Four months after Simon Kilmurry ended a 16-year term at the long-running PBS doc strand ‘POV’ – nine of them as executive producer as well as executive director of American Documentary – the organization has found his successor: Justine Nagan of respected Chicago-based producer Kartemquin Films.
Since 2008, Nagan has served as the executive director and an executive producer at Kartemquin, with her exec producing credits including Steve James’ Life Itself and The Interrupters, among many other docs. She also directed the docs Typeface and the short Sacred Transformations and oversaw the indie’s six-part docuseries for cable net Al-Jazeera America, Hard Earned.
Nagan will take up the posts – both as ‘POV’ executive producer and executive director of American Documentary – part-time at the end of September and go full-time in December once she makes the move from Chicago to New York City. As she prepares to step into the role, realscreen spoke with the future ‘POV’ commissioner about her plans for the strand and the possibility of mixing more short-form and multi-part documentaries alongside feature docs.
Why did you decide to apply for the ‘POV’ job?
In the documentary field there aren’t a lot of jobs that would allow me to build on what I’ve been able to do at Kartemquin, so when Simon left it was something I was definitely paying attention to. A few friends sent me the job description and encouraged me to apply.
They were looking for someone that could come in and build on what ‘POV’ means now, and look at the world and understand how the organization can evolve. I’ve been able to do that with Kartemquin without sacrificing what Kartemquin’s core culture and brand really means.
What challenges are you facing heading into the position?
It’s multiple fold. Some people call this the golden age of documentary. There’s more top-quality content being produced than ever before. There are new, major broadcast partners. There are new digital partners. There are more ways for viewers to access that content, which is great. But it also means more competition. Public television is in a really interesting place and one challenge will be trying to evaluate its future and how to best serve its audience. PBS has a big commitment to independent filmmaking and I’m excited to continue the work ‘POV’ has been doing to ensure independent documentary maintains that strong presence on PBS.
There are also ongoing challenges in the field with the diversity of storytelling voices. That’s an area that is going to need continued attention and there’s a lot of important work that can be done there. There was a study that showed public television strands are better than the competition in this way – they have more racial and gender diversity in producer roles. That said it is still way lower than it should be. It should be something that as a field we continually pay attention to. Who are the people telling the stories, getting the resources and getting the attention? Even though ‘POV’ has been doing a good job of this, there is still room to grow.
Earlier this year, PBS unveiled a new doc strategy that kept ‘POV’ and ‘Independent Lens’ in primetime. Kartemquin was part of the Indie Caucus of filmmakers that said the doc community was “cautiously optimistic” that the plan would increase the visibility of docs on public television. How do you feel about the outcome now?
I think “cautiously optimistic” is right on the mark. Since I haven’t been on the other side yet, I can’t read the future or know how that’s going to play out. I can just say that I believe wholeheartedly that independent documentary should be part of the future of public television. It’s part of why I’m taking the job. There’s a large possibility for it to attract future audiences to public television much in the way that radio documentary has been able to draw new people to public radio. From my outside point-of-view, it seems like we should be part of the solution to that problem. I’m really excited and curious to get in the trenches and see how that plays out.
How will you approach programming?
I’m familiar with the ‘POV’ catalog but I’m not as familiar with the process. I want to really look at what ‘POV”s current approach has been to shorter content. They’re doing a lot of great work with digital but are there other ways through the traditional broadcaster channels that we could be showcasing shorter content? I really won’t know that until I understand how the curation process unfolds and what the opportunities for growth really are.
At Kartemquin, we are in the process of releasing a really strong half-hour film called On Beauty and it’s been getting a lot of traction out in the world, but finding a broadcast home has been really difficult. That opened my eyes to thinking about whether there was a place for these types of films on the national broadcast and, if so, what would that look like? I don’t want to displace long-form content because that’s really important, but moving forward it’s something we have to be open to. The same goes for multi-part documentary series. I have no idea if that’s something that could work as an extension of the ‘POV’ brand. I wouldn’t want to co-opt what ‘POV’ is really known for but I do think [multi-part] is an area we should be paying attention to and understand if we can play a role in that.
What makes a documentary appropriate for ‘POV’?
It should have strong filmmaker vision, a high standard of ethics and it should be unexpected. Content-wise you don’t always know what to expect on ‘POV,’ but you know it’s going to be well made and attract top-caliber filmmakers. It’s not rote by any means. It’s also important that the strand nurtures that next generation of filmmakers while maintaining relationships with some of the giants of the field.
It’s a tough climate for funding in arts and media and I think it’s starting to come back post-recession. However, we have to constantly be making the case why programs such as ‘POV’ are crucial to our national dialogue as a democracy.