From P.O.V. — a regular supply of irregular humanity

Originally published in Current, Dec. 12, 1991

By Steve Behrens

Marc WeissSummer TV means reruns, baseball and, on public television, the arrival of P.O.V.," wrote Detroit Free Press critic Marc Gunther. For two warm months a year, Executive Producer Marc Weiss, Executive Director David Davis and their colleagues at P.O.V. and producers like Marlon Riggs have made a regular thing out of idiosyncrasy.

They've opened a window into the nonstandard lives of survivalists, pet cemetery mourners, organic farmers, a biting terrier at risk of expunction, Cajun musicians, romance novelists, game show contestants, transsexuals, a street drummer in Harlem and believers in eternal life through freezing.

But the series, now moving toward its fifth season, is more than a cavalcade of quirkiness. It has transfixed viewers with amazing films like Christine Choy and Renee Tajima's investigation of a baseball bat murder, "Who Killed Vincent Chin?," which aired in 1989; the cinema verite ride-along with Bible peddlers, "Salesman," by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, which ran in 1990; and an introduction to life-with-HIV--"Absolutely Positive," by Peter Adair and Janet Cole, which premiered in June [1991].

Difficult stuff to get

But Riggs' Tongues Untied may remain the ultimate P.O.V. offering, because of the fuss it stirred this summer, the subject's distance from the mainstream, and the filmmaker's closeness to the subject.

"P.O.V. is a precious resource for public television because it provides documentaries that are not just about but by people with different perspectives," says Pat Aufderheide, who teaches communications at American University, Washington, D.C. "That is terribly difficult stuff to get. It's not just that mainstream TV is not doing it. Few people are making it, and few are making it well."

"By its nature, P.O.V. is saying, 'This is the point in your television viewing when you're likely to see something different," says Aufderheide.

The concept seems to have been wholeheartedly adopted by many PTV programmers. Seven years ago, Weiss asked Frontline's David Fanning how such a series might get started; four summers ago, a group of stations that oversee David Davis's American Playhouse consortium brought the first season to air. Now stations reaching almost 90 percent of the population carry the series.

Weiss brought in his editorial committee last week to advise him on selection of films for the fifth season. He's aiming for a $1.35 million budget next season, if he can match a recent MacArthur Foundation grant. The National Endowment for the Arts came through with its fifth grant to P.O.V. for next season — $250,000 — and MacArthur is putting up $1.65 million over three years.

"My point of view on P.O.V. is, the more the better," says James Steinbach, programming and production chief at Wisconsin PTV. "I believe the system wants challenging point-of-view programs."

Steinbach acknowledges that individual stations will have to decide which programs are suitable in their markets, but he doesn't buy the objection that risky films in the P.O.V. series put programmers "in a bad position."

"We're here to be put in any number of bad positions," he says.

Good thing, too, for there are also some viewers unafraid to have their ideas challenged, though Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg estimates that they are a distinct minority in TV land.

"It's great to be pissed off," says Rosenberg. "Television should make people mad sometimes and not feed the preconceived notions about the world. That's why P.O.V. is wonderful. You don't find it anywhere else that I know of."

A few P.O.V. programs avoid taking sides, like Julie Gustafson's treatment of the abortion issue in this season's "Casting the First Stone," which the National Catholic Reporter found to be "about as evenhanded as you can get."

On the far side of adamant

More often, however, the issue-oriented films are on the far side of adamant. The season before last, Nina Rosenblum's "Through the Wire" alleged that women held in isolation cells at the Lexington, Ky., federal prison are political prisoners.

If there's a common characteristic of many P.O.V. offerings, it's their tendency to challenge the ruling ideology. "The criticism by some people that it has a leftward tilt is accurate," says Rosenberg. "If you had to measure it on a political scale [of one to 10], it would be an eight."

Few of the P.O.V. offerings have looked at the world from the right wing, Weiss says, because few such films have been submitted to funders, or to the series, which largely acquires rights to air completed films.

Aside from political slant, however, generalization is difficult. The series is "uneven" and it ought to be, as Aufderheide observes.

This season's Stop the Church, for instance, was widely criticized for various flaws and still defended for the virtue of its intense feeling. In a discussion about the film on KCET, Los Angeles, Van Gordon Sauter, a former CBS News president, called the film a "trite, unimaginative, doctrinaire piece of cinema verite of a tantrum."

The film was "not that lousy," replied Tracy Westen, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, but he thought Sauter was missing the point.

"I think people are tired of slick, balanced presentations that end up homogenizing all issues," said Westen. "The power of this is that it is a legitimate cry of protest by the people involved."

Though the film might not change people's minds, it "increases the level of intensity" of the issues, Westen figured.

Unadulterated viewpoint

In the case of Tongues Untied, some pubcasters knocked it because Riggs didn't hold back his anger in an attempt to win over the sympathies of mainstream viewers.

"My idea was not to create a work that would be diluted to cater to people's comfort zones," says Riggs.

Riggs says he continues to hear from a wide assortment of viewers, gay and straight, who were touched by the all-out expression of a black gay man's P.O.V.

"I ran into an old, old friend, and he said, 'I saw your movie, on television — I could not believe it was on television,'" Riggs recalls. "It was this utter childlike delight at seeming something that spoke to him and reflected his reality."



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Marlon Riggs explains why he made the experimental documentary Tongues Untied.

Earlier news: Executive director of P.O.V. producing consortium pulls Stop the Church, and so does PBS.

Outside link: P.O.V.'s web page.


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