If you go back and look at the titles I normally review, you can tell I have a certain comfort zone. That doesn't mean I don't watch other types of films. I do, and I enjoy them; I make a point of branching out. But any movie critic who's honest will tell you that there are certain types of films or TV shows that are easier to write about, whether because the content is more mainstream or familiar, or because the piece fits in more closely with an easily accessible area of expertise. So it's fantastic to receive the mammoth fifteen-disc P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection box set to review, because it pushes one to branch out, to watch something one might otherwise skip over in favor of the more familiar. This selection of fifteen films from the celebrated Public Broadcasting System's series P.O.V., which showcases indie documentaries, also challenges one's personal beliefs on a variety of subjects. They can be difficult viewing. That doesn't mean that these deeply-felt documentaries are going to magically change your mind on a certain issue. And there's no doubt that the selection of titles here in the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection tilt towards a certain political outlook. But it still makes for valuable viewing, whether it's preaching to the converted, or trying to reach out to skeptics.
I've watched P.O.V. ("Point of View") on PBS here and there over the years, but I didn't know much about how the series started (a visit to their website was most illuminating). Started in 1988, P.O.V. has showcased more than 225 independent documentaries over the years, with a goal of presenting 14 to 16 titles per year. The series was started to allow independent documentary filmmakers a stable, standardized venue for their films. Many independent documentary filmmakers, prior to P.O.V., had little choice but to negotiate the choppy waters of local public broadcasting stations in order to air their work, with the submission and acceptance process often proving chaotic. P.O.V. worked to not only provide a venue for these films, but also to provide a reliable system that filmmakers could count on to have their work fairly judged, properly promoted, and thoroughly supported once they aired nationally.
From my past experience in film school and my friendships with filmmakers, I can assure you that independent documentary filmmaking is an incredibly tough road to travel, from chronic shortages of money, to the vagaries of actually finding a worthwhile subject to shoot and having the time to adequately cover it, to the seemingly endless post-production process, to that utterly terrifying period of time when the film is finished...and nobody cares except the filmmaker. It takes a special breed of filmmaker, and they're tenacious and passionate, if nothing else. And I can also assure you that this particular genre of filmmaking attracts, more often than not, filmmakers who share similar political viewpoints. We may not be talking specifically Democrat or Republican (most I know wouldn't call themselves either), but it is usually a politics of confrontation of the perceived status quo, an "outsider" political viewpoint that usually skews left-of-center.
And that's cool; I expected the selection of titles on the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection to reflect that propensity, and sure enough, that's the slant here. There's only one title I would describe as really right of center (Taking on the Kennedys, and even that's not what I would call "conservative filmmaking"), a few that are relatively neutral (Best Boy, for one), and the majority to the left. So when I read Pat Aufderheide's own take on the P.O.V. series (on the series' website), where she stated, "When P.O.V. began, it looked less like an experiment in electronic public space, and more like a defiantly progressive TV series. It could have been a short-lived concession to the mouthy, contrarian, left wing of indies. If it had, then it would have been another sad footnote in public TV history," that may indeed be true. Admittedly, I don't watch the series on a regular basis, and it may be more evenly balanced in its choice of documentaries. But if one only had this assortment of titles on the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection to go by, one might gather that the selection process at P.O.V. reflects the natural majority of left-of-center indie filmmaking.
And again, just to quell any possible avalanche of emails, that's fine with me (my politics may not be what you think, anyway). In fact, I welcome it. As I stated at the beginning, I want to go outside of my comfort zone. I want a dialogue, a debate. And the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection more than provides that environment. Some of the films are more impressive than others - I think the inclusion of the premiere episode of P.O.V., American Tongues, is included here just for that reason: it was the first one broadcast - but I found something challenging and thought provoking in each and every one of them. Best Boy still impresses as a deeply emotional experience, over twenty-five years later (it deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Documentary), while The Chances of the World Changing quietly snuck up on me and worked in very subtle ways to illuminate one of those "dedicated individual fighting against a world of indifference" true stories that indie doc filmmakers do better than anyone else. SilverLake Life: The View from Here was brilliantly paced, while Dark Circle employed an almost hypnotic editing scheme to get across its anti-nuke message. Taking on the Kennedys was a welcome swing to the other side of the political spectrum, while Tongues Tied showed me a world I had absolutely no background on. Some of the other films I found biased and regrettably one-sided (Passin' It On in particular), but just when I was ready to check out emotionally from such a film, I remembered that of course, these films were meant to be biased - that's their whole point. They present a point of view that is deeply, passionately held by the filmmaker, and their purpose is to engage the viewer, particularly if that viewer isn't sympathetic to the message.
