One of the questions we’re asked most often here at POV is: “What do you look for in a POV film anyway?” Every year, more than 1,000 films compete for 12-15 slots on the POV broadcast schedule, so what’s a documentary filmmaker to do if she wants to fill one of those coveted slots?
As a series presenting documentaries on PBS, POV holds a yearly open call, welcoming any filmmaker who is interested to submit their film for possible broadcast. And when I talk to filmmakers interested in submitting, the question I am asked most often is “What type of film does POV look for?” Thankfully, the answer is a lot less complicated than most people fear.
First of all, your film should be a documentary. We get our share of dramas and comedies and performances, but we only broadcast non-fiction film. We look for films to acquire as well as select projects where we can provide co-production support.
Strong Aesthetics, Solid Craft
Considering that documentary has evolved so much since 1988, it is important to understand that POV does not look for a single aesthetic approach to non-fiction filmmaking. POV has broadcast more than 250 films, each as varied as fingerprints, and all equally a “POV” Be it the wry comic persona of Ross McElwee (Bright Leaves), the iconic images of Lourdes Portillo (Señorita Extraviada), the observational elegance of Jennifer Dworkin (Love & Diane) or the master craft of Frederick Wiseman (High School) — scroll through our online film archive and you’ll see that POV embraces a diversity of approaches to filmmaking. We’ve aired the giants of direct cinema, experimental films, vérité films, hyrbrid docs, weird films and more; you name it, we’ve done it. What do these films have in common? A solid command of craft, a director with a vision for their film and a unique approach to storytelling brought together by skilled editing that brings out the best in the material. The craft standards at POV are high, and for your film to have a shot at one of the 15 available slots, it has to rise above the ordinary.
A Point of View
Yes, it’s a filmmaking term, not to mention the name of our series, but it’s also the underlying philosophy of the series. All our films have a perspective that makes them unique. It can be the filmmaker’s point of view, or the point of view of the main character(s); the important thing is that the film has to have one. POV doesn’t traditionally do survey films, or historical films or biographies (unless the subject is someone whose impact on our culture is largely unknown). Consider Eric Daniel Metzgar’s film, The Chances of the World Changing. Here is a film that is a triumph of craft, is told from the perspective of the main character and is entertaining as well. It’s also a film that deals with contemporary issues and has national resonance, two more factors POV looks for in a film. The Chances of the World Changing is about the preservation of endangered species and how individuals can make a small but vital difference in the world. It is also a film about personal obsession and the toll crusades (however well-intentioned) take on those who wage them. The strong central character of Richard Ogust grounds the film, and through his experiences, we learn about a complex set of issues from his point of view, and we are challenged to engage with both the crisis in Richard’s life and the crisis of our destruction of the environment.
Your film may take place in your hometown, or your grandmother may be its central character, but for it to be appropriate for POV, the film has to transcend both place and individual characters. POV films are catalysts for the examination of our own lives and the culture we live in. POV films should move viewers to examine their own lives, look more closely at an issue, think differently about a group of “other” people or shift their focus outside themselves. Your film doesn’t have to try to change the world to achieve this. Some of the most provocative POV films have achieved their power by focusing on the small picture. Be it a Mormon family (The Smith Family by Tasha Oldham), a small black community (Flag Wars by Linda Goode Bryant and Laura Poitras), the boy scouts (Scout’s Honor by Tom Shephard), a women’s writing class in prison (What I Want My Word to Do to You by Madeleine Gavin, Judith Katz and Gary Sunshine) or the life of a obscure artist (In the Realm of the Unreal by Jessica Yu), POV films tackle a broad spectrum of issues through the lives of everyday people.
Uncommon Stories, Uncovered Lives
Part of POV’s mandate is telling stories that are not often seen in the mainstream and serving communities that are traditionally underserved in mainstream media. There are lots of outlets for some stories (OJ, Britney and Anna Nicole, for example), and zero outlets for others. POV tries to tell the stories that won’t otherwise be told and has been doing so since the beginning of the series. Films like Tongues Untied by Marlon Riggs, Leona’s Sister Gerri by Jane Gilooly, and Silverlake Life: The View From Here by Tom Joslin and Peter Friedman examine issues and lives without the shrill tone and over-simplification that issues like abortion and homosexuality generally receive in the mainstream media.
Cover Your Bases
Once you’ve decided that POV is the place for your film try to remember that our selection process is an incredibly competitive one. On an annual basis we have about 1000 projects competing for 12-15 slots! Make sure that you have simultaneous submissions going, so that in the case of bad news, you can turn your attention to whoever is next. Filmmaking is a huge commitment, and finishing your film is something you should be proud of. Every series has a mandate. Focus your energy on targeting the series or channel that best suits your film. Then cross your fingers.