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A Quarter-Century of Truth: 'POV' Is Home for Indie Docmakers

By Shelley Gabert

As documentary filmmaking has evolved, so too has POV, the influential and award-winning series on PBS that for the past 25 years has been a creative home to an eclectic group of independent filmmakers and their provocative films. As it celebrates its 25th anniversary, in addition to pure longevity, the longest running independent film series has also pioneered community engagement efforts and digital strategies that have expanded the impact and overall life of these films.

 "I often refer to POV's mission as developing an approach to the lifespan of the documentary," says Cynthia Lopez, co-executive producer of POV. "For us, it's not just about the broadcast of the film, but about building a movement of independent documentary filmmakers who have the pulse on the cultural, political and economic trends of a place, a country and a people."

Launched in 1988 with the film American Tongues by Louis Alvarez and Andrew Koker (which will be available online as part of the 25th anniversary celebration), POV has shown 325 films. Some films in the series are by first-time filmmakers and others by legendary documentarians Errol Morris, Jonathan Demme, Albert and David Maysles, Michael Moore, Freida Lee Mock and Frederick Wiseman. Over its quarter-century on the air, these films have received three Academy Awards, 27 Emmys, 15 George Foster Peabody Awards, 10 Alfred I duPont-Columbia Broadcast Journalism Awards and, in 2011, an IDA Documentary Award.


From Louis Alvarez and Andrew Koker's 'American Tongues, the first film to air on POV. (c) POV Docs; All Rights Reserved




The new season, which runs from June 21 through October 25, ushers in a new group of feature and short films, along with encore presentations of Where Soldiers Come From by Heather Courtney, which follows the four-year journey of childhood friends who join the National Guard after high school, and Kings of Pastry by Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker, about the competition among 16 chefs, including the co-founder of Chicago's French Pastry School, for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Awards.

Demme is back with I'm Carolyn Parker: The Good, the Mad and the Beautiful, chronicling Parker's rebuilding efforts in her New Orleans community after Hurricane Katrina, which debuts September 20. Guilty Pleasures, by Julie Moggan, looks at the global phenomenon of the romance novel genre and industry. This season POV features two special presentations-in the fall, Berbardo Ruiz's Reportero, which follows the reporters in the field for Zeta, a Tijuana-based independent newsweekly, and in the winter, an inside look at the façade of the modeling industry in Ashley Sabin and David Redmon's Girl Model, as well as several short films (dates to be announced).

The season kicks off  June 21 with Jennifer Fox's My Reincarnation. The story of exiled Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyal Namkhai Norbu and his Western-born son, Yeshi, My Reincarnation is told over two decades and is symbolic of the challenges and rewards in documentary filmmaking. "This is a quintessential POV film," says Executive Producer Simon Kilmurry, who has been with the series for 13 years. "Jennifer has been spent 20 years to make this complex and nuanced film, following her characters and getting under their skin in a way you can't if you're just dropping in for a while on their lives. The film is a rich story about the relationship between father and son, faith, spirituality and cultural heritage."


From Jennifer Fox's My Reincarnation, which kicks off POV's 25th anniversary season on June 21. Photo: Zohe Film Producitons, Inc. (c) POV Docs; All Rights Reserved




For Kilmurry, one of the hallmarks of a POV film is that it prompts just as many questions at the end of the film as when it started. "POV films also often make me question my own assumptions," he admits. "We're not looking to impose our vision on a story. We give our filmmakers a lot of freedom and that's one of the reasons there's so many different styles and approaches. I'm so proud to be with a series that's still championing independent filmmakers when so many others have come and gone during the same period of time."  

Certainly, the playing field has changed and recent funding policies by the National Endowment for the Arts, one of POV's funders, will have an impact going forward, but Kilmurry doesn't believe it will threaten the health of the series."It affects filmmakers so that does impact us," he notes. "But the way we see it is that the pie is going to be divided up differently, so on a practical level it leaves us with a funding hole to fill, which we believe we can do through fundraising efforts and grants. We've gone through funding cycles before; sometimes we're flush and sometimes we're tight and we have to adjust our means and do more with less. We're still going to be conscious on online activity and community engagement work, and we don't plan any cuts in the number of slots we have for filmmakers."

Produced by American Documentary, Inc., POV, according to Kilmurry, receives approximately 1,000 films per year on open call and are reviewed by him and other programming colleagues, including an editorial committee of six independent filmmakers, along with six PBS station programmers from around the country. Approximately 60 percent of the films he sees are rough cuts, but the POV team does get involved in projects in earlier stages, too. "We definitely look for the architecture of storytelling along with the content and format," says Lopez. "And one of the trends now is that documentaries are emulating more complicated cinematic styles to their storytelling, which often rivals feature films, and, at the same time, they play a much more pivotal role in terms of long-form journalism. They're vital to our understanding of how the world operates."

