Tanzina: This is The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. Last week, a six hour documentary on the writer Ernest Hemingway premiered on PBS. The film is the latest production from Ken Burns, the filmmaker who's decades long relationship with public broadcasting has yielded hundreds of hours of documentary films on topics from baseball to jazz to the Vietnam war. But Burns' influence at PBS and his domination of the documentary film world is something that filmmakers of color are taking issue with.
In February, director and producer Grace Lee, wrote an essay saying that PBS's long standing reliance on Burns, a white male filmmaker, has called into question the mission of the network, which was founded in part to provide diverse content for viewers nationwide. While PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger told reporters that she "respectfully disagrees" with a number of the points made in Lee's essay, more filmmakers of color have been speaking out.
In an open letter to Kerger at the end of March, a group called Beyond Inclusion published a letter signed by more than 600 members of the documentary industry calling for more transparency and diversity from PBS. I'm joined now by two of the members of Beyond Inclusion. Poh Si Teng is the Director for the International Documentary Association Funds and producer of the documentary St. Louis Superman. Poh, thanks for being with us.
Poh Si Teng: Thank you for having us.
Tanzina: Michele Stephenson is the co-founder of the Brooklyn Based Production Company, Rada Studio. She's also co-director of the documentaries American Promise and series producer of PBS's American Portrait. Great to have you with us, Michele.
Michele Stephenson: Thank you so much for having us.
Tanzina: Start with you, Michele. Tell us a little bit about why you decided collectively to publish this open letter to PBS.
Michele: I can start a little bit further back. We came together as a collective, as coming out of the uprisings of 2020, all of us were connected to certain advocacy groups that represented some of our communities. From the Black Documentary Collective that's been around since [unintelligible 00:02:08] who passed away many years ago, to the Brown Girls Doc Mafia and the Asian Doc Alliance. We decided to come together across our identities to discuss ways that we could improve the ecosystem and landscape.
What came out of Grace Lee's letter, she was part of the collective, the article she first wrote, we were very supportive of it, but what really led us to react, had to do with the defensive nature in which the response from PBS came out and we realized that we needed to act. The open letter is a result of kind of our own questioning, not just of our practices, but of questioning of our own relationship with an entity, a public entity that is mission-driven, that's not market-driven, that's not algorithmic driven, but who's driven mission is a diversity of perspective. We felt, even many of us have produced and directed for PBS, felt that it was really our responsibility and even our obligation to challenge and to question, so that's where we are now.
Tanzina: Poh, in response to the letter, there were a number of- actually PBS issued a statement saying in part that this year alone, and I'm quoting here from their statement, "We are airing more than 200 prime time hours of documentary and 55% of those hours feature BiPOC talent." For those who don't know that acronym, it means Black, Indigenous and people of color. "Are produced by diverse filmmakers or cover topics related to diversity. Of the 200 hours, 35% are produced by diverse filmmakers." Poh, your take on PBS's response.
Poh: Those numbers, those figures, they're so broad. What do they actually mean? Of those hours and those percentages, are those figures really being attributed to the key creators of these projects? What is PBS actually trying to say? What our group, Beyond Inclusion, is asking, and what the public wants to know and filmmakers of color wants to know, and our allies wants to know is, what about the directors and the producers? What is the percentages of BIPOC talent there?
Tanzina: Do we know? They're saying that 35% are produced by diverse filmmakers. Is that an increase? Is that something that you guys think is enough or are you looking for more specifics in terms of executive producer roles?
Poh: I think it's very important to have more specific figures, Paula Kerger, in her letter, she actually responded to the public letter that we wrote. She talks about the urgency to amplify diverse voices and diverse perspectives, which is really wonderful, but really where we need to start is to have specific figures. Blanket numbers, one could cherry pick figures and say, "X percent is made by BIPOC talent." But what does that actually mean? Is PBS counting assistants?
We know for a fact when numbers are quoted or pulled out, it could encompass all sorts of folks working in film, so specificity is very important because then it actually really, really shows like who is really getting the funds and be able to shape some of these docs on public television. I would say that--
Tanzina: With the numbers that have here, I'm just curious, Michele, did you feel you were taking a risk in signing this letter to PBS, because you do work with PBS as well?
Michele: I work with PBS but my work doesn't depend on PBS, and that's what many of independent filmmakers, BIPOC filmmakers, struggle with in terms of balancing, keeping our independence and keeping the channels open. I can pay for my life without necessarily having to depend on having my strand or my projects done, but I did want to address something very quickly. It's about the funds. It's about unpacking those numbers where some strands bear the brunt of representation from the POVs to the independent lenses to the world channel, where the funding is not equitable. That's where we are, and some might say overrepresented, right? It's about the numbers, how they're allocated, which strands get the voices.
Tanzina: Poh, we've been talking about PBS, but how dominant are they in the documentary landscape?
Poh: PBS is a public broadcaster so they've always been supporting independent filmmakers so I would say pretty dominant, but of course they're only a part of the entire share of the documentary pie. I mean, you have streamers, you have platforms, you have studios, so each of these divisions take a segment of the pie, but PBS is significant in that it is for public good and is supported by taxpayer funds.
