Speaking Out and Talking Back: PBS Series 'P.O.V.' Celebrates 15 Years of Impassioned Documentaries
By Tom Powers
Filmmaker Justine Shapiro remembers the first time she encountered P.O.V., the PBS television series for independently produced nonfiction films. It was the summer of 1988, and Shapiro was an aspiring actress. “I had just come home from a typical day of auditioning for TV guest spots and commercials, and I was wondering what I was doing with my life. I turned on the TV, and P.O.V. was featuring a wonderful documentary called Las Madres: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo by Susana Muñoz and Lourdes Portillo. I felt like a seed had been planted in my brain.”
Shapiro eventually gave up acting and embarked on the making of Promises, a documentary about Israeli and Palestinian youths that she co-directed with B.Z. Goldberg and Carlos Bolado. When the film was tapped for P.O.V. last season, says Shapiro, "It felt like my relationship with P.O.V. had truly come full circle." Promises went on to become one of a dozen P.O.V. documentaries to be nominated for an Academy Award, an honor it shares with Las Madres. And just to keep the circle unbroken, the co-director of Las Madres, Lourdes Portillo, returns to P.O.V. this summer with a new documentary, Señorita Extraviada, about the wave of murders that has plagued young women working in the maquilladoras of Juarez, Mexico.
This year marks the 15th season for P.O.V., and, fittingly, the schedule echoes many of the themes that have helped define the series: racial divisions, gay rights, the problems created by globalism and immigration, health issues and the ongoing AIDS crisis, and the pursuit of a sometimes elusive American dream. But P.O.V. also makes room for the quirky—Monteith McCollum’s Hybrid is a celebration of corn—and the joyful—Leah Mahan’s Sweet Old Song celebrates the life of 91-year-old musician Howard Armstrong, who was first profiled in Terry Zwigoff’s Louie Bluie during P.O.V.’s premiere season. What links all the films is a passionate point of view and a strong sense of storytelling. “Good storytelling—with drama and character development and plot twists—is what distinguishes independent filmmaking from its drier, information-oriented documentary counterpart,” says Ellen Schneider, the show’s former executive producer and currently executive director of P.O.V.’s “sister division,” Active Voice.
P.O.V. was the brainchild of Marc Weiss, a filmmaker and publicist who, in 1980, had founded Media Network, a nonprofit information clearinghouse for social-issue films. “My background was mostly in documentaries," Weiss says. “Independent documentary filmmakers are the poets, the prophets, the pamphleteers of our time.” In the mid-’80s, Weiss remembers, “I thought there were a lot of wonderful documentaries being made that deserved a national audience. And I felt PBS was giving independent documentaries a raw deal. This was the age of Reagan, and the system was pretty hostile to independently made films.”
PBS initially rejected Weiss’s idea for a nonfiction film series, but he resubmitted the proposal to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with a list of documentary films that had never been seen on public television—films like Ira Wohl’s Academy Award-winning Best Boy and Errol Morris’ pet cemetery doc, Gates of Heaven, both of which were included in P.O.V.’s premiere season. With seed money from CPB and a year’s worth of fundraising, Weiss was able to put together a series that won a slot on the PBS schedule.
From the outset, films submitted for P.O.V. were reviewed by a committee that was composed equally of independent filmmakers and station programmers, a practice that continues to this day. “A series like this needed to have support from both the independent film community and the stations,” Weiss says. “It needed to have emissaries who could go back into their communities and say, ‘This was a fair decision.’”
According to Cara Mertes, P.O.V.’s current executive director, the series now receives up to 600 submissions yearly. For the first season, however, Weiss presented about 35 films to the committee. He takes particular pride in the selection of Tina DiFeliciantonio’s Living with AIDS, a student-produced work that would become P.O.V.’s first Emmy winner (P.O.V. films have won 14 Emmys and garnered 16 other nominations.). “One of the things I set out to do was to show a couple of films each year by emerging filmmakers,” Weiss says.
P.O.V.’s commitment to social-issue filmmaking has generated a few firestorms over the years, including a vociferous response—pro and con—to last year’s broadcast of Tom Shepherd’s Scout’s Honor, an investigation into the anti-gay policies of the Boy Scouts of America. Slawomir Grünberg says he still receives e-mails in response to School Prayer: A Community at War, the 1999 film he co-directed with Ben Crane. But when she’s asked if P.O.V. ever was in danger of being taken off the air, Ellen Schneider refers back to the show’s fourth season. “I’m sure that during the Tongues Untied era we feared for P.O.V.’s future,” she says. Marlon Riggs’s funny, angry, erotic essay on what it means to be black and gay in America provoked strong responses, and when you consider that it shared the 1991 schedule with Peter Adair’s HIV documentary Absolutely Positive and the pro-Salvadoran rebels film Maria’s Story by Pamela Cohen, Catherine Ryan and Monona Wali, it’s clear that P.O.V. was engaging in bold programming from the beginning.
“I’d seen Tongues Untied on [New York’s] Channel 13," Marc Weiss recalls, "and I asked Marlon Riggs to submit it. He said, ‘I’m not willing to make any changes in it.’ I told him, go ahead and submit it, and I’ll tell you later whether we’re willing to do it on those terms.” In the end, says Weiss, “It went on the air uncut, uncensored and unbleeped. You probably couldn’t put a Tongues Untied on the air today.”
