Independent Lens Episodes

1999, TV Show

Independent Lens Season 5 episodes

The Amasong Chorus: Singing Out Season 5, Episode 28

“The Amasong Chorus: Singing Out” profiles the “premier” lesbian-feminist chorus in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., an award-winning ensemble founded by Kristina Boerger, a “musical activist” who's seen molding Amasong into an award-winning ensemble during the 1990s. Boerger's also molding it into a community. Says one singer: “it's like your church, in a way.” read more

Sumo East and West Season 5, Episode 27

“Sumo East and West,” filmmaker Ferne Pearlstein's witty, if leisurely, exploration of Japan's 2000-year-old national sport and inroads made by Americans. The hour follows a number of Americans as they wrestle in the U.S. and Japan, and offers a thumbnail history of the sport. Included: an excerpt from a World War II-era U.S. propaganda film. Sumo is “calm, peaceful and serene,” the narrator intones, “like [Japan's] volcano Mount Fuji.” read more

Cosmopolitan Season 5, Episode 26

Featured: “Cosmopolitan,” a romantic comedy about a set-in-his-ways Indian immigrant (Roshan Seth) left alone when his wife of 30 years suddenly leaves him. Enter his slightly dissolute next-door neighbor (Carol Kane). They're soon an item, thanks to tips he finds in copies of Cosmopolitan magazine that his grown daughter had left in the house. Interspersed throughout the story are send-ups of “Bollywood” production numbers. read more

Death of a Shaman Season 5, Episode 25

In “Death of a Shaman,” filmmaker Fahm Fong Saeyang traces the American “nightmare” of her immigrant father, a respected “spirit priest” in Southeast Asia's Mien community who was sucked into a life of poverty and drug abuse after fleeing the chaos of Laos in the late 1970s. Then Yoon died in an accident in 2000. But he left behind his videocam and a wealth of tapes. He also left behind a daughter on a redemptive mission. read more

Refugee Season 5, Episode 24

“Refugee” follows Mike Siv, a Cambodian-American in his 20s, as he returns to his homeland with two friends to get to know the father and brother he barely knows, more than two decades after fleeing with his mother during the Khmer Rouge terror. Siv, who also coedited, narrates the video diary with an engaging combination of honesty and empathy. He's a one-time student of its director, Spencer Nakasako, an Emmy winner for “A.k.a. Don Bonus,” which aired on PBS's “P.O.V.” in 1996 and is also about a young Cambodian-American's return to his homeland. read more

One Night at the Grand Star; Double Exposure Season 5, Episode 23

Two short films with Asian-American themes: “One Night at the Grand Star” visits a nitery in Los Angeles's Chinatown, and New York artist Kit-Yin Snyder profiles herself in “Double Exposure.” The family-run Grand Star is no newcomer to L.A.'s nightlife scene, but its mix of jazz and hip-hop has made it hot. It's a “multigenerational social gumbo,” says series host Don Cheadle. It's multicultural, too. People, are “all alike,” says one regular, a white widow in her 60s, “all the human race.” Then Snyder, who emigrated to the U.S. from China as a teenager in 1949, ruminates on her dual national identities against a backdrop she calls “abstract video landscapes.” Says Cheadle: “You're never too old to wonder who you are.” read more

The Weather Underground Season 5, Episode 22

“The Weather Underground,” a vivid, Oscar-nominated chronicle of the violent opposition to the Vietnam war during the early 1970s by a small band of radicals who planted bombs in places (the Capitol included) that symbolized U.S. power. The war “made us crazy,” admits Brian Flanagan, one of seven one-time fugitives who look back on their fringe movement thirty years later. There's pride in their ideals but some regret of their tactics. “If you think you have the moral high ground,” says Flanagan, “you can do some really dreadful things.” read more

Ram Dass: Fierce Grace Season 5, Episode 21

“Ram Dass: Fierce Grace” follows the hippie-era consciousness guru as he ruminates while recovering from a 1997 stroke. It's “like a whole new incarnation,” he says. Directed by Micky Lemle, an Emmy nominee for his 1992 PBS profile of the Dalai Lama, the profile also recalls Ram Dass's association with Timothy Leary at Harvard in the early 1960s (when he was known as Richard Alpert); his discovery of the Indian guru Maharaj Ji (“a doorway towards God”); and his own impact on people who consider him to be a guru. He was, says one, “a light at the end of my tunnel.” read more

