Public Television and Public Life – A Note from the Road

Cross-posted from my blog at 1913 Massacre:

We’ve just completed a short tour of the Upper Peninsula, taking 1913 Massacre from Houghton to Ontonagon to Marquette. After each screening of the film, we take questions and comments from the audience. All sorts of things come up in those conversations. People see themselves or their own town in the Calumet story. They make connections between the past and the present, between what happened in Calumet to what’s happening right now in the UP, in Michigan and all around the country. In Ontonagon, one audience member came away from the film thinking about garment factories in Bangladesh; in Marquette, we talked about courage, resilience and how long it takes communities to recover from social catastrophe, among other things. We learn something new with every conversation.

Though the questions, insights and topics may vary, the thing that most impresses me about all these Q&A sessions — no matter the size of the audience or the setting — is the most easily overlooked: the gathering of the audience and the shared experience of seeing the film, together, creates an opportunity for public conversation.

That’s why I’m always a little thrown when someone raises his hand in one of these public gatherings to ask whether we’ve approached PBS with our film or whether 1913 Massacre will air on public television. There are other versions of the same question. Will the film be at Sundance? Will it be on HBO? Wouldn’t it lend itself to feature film treatment? Have we approached Steven Speilberg or — name your favorite Hollywood mogul or celebrity. But the PBS question is the one we get most frequently.

The simple answer is, of course we approached PBS, Independent Lens, POV, and so on, repeatedly, for funding and grants while working on the film; and of course we are still making efforts to bring the film to wider audiences. PBS, or some part of the public broadcasting system, might offer an opportunity to do that.

That, at least, is an answer that gets us past talking about the movie business and the business prospects of our film and back to the film itself and the experience of the film we all just shared.

I realize that the PBS question and others like it show appreciation and support for the film: it’s a way of wishing us success, or a way of saying that other people, friends, family, lots of people, millions of PBS viewers should see our film. They should, with any luck they will, and it’s good to hear others hope they do.

At the same time it’s worth asking why the PBS question comes up so often, and more importantly why the question seems odd and entirely out of place at a public gathering and in a public forum. Would a PBS broadcast give our film a seal of approval it lacks? Would an Oscar? Would Steven Speilberg? Maybe, but why should any of that matter right now? We’re not approaching Speilberg: we’re approaching you. What do you say? What do others in the room have to say? Why look elsewhere? Why wait for permission? What about the approval 1913 Massacre already received, just now, right here in this room? What about the experience we all just shared? Surely we haven’t exhausted that — and surely that counts for something, for much more.

We’re here together, right now, in this room. Let’s appreciate and own it, and make the most of the opportunity we have. Let’s forget about the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and every other kind of corporate gatekeeper. Let’s not await a word from our sponsor or even admit them into the room. Let’s not diminish the present moment and our experience — a public experience, an experience of being together, in public. Let’s not look for validation or value beyond this room: we have it all, right here.

You see where this is heading. There are lessons in all this about the power people and communities have and the power we surrender, every day and for no good reason, to outside authorities, influencers and exploiters — to powerful institutions, brand names, celebrities, big money. These gatherings in small towns, in classrooms, halls and clubs, in local theaters and public libraries may look modest, but they give us a chance to exercise our habit for democracy.

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People gather in the Community Room at the Peter White Library in Marquette for a screening of 1913 Massacre.

That’s why, in the end, television broadcast can’t hold a candle to public screenings like the ones we’ve had and will continue to have. Television is not just a poor substitute for community gatherings and public life. It pulls us away from those things and from each other. Watching television is a retreat from public gathering — a withdrawal into the privacy of one’s own. In this sense, “public television” is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms.

There’s an aesthetic dimension to this as well. Our film, all film, plays best on a big screen, with a live audience. People laugh and cry together, some gasp, some cough (somebody always coughs), others sigh, shift in their seats. Applause brings everyone together at the end. (Booing and jeering would do the trick, too, but with 1913 Massacre we’ve so far been spared that experience.) These emotions, actions and reactions are an under-appreciated but essential part of the motion, or kinesis, of the cinematic experience. Films come alive — that’s the right word, alive — when people gather to see them; and when people share in public conversation what they’ve seen, they have a special chance to see each other, anew, on the other side of a new experience.

A woman in the audience in Houghton seemed to understand all this when she rose from her seat and exclaimed: “this film should be shown in every small town across the country!” If only we could make that happen.

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