Here are the 15 independent documentaries included on the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection as described within the box set's folder pages:
Directed by Louis Alvarez, Andy Kolker. First broadcast: July 5, 1988
The broadcast premiere of American Tongues marked what the Christian Science Monitor called "an auspicious beginning" to the P.O.V. series on PBS. Rich in humor and regional color, American Tongues embarks on a cross-country sojourn to delve into American English in all its diversity and color. By looking at how regional dialects are shaped by culture and geography, the film shows how we in turn are shaped both by our own speech and by our attitudes towards the ways others speak.
Extras: There are no extras for American Tongues
Directed by Ira Wohl
By the time Best Boy premiered on P.O.V., a national movement was underway to secure passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act to improve independent living and access for people with disabilities. One of the most highly acclaimed documentaries of all time, Best Boy follow Philly Wohl, a cheerful and loveable 52-year-old man who has been mentally handicapped since birth and still lives with his parents. When his cousin, filmmaker Ira Wohl, questions what will happen to Philly once his elderly parents can no longer care for him, the family embarks on a mission to help Philly become more independent. At once funny and heartbreaking, the film is a profoundly touching story of love, overwhelming courage, and human dignity.
Extras: There's a text biography on the director of Best Boy.
The Chances of the World Changing
Directed by Eric Metzgar
Fueled by an abiding love for saving endangered animals, Richard Ogust abandons his life as a writer to build a fragile ark that is constantly on the brink of capsizing. The Chances of the World Changing is a poetic, graceful film about a man who sacrifices nearly everything in his quest to preserve some of the planet's nearly extinct turtle species. Pressed into bankruptcy, living out of a tent, nearly driven mad by bureaucracy and the needs of his 1,200-plus turtles, Ogust is in a furious race against time to save his turtles -- and himself. The film is a moving portrait of an ordinary man taking an extraordinary stand to make people think about what we may lose and what we choose to preserve.
Extras: About Faun Fables is a text bio on the musical group which provides background for the film, with a music video included. Interview with Eric Daniel Metzgar is a 12 minute talk with the director on some of the issues brought up by The Chances of the World Changing. There's a text bio on the director, along with some text resources for anyone interested in contributing to animal rescue organizations.
Taking on the Kennedys
Directed by Joshua Seftel
A thrillingly provocative, modern-day David vs. Goliath battle set in the amphitheater of American politics, this sharply witty and brilliantly concise film peeks into the "brutal circus" of contemporary political warfare. In 1994, practicing physician Kevin Vigilante, a Rhode Island Republican who had never held office, challenged Democratic favorite son Patrick Kennedy for a U.S. House seat representing the fifth most Democratic District in the nation...and nearly won. With unrestricted access to the candidates, filmmaker Joshua Seftel presents a hard-hitting deconstruction of political campaigns and powerful dynasties.
Extras: There's an audio commentary included here, along with a short election night outtake of Vigilante conceding to Kennedy. Original campaign commercials are included, as is The Making of Taking on the Kennedys, a behind-the-scenes look at the shoot. There's an interview with the director, as well as a trailer for the film.
Directed by Marlon Riggs
This landmark film by Emmy Award-winning director Marlon Riggs uses poetry, personal testimony, rap and performance to explore what it means to be Black and gay in America. Angry, funny, erotic and poet by turns (and sometimes all at once), Tongues Untied jumps from interview to confession, music video to documentary to poem. The result is a rich account of the Black gay male experience, from protest marches and smoky bars to the language of the "snap diva" and "vogue" dancer. The broadcast raised a storm of controversy, with letter-writing campaigns, picket lines, and even bomb threats against stations planning to carry it. It was also attacked on the Senate floor by Senators Jesse Helms, John McCain and Bob Dole, and used in a TV ad by Pat Buchanan's presidential campaign.
Extras: There are no extras for Tongues Untied.
