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POV Turns 10 Years Old

By Tom White

Two Black men embrace each other. Marlon Riggs' 'Tongues United' is looked at as an exploration of regional exile in tandem with personal exile in 'Between the Sheets, in the Streets Queer, Lesbian, Gay Documentary'.

POV celebrates its tenth anniversary season this summer, and in an era of frequent attacks on alternative viewpoints, few would have expected the acclaimed documentary showcase to sustain its repu­tation for programming fresh, provocative works by emerging and established inde­pendent filmmakers. But this is also a nation of a plurality of views, of unique voices and visions, of personal stories behind the political issues. And for ten summers, POV has not only brought these stories to America's living rooms, but challenged Americans to participate as viewers and as storytellers.

Marc Weiss, the series creator, former executive producer, and, since 1995, Pres­ident of POV Interactive, had evolved from making films in the 1970s to cham­pioning them in the 1980s. Although POV had some predecessors in certain local markets, efforts to create a national forum for independent nonfiction programming had been difficult to sustain.

"Probably the most important ante­cedent in terms of independent work on television was something called Nonfiction Television," Weiss said in a recent interview. "That came out of a grant from the Ford Foundation and the NEA in the late '70s, and public TV stations were pushing for the program. That had a rela­tively short life because it was expensive to put up production money from the get­ go, and I think it had about three seasons before the money dried up and disappeared. So from the early '80s until POV went on the air in '88, it was primarily one-shot indepen­dent films—the relationship between independents and PBS was fairly exploitative, actually. You'd send your film to PBS, and they'd say, 'We're interested in showing it if you can raise another $30,000 in step-up funds,' which meant money for publicity and money for insurance. So not only did the filmmaker not get an acquisi­tion fee, but you had to go out and raise more money."

"The immediate inspiration for POV was a panel discussion at the Sundance Film Festival in 1986; David Fanning was one of the participants and he made an off­-hand comment about the need for a series of documentaries made from a personal perspective. So I went up to him after the panel and said that I thought something like that could happen. We had a series of conversations over the next few months, essentially wondering who the players would be, and the program started to take shape."

"Part of the political positioning I implemented with the series was to set up an advisory committee, which was equally made up of independent filmmakers and people from public TV stations. The idea was to get folks from each perspective to help us think through how to program a series that was meant to be true to the spirit of independent filmmaking, while responding to the practical needs of a public broadcasting bureaucracy. The president of IDA at that time, Bob Guenette, was on the editorial committee, and IDA played a really important role in the early years. IDA actually sponsored a couple of public events, where they introduced the idea of POV to the documentary filmmaking community, while saying to PBS, 'This is what the independent community wants.'"

POV was launched in 1988, with works by such established filmmakers as Ira Wohl and Errol Morris programmed alongside then newcomers such as Tina DiFeliciantonio. In the years since, POV programs have earned seven Emmys®, six Peabody Awards and four DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Journalism Awards.

Ellen Schneider, the Executive Director of American Documentary, Inc. which produces POV, came to the program in its second season in 1989 and served as co-Executive Producer of the series from 1993 to 1995. Lisa Heller is now Executive Producer. In her nine years with the series, Schneider has seen the POV audience grow and respond to the series.

"It was gratifying to see what the response was like in those first few years, in that, around the country, stations had either not included such independent work or had done some local showcases; this program was viewed as a national oppor­tunity," Ms. Schneider maintained in a recent telephone conversation. "We received a very good response, and the audience began to really organize itself and emerge. It meant that you didn't have to be in New York or San Francisco or Los Angeles or Chicago to have access to this very vibrant, very provocative, very diverse filmmaking. So if you lived in Fairbanks or rural Alabama, you now had exposure to work that would have previously been available only to major film festivals and a few scattered art houses. That for us was incredibly gratifying, and we realized that this was the direction that we wanted to take."

"When I came on in '89, Who Killed Vincent Chin? by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima, was a milestone for us in that it's the kind of film that took a great deal of effort on the part of Chris and Renee to produce. It sent shock waves through the justice system in terms of really illuminating the details behind the subject of the film—the killing of a Chinese-American engineer by an auto worker. That same year, Dark Circle, by Chris Beaver, Judy Irving and Ruth Landy, which investigated the situation at Rocky Flats, had already played around the world. To be able to give that a national broadcast was incredibly important."

