The Docs Are In

Summer. 'Tis the season of iced tea by the tankard and bikinis and baseball, of soaring electric bills and movies with numbers after the titles--and of reruns. NBC is making a game attempt to market its off-season with the line "If you haven't seen it, it's new to you." But at some level, we know that is wrong. Even if we haven't chanced on a specific episode, there's something stale about the experience. "Must See TV" turns, in summer, into "Been There, Done That TV."

Summer can therefore be disconcerting for us sofa-tubers. It forces unaccustomed practices upon us, like independent thought, physical activity and direct interaction with other humans.

But it still may be possible to avoid the extremity of actually turning off the set. The trick is to find a show that truly is new to you. Such shows are rare, for sure, but there's a first-rate candidate on PBS--POV, the weekly series showcasing American documentary films, runs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. through September.

The 10 p.m. Tuesday, June 23, edition of POV features Licensed to Kill, an exploration of the gay-bashing urge carried to homicidal degrees. The film was inspired more than two decades ago, when the director, Arthur Dong, was attacked by four teenagers in San Francisco, who, minutes later, bludgeoned a nearby priest, reportedly because they believed he was gay.

Dong, who directed 1994's Coming Out Under Fire, an extraordinary, Peabody-winning examination of the history of gays in the 20th-century U.S. military, decided to get an inside perspective on the compulsion to kill homosexuals. He interviewed seven men currently in prison for violent crimes against gays, and intercut their hairraising jailhouse talking heads with police film of their crime scenes.

What emerges is a portrait of the rage and hatred--in the case of at least one of Dong's subjects, the admitted self-hatred--that can lead to murder. But Licensed to Kill also demonstrates the degree to which ingrained social and religious biases can lead such murderers to feel justified--licensed to kill, in other words. Dong interviewed Donald Aldrich, who, with two other men, kidnaped and fatally shot a young man they believed was homosexual in Tyler, Texas.

When Aldrich received the death penalty for this crime, he complained that his confession was based on his belief that the police would sympathize with his feelings toward homosexuals: "My crime came to what it was because I knew how the police felt about homosexuals back in Tyler. To turn around and tell them I hated homosexuals and certain things were done because of this, it was supposed to help me out. But because of the new hate crime statutes, it backfired on me."

While Dong's powerhouse film was well-received at Sundance Film Festival and has picked up some national raves, most of POV's slots are filled by obscure works by little-known filmmakers. "What we generally strive to do in putting together the mix," says series executive producer Lisa Heller, "is to provide windows onto life that you just wouldn't see otherwise. It's life behind the headlines and sound bites, told by artists who have a passion to get the story out there, in spite of all the obstacles. There's no way the 10-person crew of a network news team could capture these stories in the same depth.

"But increasingly, I think we've also recognized that the films also have to conform to the criteria that TV viewers always apply--they have to be incredible stories, with strong drama and plot twists. Documentaries aren't immune to that."

Subsequent films in the series include Spencer Nakasako's Kelly Loves Tony (June 30), about Asian-American teens; If I Can't Do It (July 7), a portrait of disability activist Arthur Campbell Jr.; Barbie Nation: An Unauthorized Tour (July 14), which explores attitudes toward the Barbie doll; The Vanishing Line (July 21), an examination of the issues around care for terminal patients; Sacrifice (July 28), which takes on the sex industry in Thailand; and She Shorts (August 4), a collection of short nonfiction films on "contemporary female experience."

Family Name, an exploration by filmmaker Macky Alston into the history of the white family that owned his slave ancestors, wraps up POV in September, just as NYPD Blue and Frasier and Friends begin to arise from dormancy--to take us back to the comforting world of fiction.

--M. V. Moorhead

 
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