Directed by Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini
Evocative, captivating and utterly unforgettable, Well-Founded Fear candidly explores the proceedings behind the American political asylum system. Who is deemed worthy of political asylum in the United States? Who decides? and why? To be granted asylum, applicants must demonstrate a "well-founded fear" that their lives would be endangered were they to be deported. Filmmakers Michael Camerini and Shari Robertson enter the closed corridors of the INS to reveal the dramatic real-life stage where human rights and American ideals collide with the nearly impossible task of trying to know the truth. Shot over five years, Well-Founded Fear marked the first time in history that filmmakers were give access to individuals on both sides of the interrogation desk, offering an in-depth perspective of both sides of the asylum process.
Extras: There are several extras for Well-Founded Fear. Two outtakes, Translation Issues and The Preparation add over 30 minutes to the film's running time. A supplementary featurette that ties in with the main film, Tales from Real Life: Marija's Story runs 14 minutes. There's a short, 4 minute interview with the filmmakers, as well as text bios for the directors..
Passin' It On
Directed by Peter Miller and John Valadez
Passin' It On is the story of a man in search of justice who is wronged by the nation with which he is at odds. Part indictment, part redemption tale, the film offers startling insight into the role of the Black Panther Party in the civil rights movement and the FBI's targeting of one of the organization's most fervent leaders, Dhoruba Bin Wahad (born Richard Moore). Emerging from the Bronx ghettos and a life of petty crime, Dhoruba dove headfirst into the Black Power movement, serving soup to poor people with one hand while wielding a gun with the other. Amid a national program of FBI-led oppression against the Panthers, Dhoruba served 19 years in prison before his conviction was overturned. Passin' It On was the first in-depth look at the history of the Black Panthers to be broadcast on national television.
Extras: Several bonus interviews are included here, including Dhoruba Bin Wahad Follow-Up Interview, which runs 4 minutes; Kathleen Cleaver Interview, which runs six minutes; and Jamal Joseph Interview, which runs 5 minutes. There are also interviews with the filmmakers (about 16 minutes for the two), and text bios on them..
Regret to Inform
Directed by Barbara Sonneborn and Janet Cole
Twenty years after her husband was killed in a mortar attack, filmmaker Barbara Sonneborn travels to Vietnam to the very place where her husband was killed. Filled with extraordinary archival footage from the war, breathtaking visions of modern day Vietnam, and heart-wrenching stories from both Vietnamese and American war widows. Regret to Inform is a journey into the heart and soul of war.
Extras: There are text bios on the crew, a photo gallery, and a map included here as bonuses, as well as a trailer for Regret to Inform.
Silverlake Life: The View from Here
Directed by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman
Winner of over 10 international awards, Silverlake Life: The View from Here is an extraordinary video diary of living with AIDS. This landmark film documents, with guts and with humor, the love and dedication of longtime companions Tom Joslin and Mark Massi. From the emotional challenge of living with a fatal illness to the frustration of maintaining daily routines once considered simple, Silverlake Life: The View from Here is an incredible journey that is ultimately a celebration of the strength of the human spirit.
Extras: There's a 17 minute Epilogue, with new footage shot, that gives some great additional information on the films' subjects. Then there are text features that highlight the awards and critical acclaim that the film has garnered, a statement by the filmmaker concerning his goals, bios on the directors, and a resource guide.
Licensed to Kill
Directed by Arthur Dong
Oscar-nominated filmmaker Arthur Dong takes us on a frightening journey into the minds of men whose contempt for homosexuality has led them to murder. Attacked himself in 1977 by gay bashers, Dong confronts killers of gay men face-to-face and asks them directly: "Why did you do it?" Described by the Los Angeles Times as a "chilling look at the real face of evil," the film includes video of actual gay bashings, crime scenes, murderers' confessions, and graphic evidence from police files, as it fuses together the powerful stories of seven convicted killers.
Extras: There are a wealth of extras on this disc. A 10 minute interview with the director is here, along with a 17 minute follow-up with Jay Johnson. Additional interviews with criminals Frank Chester, David Feikema and Frederick Kirby are included. Seven music cues are available, along with bios and remarks from the composers. And text updates are available on those interviewed in the main feature.
Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision
Directed by Freida Lee Mock
This powerful film documents the contentious origins of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, beginning with the story of its creator, a 21-year-old architecture student whose plan was selected from over 1,000 designs, beating out some of the top international architecture firms. Despite vociferous opposition from veterans' organizations and members of Congress, the monument was built, eventually becoming one of the world's most frequently visited memorials.