A film the P.O.V. staff expected to rouse controversy was Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman’s deeply personal home-movie documentary about living—and dying—with AIDS, Silverlake Life: The View From Here, which aired in 1993. That was the year P.O.V. launched its “Talking Back” segment, in which viewers are invited to send in videotaped responses to the films. Anticipating a flood of tapes, Schneider and Weiss had set aside extra time for the “Talking Back” videos, but they received only one. “We had to go back to people who wrote snail mail and urge them to find a camcorder and record what they’d said in their letters," Schneider recalls. "And people did it! It’s riveting stuff." The P.O.V. staff was surprised and delighted by the number of positive responses to Silverlake Life. “The film cuts across class and race and gender,” says Schneider, “and I think that’s what great documentaries do.”
Schneider first joined P.O.V. in 1989 as a communications consultant, which, she says, “was not necessarily an easy or obvious task. There was nothing else like P.O.V. on television at that time. Much of my work was calling up TV critics and telling them how much we wanted them to see it.” Schneider remembers that for the first few seasons, the show had a backlog of unseen documentaries to draw on, since P.O.V. was pretty much the only game in town. “Now there are so many more documentaries on television,” she says, “but that abundance, those new venues, have helped clarify P.O.V.’s role as an interactive form. It’s one thing to be a disseminator of documentaries, but it’s even more interesting to encourage viewers, users and participants to engage in a conversation.”
Besides encouraging viewers to “talk back,” P.O.V. “spearheaded the use of broadcast documentaries as a tool for community organizing,” says Schneider. In 1994 P.O.V. launched a campaign called High Impact Television to bring issue-driven films to activist and community groups, and in 1997 the Television Race Initiative—the core project of Active Voice—was created to link programs that dealt with issues of race, culture and identity to groups in six pilot cities. “In the mid-’90s we deliberately re-positioned P.O.V. as more than a television series,” says Schneider. “We wanted it to be a laboratory for exploring what roles storytelling could play in public life.”
While P.O.V. receives hundreds of submissions every year, it also actively courts certain films. According to Cara Mertes, “The Smith Family is something we saw at IFP, and we immediately thought, ‘This is a P.O.V.’ We very actively look for films that will fit. But they still have to go through the peer review process.” Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer, is a film that Mertes and her staff pursued after looking at a list of ITVS-funded projects last spring. “P.O.V. went after us,” says Kates, “and we were lucky that they were persistent. It’s a very gutsy series.”
Although Brother Outsider is a historical documentary—it chronicles the life and times of the civil rights leader and social activist who, among other things, organized the 1963 March on Washington—it’s also clearly a film with a strong point of view. “Our lives here in America changed with September 11,” says Kates, “and I think the kinds of things Bayard Rustin was talking about are even more important today. He was talking about globalism in the 1950s, he was talking about peace, he was talking about civil rights, he was talking about gay rights, he was talking about empowering poor people, and late in his life he was working with refugees. His life brings a lot of issues together in one person.”
What lies ahead for P.O.V.? While maintaining its commitment to presenting social-issue films and promoting community engagement—a new youth outreach program, Youth Views, was initiated this year—the show has also taken initial steps in the direction of funding projects. In conjunction with Kodak, P.O.V. presents an “In the Works” grant of $10,000 to a filmmaker shooting on film. This year P.O.V. is starting Diverse Voices, a co-production fund, which includes a mentorship component, for documentary filmmakers working on minority themes. “P.O.V.’s Borders,” a Web-based series “showcasing interactive storytelling,” is scheduled to launch this summer.
In the years to come, P.O.V. will certainly continue to generate heated conversations. Cara Mertes says that’s one of the reasons for the show like P.O.V. to exist. She notes that viewer response to the films, particularly online, has nearly doubled in each of the past few years. “We don’t trigger the controversies,” Mertes says. “The films come from committed filmmakers who are in communities where these issues are playing out. In a lot of ways P.O.V. is reflecting the issues that are going on in our society. What we are saying is, ‘The controversy, if it exists, already exists—and here’s a very good story about it.’ We have faith in our viewers that they can decide for themselves.”
Tom Powers is a film teacher and freelance writer and the former editor of Release Print, the magazine of Film Arts Foundation.
The 2002 P.O.V. Season
- The Smith Family by Tasha Oldman (June 25)
- Boomtown by Bryan Gunnar Cole (July 2)
- Hybrid by Monteith McCollum (July 9)
- Refrigerator Mothers by David E. Simpson, J.J. Hanley and Gordon Quinn (July 16)
- Fenceline by Slawomir Grünberg and Jane Greenberg (July 23)
- Sweet Old Song by Leah Mahan (July 30)
- Mai’s America by Marlo Poras (August 6)
- My American Girls: A Dominican Story by Aaron Matthews (August 13)
- Señorita Extraviada by Lourdes Portillo (August 20)
- Escuela by Hannah Weyer (August 27)
- Two Towns of Jasper by Whitney Dow and Marco Williams (Fall 2002)
- Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin by Nancy Kates and Bennett Singer (Winter 2003)
- Afghanistan Year 1380 by Fabrizio Lazzaretti, Alberto Vendemmiati and Giuseppe Pettito (P.O.V. Special)