown of "Songs of the Summer," highlighting top 10 songs from different decades in the last 50 years. This highlighted how they became hits, what went into them, and what kind of picture of America they painted collectively.

VR is a place we're talking about possibly going for Chasing the Moon. We're both interested and cautious about it as far as what kind of value it brings to us right now. But, we're paying attention.

How are you commemorating the 30th anniversary? Is this one of reflection and looking back, or is this one of looking toward the future?

I would say both. We're a little modest and slightly of two minds about anniversaries. We're both proud that we're still around and also mindful of the fact that we've been around for a long enough time that some people may think, "Wow, they've been around so long. How can they keep fresh and dynamic?"

I would say that what is at the center of our mind for the 30th anniversary is the immediate and urgent reality that it's never been more important for us to know where we've been as a people. We still have tremendous disagreements and forces that pull us apart in this country, but we've also got a shared history that quite honestly can be a binding agent to pull us together.

The 30th Anniversary Season of American Experience opens January 9 with Into the Amazon.

Laura Almo is an assistant professor of film at El Camino College and a contributing editor at Documentary magazine. She is working on a project on earthquake relief in Nepal and can be reached at