Tube Of Plenty
The PBS Series 'POV' Is Television Worth Watching.
By Piers Marchant
MUCH AS THE computer and the Internet have, over recent years, been flogged endlessly by technocrats as a learning breakthrough, the venerable TV, back in its early days, was meant to be an informational revolution. A way to keep the world in touch, they said, an unprecedented advance in human communication.
Could they have predicted The Facts Of Life or Miami Vice? Probably not. But too often, it seems, instead of reflecting our culture back to us, TV creates it. The TV tells us how to live, what to wear, and what annoying catch phrase to yell at our co-workers. This has done severe, irreversible damage to our identity. What single other device has done more to harm to the arts? Books, theater, music--everything can be codified and re-created on the tube, just in time for dinner. Why actually experience anything? Before we sound the anti-TV battlehorns, though, it must be noted that occasionally TV gets it right. Once in a great while, a show is produced that uses the medium to full and proper advantage.
PBS' series POV (Point Of View), which premiered some 10 years ago, has been one of those noteworthy shows that actually delivers on television's promise. Each season consists of a short series of original documentaries created by independent filmmakers from across the country. The results can be electrifying. At its best, it's like a grassroots 60 Minutes, without the trappings of glitz and high-priced anchors. Honest and heartfelt, POV gets to the bottom of our ever-colliding collective humanity.
Based on the two episodes available for pre-screening, this season will be more of the same. The first, airing on July 1, Fear and Learning at Hoover Elementary, chronicles the devastating Prop 187 debate in a predominantly Latino neighborhood in central L.A. The proposition would deny public services to undocumented immigrants and their children; and novice director Laura Simón--also a fourth-grade teacher at Hoover--recounts with tragic honesty the damage this debate does to the fragile sense of community in the school. Kids and teachers are set apart, Latinos from non-Latinos, even legals from illegals. You get the sense that, no matter what the outcome, everyone suffers from this kind of racial conjecture.
One of the focal points of the piece is Mayra, who, along with her mother, is a recent immigrant from El Salvador. She's a feisty, take-no-prisoners type of student (when we first see her she's shuffling her fellow students around and keeping the peace as an outside monitor, proudly wearing a "Hoover" sash over her shoulder). Simón has her students choose a college and a career in the course of the year. Mayra chooses Smith, because, as she says, she's "sick of boys." She wants to be a lawyer, and Simón is confident that she, of all of them, can make it.
The school is in the thick of a war zone between two rival gangs. Blocks away is a dangerous park, a black market for drugs, weapons and counterfeit immigration papers. A panel of kids describes the horrors of their environment: Five of seven have seen someone murdered in front of them. Simón takes us to Mayra's apartment, where killings can happen on the front stoop, and where she has to stay indoors whenever her mother isn't home.
When Prop 187 passes, the kids, like their parents, are terrified they'll be sent back. Distrust festers between the teachers and students. Even Simón, who tells her kids they have nothing to worry about, realizes she's essentially helpless to aid them. In fact, one of the teachers, Diane, whom Simón describes as "one of the best," votes for the proposition, using the specious logic that the illegals are taking away needed dollars from a school system that is already overloaded. Cultural intolerance, even in this highly visible, assimilated school, is everywhere.
Nothing is so damning as watching the effect all this has on Mayra. She vanishes for a while, despite Simón's frantic attempts to contact her. She and her mother were evicted, we're told, and had to live in an abandoned apartment somewhere else. As for the filming, her mother explains that she can no longer trust Simón, that she is sorry but she doesn't really know what it's for, and she fears the video might be used against her and Mayra. They vanish, quite literally, from the scene, rumored to have returned to El Salvador--far, far away from Smith College and Mayra's American dream.
Equally disturbing, although not quite as focused, is Girls Like Us, airing July 22nd, a condensing of four years in the lives of four adolescent girls in South Philadelphia. We're quickly introduced to the four: Anna, a first-generation Vietnamese girl, whose father is relentlessly strict about her interactions with boys; Lisa, a dedicated student in a Catholic school, who's had the same boyfriend since she was 12; De'Yona, bouncy and full-of-life, who, like Mayra, seems bound and determined to meet her lofty goals; and Raelene, an ill-educated girl who's already dropped out of school and is taking care of her baby daughter.
Filmmakers Jane Wagner and Tina DiFeliciantonio clearly have a strong rapport with their young subjects, following them and charting the courses of their lives with respect and interest. What's surprising is how difficult it is for these young women just to get by and move forward with their plans. In the course of the film, De'Yona's cousin is shot to death, sending her into a downward spiral (in her miserably matter-of-fact words, she "just didn't care anymore"), flunking her senior year and getting pregnant; Raelene has another child and moves away to the Poconos; and Lisa moves from one "committed" relationship to the next. After the four years, she's the only one who successfully gets out, going off to college after yet another failed relationship. Anna plans on going to school that next year, but not before swearing off boys.
The only criticism here is the length of the program. In Fear, as it focuses tightly on a single subject and its effects, the 50-minute length is to its advantage. In Girls, however, the format is too short, not enough time to get more than a basic sense of what the women are going through. One wishes to see the entire full-length feature, to get a more complete sense of their lives.
Still, it's powerfully rendered. De'Yona's fate that is the most disturbing and tragic. Perhaps nothing is sadder than watching children fail to reach their own expectations, and give up on themselves. In De'Yona, this despair seems, inevitably, to lead to pregnancy: When asked by her grandmother, who had stressed the importance of birth control to De'Yona all her life, why she didn't use protection, De'Yona can only reply, "I don't know." To De'Yona and Raelene, pregnancy seems to cultivate a sort of purpose, a kind of direction in the face of despair and hopelessness. There is the sense, in the end, that it's the only thing between them and oblivion.
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