Reality Checks And Balances
Public Television's 12th Annual 'P.O.V.' Documentary Series Is 100-Percent Pabulum Free.
By James Reel
JUNE 1, 1999: HAPPILY EVER AFTER is a concept for storybooks and movies and commercial TV. Real life doesn't usually trail off into eternal contentment, and real life is what the PBS series P.O.V. (Point of View) is about.
The documentary series launches its 12th season this week and continues through July. (Check your local listings for dates, times and channels, or www.pbs.org/pov.) If you get your bedtime stories from television, P.O.V. offers an alternative to the innocuous programming currently responsible for putting America to sleep.
This season's independent non-fiction installments tend to focus on losers. Not chronic low-life scumbags, and not powerful individuals who suffer a spectacular fall, but losers like the rest of us: people who don't follow through on some opportunity; or who are permanently sidetracked by a minor, unexpected complication; or who work for something worthwhile that doesn't turn out so well; or who get screwed by a system they can't control.
Yet these programs aren't depressing, because people who lose aren't necessarily thrown out of the game. The documentary subjects are resilient folks. Setbacks do not destroy them. And some of them even emerge from failure having accomplished something that is, in a very small way, noble.
This becomes most evident in "Rabbit in the Moon." Filmmaker Emiko Omori tells of the Japanese Americans--immigrants and American-born citizens alike--who the U.S. government detained in prison camps throughout most of World War II. Omori's interviewees relate how they participated in strikes in the camps, and resisted the draft in protest of their treatment by a government that regarded them as enemies on home soil. They also describe how their communities were torn by questions of loyalty and accommodation. The Japanese-born or Japanese-educated internees regarded the cooperative, Westernized members of the Japanese American Citizens' League as opportunistic collaborators--a rift that hasn't mended even after half a century.
Another point of contention was a questionnaire distributed by the government, which implied that people who wished to be trusted would essentially have to renounce their Japanese heritage.
"Loyalty is a very complex and shifty subject," points out Omori. "Loyalties shift depending on the situation; in a case like this, you are probably going to choose your family or your husband or your children over your country, if someone forces you to make a ludicrous black-and-white choice like that.
"When we started this documentary, we were really most interested in the people who had resisted in some way. These are stories we had not heard before. The irony is that these people I interviewed, who had been moved to concentration camps because the government didn't trust them and who spoke out against the internment, these people were very American in their actions. To question and protest is a real American trait (on which) we pride ourselves."
Omori was a young child during her family's internment, and not long after their release her mother died of bleeding ulcers, a condition linked to the disruption. Although "Rabbit in the Moon" mostly concerns other people, Omori does frame the documentary with her family's experience. "I found that my family's history could be kind of metaphorical for the story of the American Japanese community, which broke down from the conflicts involved with the internment just as my own family broke down," she says.
Among other highlights this season on P.O.V.:
"The Legacy" follows two fathers "linked by tragedy, then divided by conscience" in the campaign for California's tough "Three Strikes and You're Out" sentencing law. Mike Reynolds essentially wrote and then crusaded tirelessly for this law, which requires criminals with two prior felony convictions to be sent up for 25 years to life for a third offense. Reynolds' daughter had been murdered by a man who would not have been on the streets if this provision had been in effect.
His temporary ally is the father of 12-year-old Polly Klaas, whose kidnapping and murder by another paroled felon was followed closely by the international press. But Marc Klaas, angry as he is (and himself a savvy manipulator of the media), realized that "Three Strikes" was so flawed that it could hand down brutal mandatory sentences for nonviolent crimes committed by men with only one strike against them. Filmmaker Michael J. Moore shows that Reynolds is no right-wing monster, but he sides with Klaas in his doomed effort to keep justice blind, but not vicious.
"In My Corner" visits the Bronxchester Boxing Club in New York City, where Luis Camacho, a well-known trainer of Olympic and professional boxers, teaches troubled street kids the skills they'll need to succeed in the ring and in adult life. Unfortunately, Camacho's constant absence from home makes him less a father figure to his own son than he is to the boys at the gym. And even the kids with the greatest promise as boxers are so distracted by the realities of adolescence, they may never become the champions Camacho trains them to be. This film by Ricki Stern is not an uplifting saga of disadvantaged kids who beat the odds and go on to fame and fortune. It is, however, a bittersweet tale of young people who, with a bit of tough love from strangers, just might get by.
"The Green Monster" hitches a ride with Art Arfons, the self-taught amateur engineer who shattered one land-speed record after another in jet-powered cars he built himself. Now in his early 70s, and after a long retirement following a nasty crash in which his vehicle killed three people, Arfons sets out to break the record one last time. "The Green Monster" is the name of each of Arfons' cars, but it also suggests the sublimated jealousy and envy that drives the good-natured men in Arfons' circle to out-speed each other year after year. Now Arfons must overcome his remorse for that fatal crash, his questionable health, his wife's opposition and the derision of his brother (whose son was killed trying to set a water speed record). This is not a sports special; it's a little comedy-drama, fueled by character, about a small-town nobody who briefly became a celebrity--a man who just can't give up the thrill of his life, even if it kills him.
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