"The one milestone that everybody asks about is 1991's Tongues Untied, by Marlon Riggs. This was a turning point for us in that it was a program, given its timing and the context, about gay black identity, and the program became a national controversy. That was a fairly critical milestone in developing the series. It raised issues very clearly about testing the limits and potential of what public television could offer. It also raised a much-needed and overlooked discussion about public television's vision and its ability to present controversy in a responsible and inclusive way. And even though some stations are still reeling from that experience and were beat up in their own communities for having the courage to put this program on, I think it ultimately sent a very clear signal that part of public television's mission is not only to present the work that commercial television cannot or will not get involved with, but to recognize the storytellers around the country whose work has tremen­dous merit, even if it's unpopular with some."

For many of the filmmakers repre­sented in the series, such as Lisa Leeman and Tina DiFeliciantonio, POV was their first exposure on national television. So, in addition to trolling the festival circuit with their films and having them screened to media arts mavens, these filmmakers reached millions of viewers from far-flung communities across the nation.

"It 's very strange to be broadcast because you're being sent out to the void," Leeman observed. Her film Metamor­phosis: Man into Woman, which addresses sex change and gender identity issues, was aired as part of POV's 1990 season. "You have no contact at first with your audience, but you're reaching millions of people. To this day, I meet people in the most unexpected places who, in the course of conversation, will mention that they've seen my film on television. POV forwarded scores of letters that people had sent addressed to me, my co-producer, and also to Gabi, the subject of the film, and many of them were supportive. And that's the power of filmmaking; we weren't trying to change anybody's mind; we weren't proselytizing about having a sex change, but this was a human story, and it caused people to break down their barriers and resistance to that kind of subject."

Tina DiFeliciantonio was cloistered in the graduate film program at Stanford University when she heard about POV. "I didn't have any history or preconception of what the POV launch would be," DiFeliciantonio recalled. "I just remember reading about POV in Release Print and becoming intrigued about the possibility of having what was then my thesis project—Living with AIDS—broadcast on public television. It was really a dream for me to have this film seen by a broad audi­ence, since I had intended the film for healthcare workers. The response was incredible, on many levels. The film reached a variety of people I would not have otherwise have thought possible. I got a letter from a priest working in a prison, who then used the film in prison; I got a letter from [family values spokesper­son] Louis Sheldon, who actually wrote that he liked the film. I was astonished! That's a scary thing... but maybe not. Maybe it was able to reach him."

Having established itself as a national showcase for pioneering nonfiction work and having helped introduce many emerg­ing filmmakers to a national public, POV is looking to build stronger bonds with its many communities and strengthen its capabilities as an empowering medium. Ellen Schneider has been instrumental in helping to shape that direction. "We're asking some pretty sophisticated questions about what this work can do. So, beyond putting the work out there and making it available to television viewers, what else can we do with this, and how do we max­imize the impact? And it started with going to these communities that had a stake in the story and saying, 'Don't forget to watch this; this is going to mean a lot to you.' It moved on from there, to asking , 'How could you use this work? Take a look at this and tell us, What is the mean­ing, and what is the potential value of this story?' And we transformed ourselves from this television festival, or televised film festival, into more of a laboratory that seeks to test the potential of this story­ telling."

"We developed Talking Back: Video Letters to poverty’s , inviting viewers to videotape their own point of view on a program they had seen, or on the issues raised by it. We're urging people to see television as a two-way street, in that what you've just seen may be a filmmaker's point of view, but yours is also essential. Having a dialogue around this is a wonderful oppor­tunity that television can exploit. We also developed in '93 something called High Impact Television, which selects indi­vidual programs and takes them to stake­holders and asks them, 'This passionate story is going to be on television; what can it mean, and how can this be helpful in your own educational activities?' And I mean educational in the broadest sense. And then there's been the development of POV Interactive, which says, 'Can these programs trigger a dialogue that is inspired by the passion of the storytelling, and can the Internet be a way to continue that dialogue, long after the broadcast?' So, what all of this work does is harness the very intimate, very honest, and very grip­ping quality of an independent documen­tary and thrust that into the public light in a way that has meaning for viewers and groups and communities . That's where we see our next life cycle."

