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'POV' XX: Two Decades of Integrity of Vision

By Shelley Gabert

From Eric Daniel Metzgar and Neil Carden Gray's The Chances of the World Changing

When POV was launched on PBS 20 years ago, it stood alone in offering groundbreaking nonfiction films with a strong point of view to its audience. As the longest running television showcase for independent documentary films, POV has continually opened its doors to a wide range of filmmakers and their films about often controversial and polarizing issues. POV has had a major influence on documentary storytelling and has helped enhance the profile of the documentary form. In celebrating its 20th anniversary, POV has distinguished itself as a mirror on American culture.

"POV programming is like the heartbeat of American society," says POV vice president Cynthia López. "We distribute programming that has the pulse of what's happening in today's culture, whether it's in a rural community, an ethnic group, a trend in an urban center or a personal story that resonates. But it has always begun with a filmmaker in touch with what's happening in society."

In sharp contrast to the sanitized informational films found on television and in theaters in the late 1980s, POV, produced by American Documentary, brought taboo subjects to the fore, exposing the underbelly of America, warts and all. "When we first started out, there was a belief that documentaries were like medicine in that while you may not like them, they're good for you," López reflects. "Back then, there was also a sense of always covering up the blemishes, but we were willing to show people as they are--the good, the bad and the indifferent--which leads to a level of authenticity that's really rich."

POV first appeared on PBS' national schedule in 1988 with the film American Tongues by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Kolker. Since then, the series has presented more than 250 nonfiction films from critically acclaimed filmmakers like Jonathan Demme (Cousin Bobby), Michael Moore (Roger and Me), Errol Morris (Gates of Heaven), Alan Berliner (Intimate Stranger) and Albert and David Maysles (Salesman). The films presented in the series, which runs from June through October, have received three Academy Awards, 18 Emmys, 10 George Foster Peabody Awards and many other honors.

"From the beginning, we looked for films with a strong sense of authorship about contemporary social issues or international issues, which we feel are under-covered," says executive director Simon Kilmurry, who took the helm last fall after his predecessor, Cara Mertes, was named director of the Documentary Film Program at the Sundance Institute. Kilmurry had served as chief operating officer at POV since 1998. "We look for something that usually gets less visibility in the greater cultural conversation."

The 20th anniversary season of POV begins June 19, and will feature another line-up of 12 provocative films, including Academy Award-winning director Freida Lee Mock's latest film, Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner, and Michael Apted's 49 UP. The 2007 schedule also includes Following Sean by Ralph Arlyck, Libby, Montana by Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr and Prison Town, USA by Katie Galloway and Po Kutchins.

To mark this major milestone, Kilmurry and López have been working with a special 20th Anniversary Committee whose members include POV founder Mark Weiss; Louis Black (Austin Chronicle, SXSW); Liz Garbus (Moxie Firecracker Films); Peter O. Price (National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences); Tammy Robinson (Thirteen/WNET New York); Patricia Aufderheide (Center for Social Media, American University); Christie Hefner (Playboy Foundation); and actor Michael York (who appeared in Mel Stuart's The Hobart Shakespeareans from POV's 2005 season)

"There are really three strands to our 20th anniversary activities," explains López. "We're holding special events every month in communities across the country, in conjunction with film festivals and museums like MOMA. We're also distributing a limited 20th Anniversary Collection on DVD as one tool in our fundraising efforts for Film Fund, which provides seed money to develop new co-productions. We're also doing an individual and a corporate donor drive for the fund."

As part of its "On Air, On Line and In Your Community" campaign, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, in partnership with POV, is featuring special advertisements on buses and subways throughout New York City's five boroughs in May and June. And as it does for all for the films it programs, POV will also utilize its award-winning website,, to promote its 20th anniversary activities. But this is fitting, since those synergistic efforts are hallmarks of the series.

"It's never been just about the broadcast," maintains López, who joined POV in 2000 as director of communications. "What sets this series and PBS apart is our public affairs efforts. One of the exciting things about working here is how committed we are to creating a major online presence, as well as taking our educational campaigns and going out into the community to create discussions from folks on opposite sides of the issue and, ultimately, to promote change."

POV's Community Engagement and Education Department provides discussion guides for all POV films, and lesson plans for select films; the department also partners with universities, libraries, schools, museums and community-based organizations to raise awareness about the issues discussed in the films. Every Mother's Son (Tami Gold and Kelly Anderson, dirs./prods.), which focused on the deaths of three men from different communities at the hands of police officers, was included as part of training programs offered at police headquarters and, like many POV films, demonstrated the immense power nonfiction films have in opening up dialogue. In another example, POV and American Documentary's nonprofit public affairs campaign for Roger Weisberg's Waging a Living was recently selected out of 930 entries from 17 countries to receive a Spirit of Achievement Award in the 20th Annual International Mercury Awards.

