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'Independent Lens' Refocuses: Anthology Series Now Curated by ITVS and PBS

By Tamara Krinsky

From Daniel Junge's 'Chiefs'

"Diverse. Innovative. Smart." These are the three words Independent Television Service (ITVS) executive director Sally Jo Fifer uses to describe the programming that can be seen on the new, revamped Independent Lens. Beginning this month, the yearly 10-week fall series that premiered on PBS in 1999 will expand to 29 primetime episodes a year and will be curated by ITVS and PBS. Presented on Tuesday nights at 10:00 p.m., the series will complement P.O.V., PBS's award-winning 14-week showcase for personal documentary. Together, the two series will establish a consistent time slot for independents on PBS.

Independent Lens is an anthology series that showcases the best documentary programming and a limited number of dramas from the US and abroad. The series has a different focus than P.O.V., which is a specific showcase for point-of-view programming, and from American Experience, which airs films dealing with American history. Independent Lens is broader, encompassing some point-of-view and historical programs, but also including shows that chronicle contemporary events, comedies, animation, etc. There is no political or social agenda for the series; however, in keeping with the mission of PBS, the Independent Lens shows—whatever their subject or approach-—must in some way enhance viewers' understanding of the world.

The series began four years ago when, according to PBS vice president of programming Alyce Myatt, the channel had a wealth of material that it didn't want to just air as "orphan programming." PBS decided to aggregate the programs under one umbrella as an anthology series, and Independent Lens was born. At the time, however, no licensing fees were paid to filmmakers, and the program was not on the PBS national service. Additionally, filmmakers often incurred additional costs because they had to spend money on packaging their films for broadcast and on errors and omissions insurance. Says Myatt, "It turned into a situation where filmmakers essentially ended up paying PBS to air their programs. We felt the films deserved more attention."

Early in 2002, PBS approached ITVS about presenting the series. ITVS would be co-curating Independent Lens with the PBS programming staff and would then be in charge of series packaging and all launch elements, including publicity, website, community outreach and station relations with programmers in the public television system. While there will be a few changes to Lens, such as the use of a series host (Angela Bassett in Spring 2003) to bring both greater visibility and consistency, the original goals of the series remain the same: to provide audiences with different perspectives. 

ITVS' Fifer says, "We were thrilled when they invited us to present the series now because it is the realization of an 11-year dream for ITVS to have a permanent home for independents on the PBS national schedule." Fifer also was excited about the signal that involving ITVS sent out to the independent community. "More curators means more diversity in terms of personal aesthetics and the kinds of programs the series will support...and what independents get national exposure." 

The curating team consists of Cheryl Jones and Sandy Heberer from PBS and Claire Aguilar and Lois Vossen from ITVS. All curators watch the programs submitted to PBS and meet personally to choose the final slate, which is overseen by Fifer and PBS' Myatt. Says Fifer, "While the programmers admit they debate on grounds of personal taste, how a work may resonate with audiences and whether its topic was breaking new ground, no program succeeds or fails solely on how well it was made. At the core, the curating team is looking for strong, clear statements from independent filmmakers."

While the new series will allow for more documentaries to reach larger audiences, the process of obtaining one of the coveted broadcast spots is still fraught with difficulty. Stephanie Slewka's On This Island, which premieres February 18, began its journey through PBS at a July 2001 "Pitch to PBS" workshop sponsored by Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers (AIVF), then bounced around the broadcaster for quite some time before gaining a spot on the Lens schedule. "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure how it ended up at PBS," said Slewka. "I should've bought the ‘How to Navigate PBS' handbook. Once I landed at ITVS, it was wonderful. People call you right back, everyone has answers and you feel like you're really in good hands." 