Love Inventory Season 5, Episode 20

"Love Inventory" follows Israeli filmmaker David Fisher as he "drags his siblings into their past" in the search for a missing sister. She's the twin of an older brother who died in 1952, and the Fishers have no idea if she's dead or alive. Some are also ambivalent about looking for her. But in any event, the detective story is only a "gimmick," as one calls it, and as the film unfolds (in Hebrew, with English subtitles), the three brothers and one sister open and seek to close family wounds. read more

Every Child Is Born a Poet: The Life and Work of Piri Thomas Season 5, Episode 19

“Every Child Is Born a Poet” profiles legendary “Nuyorican” bard Piri Thomas, the author of the groundbreaking 1967 autobiographical novel “Down These Mean Streets.” Poet, storyteller, teacher and proselytizer, Thomas is a whirlwind. To keep up, filmmaker Jonathan Robinson follows him frenetically, mixing re-creations (fanciful and realistic; in color and in black and white) with segments in which Thomas counsels kids and leads writing workshops for young offenders. His mantra: “I came from violence. Poetry was my way out. Poetry is wisdom.” read more

T-Shirt Travels Season 5, Episode 18

“T-Shirt Travels,” documentarian Shantha Bloemen's “story of secondhand clothes and Third World debt,” examines why many Africans wear clothes donated by Americans and Europeans. The reason, as Bloemen points out as she follows a young Zambian as he sells used clothes in his hometown market, is that they're the only clothes most Zambians can buy: the “industry” these hand-me-downs has created has decimated the local textile industry. And that's just part of the reason why the country has become “buried” (as economist Jeffrey Sachs puts it) in debt. Sighs former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda: “We've never sunk so low in terms of poverty level.” read more

Sentencing the Victim Season 5, Episode 17

In “Sentencing the Victim,” Joanna Katz, who was raped and brutalized by five men in 1988, recalls her ordeal (one that hasn't ended, thanks in part to the repeated parole hearings she must attend). Katz, who co-produced this film, has become an eloquent victims-rights advocate, and her calm if forceful demeanor is compelling. It also has an effect beyond Katz herself. As her rape counselor puts it: “How many victims are there out there whose stories have gone untold?” read more

Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew Season 5, Episode 16

In “Jimmy Scott: If You Only Knew,” the septuagenarian jazz singer with a distinctive high-pitched voice looks back on his long road to stardom: Scott didn't hit it big until he was in his 60s, and while his success is tied to the pitch of his voice, he got that pitch (though not his talent) because of a hormonal disorder that struck him at age 12. Later would come bad marriages and worse record contracts, but the sunny Scott, now 78, recalls it all with the equanimity of a survivor. read more

A Place of Our Own Season 5, Episode 15

“A Place of Our Own,” filmmaker Stanley Nelson's reflections on life for well-to-do blacks---including his own family---on the vacation retreat Martha's Vineyard. Nelson recalls his childhood summers (in clips and interviews) with nostalgia and pride. The Vineyard town Oak Bluffs was a place where “you could let your guard down,” as one vacationer puts it. But Nelson's father (who's interviewed througout the hour) never could: The racism he endured as a child scarred him for life and tore apart his family. read more

Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property Season 5, Episode 14

“Nat Turner: Troublesome Property” recalls the 1831 Virginia slave revolt that has become mythical in the years since Turner was hanged. It also looks at how he has been appropriated by both blacks and whites. Filmmaker Charles Burnett does this through comments by experts (some dueling) and handsome re-creations in which different actors play Turner. Confusing? Not at all, because it drives home Burnett's central point, which novelist William Styron puts thusly: “He fits no mold and every mold all at once.” read more

Why Can't We Be a Family Again?; Downpour Resurfacing Season 5, Episode 13

“Why Can't We Be a Family Again?” an Oscar-nominated 2002 short film following two Brooklyn boys as they struggle with their mother's drug addiction. Filmmakers Roger Weisberg and Murray Nossel's vérité chronicle, filmed over three years, has no directorial flourishes---it simply records telling moments in the relationship between mother and sons, and the grandmother who cares for the boys in their mother's frequent absences. Also on the bill: “Downpour Resurfacing,” poet-physician Robert Hall's meditations on the physical and sexual abuse he suffered as a child. Filmmaker Frances Nkara accompanies Hall's words with dreamlike black-and-white images of dancers, of 1950s domestic scenes and a Japanese tea ceremony. They evoke a sense of peace---the hard-earned peace that Hall (who's in his 60s) has worked toward all his life. read more

