PBS doc strand ‘American Experience’ celebrates 30 years

For 30 years, PBS’ documentary strand ‘American Experience’ has brought to life seminal characters that have shaped America’s past and present. Beginning as an acquisitions strand in October 1988, the production ...
January 9, 2018

For 30 years, PBS’ documentary strand ‘American Experience’ has brought to life seminal characters that have shaped America’s past and present.

Beginning as an acquisitions strand in October 1988, the production of PBS’ WGBH Boston has grown to become a franchise that almost exclusively conceives and commissions indie filmmakers to produce highly regarded, award-winning content.

With seven to 10 films created per season, ‘American Experience’ continues to serve as a formative history series, having amassed 30 Emmy Awards, 17 George Foster Peabody Awards, four duPont-Columbia Awards, and its ninth Academy Award nod in 2015 for Last Days in Vietnam.

Overseeing the slate of PBS’ flagship history series for the past 15 years is Mark Samels. With more than 120 film credits to his name as executive producer, Samels has been responsible for mounting a successful commissioning campaign that has allowed for more contemporary topics and witness-driven storytelling to be showcased in the formidable filmmaking style embraced by the series.

Launching the continuing tradition of acclaimed documentaries into the third decade will be acclaimed director and producer John Maggio (The Newspaperman: The Life and Times of Ben Bradlee).

Maggio’s Into the Amazon (pictured) details the 1914 journey of President Theodore Roosevelt and Cândido Mariano da Silva Rondon, a Brazilian military officer most famous for his exploration of Mato Grosso and the Western Amazon Basin, into the heart of the South American rainforest to chart an unexplored tributary of the Amazon River.

Shot on location in the Brazilian Amazon, with additional filming in the Jarabocoa region of Dominican Republic, the 120-minute film shines a light on the culture and politics of two formidable nations and the formed bond that ultimately saved Roosevelt and Rondon from looming disaster.

Into the Amazon premieres tonight (Jan. 9) at 9 p.m. ET/PT on PBS.

Further films to air in the 30th season the ‘American Experience’ anthology series include The Secret of Tuxedo Park, which recounts Alfred Loomis and his role in the development of radar technology, which aided the Allied victory in World War II; The Gilded Age, which chronicles America’s transformative rise into the 20th century; and The Bombing of Wall Street, the story of the largest act of domestic terrorism in 1920 until the Oklahoma City bombing. 

Realscreen caught up with Samels to chat about the 30-year evolution of ‘American Experience’ and how Into the Amazon fits the franchise’s brand.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

What is the genesis of Into the Amazon?

It’s really only been in the last 20 years that there’s been some additional scholarship on the other participants in the expedition, most particularly this amazing Brazilian named Cândido Rondon. It’s sort of filled in the details of this epic journey. [The film] was something that had been on our peripheral vision for a while to do, and the time just kind of became the right time we when we knew how we wanted to approach it we knew that it had a really nice international aspect to it.

Did you come across any major voids where you didn’t have corresponding footage? How did you resolve those holes in the narrative?

The journey that Roosevelt and Rondon undertook started with a long land journey where they were snaking their way up to meet this tributary in the Amazon. There were photographs that survived and some footage that survived that trek, but once they got on the river they had such unanticipated difficulties with the rapids that they sent their motion picture camera away from the river with a party that basically just left the expedition. And so really the recording of the expedition stopped.

About eight or nine years later, a group recreated portions of this journey at the headwaters of this tributary and took some motion picture footage, so already the historical record is in the realm of re-enactment or recreation. The sum total of all that was nowhere near enough to make a complete film, so we decided that we needed to bring some of the land based stories to life and some of the water stories to life. We ended up shooting some of the land and some of the water material in the Dominican Republic and quite a bit of the journey on the river in the Amazon itself.

How has ‘American Experience’ evolved in its 30-year existence? 

Overall we’ve held true to our basic DNA, which is storytelling and finding those moments in history that not only are captivating, but revealing. They can add another piece of the puzzle to understand America and, oftentimes, its role in the world. Maintaining that at a high level is a challenge itself.

We’ve also gotten better at doing dramatic re-enactments that are believable and affordable and Into the Amazon is a showcase for some very evocative shooting – so evocative that we decided that we could do the entire film in black and white and have it to be really visually captivating.

In the realm of historical documentaries, a lot of the truisms of the past hold true today and that is that you have to, in a way, breathe life into history to bring it closer to people and make it relevant, make it alive and make it compelling. In some respects, the increased amount of content that people have at their fingertips makes that challenge even greater and we have to continually search for ways to meet that.

What role do you think ‘American Experience’ will play during a highly contentious time in American history?

Our role is to remind people about the importance of knowing where we’ve been and knowing the shared past that Americans have. We, right now, are so acutely aware of every ripple in the surface of not only the nation but the world because we’re so attached to everything through every form of media that we have at our disposal. What that has done is exaggerate the highs and the lows that we all feel at any given time. It’s exaggerated our sense that we’re a completely divided country and that there’s no hope for the future. All of these worries, which always contain a certain legitimacy to them, have been much more difficult in the past. We have found a way through those problems in the past and just knowing both the stories of deeper challenges and the remarkable achievements of the past, we can put the present in some perspective and not make it seem so perilous.

What does the future hold for ‘American Experience’?

My ambitions are that we will be able to produce some exceptional content at the highest level, at scale, and often. I felt extremely good that we were able to do a six-hour series on the First World War earlier last year called The Great War – that was really well received and a very important contribution to our understanding of our history. We also have a six-hour series coming out next year about the space program, which is going to be highly original and really captivating.

I want to make sure we can produce those big projects that require a lot of time to plan ahead in years, and that we’re also able to produce the stories people recognize as being not only about them, but really relevant to them – sometimes even stories they didn’t know they’d be interested in, that add understanding to the world we live in today.

Meeting that challenge for a really big, diverse and ever-changing country is certainly something that keeps you on your toes everyday.

About The Author
Andrew Tracy joined Realscreen as associate editor in 2021, following 17 years as managing editor of the award-winning international film magazine Cinema Scope. From 2010 to 2020 he also held the position of senior editor at the Toronto International Film Festival, where he oversaw the flagship publication for the organization’s year-round Cinematheque programming and edited its first original monograph in a decade, Steve Gravestock’s A History of Icelandic Film. He was a scriptwriter and consultant on the first season of the Vice TV series The Vice Guide to Film, and his writing and reporting have been featured in such outlets as Cinema Scope, Reverse Shot, Sight & Sound, Cineaste, Film Comment, MUBI Notebook, POV, and Montage.