P.O.V. has declared its 1999 season to be one in which "filmmakers focus their lenses on freedom": the term is given broad latitude as the films in its lineup range from explorations of oppression past and present to individual journeys against the odds and expectations of society. And as in previous years, the series includes selections from this year's festival favorites—Emiko Omori's Rabbit in the Moon and Barbara Sonnebom and Janet Cole's Academy Award@ nominee Regret to Inform—mixed with some lesserknown gems.
The series' opener is Michael J. Moore's Sundance entry The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics & Prisons—a riveting study of the social forces, political hypocrisy and media manipulation that brought about California's landmark "Three Strikes and You're Out" law. Beginning with the startling statistic that California today imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any country in the world—with 1 in 3 African- American men somewhere in the prison system—the film meticulously takes the viewer along the path by which a law (so outrageously unfair and oppressive that even the most rabid "get tough on criminals" legislators wouldn't touch it) became a raging bandwagon that every politician in the state was clamoring to board. But what really gives the film its heart is the story of the Klaas family, whose daughter Polly's kidnapping and murder became the rallying cry for the "Three Strikes" forces and was freely used by politicians to bolster their "anti-crime" credentials. The journey of Polly's father Marc from celebrated proponent to ignored and ostracized opponent of a law that was irrevocably linked to his murdered daughter's name is both poignant and maddening-which culminates in a meeting between him and California governor Pete Wilson that takes this year's prize for irony. Told through interviews and media footage, the f,rlm lifts the cynical veil of "concern for the victims" from those hell-bent to'Jail 'em all and throw away the key."
On the other end of the "freedom" spectrum is The Green Monster, a surprisingly sweet piece about the life and times of three-time land speed record holder Art Arfons, by David Finn, David Hess and A.C. Weary. Slight and flinty, slyly charming, and disarmingly reserved, Art Arfons is a man who has spent his life literally blasting through barriers of speed and time. He started his quest after literally stumbling onto a drag race one afternoon and—without a high school diploma, engineering expertise or even blueprints—built a series of supercharged hybrids he dubbed "The Green Monster" that took him to speeds in excess of 600 miles per hour. The film juxtaposes the exhilaration of confronting limits with the personal cost, often high, of Arfons' life, and puts it all in the context of that inevitable moment—achingly captured in the film—when mortality and age finally have their day.
Ricki Stern's In My Corner also depicts the struggle of individuals to excel, but in a different time and context. Set in a rundown neighborhood gym in the South Bronx, it tells the story of trainers Angel and Camacho and two of their protégés, Joey and José. At ten, Joey was a rising star, praised for his maturity and boxing skills and closely watched by sportswriters as a likely future champ. But for Joey at fifteen, the sport and its dreams of glory and riches can't hold a candle to the pervasive realities of poverty-particularly its degrading effect on families. And José, another talented teen, faces similar obstacles. As the film follows Angel and Camacho as they sacrifice everything to help the two boxers meet their potential, In My Corner calls into question the myth that sports is the way out of the ghetto for young Black and Latino men, even while celebrating the role that individuals can play in the lives of young people.
A particularly striking portrait of an individual hghting overwhelming odds is found in Slawomir Grunberg and Ben Crane's film School Prayer: A Communiry at War. When Lisa Herdahl moved with her family from California to a small Mississippi town, to be near family and a better job, she found herself confronted with an increasingly not-so-uncommon phenomenon: forced school prayer. And when she and her teenage son decided to challenge this on constitutional grounds, they found that the forces and tradition of evangelical Christianity are not so easily opposed. The stakes and nature of the battle that ensued are vividly brought home when the local ACLU lawyer for the Herdahls begins packing a sidearm wherever he goes. Ms. Herdatrl is no fuebrand: a Christian herself, she takes on her role as a lone fighter with reluctance and a quiet dignity. Her son, who faces the wrath of his fellow students daily, comments at one point, "Now I know what it must feel like to be Black or Jewish." Overall, this is a frightening portrait of the tyranny of fundamentalism of any kind, and a reminder that individuals can and do have a significant impact on larger social issues.
The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez, by Catherine Ryan and Gary Weimberg, tells the heart-wrenching story of Guillermo, son of jailed Puerto Rican revolutionary Dylcia Pagdn, who was raised in Mexico and unaware of his true origins until he was a teenager. In following his struggle to reconcile and find a connection with his imprisoned mother and become part of the political movement for her freedom, the film mixes a variety of styles-interviews, archival footage and first-person footage shot by Guillermo himself. While the technique at times feels forced and awkward, what emerges is a tender and heartbreaking portrait of a young man forced into an impossible situation: tom between two identities and two families, trying to find closeness with a mother he can visit only behind prison walls, at odds with himself in both lives. The film also presents a refieshingly honest and compassionate picture of a '60s revolutionary imprisoned for 18 years. Overall, The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez is a glimpse into one of the deeply personal, agonizing effects of colonialism, rarely dealt with in film.
Also on this year's program are Golden Threads by Lucy Winer and Karen Eaton, a portrait of 90-year-old Christine Burton, the tireless, fearless and funny founder of an international network for older gay women. Also, Corpus: A Home Movie for Selena by Lourdes Portillo is a sensitive and compassionate study of the cultural sensation embodied by pop singer Selena, one that remains strong even after her murder at the age of 23. And Rabbit in the Moon, by Emiko Omori, is a deeply personal look at the still powerful consequences of Japanese-American internment during World War II.
The season ends with two specials: Barbara Sonneborn and Janet Cole's Regret to Inform, the IDA and Sundance award-winning (also Oscar@-nominated) piece about American and Vietnamese women, including Ms. Sonneborn, whose husbands were killed in the Vietnam war. And, Well-Founded Fear by Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson, who obtained unprecedented access to the closed corridors of the Immigration and Naturalization Service to witness both the harrowing stories of torture and oppression from people just arriving in the U.S., seeking political asylum, and the process that INS officers must go through—within a few brief hours—to decide if those standing before them duly possess a "wellfounded fear of persecution."
In its 12th season this year, P.O.V. could be described as a festival of documentary film "attended" by hundreds of thousands of people across the U.S. Culled from more than 300 entries, this year's selections present a strong, compelling portrait of human beings whose struggles penetrate diverse comers of American society.
DAVID ZEIGER's film The Band premiered on P.O.V in 1998. He co-produced/directed Displaced in the New South with Eric Mofford, which aired on PBS and screened at dozens of festivals worldwide. It also inspired the Indigo Girls' hot single "Shame on You" not your everyday accomplishment for a documentary film.