“POV’s 25th Anniversary: A Look Back”
AFI Discovery Channel Silverdocs
June 22, 2012
Silver Spring, Maryland
Notes by Erin Essenmacher
Silverdocs is not just about the films (although I do so love that part!) What makes it really stand out among other docs fests is the conference that runs concurrently, chalk full of insightful panelists on a range of topics of critical and emerging importance to doc filmmakers. I swung by the Silver Spring Civic Center Friday afternoon to check out the panel discussion on POV’s 25th anniversary. What followed was a lively discussion about the evolution of PBS, the future of documentary filmmaking and the relationship between and filmmaking and outreach.
Here’s the background: POV launched in 1988 to showcase new and challenging point-of-view documentaries. It has become American television’s longest-running series dedicated to contemporary documentaries. POV Executive Director and Executive Producer Simon Kilmurry moderated a conversation between filmmakers Julia Reichert, Ramona Diaz and Marshall Curry.
Reichert, the most veteran filmmaker of the group, kicked off the discussion by reminding the audience of a time when PBS was not as friendly and supportive of the independent filmmaker. “I remember there was a documentary criticizing Ronald Reagan and stations didn’t want to show it. It made them nervous – and there was no one like Simon there to fight for them…we had to fight to get things like POV and ITVS.” She mused that these programs could easily go away if independent producers and viewers don’t continue to demand them.
“There are 360-odd local stations and they’re meant to serve your communities,” she noted, “be in touch with them. Tell them what you want to see and then thank them for showing it.”
The panelists suggested having a person dedicated to outreach on your team the same way you would have an editor or field producer. But Reichert acknowledged that sometimes designing, funding and implementing an outreach campaign can be a daunting task – especially to a filmmaker who’s just spent two, three or more years just seeing the film the fruition. “It’s like running two marathons. As soon as you finish one you have feel like to run another.” She suggested that there should be more companies who specialize in documentary film outreach (two notables: Working Films and San Francisco-based Active Voice, founded by Kilmurray’s predecessor at POV, Ellen Schneider.)
As to the difference between outreach and distribution seems to depend on whether a film follows a more traditional model with a distributor as middleman or whether a filmmaker chooses to self-distribute. While Diaz and Reichert see the line as distinct, Curry observed, “The line is blurring as distributors do less to promote the film. A lot of times your outreach helps build your distribution.”
But perhaps the best advice came from an anonymous filmmaker in the audience who said “trust your story most of all. If I had picked my outreach partners at the beginning they would have completely different than now because the story has changed so much.“
Switching gears, Marshall also noted that the style of filmmaking has changed as filmmakers strive to reach a wider audience. “My sense is you used to able to make a film that spoke just to your tribe. Now people like Michael Moore, Josh Fox and Morgan Spurlock are using documentaries to try to connect with a wider audience.”
They then screened scenes from Fox’s film Gasland, which screened on HBO and tackles the subject of natural gas production and water pollution. In one now-infamous scene, Fox turns on his kitchen tap and lights the water on fire.
Reichert pointed to these and other examples as exciting for the future of the genre. “I love that you can now have a hard-hitting political film as art. It can be irreverent, have humor, a personal voice.”
Other tools she’s excited about? “Hybrid docs – perhaps the most famous example is Thin Blue Line, but there are so many that are expanding the form.”
For Marshall it’s the way technology has made filmmaking more accessible. “You can buy a computer and outfit for $1,000 and edit a film yourself that could play in a theater. Ten years ago that technology cost $50,000 and you had to take out a second mortgage to pay for it.”
In response to a final audience question on whether the rise of YouTube videos would mean the death knell for long form docs, Kilmurry was undaunted. “They can co-exist. Longer docs create opportunity for deeper analysis. There are still audiences that want that and those audiences should be served.”