Marc Weiss spearheaded POV's forays on the Internet in 1994, when the initiative was called POV Online. In 1995, the program developed a website, and Weiss became POV Interactive's full-time president. POV's activities in cyberspace not only serve to strengthen the program's ties with its viewership, but also aim to generate fuller dialogue about the films that are aired and the stories, experiences and issues that inspired these films in the first place.

"We realized in '95 that we were doing websites that were so tied directly into broadcasts that they had a very short shelf life. Once the broadcast was over, and once the people came there one time, they had no reason to come back again. So in 1996, we started to think more about creating sites that had much more of a life of their own, and the natural way to do that ­if you don't have enough money—is to start with the premise that shows broad­cast over POV are provocative in the best sense of the word, that they really get people thinking about issues. The idea was to create a website that would really maxi­mize the ability of the Internet to gather people together in a virtual space where you can have a dialogue all the time."

"So we started developing this idea that people seeing a particular show can come to the website for a different kind of experience, something that's inspired by the show, but not necessarily about the show. So the Vietnam site that we built in conjunction with Maya Lin is a place where we encourage people to talk about their personal life stories and about how their lives were impacted by Vietnam. It's not really about the film; it's about the legacy of Vietnam in people's lives. So, that website has, in fact, taken on a life of its own: it started last November, and it's still going quite strong."

"The most interesting shows on POV are the ones that use a personal story as a way of understanding a larger issue. We'd love to start taking what we're learning about the Web and applying it to other films that really can be discussion starters for audiences. So our sense is that we're really in the beginning of the possi­bilities of doing that. You have this incred­ible medium of broadcasting, where you have something seen by millions of people simultaneously, and then another very powerful medium, the Internet. What's so powerful about that is it allows participa­tion by a lot of people who, up until now, were passive viewers. So we want to push forward in that direction and see how we can develop the convergence of those two powerful media, not just to make the Internet a broadcast medium, but to take the best of both and make something even more powerful."

POV Interactive, High Impact Tele­vision, Talking Back: Letters to POV these are the mechanisms that have helped forge a symbiotic partnership among film­makers, programmers and viewing communities. Programs such as Silverlake Life: The View from Here and The Heart of the Matter have resonated strongly with the viewing community. Such shows succeed not only as powerful stories, but as tools for further discussion and action.

"We applied the methodology of High Impact Television to Silverlake Life," Ellen Schneider reflected. "We worked very closely with the AIDS community both nationally and on local levels, using the program to put a human face on the AIDS epidemic. We launched a tune-in campaign: 'Watch this; it's going to teach you something and bring you into an experience that has really been under-explored in the mainstream.' We returned the next season in '94 with The Heart of the Matter, another AIDS program. There was an opportunity to work with that community for two years and to bring to them independent filmmaking—very emotional, very passionate, but very authentic. And so the question becomes, can you sustain that relationship? Can you cultivate in these groups an appreciation of and ac­cess to these stories that are so meaningful in the important work that they do?

"The impact is potent, and what we're exploring is, how do you make the most of that power? And if that's the question, then we know better than most. The future of independent documentaries is perilous. The funding is, of course, far and few, but by creating these bridges and demonstrat­ing the impact of this work, we are build­ing a very powerful argument for the future of this field—that it doesn't succeed exclusively on the festival level or within the critical, media-watcher community, but that it has reverberations and implica­tions and possibilities well into public life, and that's part of the challenge. And I think it's a rather urgent quest."

Filmmaker Jane C. Wagner, who partnered with Tina DiFeliciantonio to make Girls Like Us, which appears on POV this season, concurred that the series, "has done a tremendous amount of outreach through working with Girls Inc. and other community organizations, having screenings and encouraging discussions about the issues raised by our film. It's fantastic that POV has really been moving in this direction of much more participatory television."

