Laura Angelica Simon, a fourth-grade teacher at Hoover Street Elementary School near downtown Los Angeles, had never made a film before nor even used a video camera. But on the day after California voters passed Proposition 187 in November 1994--the initiative, now in the courts, that denied education and health care to illegal immigrants--Simon found her subject. And a second calling.
Mayra, age 9, raised her hand. The smartest of Simon’s students, the one who savored saying names of colleges such as Harvard, Yale and Smith, and who talked about becoming a lawyer, she asked her teacher: “Are you a cop? Are you going to kick me out now?”
“That was the inspiration--or really the desperation--that propelled the film,” explains Simon, a Claremont graduate who grew up in East Los Angeles. “It was really what I saw happening after this public policy debate, after the politics had gone away, and all the hurt and the hate and the emotion were sort of left there. . . . As an immigrant, a Latina, a teacher, I felt sick to my stomach. I told [Mayra] she was safe, that everything was OK. . . . Somebody had to give these kids a voice.”
The result is “Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary,” a textured story with some unusual twists and turns of character. It is one of the 10 films that “P.O.V."--public television’s premier platform for independent nonfiction work--is presenting this summer in its 10th season. “Fear and Learning,” narrated by Simon, airs July 1.
Other pieces in the diverse package include Tuesday’s “Battle for the Minds,” in which Steven Lipscomb explores the role of women in the Southern Baptist ministry, focusing on his mother, Pastor Dixie Petry; “Jesse’s Gone,” by Michael Smith, depicting the frayed lives after the death of Jesse Hall, a young rap artist from Oakland; and “A Perfect Candidate,” by R.J. Cutler and David Van Taylor, a parable about campaign culture and leadership through the prism of Oliver North’s 1994 challenge to Sen. Charles Robb (D-Va.).
Aptly named, “P.O.V.” stands for “point of view.” It is the distinguishing characteristic of the series and its documentaries.
“What ‘P.O.V.’ did is really establish a presence for an independent-driven vision of what nonfiction [films] can be,” says Marc N. Weiss, founding producer, executive producer for seven seasons and now president of P.O.V. Interactive. “I think that most people’s models, until ‘P.O.V.,’ were either traditional broadcast journalism or the stuff they were forced to watch in high school.
“One major contribution,” Weiss continues, "[is] the notion of personal documentary, of coming at a public issue through stories of individuals who are affected by an issue--something driven by the passion of a filmmaker who has a stake in the story. ‘P.O.V.’ has shown that nonfiction work can be funny, it can be dramatic, it can be very emotional--and that there can be very good work that’s not made within the rules of journalism, of so-called objectivity.”
Landmark works on the series include Christine Choy and Renee Tajima’s “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” (1989), about the slaying of a Chinese American engineer in Detroit, involving aspects of race and justice; Michael Moore’s “Roger & Me” (1992), the darkly comedic take of the journalist’s attempt to interview the chairman of General Motors; Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman’s “Silverlake Life: The View From Here” (1993), the personal account, shot on home video, of two filmmakers dying of AIDS; and Frieda Lee Mock’s “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision” (1996), the story of the architect-sculptor who designed the Vietnam War Memorial.
A decade ago, this sort of work was not being shown on public television.
PBS now calls “P.O.V.” one of its “signature” series but for years it was at the margins. The series had a traumatic birth and encountered land mines on its way to institutional respectability.
During the ‘80s, independent filmmakers were on the warpath. They complained that PBS, dependent as it was on federal funding, was reluctant to broadcast their work, especially if it took sides on controversial issues. “When the Mountains Tremble,” for example, about a Guatemalan peasant woman’s fight against her country’s dictatorship, aired only after the Corp. for Public Broadcasting allocated $50,000 for a 90-minute follow-up. Wags dubbed the incident “When Stations Tremble.”
In 1986 at the Sundance Film Festival, Weiss, who had been an independent filmmaker and distributor, met with David Fanning, executive producer of PBS’ ‘Frontline,” and others to see if they could work out a structure for an independent-driven documentary series. Out of that came “P.O.V.”
At first, Weiss says, the relationship between “P.O.V.” and PBS was “very tentative. Everybody was walking on tiptoes.”
The series debuted July 5, 1988, with a double bill: “American Tongues,” which had already won a Peabody Award, presenting a humorous and provocative look at how American speech varies from region to region, and “Acting Our Age,” a tribute to six elderly women who deal with issues of body image, family, sexuality and death.
The land mines erupted in 1991 with “Tongues Untied,” Marlon Riggs’ angry, funny, poetic and highly controversial inside look at the community of black gay men, with scenes of nudity and of men kissing. PBS backed that film, but it pulled the plug on “Stop the Church,” a 24-minute film showing the gay rights activist group Act-Up’s disruption of Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral and confrontation with New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor.
“P.O.V.” endured, however. In nine seasons, its roster of 119 works has garnered seven Emmys, six Peabodys and four DuPont Columbia Journalism awards. Deborah Hoffman’s “Complaints of a Dutiful Daughter” (1995), in which she tries to cope with her mother’s advanced case of Alzheimer’s, won all three. Three “P.O.V.” films, including “Maya Lin,” have gotten Oscars.
While the majority of “P.O.V.” films had little exposure prior to broadcast, Ellen Schneider, executive director of American Documentary Inc., the organization that produces “P.O.V.,” makes no apologies for those that have had theatrical, major festival or even cable release.
“Frequently it means that the program can have a kind of buzz around it prior to its broadcast [and that] people who didn’t get to see it, because they don’t live in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco, have access.”
Lisa Heller, the new executive producer at “P.O.V.” and the person who makes the final decision on which films are shown, says: “I try to look for new talent [to] provide a showcase for artistic talent in the making.”
Like Laura Simon. “Someone like me would have no forum without ‘P.O.V,’ ” says the filmmaker. “There are very few places that [independent filmmakers] can turn to because we don’t blow up buildings, we have no sexy shots. When you throw your soul into a film and actually are successful, you’ve captured something that’s very raw and very real and very American.”
* “P.O.V.” airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28.