Independent Lens

Racist trees? That stirs an intriguing film

If you happen to love trees (many people do) and hate bigotry (most do), this was a tough one:
In Palm Springs, Cal. (shown here), there was a spirited debate about removing trees that formed a racial border. That’s the focus of “Racist Trees,” a compelling documentary that reaches most PBS stations at 10 p.m. Monday, under the “Independent Lens” banner.
Even that title has split people. Fox News mocked the notion: Can trees really be racist?
No, but they can be a racial barrier. Many things can. In Michigan, a river separates Benton Harbor (89 percent Black) from St. Joseph (88 percent White). In Florida, a highway separates the impoverished Liberty City area from the wealthier sections in other parts of Miami. Throughout the nation, studies have shown, highways shattered Black communities. Read more…

News bits: Oliver, Capote, “Dance.” more

Here’s some definite job security: “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” (shown here) has been renewed for three more seasons.
That takes the show (11 p.m. Sundays on HBO, then on Max) through its 13th season. It’s currently on a roll, with seven straight Emmy awards for best variety talk series … approaching the string of 10 straight by “The Daily Show” … where Oliver was a correspondent.
Other TV news involves a new “Feud” mini-series. the return of “So You Think You Can Dance” and a new season of “Independent Lens” documentaries: Read more…

“Sam Now”: a real-life, missing-mom adventure

A quarter-century ago, a cinematic duo was created.
Reed Harkness was then 18 and had just found his dad’s old super-8 camera. Sam Harkness, his half-brother, was 11 and ready for anything.
“He was this very resilient kid,” Reed told the Television Critics Association. “He was always taking falls and then getting right back up again.”
They made goofy films with Sam as The Blue Panther, forever crashing, smashing and surviving. Then they made a dead-serious one about surviving something in real life: When Sam and his older brother Jared were in their early teens, their mother simply vanished.
In a way, Reed “spent 25 years making ‘Sam Now,’” said producer Lois Vossen. Her “Independent Lens” series will show the documentary (shown here) at 10 p.m. next Monday (May 8) on most PBS stations. Read more…

A passionate story percolated for decades

Some stories leap quickly from real life to the TV or movie screen.
Then there’s “Free Chol Soo Lee,” the involving documentary that debuts at 10 p.m. Monday on PBS’ “Independent Lens.” It percolated in Julie Ha’s mind for somewhere close to four decades.
That started with Korean-American reporter K.W. Lee, she told the Television Critics Association. “I was 18 years old and he inspired me to want to become a journalist.”
His stories helped spark a retrial. In 1983, after a decade in prison, Chol Soo Lee (shown here, center) was free.
Much later, in 2014, Ha went to the ex-prisoner’s funeral. “K.W, Lee stood up,” she said, “and he was clutching this Buddhist monk’s walking stick that Chol Soo had carved for him out of a tree. And he said, ‘Why is this story underground after all these years?’” Read more…

Oscar documentaries are on TV now

In the aftermath of the Academy Awards, we can still see some of the nominated documentaries.
Short docs? The winner (“The Queen of Basketball”) airs at 6:30 p.m. Monday (March 28) on the NBA channel; another nominee, “When We Were Bullies,” is 9 p.m. Wednesday on HBO.
Feature-length docs? “Writing with Fire” (shown here) has its TV debut at 10 p.m. March 28 on most PBS stations, under the “Independent Lens” umbrella. With that in mind, I’ll rerun a recent story I wrote about “Fire” and “Lens”: Read more…

Documentaries thrive — at Oscar time and beyond

At Oscar time, our attention drifts to top names – Spielberg and Kidman and Denzel and such.
But maybe we’ll also notice Meera Devi and Suneeta Prajapati and others. They’re at the core of “Writing with Fire” (shown here) which is up for an Oscar (best documentary feature) on Sunday, March 27, then reaches PBS’ “Independent Lens” at 10 p.m. the next day.
“The extremely brave actions of these young women is amazing,” Lois Vossen, who started “Lens” 23 years ago, said by phone. “I don’t know whether I would have the guts to do what they do.”
They report for a print-and-online news agency in rural India. They are women from the Dalit caste (previously called “untouchables”), confronting people who distrust women and Dalit and maybe the news in general. Read more…

Film takes a fierce view of China’s one-child past

This isn’t what a filmmaker expects her mother to say at a premiere.
Nanfu Wang was presenting “One Child Nation,” which would go on to big things. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival and debuts Monday (March 30) on PBS.
The film takes a fierce look at the policy that dominated China for 36 years, using everything from propoganda (shown here) to punishment, limiting families to one (and in some cases two) children. It offered horror stories of forced sterilizations and abortions, of children abandoned or sold.
American audiences tend to be horrified. And the reaction of Wang’s mother, who was a Chinese villager during the that era? “At the premiere Q&A, somebody asked her what she thought about it,” Wang said. “And she said, ‘Well, I think the film is great …. But I still believe the one-child policy was necessary.’ And that was surprising to me and surprising to everyone.” Read more…