What makes a successful television documentary series? For Cara Mertes, former POV executive producer and now director of JustFilms at the Ford Foundation, it was a mix of brilliant filmmakers, tenacious staffers and a guiding mission that propelled POV to its 30th anniversary.
Part of our blog’s ongoing series of former EPs reflecting on 30 years, here’s Cara’s take on the journey:
Celebrating 30 Years
30 years of POV is an astonishing achievement and it took much more than a village—it’s been several generations of independent filmmakers, dedicated staff, enlightened funders and a public media system that has over time been consistent in its commitment to maintaining space for the stories that independent documentary brings to viewers.
I was privileged to be a part of this journey from 1999 to 2006 as executive producer and, towards the latter years, also as executive director of American Documentary. I followed the extraordinary achievements of a trio who worked together for many years, and whom I admire greatly; former executive producers Marc Weiss, Ellen Schneider and Lisa Heller. To be invited to carry on their vision in 1999 was life-changing.
I didn’t know it then, but I was already on the journey of what has become a career-long effort to build a more expansive, sustainable and inclusive independent moving-image field globally. Society’s most authentic and powerful storytellers perform a kind of sacred function in my view, and their stories hold remedies for what ails us as societies. Film is a particularly potent medium, both as a process and as a product. They have healing powers, they build community, they create leaders and can call us to our best selves, often through acknowledging ourselves at our worst.
So, I didn’t see POV as a “thing”—that is, a primetime series on PBS. Rather, for me, POV was a mission and an idea, and like all powerful visions, it inspired passion and required dedication. From the start, I saw that this idea had the ability to transcend the conditions of its founding and remake itself for new contexts, all the while keeping its core mission central. That core is its independence, something that is threaded through its structure and in its focus on other resolutely independent actors in society: the truth-tellers.
In a society driven by market share and consumption, the truth-tellers need space and time to perfect their storytelling skills. POV became a hub and a home for these people, and the gift of POV is in its regenerative DNA. It’s an idea that has never stopped renewing itself.
Looking back, my eight years at POV was a time of expansion and possibility, rooted in an already established approach filled with exceptional ideas and experiments. The above-mentioned trio and their teams had created something totally unique which played an essential role in American democracy; a way to reach millions of viewers with films made with purpose in mind, not profit. POV offered nuanced, complex, relevant and commanding tales of injustice righted, battles fought and communities that rose to a challenge. They built a national reputation and a mission around creativity, free expression and telling truth to power through documentary.
In these films, every angle of the human experience was explored; each story as unique as a fingerprint, but all part of a larger universe of authentic expression. By 1999, I saw my job as continuing POV’s evolution from its beginnings as an incubator with a rebellious streak to a well-respected and much anticipated prime time series, to an organization capable of building the careers of the filmmakers even as it continued to do the institutional work of carving out space for them to feature their often-controversial perspectives.
We worked to protect and sustain the POV ideal, and continue to make it relevant in a time of transformation. I was lucky enough to work with the talented CFO [and also former executive producer/executive director] Simon Kilmurry, now head of Independent Documentary Association, and hired Cynthia Lopez as director of communications, which turned out to be formative in the new vision of POV. Kilmurry and Lopez stayed to lead POV when I departed for Sundance Institute.
I wanted to see continuity in service across all of the films we were broadcasting, scale the engagement we were able to support with a network of stations across the country and continue building diversity and experimentation. In this time, we stabilized departments, staff and leadership, raised additional funds and centered inclusion as a principle across programming, staff and initiatives, while scaling existing projects and envisioned new activities, many them still active today.
We designed the Diverse Voices Project to support filmmakers who did not identify as white. Weiss’ Web Lab begat POV Interactive to provide a dedicated website for every film broadcast. This was in the early 2000s when the potential of the web was just emerging. We created POV’s Borders with Theresa Riley, a brilliant digital producer. This was the first original online web series on PBS digital, and it won a Webby back when the Webbys were new. Talking Back expanded, bringing the voices of intrepid and opinionated viewers from around the country. Schneider’s Active Voice initiative infused the Community Engagement division, ably run by Eliza Licht, now a vice president at POV. We hired consultants to create facilitation guides for every film.