"If there weren't an interest, then we wouldn't be doing it," Schneider contin­ued. "This is not work that we can do on our own. We know that people like to talk about this work, and what we want to harness is, 'Let 's not just talk about it , let's use it. Let's put it in the hands of people who need it."

POV: Ten Seasons


  • American Tongues by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker
  • Acting Our Age by Michal Aviad
  • Fire From the Mountain by Deborah Shaffe
  • Knocking on Armageddon's Door by Torv Carlsen and John Magnus
  • Living with AIDS by Tina DiFeliciantonio
  • Rate it 'X' by Lucy Winer and Paula de Koenigsberg
  • Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza De Mayo by Susana Munoz and Lourdes Portillo
  • The Good Fight by Noel Buckner, Mary Dore and Sam Sills
  • Metropolitan Avenue by Christine Noschese
  • Louie Bluie by Terry Zwigoff
  • Gates of Heaven by Errol Morris
  • Best Boy by Ira Wohl


  • Who Killed Vincent Chin? by Christine Choy and Renee Tajima
  • Wise Guys by David Hartwell
  • Coming Out by Ted Reed and Susan Bell
  • The Family Album by Alan Berliner
  • Dark Circle by Christopher Beaver, Judy Irving and Ruth Landy
  • Jack Levine: Feast of Pure Reason by David Sutherland
  • Whatever Happened to Zwart Quern? by Deborah Matlovsky
  • No Applause, Just Throw Money by Karen Goodman
  • Partisans of Vilna by Aviva Kempner
  • The Fighting Ministers by Bill Jersey and Richard Wormser
  • Cowboy Poets by Kim Shelton
  • Binge by Lynn Hershman
  • Doug and Mike, Mike and Doug by Cindy Kleine
  • Lost Angeles by Tom Seidman
  • Girltalk by Kate Davis


  • Through the Wire by Nina Rosenblum
  • Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman by Lisa Leeman
  • On Ice by Grover Babcock and Andrew Takeuchi
  • Larry Wright by Ari Marcopoulos and Maja Zrnic
  • Letter to the Next Generation by Jim Klein
  • Salesman by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin
  • Police Chiefs by Alan and Susan Raymond
  • Kamala and Raji by Michael Camerini
  • Golub by Jerry Blumenthal and Gordon Quinn
  • Days of Waiting by Steven Okazaki
  • Going Up by Gary Pollard Green Streets by Maria De Luca
  • Motel by Christian Blackwood
  • jTeatro! by Ed Burke and Ruth Shapiro
  • Ossian: American Boy, Tibetan Monk by Thomas Anderson
  • People Power by Ilan Ziv


  • Absolutely Positive by Peter Adair and Janet Cole
  • Twinsburg, Ohio: Some Kind of Wierd Twin Thing by Sue Marcoux, Tina DiFeliciantonio and Jane Wagner
  • Marc and Ann by Les Blank
  • Plena by Pedro Rivera and Susan Zeig
  • Honorable Nations by Chana Gazit and David Steward
  • Sea of Oil by M.R. Katzke
  • Chemical Valley by Mimi Pickering and Anne Lewis Johnson
  • Turn Here Sweet Corn by Helen De Michiel
  • Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs
  • Berkeley in the Sixties by Mark Kitchell
  • A Little Vicious by Immy Humes
  • Where the Heart Roams by George Csicsery
  • The Big Bang by James Toback
  • Maria's Story by Pamela Cohen, Monona WaJi and Catherine M. Ryan
  • Homes Apart: the Two Koreas by Christine Choy and J .T. Takagi
  • Casting the First Stone by Julie Gustafson
  • Short Notice: A Series of Short Films by John Harden, Cathryn Garland. Carolyn Grifel, Chris Riback, Leigh Marcous-Devine and Pam Grant, Jan Krawitz and Joe Murphy


