By Steven G. Kellman
What passes for "reality TV" consists largely of broadcast voyeurism: tawdry ordeals of courtship, employment, and survival. Public television, however, offers finer slices of life. With P.O.V., its summer series of independent cinema, PBS provides weekly reminders that nonfiction can be as artful and engaging as any Hollywood confection.
Disney's refusal to distribute Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 guaranteed a prosperous release on June 25, and other recent nonfiction features, including The Fog of War, Capturing the Friedmans, and Super Size Me, have also had successful theatrical runs. But from June through September, P.O.V. is the only reliable local venue for outstanding feature documentaries. Beginning June 22, it airs on KLRN, San Antonio's PBS affiliate, Tuesday evenings at 10 p.m.
Since its debut in 1988, some of the most effective entries on P.O.V. have made the local global by focusing on troubled communities whose conflicts resonate beyond the county line. Last year's Larry v. Lockney, for example, examined a West Texas high school student's refusal to submit to mandatory drug testing. In School Prayer: A Community at War, a student in Mississippi is ostracized for opposing sectarian religious rituals in public classrooms.
Farmingville, which kicks off P.O.V.'s 17th season on June 22, examines the impact of Mexican immigration on one town so far from the Rio Grande that crossing the border usually means visiting Connecticut. Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini take their cameras to Long Island to record what has happened to a small northeastern town when, during the past decade, it has been forced to absorb large numbers of Mexican laborers. The newcomers have found essential, if low-paying, work that local people have refused to perform in the landscaping, construction, and restaurant industries. But hordes of young Spanish-speaking men on the placid streets of suburban Farmingville frighten and anger many residents.
Farmingville's battle is fought through street demonstrations, civic meetings, and sessions of the Suffolk County Legislature. The legislative struggle to create a hiring hall that would remove men seeking work from street corners accounts for much of the film's drama. Though opposition to Mexican laborers attracts support from figures, local and national, who are simply anti-Latino or anti-immigrant, the vexing story that Sandoval and Tambini tell cannot be reduced to mere bigotry. Class as much as race is a factor in hostility toward the foreigners. So, too, is anxiety about how the sudden influx of 1,500 Spanish-speakers will change the character of a town of 15,000.
"We're really fighting for the hearts and souls of who we are and want to be," says Paul Tonna, presiding county lawmaker. Aware that they - and we - are still struggling over the essence of our identity, Farmingville concludes with both hope and despair, and without resolution.
Overcrowding is not a crisis in Burdick, Kansas, population 60. Like much of the rest of the prairie Midwest, the town has been hemorrhaging residents. The second offering in this season's P.O.V., Bill's Run: A Political Journey in Rural Kansas, scheduled for June 29 broadcast, is the portrait of a farmer and lawyer who attempts to secure his community's future. He runs for the state legislature on a platform of raising taxes and improving education.
In addition to probes of local controversy such as Farmingville and Larry v. Lockney, another recurring category on P.O.V. is the case study of a political campaign. In A Perfect Candidate, Oliver North oppose Charles Robb's bid for reelection to the United States Senate from Virginia.
Though not himself particularly articulate, Bill Kassebaum is motivated enough to leave behind his wife, two young daughters, and 250 cows in a quest for votes at fairs and picnics. He ignores advice from his mother, Nancy Kassebaum Baker, a three-term U.S. Senator, just as she ignored her father, former governor and presidential candidate Alf Landon.
As majority leader of the Kansas House, Kassebaum's Republican primary opponent, Shari Weber, holds the advantage of incumbency, as well as positions on lowering taxes and outlawing abortions more in line with the conservative drift of the party. But the man from Burdick - which closed its only high school in 1957 - insists that education is worth investment: "If we strangle public education, we're gonna strangle the future of rural Kansas."
Bill's Run is a genial stroll through personalized politics, in which candidates bond with voters through conversation more often than advertising. Until its end, we remain in tantalizing doubt about whether Bill's first run is fast enough. •