Tanzina: Which is very different than say Netflix, right?
Tanzina: Do those platforms, Poh, represent an opportunity? I mean, mission statements aside, and I completely understand the argument here that PBS's mission is also to serve the public. But in terms of opportunities for diverse filmmakers and documentarians, are there more opportunities in these streaming services than there might be at a place like PBS?
Poh: I would say yes and no. I mean, so much of it, be it in PBS or Netflix, Hulu and the like, these streamers, ultimately, whether or not filmmakers of color get an opportunity to make their films, it comes down to the top level executives and what they see as valuable for [unintelligible 00:08:24] either on public broadcast or on these streaming platforms.
Tanzina: Michele, I want to play some sound from Ken Burns, from 2021 at the Yahoo finance interview that he did, talk a little bit about how he gets his films funded and how he works with PBS. Let's take a listen.
Ken Burns: I've been with public television my entire thing. I'm staying with them. They have one foot in the marketplace and the other tentatively out. Look, I could have gone a few years ago, or 10, 13 years ago, to a streaming channel or a premium cable and say, "I need, with my track record, I need $30 million to do Vietnam," and they would have given it to me, but what they wouldn't have given me is ten and a half years. PBS gave me ten and a half years, and they gave me six and a half on Ernest Hemingway and ten on National Parks.
Tanzina: Michele, your take on that, because very few creators at all are often given $30 million in ten and a half years.
Michele: I don't even know where to start. That is such an obvious statement of white male privilege that not many of us who signed- now there are over 600 of signatories to the open letter - could even lay claim to, and I take issue with one foot in the marketplace and one foot outside of the marketplace. My tax dollars don't go to the marketplace, as a viewer, as an audience and as a maker, as a first, right? So I challenge it. It is an obvious demonstration of privilege without questioning of what that means, what space that takes versus other people, but also spending some of my time telling the stories of our communities. We have to question that also. How do we diversify, who gets to tell what stories in a space that is limited in terms of airtime and hours? That's what we're also asking PBS. Give us what the hours breakdowns are so we can better understand what we are up against.
Tanzina: Michele, PBS has cited its work with Black producers, including with Henry Louis Gates and Stanley Nelson, as evidence of their commitment to diversity, particularly in the documentary space. What's your response to that?
Michele: It's not enough. It's not enough. It's not enough for us to rely on those numbers or rely on that presence to respond to the mission, again. A very telling point is Stanley himself has signed Sam Pollard, who is also a PBS contributor has signed. It means that there is a reckoning and we are now in a pandemic post-uprising, uprising again moment, where our lives are really on the line. It is time to question, not just ourselves, because I think this whole year has been also about questioning personally my own practice.
We need to also ask of those who work with us to do better, and to do better in a much deeper way. It's not just diversity inclusion as a goal, but [unintelligible 00:11:57] inclusion as being a tool towards greater justice and equity. I do it as someone who loves PBS. I've spoken many times as a child, I learned how to speak English through Sesame street.
Tanzina: Poh, I wanted to talk specifically, in seeing Ernest Hemingway's, the documentary about Hemingway, I sort of tweeted flippantly about the fact that I wasn't really interested in seeing a Hemingway documentary, not so much because Hemingway isn't interesting, but because it just feels like there are specific icons in our culture and our pop culture, that we just tend to talk a lot about and know a lot about. I'm just wondering when we'll start to see some documentaries about people that we might not have heard about as often. Is that also part of the goal here with the Beyond Inclusion letter?
Poh: Absolutely. Hemingway as a series is fine. Sure, PBS can support a series like Hemingway and film makers like Ken Burns, but again, as Michele pointed, the issue really at the heart of this is the limited resources, airtime and funds. So for Hemingway to get this kind of play, what about the other African-American writers, Indigenous writers, Asian American writers, Latinx writers, are they going to get the same space as well? The same kind of airtime? And to add to not only airtime and funds into making these types of series, but also the publicity and the promotion and the campaigning that goes into promoting a series like that. Are all these other writers also going to get the same promotion and all these kind of- all the other makers also going to get this kind of promotion and funds?
Tanzina: Poh, what about the subjects of these documentaries? I said, I also don't-- I feel like we've heard a lot about Eleanor Roosevelt and Frida Kahlo and Ernest Hemingway, and they're like a canon of icons that we go through, but I'm interested to hear stories about people I don't know as well.
Poh: Exactly. We hear about these writers and these makers as national treasures. What about those we have not heard about? Which is why it is so important for PBS to really uphold and embrace its mandate of supporting diverse voices and perspectives. If you bring in diverse makers, they will bring in these important stories that are so relevant for America today.
Tanzina: Poh Si Teng is the director for the International Documentary Association Funds, and Michele Stephenson is a filmmaker and co-founder of the Brooklyn based production company, Rada Studio. Thanks to you both.
Poh: Thanks so much for having us, Tanzina.
Michele: Thank you so much.
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