October 22, 2015

5 Questions with Justine Nagan

Justine Nagan is the new executive director of American Documentary, Inc. and executive producer of PBS's POV series. She comes to PBS from Kartemquin Films in Chicago, where she served as executive director and executive producer for the past nine years. Justine's passion for documentary goes back to her college years, when she worked in public television and at the Wisconsin Film Festival, where she was first introduced to Kartemquin's films. Some years later she had the opportunity to volunteer at Kartemquin, eventually going on to direct her own feature (Typeface) and short (Sacred Transformations) and produce many award-winning films. She joined AmDoc/POV in late September. We spoke to her in her New York offices by phone last week.

 

Great documentaries are increasingly available "on demand" through private digital distributors like Netflix, Amazon, HBONow and most recently, the SundanceNow Doc Club. But POV holds the special distinction of broadcasting documentary content for free on public airwaves. What's the best argument for continuing to have a public venue for docs?

It's twofold. For one, there are a ton of amazing documentaries out there right now. There are also other documentaries that maybe aren't as amazing. One of the important roles POV plays is helping people wade through and figure out how to find content that will resonate with them. POV is a trusted curator. "Curator" may be an overused term, but it's true: If you watch a POV film, you know it's going to be good. It's going to be interesting and timely. And whether you're watching a POV film on public television, Netflix, iTunes or elsewhere, that brand—that stamp of approval—means something.

Also, despite all the challenges to broadcast, TV remains important. I hear from people who tell me that they "DVR" POV every week and watch it when they can. So they're still watching it on their television, even if they're not watching it at 10 o'clock on Monday night. Of course, a lot of us interact with media on our personal devices and it's important to think about digital platforms. POV's digital department is incredible and very dynamic; the organization is really thoughtfully diving into those waters. But the television in many American homes continues to play a central role, and public television—which is free and accessible to all—even more so.

 

While at Kartemquin, you helped shepherd a handful of amazing films, including Life ItselfThe Interrupters and The Trials of Muhammad Ali, for which you just won an Emmy. What do you expect to carry over from that experience into your new role at POV?

So much! A big part of my role at Kartemquin was taking a 40-plus year-old organization that had evolved organically over the years and trying to leverage the "brand," for lack of a better word, in order to draw in more filmmakers, funders and audiences. When I started out, many people knew the films but not the company behind it; they knew Hoop Dreams but they didn't know Kartemquin. I worked to put systems in place to help the organization be sustainable for another 50 years without losing its culture, while also evolving the brand and drawing in more people.

Some of what attracted to me about the job at POV, apart from my immense respect for the organization and my strong belief in the importance of public media, is that it's got some similarities. Obviously POV is more well known nationally than Kartemquin, but it's not as well known as it could be. In the tumultuous media environment we're in right now, thinking about how to tell new audiences about what POV represents is all the more important.

Also, part of the joy of my time at Kartemquin was watching the films connect with audiences and with organizations that were desperate to use them in their work. POV is committed to deep civic engagement around the films it programs and has been from the beginning. I'm excited to learn about how POV films have the impact they have and think about ways to continue to help filmmakers broaden the reach of their work.

From 'The Trials of Muhammad Ali'

Each executive producer of POV has had a different, unique vision. As you're settling into the job, how are you beginning to define your vision?

For me, it's about demonstrating that independent documentary is of continued importance and relevance amidst our current media cacophony. Independent documentary can play a role bringing communities together physically and virtually around an issue— whether it's to rally the faithful or inform and engage people, or to entertain them. I'm thinking about how to continue building an organization that can thrive and be emblematic of the unique role independent documentary plays in the world of public media.

 

For filmmakers aspiring to have their work shown on POV, what three pieces of advice can you give them?

It can sound trite, but finding a story you're really passionate about will carry you a long way. Documentaries are such labors of love. Even if they're funded, they're not funded as well as they need to be. The tenacity to get a film done— having that passion for the story goes a long way. That's number one.

Number two, get out there and meet people. We're lucky to work in a very open industry. People tend to be very friendly and approachable. Building your network will help you along the way as you build a career in documentary.

Also, just watching documentaries! It's intense times we're living in and people are busy and stressed out. It can be hard to sit down and watch an intense documentary instead of watching whatever your guilty pleasure is on television. Just remembering to watch other people's work and be inspired by it and be connected to your community— that keeps you fresh and keeps you going.

 

A lot of people say we're living in a golden age of documentary. Do you agree?

I do. Audiences want well-told, resonant stories about the world we live in. New funders and broadcasters have learned that documentaries can feed these viewers. Look at mainstream cable networks like ESPN with its 30 for 30 series—an immense success—or the emergence of CNN Films. Other cable networks are coming around to the space that PBS and HBO have been in for a long time. These new players in the doc game help new films get made and help new filmmakers emerge. Also, the huge emergence of Netflix and iTunes means that everyday people—not just the festival crowd—have access to an immense array of documentaries, beyond the small percentage that get a national broadcast. Plus, you've got platforms like New York Times Op-Docs and the work The Guardian is doing, helping short-form and transmedia doc content go mainstream.

Even though the competition for resources is brutal, I would agree there's never been a better time to be in our field. People are seeing documentary as a way to get caught up and to get engaged with the contemporary issues of their time. Documentary films are something you can talk about with your neighbor or with your grandma. Those conversations happen more and more and that's really exciting. Viewers are hungry for the content and I'm excited to be part of an organization that brings them what they want.

 

Peter Kurie is a film and television consultant. His interview has been condensed and edited.

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