From Stephanie Slewka's <em>On This Island</em>, which premieres February 18 on PBS

A licensing fee of $20,000 for a one-hour program is paid to the independent producer, who retains the copyright. ITVS provides an additional $3,000 to producers to cover the cost of cutting the program down to 53 minutes, the standard broadcast for both Independent Lens and P.O.V., in order to allow for series packaging. However, programs that were made with federal funding from ITVS, a member of the Minority Consortia like National Asian-American Telecommunications Association (NAATA) or the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) are directly ineligible for the acquisition fee because they have already received public funding.

In addition to broadening the curating pool, ITVS' familiarity with the independent filmmaking community is also proving to be beneficial. For example, one of the films selected only had a running time of 43 minutes. ITVS was able to find a short film to round out the broadcast hour. Says Fifer, "We were able to quickly identify a filmmaker whose work would be a great companion piece to the feature documentary and also a filmmaker whose work was very appropriate for a national audience via PBS." 

Fifer and Myatt are also excited about what ITVS can bring to Lens in terms of the work it does with community outreach for social issue documentaries. The groundbreaking Community Connections Project (CCP) will be doing outreach work on behalf of many of the Lens programs. For example, Chiefs fits into ITVS' ongoing Native Stories-Community Voices outreach umbrella campaign. Other programs that will have a more extensive outreach campaign because the content is especially conducive to the kind of work done by CCP include Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater's Maggie Growls, about Gray Panthers founder Maggie Kuhn; Heather Courtney's Las Trajabajores, about immigrant issues in Austin, Texas; Charlotte Lagarde and Lisa Denker's Heart of the Sea , about woman surfer Renn Sunn and her struggle with breast cancer; and Johnny Symons' Daddy and Papa, about gay parenting.      

From  Johnny Symons' <em>Daddy and Papa</em>.

ITVS will also bring its expertise with websites to the series. The Independent Lens website launched at in January 2003. It contains information about the series, the stories, the filmmakers and the significant issues raised. Each website offers a unique opportunity for Web viewers to participate and interact. For example, the website for Jamie Meltzer's Off the Charts: The Song Poem Story will enable viewers to compose original tunes and sing along with the "Web karaoke machine." On the site for Nancy Kelly's Downside Up, viewers can take a photographic tour of a city's metamorphosis from obsolete industrial town to modern art mecca. The Strange Fruit (Joel Katz) website will allow viewers to trace political movements through the history of American protest songs.

When Kelly found out about the plans for Independent Lens, she was amazed and astounded at the breadth and scope of it. She had tried to get national funds through PBS the entire three years while she was making Downside Up, and had been rejected three times from the ITVS Open Call. The slot on the Lens schedule was therefore especially sweet. "It's unbelievable how many people see something when it's broadcast," said Kelly. "It causes people to talk about what's going on in their community...Docs communicate across all lines we think are undividable."


Tamara Krinsky is associate editor of International Documentary, and associate director of HBO's US Comedy Arts Festival's Film Discovery Program.


Independent Lens—Winter/Spring 2003

Maggie Growls (Barbara Attie and Janet Goldwater, producers/directors)         February 4

Off The Charts: The Song-Poem Story (Jamie Meltzer, producer/director)        February 11

On This Island (Stephenie Slewka, producer/director)                                  February 18

Downside Up (Nancy Kelly, producer/director)                                            February 25

Los Trabajadores/The Workers (Heather Courtney, producer/director)             March 25

Chiefs (Donna Dewey, producer; Daniel Junge, director)                               April 1

Strange Fruit (Joel Katz, producer/director)                                                April 8

Bird by Bird with Annie: A Portrait of Annie Lamott (Freida Lee Mock, producer/director)                                                                                   April 22

Sisters in Resistance (Maia Wechsler, producer/director)                              April 29

Heart of the Sea (Charlotte Lagarde, producer/director; Lisa Denker, director)                                                                                               May 6

Guns and Mothers (Thom Powers, producer/director)                                   May 13

Razing Appalachia (Sasha Waters, producer/director)                                  May 20

Hansel Mieth: Vagabond Photographer

(Nancy Schiesari, producer/director)                                                        May 27

Daddy & Papa (Johnny Symons, producer/director)                                     June 3