We added Youth Views, a program for young activists 16-21 learning to use media in their advocacy, run by the extraordinary young leader Irene Villeseñor, now a movement leader and funder. This was also guided by Anne Del Castillo, one of our gifted development and strategy staff, now working in the New York City Mayor’s Office. We expanded the communications efforts and built bespoke strategies around every film. We started to move to development and co-production in addition to acquisitions to remain competitive in the broader and growing marketplace for independent documentary. In these years, creative documentary was migrating to new platforms and expanding on PBS with the creation of Independent Lens, now POV’s sister series.
At the system level, we worked with PBS to expand POV’s broadcast footprint with primetime specials on a regular basis. A second series of older award-winning documentaries called True Lives launched for secondary public TV stations, funded with the stalwart and visionary David Haas of Wyncote Foundation. We invested more deeply in our station partnerships and expanded the network of public television programmers and station leaders who advocated on behalf of independent film.
We took a lot of risks and we pushed boundaries, and—I am sure—the patience of skeptics and allies alike at PBS, ITVS, CPB and the Minority Consortia. The backbone of the organization making all of this possible also lay with people like Yance Ford, who eventually became a series producer and worked tirelessly to ensure the best possible film selection and broadcast. Chris White worked his magic to make sure the entire machinery kept moving, and he is now executive producer at POV. And there were so many more.
We did it because the mission of POV mattered and we could see that such a vehicle was making a difference in the broader societal dialogue. We did it for the storytellers and the communities whose stories were being told with the knowledge that what is left unknown or kept invisible lessens the vitality of our democratic aspirations. We were thinking of the viewers that left inspired and affirmed in their own experiences, or having learned something about the world through the eyes of another. From across the country, rural to urban, these stories couldn’t be denied, even as they were sometimes resisted or ignored by various forces.
Coming to POV, I had had many lessons in how to bring challenging material to public television. I held in mind the lessons that airing dozens of challenging films at WNET taught me. From the films of Charles Burnett, Peggy Ahwesh, Victor Schonfeld, Yvonne Rainer and Gus van Sant to the experimental videos of Bill Viola and Mary Lucier to the one that provoked the biggest national conversation, Marlon Riggs’ Tongues Untied.
As a young programmer, I advocated for the first broadcast of this film on WNET in New York in 1990, then watched its national broadcast on POV transform the discussion about public television and its role in platforming a fuller range of voices that comprise the American experience. The controversy that followed forged the mettle of Marc and Ellen’s approach, and put POV on the map. It changed the national dialogue and proved the potency of creative documentary beyond a doubt. So, with high hopes for the next 30 years of POV, I wanted to pass on some of the principles honed there.
1) Set your compass. In my case, a commitment to supporting independent cinematic storytellers and their larger ecosystems, with a focus on the most authentic, creative, relevant and boundary-pushing storytellers and stories. This credo led to greater diversity in both, as the most underrepresented stories and the more radical forms encapsulate where injustice, misrepresentation and creative experimentation is found.
2) Imagine what success looks like and develop strategies to achieve that. An integrated, stable, artist-first broadcast ecosystem that builds and supports talent and audiences across all voices and communities was a main goal with POV. That meant also strengthening the larger public media ecosystem and creating a bridge from margin to mainstream, which was crucial to supporting these voices.
3) Identify the stories and storytellers that embody this vision. Give your institutional allies, and you will discover many, everything they need to support your choices. For your skeptics, deploy everything you can to bring the story to light, despite sometimes overwhelming pressure to cease and desist. The broadcasts of Tongues Untied, Shattered Dreams, The Education of Shelby Knox, Thirst, Scout’s Honor, Two Towns of Jasper, Flag Wars and so many more were fraught with legal challenges, political and sometimes corporate pressure, and warranted many discussions, strategy sessions and negotiations. Creating and sharing stories that deeply challenge social and political norms is not for the fainthearted, and in this effort, the storytellers are the true warriors.
4) Support the truth-tellers early and often in their journeys. They are the lifeblood of the human experience, keeping the embers of dignity, freedom and justice alive, and charting the path to a more inspired future.
I have learned that the conditions for success in a cultural endeavor can only maximized, never guaranteed. Consistent calibration, flexibility and sensitivity to changing conditions and an interest in new voices and talent are some of the keys. Eventually I was able to take these lessons to the designing and deepening of support of individual artists while at Sundance Institute. And now here at Ford Foundation, the lessons learned and seeds planted at POV have been instrumental in helping me envision and support a global network of documentary-focused organizations supporting independent filmmakers, and in spearheading foundation support for highly relevant filmmaking.