‘Deception’: Oscar Victor, PBS Reject : Movies: The documentary, critical of U.S. Panamanian policies, is one of a few acclaimed and controversial works turned down for airing on public TV.


Since its release last July, “The Panama Deception,” a film about the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, has been warmly received by critics. It has been screened in theaters in 30 cities. And Monday, it won an Academy Award as best feature-length documentary.

Despite its success, “The Panama Deception” will not be seen--nationally, at least--on public television, as co-producer and director Barbara Trent announced in accepting her Oscar.

Earlier this month, the film was rejected by “P.O.V.,” public television’s annual showcase of independently produced nonfiction films. It has also been turned down for airing in other PBS slots, according to Jennifer Lawson, the network’s senior vice president of national programming.


In her acceptance speech, Trent defiantly dedicated her Oscar in part to the “millions of Americans who may or may not get to see this film now that public TV has refused to broadcast it.”

This is not the first time PBS has come under attack by documentary filmmakers who accuse the network of suppressing films that call into question U.S. government policies. Trent was one of a group of 35 documentarians and community activists who last week met in Los Angeles with Lawson and accused the network of censorship.

Among the films that have not been broadcast on PBS are two documentaries that are critical of the nuclear industry: “Deadly Deception: General Electric, Nuclear Weapons and Our Environment,” which won an Oscar in 1991, and “Building Bombs,” a 1990 Oscar nominee.

“Instead of acknowledging that there are political limits to what they can show, they blame the filmmakers,” Joanne Doroshow, one of the producers of “The Panama Deception,” said Tuesday.

In the wake of Trent’s public comment, “P.O.V.” (which stands for point of view) issued a statement Tuesday noting that her documentary was one of 500 submitted this year to fill 10 program slots. “To imply that ‘Panama Deception’ was not chosen because of its political perspective is simply without basis,” the statement said.

Doroshow said “P.O.V.” gave no reason for rejecting the documentary. Ellen Schneider, executive producer of “P.O.V.,” declined to say why the show was not accepted, saying the selection process is confidential. She said the aim is to find a “good eclectic mix” of films.

One source close to the selection committee said, however, that some members were nervous about the volatile content of the film, while others challenged some of the documentation. “There was a general nervousness (about it),” the source said.

But Doroshow said no questions have been raised about the film’s accuracy. “We have extensive backup for all the information allegations,” she said. “There’s not a single question in our minds about whether it’s accurate.”

Schneider defended “P.O.V.’s” track record, saying the program has not shied away from other highly controversial documentaries such as “Tongues Untied,” about black homosexuals, and “Roger and Me,” a scathing critique of General Motors’ decision to close its Flint, Mich., factory.

PBS officials also pointed out that “Frontline,” another public-television documentary series, has aired two programs on Panama. But Doroshow said neither dealt with the main allegation in “The Panama Deception”: that the real reason for the invasion was to destroy the Panamanian Defense Forces as a prelude to renegotiating the Canal Zone treaties before the year 2000, when the United States is supposed to relinquish control of the canal and remove its military bases.

Lawson said she felt the filmmakers who complained--and also asked that PBS keep its criticism of individual documentaries private--had another agenda.

“It’s clear what they consider censorship is really a marketing strategy for their films,” Lawson said. “They used this hook. It really angers me. Censorship is a very serious act.”

Meanwhile, the fate of “Building Bombs” appears to be up in the air. Last week PBS announced that the film, which became a rallying cry against censorship in Hollywood this year because of its rejection by PBS, would be re-edited, retitled and finally broadcast on “P.O.V.” on Aug. 10.

Now, filmmaker Mark Mori says, maybe not.

“I consider there to be no agreement with PBS at this point,” Mori said. His original film showed the environmental impact of four decades of nuclear-weapons production at a South Carolina plant.

Mori claims that the only changes he agreed to make on the new version, renamed “Building Bombs: The Legacy,” involved minor updating. He said he was incensed to read an official statement by PBS last week stating: “The filmmakers have worked with ‘P.O.V.’ to make changes that bring the film up to PBS’ editorial standards.”

“I want PBS to publicly state that this business of bringing the film up to their editorial standards is not true ,” Mori said emphatically. “All the changes are required purely because of PBS’ early delays in showing this program.”

On the other hand, the co-producer of “Building Bombs,” Susan Robinson, said that the film will be shown on PBS as scheduled. “I applaud Mark for pushing the issue,” she said, “but this is a little much. It’s time to say, ‘Yeah, we win.’ ”

Times staff writer Daniel Cerone contributed to this story.


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