The world seen through the cameras of television’s best-kept secret is nothing like a hyped, gee-whiz 20/20 documentary. No, the Emmy award-winning series Independent Lens presents footage so rare that even a touch of network TV-style schmaltziness would spoil it.
Told in a straightforward fashion, the documentaries and dramas that air on most Tuesday nights on PBS are spellbinding because they’re likely to show us something we haven’t seen before—and because, for a while at least, we can’t believe that what they reveal is true.
Independent Lens bills itself as “a film festival in your living room”—and indeed, that’s just what you get. The series majors in documentaries and dramas, but also serves up the occasional comic short and other experimental program. The common thread throughout all the formats is the independent spirit of the filmmakers, who “ignore the rules of commercial programming and spend years pursuing diverse stories about people not normally seen on TV,” according to a PBS description.
In other words, you might see just about anything on Independent Lens.
For the purposes of this story, I watched the series for about a month in late ’04. Along the way, I became more than just a writer doing a bit of TV journalism. I discovered a series of which I’m now a fan.
Here’s a brief look at three of the programs I watched.
This film is a kind of senior project done by 14 young Afghan women and girls educated as camera operators and video journalists in Kabul. These women, who have tasted their gender’s newfound freedom in the country’s most progressive city, travel to rural Afghanistan to record the stories of their female compatriots whose daily struggle is often finding enough food to eat, not to mention misogyny.
The contrast between the women behind the cameras and those in front of them comes sharply into focus in a poignant scene when one Afghan documentary filmmaker is behaving unprofessionally on camera: she’s shedding tears during an interview with a doctor and his patient in Herat, a city where women cannot walk out on the street without a chadri—clothing which covers a woman from head to foot. The compassionate doctor, who treats women for free and often gives them rides to and from his office, introduces the filmmaker to his female patient. She’s the only woman that the filmmaker can talk to in conservative Herat, where old Taliban mentality still has a hold on the minds of men, who forbid women to speak in front of the camera.
The patient’s heartbreaking testimony of tyrannized women who are denied basic human rights moves the young journalist to tears. At least the Herat women are now heard. They’re talking to us in our living rooms, validating the calling of the young camerawomen and the role of the media as a defender of human rights.
Another documentary in the series also gives voice to those who had been silenced. Narrated by activist actor Tim Robbins, The Day My God Died employs spy cameras to film the insides of the brothels of Kamthipura, the notorious red-light district in Bombay, India. The rendered footage includes unprecedented scenes of police officers accepting bribes from the sex traffickers as well as photos of hideaways where brothel owners shove the girls in the event of a raid.
Not only that: we see the justice workers confronting brothel owners (which in at least one instance leads to an imprisonment) and helping some of the sex slaves escape. One of the leaders of these excursions is evangelical Gary Haugen, the head of International Justice Mission, which works on behalf of children sold into sexual slavery. (Haugen and the IJM were featured in Christianity Today several years ago.)
An example of a more light-hearted offering is The Political Dr. Seuss, a film showing the serious side of the humorous works of the man who penned The Cat in the Hat. In Ron Lamothe’s film, we learn that Theodor Seuss Geisel’s whimsical children’s stories often doubled as political allegories. Turns out, Seuss devoted his wit and talent to subversively advocating political ideas. Who knew that Seuss’s condemnation of anti-Semitism gave birth to The Sneetches or that Horton Hears a Who! was a political assertion about democracy and isolationism? Even more surprising are the blind spots the movie discovers, such as younger Seuss’s depictions of blacks and Asians in racist ways.
You too can enjoy the fruits of Independent Lens, starting with next week’s Power Trip, airing January 25. This documentary, about how an American power company “tries to keep lights on in the former Soviet republic of Georgia amidst corruption, high drama, and hot tempers,” includes an evangelical named Dennis Bakke, founder of the featured power company, AES Corporation. I met Bakke at a 2003 Christian Management Association convention, where he said that the best Christian places to work ought to give their employees a lot more say and a lot more knowledge about things like salaries and other things that are normally kept secret. I can’t wait to see how AES—built around the core values of integrity, fairness, social responsibility, and fun—manages in Georgia, a state where the very opposite values rule: corruption, unfairness, irresponsibility, and sadness.
In conjunction with Black History Month, February’s lineup includes FEBRUARY ONE: The Story of the Greensboro Four (airing Feb. 1), about four college students who staged a sit-in at a Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina in what turned out to be a pivotal event in the Civil Rights Movement; On a Roll (Feb. 15), the story of Greg Smith, a disabled man who in 1992, fueled by discrimination, created On a Roll Talk Radio from his wheelchair; and Thunder in Guyana (Feb. 22), the story of Janet Rosenberg Jagan, who was elected Guyana’s president in 1997, becoming the first American-born woman to lead a nation.
Other shows in the coming months will feature the women’s rights movement; life in a senior citizens’ home; a storefront church in one of Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods; and profiles of Parliament Funkadelic and The Ramones. Check out a complete list of upcoming programs right here.
These and other Independent Lens documentaries, funded by Independent Television Service (which is “created by media activists, citizens, and politicians seeking to foster plurality and diversity in public television”), are bound to surprise me into learning something I never knew that I was dying to know.