Granito: How to Nail a Dictator, which premieres June 28, demonstrates the power of documentary films as agents of change, and is a sequel to Pamela Yates' first feature length documentary, When the Mountains Tremble (1983), which revealed that the Guatemalan army was killing Mayan civilians. Thirty years later, the outtakes of that film have been used as forensic evidence to bring charges of genocide to two generals under international law. Granito (Spanish for "a tiny grain of sand") documents this effort to bring justice to the country.


From Granito: How to Nail a Dictator (Dirs.: Pamela Yates, Paco Onis, Peter Kinoy), which airs June 28 on POV. Photo: Dana Lixenberg. (c) POV Docs; All Rights Reserved




From Peter Kinoy, Yates and Paco de Onis, the team behind The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court, which aired on POV in 2009, Granito premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival and is a co-production of ITVS, with funding provided by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and CPB, and is a co-presentation with Latino Public Broadcasting.  "POV would always be my first choice for a television broadcast because it's free in every single household in the US, and then you can see the film for months on your computer," says Yates. "Our company specializes in films about human rights and the quest for justice, so we're telling the story of what happened while revealing the collective memory of an event through the voices of the people who have been affected."  

A savvy marketer, Yates, along with her team at Skylight Pictures, has always been invested in outreach early on in the filmmaking process. "We met our match in POV and they've been a great ally in this effort to showcase the film beyond just the broadcast, because I want more than that and our films deserve more than that," she maintains.

In extending the welcome mat, POV offers its full-fledged support of the independent nonfiction filmmaker, and has embraced the new technologies and distribution strategies that are changing the documentary world. POV's digital department produces companion websites for each POV film, which features free streaming video of the film in its entirety and what Yates describes as short mini-docs, 15-to-20-minute modules that go more broadly into a particular subject matter, often produced with material that's not used in the film. "We work alongside our filmmakers with an eye to broadcast, but also on multiplatform distribution, to find ways to engage different communities through educational outreach," Lopez says. "This includes the broadcast and then the DVD, online streaming and mobile opportunities. It's the passing of the baton from stakeholder to stakeholder, from theatrical to broadcast to DVD and now to mobile. Who's your audience, who are the public stakeholders you want to reach? POV's Community Engagement and Education, POV Digital and the POV Blog--all powerful arms of the brand--are utilized in this effort to draw new audiences to POV films. Even years after a film has been shown on POV, we try to find other ways to screen it for different audiences and form partnerships that help us host roundtables and panel discussions."  

The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers, by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith, which premiered as a common carriage presentation on October 5, 2010, was rebroadcast on June 7, 2011 in conjunction with the 40th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times and the release of the now declassified documents by the Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. POV produced companion materials and discussion guides, and held over 30 events across the country.


From Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith's The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers. Courtesy AP Photos. (c) POV Docs; All Rights Reserved


 "What they do--the lesson plans and discussion guides--adds to the value of the film," Yates maintains. "Our current film will be streamed not only in English but in Spanish, which allows it to be seen by the greatest number of people. That's always the goal, but how do we do that and make it a sustainable model? As we've grappled with that question, so has POV. Paradoxically we've found that the more we offer our films for free, the more we sell and we reach a much greater network of people."  

As one of the early supporters of ITVS, Yates testified in Congress and has also experienced the growing pains of PBS. "Initially PBS wouldn't show When the Mountains Tremble," she recalls. "And even when they finally did in 1985, after receiving thousands of letters, they added a four-minute piece for the Guatamalan ambassador, who has since been indicted for genocide. Now with Granito I've come full circle. The film is a contemplation of the art of documentary filmmaking, a love letter to the next generation of filmmakers that shows what they do can have an impact, and that they need to keep doing it. This is also the ethos of POV, which was always very important to the documentary community, but has gotten so much better over the years."

POV has certainly expanded the world of documentaries and the filmmakers it partners with continue to shape the art form, yet its mission remains fairly close to its origins long ago. "We were founded by a filmmaker [Marc Weiss] who wanted to build a place to showcase a filmmaker's vision, and that remains our role--to provide that platform," says Kilmurry. "Today with digital distribution, we have more opportunities to do that and we can delve into our archives to continue to provide an enriching experience for both our filmmakers and our viewers."

As part of the 25th anniversary celebration, many of the POV films from previous seasons will be available to view on the website, offering a more complete perspective of the many films and voices, as well as just how important this series has been to documentary film.

 "Growing up, documentaries used to mean Jacques Cousteau underwater, but today it could be as serious as Daniel Ellsberg and The Pentagon Papers or a story told in Sweetgrass, a portrait of a sheepherder in Montana [which premiered on POV in 2011]," Lopez observes. "It's very exciting to be part of a movement of people who believe that documentaries have a place in our society to tell stories that are important not only to history, to where we are now, but where we could be in the future. It's all about capturing the pulse of a particular community in innovative ways, and we've really done that over the course of the last 25 years."


Cynthia Lopez, co-executive producer, and Simon Kilmurry, executive director, at the 2011 IDA Documentary Awards.



Shelley Gabert regularly covers film and television. Her last article for Documentary profiled the documentary The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.