"We're not only about talking about a problem in society, but we want to be part of figuring out potential solutions," López maintains. "And that is something that traditional television does not do."

While POV has honed its outreach efforts, it has also reached out to new filmmakers through its Diverse Voices Project, which was created in 2003 in partnership with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). This year, the four films to be part of POV schedule--Casino Nation by Terry Jones (Seneca), Laure Sullivan, Paul Wilson and Mark Repasky; Made in L.A. by Almudena Carracedo and Robert Bahar; Nerakhoun: The Betrayal by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath; and Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars by Zach Niles and Banker White--were selected from 345 submissions. The respective filmmakers underwent a film boot camp, in which they learned about distribution strategies for festivals and home video, as well as how to repurpose their work in terms of the educational market.

"We wanted to help emerging filmmakers or give those who do not have a national producing credit to their name a leg up, or make sure their projects reach the standards for a national broadcast," says Kilmurry.

The project has been a success so far, and one of the films selected from 2003, Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras' Flag Wars, received a George Foster Peabody Award. Poitras' My Country, My Country, which concluded last year's season, earned an Academy Award nomination--the 10th for POV--for Best Documentary Feature. POV and CPB work with five publicly funded groups in the Diverse Voices Project, including Latino Public Broadcasting, the Center for Asian American Media, Native American Public Telecommunications, National Black Programming Consortium and Pacific Islanders in Communication.

The 20th Anniversary DVD limited edition collection, produced in partnership with Docurama, includes 15 titles that reflect the diversity of films that have been shown on the series. Among the titles: American Tongue; Mock's Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision (1994); Licensed to Kill (1998) by Arthur Dong; Well-Founded Fear (2000) by Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson; and Eric Daniel Metzgar and Nell Carden Gray's The Chances of the World Changing (2006), which is also featured this season.

"Our DVD collection isn't meant to be the 'best of,' and there were also costs and rights issues with some that we would have liked to be included," Kilmurry explains. "But what we tried to do was include a representative group of films from established filmmakers as well as first-time filmmakers."

Some of the films chosen not only exemplify the POV mandate, but also represent pivotal moments in American history and in the series. Leona's Sister Gerri (1995) by Jane Gillooly, an intimate look at abortion, increased the profile of the POV website, specifically the Talking Back area, where viewers can provide feedback about a film or issue. Notes Kilmurry, "While we'd always had a viewer response area, this film really formalized Talking Back, as it cried out for people to have a space to go to speak about their own personal experiences."

Silverlake Life: The View From Here (1993) by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman is also part of the collection because it was one of the first films to deal with AIDS--at a time, as Kilmurry points out, "when AIDS was a death sentence and wasn't being talked about widely in the media landscape from a very sympathetic position." The film also aired during POV's 10th anniversary season, when the series was beginning to develop a much more sophisticated outreach approach.

"We've taken on big issues like abortion, AIDS, race relations, immigration, gay rights and the Vietnam War, and we always want to move the dialogue forward," Kilmurry maintains. "We're not just preaching to the converted, but we try to engage people to visit our website, host on our boards and engage in a discussion."

POV Interactive produces a website for every POV presentation, which includes the Talking Back feature, filmmaker interviews, viewer resources, archives and other special sites. POV Interactive also produces Borders, a Web-only showcase for interactive storytelling. POV's website recently won several awards in the "W3" competition, presented by the International Academy of the Visual Arts, including two Gold Awards in the Television/Movie and Film Categories, a Gold Award in the Politics category for the site devoted to the Academy Award-nominated Street Fight by Marshall Curry and a Silver Award in the Art category for Jessica Yu's In the Realms of the Unreal.

Kilmurry, López and the rest of the POV staff pride themselves on taking risks in their programmatic decisions. Lpez points to experimental films like Monteith McCollum's Hybrid (2001), about a man who pioneered hybrid corn, and Two Towns of Jasper (2002), in which a black filmmaker, Marco Williams, and a white filmmaker, Whitney Dow, documented the perspectives of the black and white communities in Jasper, Texas, following the murder of a black man by three white men.

"From the beginning we have gone where television really hadn't before, and we've pushed the boundaries of the genre as well as what a documentary film is and what it looks like," López explains. "Even now, as we enter our 20th season on the air, we're still encouraging filmmakers with an original voice and bringing viewers a provocative group of films. We've definitely influenced the medium and helped documentaries become hip, yet through it all we've maintained the integrity of our vision."


Shelley Gabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer covering entertainment, travel and culture.