Living in a Post-9/11 World: 'Crossroads' Airs on PBS
Three years after announcing an open call for projects, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting's America at a Crossroads is set to launch on Sunday, April 15, with JIHAD: The Men and Ideas Behind al Qaeda (William Cran, dir./wtr.). Originally conceived as a series of documentaries that would explore the challenges confronting a post-9/11 world, Crossroads now consists of a block of 12 programming hours, followed by several stand-alone specials. The series runs through April 20.
Over 400 proposals were submitted from independent producers and public television stations, and eventually 21 of them were chosen for production. Washington, DC-based WETA, the third-largest producing station in the pubic television system, was charged with overseeing all of the films. WETA Executive Producer Jeff Bieber explains that while the station doesn't have editorial control over the projects, it does offer input, as well as work closely with all of the producers to hone their storytelling and make sure that the programs meet PBS' editorial standards of fairness and accuracy.
One of the challenges with this type of long-form, current-event documentary is keeping the content up to date. Bieber says that he and his team came to a decision that they would allow all of the producers to make last-minute changes on their films, should the news change. Additionally, despite the fact that they are currently shooting series host Robert MacNeil's intros and outros in various spots around the globe, they've reserved a hefty chunk of production funds to re-shoot live "day of" pieces with MacNeil if the news warrants it. That way, the esteemed journalist can provide context relevant to the news of the day in his introductions.
Another challenge the series faces is the issue of potential audience fatigue on the subject. There is a slow drip of information about the war in Iraq constantly available via television, radio and the Internet. Do viewers really want more on the topic? Bieber believes there is indeed an audience hungry for in-depth discussion about the war on terrorism, the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Muslim life in America and the struggle for balance within the Islamic world.
"I was out in Minneapolis, St. Paul and San Diego doing focus groups about three months before the midterm elections," Bieber recalls. "The level of anger and frustration by people--ordinary Americans--over the war was really at a boiling point. People are angry and frustrated, but they have a lot of questions, and they really want to know what the hell is going on and where are we going with this. I don't expect everyone to watch all 12 hours. But I feel that it's been an incredibly courageous statement for PBS to make to program it this way."
The Crossroads project is trying to reach out to that audience using a variety of tactics, with the hopes that the series will draw in a broader group than just the passionate PBS regulars. To attract younger viewers, the project producers have hired a company to do a viral marketing campaign aimed at bloggers and chat rooms. They've also coordinated over 20 events around the country at which they bring together various people involved with the films to talk about and debate the issues, as well as show clips from the documentaries and talk about their experiences making them. And of course, there's an extensive interactive website, www.pbs.org/crossroads.
Whatever program(s) viewers choose to watch, America at a Crossroads has put together quite the smorgasbord of documentary fare, and the audience should walk away feeling satisfied, whether they choose to snack or stay for the whole meal. JIHAD: The Men and Ideas Behind Al Quaeda, which kicks off the series, explores the ideas and beliefs that inspire modern, radical Islamic groups. The subsequent evenings of programming each feature two one-hour documentaries, and have been designed to complement one another. For example, Operation Homecoming: Writing the Wartime Experience (Richard E. Robbins, dir./prod./wtr.) will play with Warriors (Ed Robbins, dir./wtr.; Ann Zinsmeister, prod.; Karl Zinzmeister, prod.). The former is an emotional look at the experiences of American troops, written in their own words and read by actors such as Aaron Eckhart and Blair Underwood. The latter profiles a handful of Army soldiers filmed during the spring and fall of 2005 in some of the most dangerous areas in and around Baghdad, when journalists could still get out in the field. Both films provide an unusually intimate look into the minds and hearts of those serving our country.
"Operation Homecoming is a very unique and different film," says Bieber. "The National Endowment for the Arts had a program in which they funded a group of writers to work with soldiers in the field in Iraq to be able to write about their wartime experiences. What came out were incredibly personal and many times painful evocations. The producer has illustrated these experiences through a combination of traditional archive, some dramatization, even a comic book. The words are so incredibly powerful because they illustrate in a very graphic way one person's experience in a battle. It was really mindblowing."
One of the strengths of this collection of documentaries and specials is that it presents multiple topics about a complex situation. Gangs of Iraq (Marcela Gaviria, dir./prod./wtr.; Martin Smith, prod./corr.), a co-production with PBS' FRONTLINE, looks at the Coalition training of Iraqi forces. The program exposes how complex the challenge is of putting together a cohesive security force that is loyal to the Iraqi government, as opposed to sectarian militias. Europe's 9/11 (David Alter, prod.) looks at the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism and the difficulty governments face in identifying potential internal threats and protecting their citizens from them. Muslim dissident Irshad Manji goes on a journey to help restore humanity and reason to Islam in Faith without Fear (Ian McLeod, dir/co-writer) asking, "How has a religion of justice become mired in fear?" Under constant death threats, she is fearless in her quest.
Bieber says that working on this series has enabled him to gain a much deeper understanding of some of the issues we currently face. "I never realized how complex the issues of what's going on in the Middle East and Iraq are," he notes. "To be able to really understand Islam and its many faces, the rise of the Shiia militia and the Sunni insurgency and where they're coming from, the conflict within Islam, has been a real eye-opener for me. It's been an overwhelming, yet very gratifying, experience."
Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of Documentary.