By Belinda Acosta
JUNE 1, 1999: "Reality" and "television" are not often linked, unless the words are put together into the contrivance known as "reality television," those mindless programs that feature car chases, animals gone berserk, or the behind-the-scenes antics of fast-food workers. Strangely, there appears to be an audience for this sort of "entertainment," which is nothing more than a camera, sometimes hidden, set up to capture whatever outrageous or perverse thing happens in front of it.
A different approach to reality begins in June with the PBS series POV (Television With a Point of View). Now in its 12th season, POV offers a "nonfiction film series" with topics as diverse as school prayer, Japanese internment camps, inner-city youths with dreams of becoming boxing champs, and elderly lesbians celebrating life and camaraderie.
The distinction between a nonfiction and a documentary film is mostly unapparent, but no matter. Each of the series' films promises a glimpse into the lives of everyday people doing extraordinary things, or extraordinary filmmakers who take marginalized subject matter and present it with thoughtful precision. Such is the case with the first two POV films, The Legacy: Murder & Media, Politics & Prisons by Michael J. Moore and Golden Threads by Lucy Winer.
Michael J. Moore -- not to be confused with Michael Moore, director of Roger and Me and the current Bravo series The Awful Truth -- has written, produced, and directed a painstakingly detailed account of how the "three strikes and you're out" law came into existence and the series of events that made it a reality.
"I had a feeling that, even though there was a lot of media coverage of Three Strikes, most people didn't know what they were voting for," said Moore. "I hope this film is a wake-up call."
The "three strikes" law is the toughest sentencing law in the nation, passed by California voters in 1994. The law was originally promoted as a means to keep felons of violent crimes from returning to the streets, but in reality includes severe punishment for offenders of any so-called "serious felony," including rape and murder, along with drug possession, passing bad checks, and residential burglaries. Because of this, it became an emotional battleground for Mike Reynolds and Marc Klaas, two fathers whose own children were murdered at the hands of repeat offenders.
Moore's film deftly unravels how Reynolds' grief at the murder of his 17-year-old daughter in 1992 was channeled into a near one-man campaign for the "three strikes" law. In the beginning, Reynolds was largely ignored by legislators, who considered his proposed legislation too extreme. But when Klaas' 12-year-old daughter Polly was kidnapped at knifepoint during a slumber party in 1993 and found brutally murdered two months later, Reynolds asked Klaas to speak in support of Three Strikes. Polly Klaas then became the unofficial poster child for the law, which in turn led to its landslide passage. But in a dramatic turn, Klaas later pulled his support of the legislation at the urging of his father, Joe Klaas.
"There's a difference between a person who goes into an unoccupied house to steal the stereo system and somebody who goes with ropes and gags and a knife to steal a child. ... I've had a grandchild stolen and a stereo stolen, and there's no comparison. I think it's obscene to equate stealing a stereo with stealing a child and giving the same penalty for both," the elder Klaas said.
The Legacy is surprisingly riveting, given that the camera jumps from talking head to talking head. The articulate and often moving accounts by Reynolds and Klaas, interspersed with archival news footage documenting the making of the "three strikes" legislation, creates a masterful film that takes the viewer from the intimacy of grief to the disturbing realization of how criminal justice policy is made in a media-saturated culture and how "three strikes" legislation has impacted the prison industrial complex.
In comparison, the second screening of POV's Golden Threads by Lucy Winer is airy and light, but no less compelling. The film follows 90-year-old Christine Burton during an annual Golden Threads weekend in Provincetown, Mass. Burton is the founder and grand dame of Golden Threads, an international network for lesbians over the age of 50. She began the group when, at 72, her application to another lesbian networking service was returned because "Nobody wants to meet lesbians over 50." The annual Golden Threads reunions attract women from all over the globe.
The use of quirky animation and the snapshot quality of some of the footage playfully captures the spirit of the Golden Thread participants who, as it turns out, are a bunch of girls who just want to have fun. But in quieter moments, as in candid meetings between older women with younger women, much is revealed about being a lesbian in a time when the word was not even uttered.
Several women share memories of Stonewall and police raids of gay bars. But it is the indomitable Burton who stands squarely in the center of Golden Threads. So when she suffers a stroke following the Golden Threads reunion, the film takes a poignant turn that shocks and eventually inspires.
The remaining June POV screenings include: In My Corner, a film about South Bronx teenagers hoping to become boxing champions, by filmmaker Ricki Stern. David Finn's The Green Monster, the story of Art Arfons, who, without a formal education, designed, built, drove, and broke land speed records in his supercharged auto he called "The Green Monster."
More information on upcoming "POV" events can be found at http://www.pbs.org/pov.
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