  • Color Adjustment by Marlon Riggs Intimate Stranger by Alan Berliner
  • Finding Christa by Camille Billops and James Hatch
  • Last Images of War by Stephen Olsson and Scott Andrews
  • The Longest Shadow by Kalina Ivanov
  • A Season in Hell by Walter Brock and Stephen Roszell
  • Promise Not to Tell by Rhea Gavry
  • Dream Deceivers: The Story Behind James Vance vs. Judas Priest by David Van Taylor
  • Fast Food Women by An ne Lewis Johnson
  • Takeover by Pam Yates and Peter Ki noy
  • Faith Even to the Fire by Sylvia Morales and Jean Victor
  • Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics by Paul Stekler. Andrew Kol ker and Louis Alvarez
  • Roger and Me by Michael Moore
  • Pets or Meat: Return to Flint by Michael Moore


  • Silverlake Life: The View From Here by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman
  • Who's Going to Pay For These Donuts Anyway? by Janice Tanaka
  • When Your Head’s Not a Head, It's a Nut by Garth Stein
  • Compassion in Exile by Mickey Lemle
  • For Better or For Worse by David Collier
  • Money Man by Philip Haas
  • Building Bombs: The Legacy by Mark Mori and Susan Robinson
  • Miami-Havana by Estela Bravo
  • Cousin Bobby by Jonathan Demme
  • The Women Next Door by Michal Aviad
  • Sa-I-Gu by Dai Sil Kim-Gibson, Christine Choy and Elaine Kim


  • Time Indefinite by Ross McElwee
  • One Nation Under God by Francine Rzeznick and Teodoro
  • Maniaci Escape from China by Iris F. Kung (pseud.)
  • Memories of Tata by Sheldon Schiffer
  • End of the Nightstick by Cyndi Moran, Eric Scholl and Peter Kuttner
  • Heart of the Matter by Gini Reticker and Amber Hollibaugh
  • Passin' It On by Peter Miller and John Valadez
  • Hearts of Darkness by Fax Bahr and George Hicken looper
  • Dialogues With Madwomen by Allie Light and Irving Saraf
  • Times of a Sign: A Folk History of the Iran—Contra Scandal by David Goldsmith and Steven Day


  • Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter by Deborah Hoffmann
  • Satya: A Prayer for the Enemy by Ellen Bruno
  • No Place Like Home by Kathryn Hunt
  • Out of Sight by David Sutherland
  • The Uprising of '34 by George Stoney, Judith Helfand and Susanne Rostock
  • Lighting the Seventh Fire by Sandra Sunrising Osawa
  • Twitch and Shout by Laurel Chiten
  • Home Economics: A Documentary of Suburbia by Jenny Cool
  • Dealers Among Dealers by Gaylen Ross
  • Carmen Miranda: Bananas Is My Business by Helena Solberg
  • Leona’s Sister Gerri by Jane Gillooly
  • Two Way TV: Viewers Talk About Leona's Sister Gerri


  • Taking on the Kennedys by Joshua Seftel
  • Personal Belongings by Steven Bognar
  • A Litany For Survival: The Life and Work of Audre Larde by Ada Gay Griffin and Michele Parkerson
  • a.k.a. Don Bonus by Spencer Nakasako and Sokly '·Don Bonus" Ny
  • No Loans Today by Lisanne Skyler
  • The Transformation by Susana Aiken and Carlos Aparicio
  • The Women Outside by J.T. Orinne Takagi and Hye Jung Park
  • Just for the Ride by Amanda Micheli
  • Remembering Wei Yi-fang, Remembering Myself by Yvonne Welbon
  • Xich-lo (Cyclo) by M. Trinh Nguyen
  • Taken for a Ride by Jim Klein and Martha Olson
  • iPalante Siempre Palante! The Young Lords by lris Morales
  • Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision by Freida Lee Mock


  • Nobody's Business by Alan Berliner
  • Battle for the Minds by Steven Lipscomb
  • A Healthy Baby Girl by Judith Helfand
  • Jesse's Gone by Michael Smith
  • Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary by Laura Simon
  • Who is Henry Jaglom? by Alex Rubin and Jeremy Workman
  • In Whose Honor? by Jay Rosenstein
  • Girls Like Us by Jane C. Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio
  • Blacks and Jews by Deborah Kaufman, Bari Scott and Alan Snitow
  • A Perfect Candidate by R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor

Thomas White is assistant editor of International Documentary.