Extras: There are text bios for the filmmakers of Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.
Of Civil Wrongs and Rights: The Fred Korematsu Story
Directed by Eric Paul Fournier
Of Civil Wrongs and Rights brings to life for the first time the inspirational story of an unsung American civil rights hero, and demonstrates the power of ordinary citizens to rise up against injustice. In 1942, Fred Korematsu was an average 23-year-old California native working as a shipyard welder. But when he refused to obey Executive Order 9006, which sent 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry into internment camps, he became something extraordinary -- a civil rights champion. The film chronicles the 40-year legal fight to vindicate Korematsu and offers a cautionary tale about the safeguarding of civil liberties in the mounting war on terror.
Extras: There are two interviews (one is about 1 minute; the other 10 minutes) with Eric Paul Fournier, as well as a text bio on the director.
Directed by Christopher Beaver, Judy Irving, and Ruth Landy
Denounced by officials and shunned by broadcasters when it was first released in 1982, Dark Circle offers an unyielding look at the potential devastation that nuclear power can cause. Through personal accounts and rarely seen archival footage, the film follows the trail of plutonium from the Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons facility in Colorado, to the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in California, to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan.
Extras: Two short films are included as bonuses here: 29 minute Nagasaki Journey and 8 minute Hidden Voices -- both recommended viewing. There are also text bios on the filmmakers.
Directed by Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini
The shocking, hate-based attempted murders of two Mexican day laborers catapult a small Long Island town into national headlines, unmasking a new front line in the border wars: suburbia. For nearly a year, Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini lived and worked in Farmingville, New York so they could capture first-hand the stories of residents, day laborers and activists on all sides of the debate.
Extras: There are over 20 minutes of extra outtakes that are well worth watching.
Leona's Sister Gerri
Directed by Jane Gillooly
The grisly photograph of a naked woman on a motel floor, dead after an illegal abortion, stirred a nation and inflamed a movement. Leona's Sister Gerri tells the powerful story of the anonymous woman behind the image and how she became an extraordinary icon in the debate over abortion. Family and friends recount the life of Gerri Santoro, who grew up on the family farm, married young and had two children. The film explores the circumstances that led to her tragic death in 1964 when abortion was illegal.
Extras: There are 14 minutes of viewers' video diaries, telling their own stories concerning abortion, along with a very short (about a minute and a half) interview with the director. There's a text bio of the director, as well.
Of course, the actual quality of the original film elements of the various documentaries included in the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection varies from film to film, but the transfers as a whole are marvelous. I saw no artifacting or pixilation, and the transfers were sharp and clear.
Again, considering the low-budget nature of these documentaries, you're not going to see Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound mixes here, but the mono mixes are more than adequate for the films shown here. I found no subtitles for any of the films.
I've listed the extras for each film in their descriptions, but this is as good a place as any to describe the actual packaging of the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection box set. Set up like a large book, the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection has five large cardboard holders (with film info on the opposite side) that fold out slightly, accordion style, from the heavy cardboard front and back book boards. Unfortunately, the producers of the box set have inserted the discs, three per page, into cut slots in the cardboard. As you may have experienced from other box sets that want to save space by combining a large number of discs into cardboard slots, those slots scratch discs. Period. Further aggravating the problem, each disc is snapped into place with a large center button; with the cardboard slot extremely tight, you have to snap the disc off its center button while trying to pull the disc free, mindful not to scratch the disc on the center button. It's an almost impossible operation, and you're likely to either scratch the disc, break it, or tear the cardboard slot. If you purchase the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection, I suggest you carefully remove all the discs, and place them in plain plastic DVD holders, or they're going to get ruined. It's an extremely poor design, especially considering that suggested retail price.
A mammoth selection of some of the most provocative independent documentaries from the PBS series P.O.V., the 15 disc, 15 film P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection box set isn't gathered together to make you feel comfortable -- it wants to you to react. You may not agree with everything that's said in these passionate documentaries (I certainly didn't), but that's the whole point: engagement across all lines. If you love documentaries, and there are some specific titles here that strike you as interesting, then the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection would make an amazing addition to your DVD library. That price is steep, so be sure there are several titles that you definitely want; otherwise, it would be wise to rent first. I highly recommend the P.O.V.: 20th Anniversary Collection.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.