Must See TV

Take A Gander At PBS' "Point Of View."

By Stacey Richter

IN SUMMER, TELEVISION becomes more of a nonevent than ever. But even as the networks are running repeats, public television has embarked on its 11th year broadcasting Point of View (P.O.V.), an energetic showcase of independent non-fiction films. These are not your standard made-for-TV documentaries; much of the work scheduled for broadcast was originally produced for film festivals and other arty outlets. For better or worse, all of this year's films have a decidedly liberal cast, though within that framework they're quite diverse. These films have strong viewpoints! They are not bland! It's almost like not watching TV.

Review The P.O.V. season runs from June 2 through August 4, airing at 10 p.m. Tuesdays on KUAT-TV, Channel 6. The series continues on July 7 with Walter Brock's If I Can't Do It, the story of Arthur Campbell Jr., an entirely regular guy in a wheelchair "pushing for independence and an equal slice of the American pie."

July 14 brings Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour. Filmmaker Susan Stern explores the history of this pert cultural icon from a variety of angles. She investigates the corporate history of Mattel, one of the few companies in the 1950s that was run by a woman--Ruth Handler, who invented Barbie. Handler describes the pre-Barbie world as an infantile landscape full of limp baby dolls, and discusses her innovative decision to produce a grown-up doll with breasts.

Stern goes on to show how Mattel's creation has become a part of the culture at large, with hundreds of different meanings. She visits Barbie trade shows, where guests wear Barbie-garnished hats. She visits two little girls who like to play with Barbie, and discuss the lessons they've learned. ("I've learned how you look isn't really that important," comments one tike struggling with the contradictions of femininity, "except it's good if you're pretty, because then people will like you more.")

Perhaps the most inspirational subjects she finds are Barbie artists and the grown-up Barbie players. One artist removes Barbie's blonde hair and painstakingly replaces it with bright blue strands. The players fashion elaborate environments for their dolls. You gotta love the Barbie dungeon, full of happy-faced dolls whipping each other.

P.O.V. is especially noteworthy in its decision to include films that aren't made by professional filmmakers. Past series have featured such fledgling works--like an essay on life in the suburbs produced by a sociology graduate student--alongside work by better-known filmmakers. On July 21, The Vanishing Line, by physician Maren Monsen, explores the dilemmas of death and dying under medical care. Monsen offers an intensely personal look at "the art of dying" from the perspective of a professional who's been trained to prolong life, but has been offered little guidance in how to face the reality of death.

July 28 brings us Ellen Bruno's Sacrifice, a documentary about the thriving sex industry in Thailand. Burmese girls talk about their experiences as prostitutes, and how they hope to build a better life for themselves and their families. This film was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

She Shorts, a program of short films by women, will air on August 4. Despite the dopey name (and the dubious decision to group together films on the basis of gender), She Shorts features some wonderful work: "Two or Three Things But Nothing For Sure," an impressionistic documentary about the fierce writer Dorothy Allison, has already shown several times in Tucson in conjunction with other film series. Allison speaks movingly of a girlhood spent in abject poverty; of being beaten and raped by her stepfather; and of learning that "the only loved version of your life is the one you create." Elizabeth Schub's "Cuba 15" is the perky portrait of Tzunami Ortega Coyra, a Cuban teen on the eve of her quinceañera. The self-possessed Tzunami says that she was named after "a hugely destructive tidal wave," but despite this, she does not like her name. Also included is Ellen Lee's "Repetition Compulsion," a darkly beautiful animated film about domestic abuse. Charcoal drawings accompany the testimony of women talking about what it's like to be caught in a destructive relationship.

The series concludes on September 15 with Family Name, the winner of the 1997 Sundance Freedom of Expression Award. The film follows filmmaker Macky Alston's journey from New York to the South, as he unearths the history of his white, slave-owning ancestors.

P.O.V. also features video letters sent in by viewers who wish to offer their own commentaries. It's startling, and weirdly satisfying, to see regular people, capturing themselves with their own camcorders, being broadcast on national television. P.O.V. is an amazing series that's expanded the range of what can be acceptably aired on television. Perhaps in future seasons it will again really push boundaries, and broadcast films with points-of-view that don't fall within the liberal/lefty camp. Even so, this is some of the most interesting television available, and it's completely free. TW

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