Life Matters Season 5, Episode 12

In “Life Matters,” filmmaker Kyle Boyd profiles his father, Curtis, a Texas physician who has been performing abortions since before the procedure was legalized. “This was a human-rights issue,” says Curtis Boyd, a one-time Pentacostal preacher who began performing abortions in rural East Texas at the behest of a church-based organization at Southern Methodist University. Boyd, his former and present wives, and a nurse who worked with him recall the difficulties he faced then, and continues to face. He also describes his reasons for performing abortions. “I don't believe it's the lesser of two evils,” he says. “This can be a life-affirming experience.” read more

Make 'Em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers' Story Season 5, Episode 11

"Make 'em Dance: The Hackberry Ramblers' Story" profiles fiddler Luderin Darbone and accordionist Edwin Duhon, who have been playing their infectious blend of Cajun and country music since the 1930s. They've lived to tell about it, and to play on MTV, and they're doing both in this delightful profile, which follows the pair on the road, and back to Hackberry, La., where they founded their band. read more

Man Bites Shorts Season 5, Episode 10

A collection of six short films, begins with “Compulsory Breathing,” a 24-minute tale of a suicidal man (Yuri Lane) and the woman (Beth Lisick) who wants to kill herself with his gun---after he's finished with it. Also: “Bike Ride,” Thurberesque animation about a lovesick man riding 70 miles to see a woman who doesn't want to see him; “Dilly Dally,” a poem performed by Everton Sylvester of the Brooklyn Funk Essentials; “Don't Nobody Love the Game More than Me,” a Socratic debate on a basketball court; “Tom Hits His Head,” about a dizzy six months in the life of the filmmaker (Tom Putnam); and “Sergi,” two minutes' worth of musings about hockey and identity in New York's Central Park. read more

Get the Fire! Young Mormon Missionaries Abroad Season 5, Episode 9

“Get the Fire! Young Mormon Missionaries Abroad” follows a group of young men from 1999 to 2001as they evangelize in southern Germany, and reflect on their lives and missions. But before they leave there's the Mission Training Center in Utah. It's “boot camp moved to the celestial kingdom,” says a former missionary, one of several who offer occasional skeptical comments. And the missionaries face skepticism (or indifference) from most of the Germans they meet. But it doesn't seem to faze them. read more

Loaded Gun: Life and Death and Dickinson Season 5, Episode 8

“Loaded Gun: Life, Death and Dickinson,” writer-director Jim Walpaw's idiosyncratic search for the essence of cryptic poet Emily Dickinson (1830-86), whose sometimes morbid work “still seems ahead of its time.” The reclusive Dickinson is not an easy subject for a standard documentary. “Nothing,” Wolpaw sighs, “was giving me a real sense of who this woman was.” So in addition to interviewing experts and filming “arty” establishing shots, he also got actresses to improvise as Dickinson. The results are hit or miss. Says one: “I consider death to be an orgasmic moment.” read more

Eroica! Season 5, Episode 7

“Eroica!” follows the Eroica Trio (cellist Sara Sant'Ambrogio, pianist Erika Nickrenz and violinist Adela Pena) through a hectic year of touring, while also badgering composer Kevin Kaska to complete the triple concerto he's writing for them. The pressure on Kaska is enormous (Sant'Ambrogio: “Beethoven's the only one who has been able to do it”), and filmmaker Alan Miller's tight pacing makes it visceral. read more

Livermore Season 5, Episode 6

“Livermore,” a wry dissection of the San Francisco suburb and its oddities, including a missing time capsule, the world's longest-running lightbulb and a centennial totem pole that was shortened by town authorities. This prompted its Chippewa sculptor to put a “curse” on the town. Soon afterward, sewers backed up. Livermore is also home to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories, where scientists developed nuclear weapons, and it's the subject of “Suburbia,” a photography book depicting everyday life in the late '60s and early '70s in a manner that many thought mocked suburbia. Fumes one resident: “If ever there's a book burning, that's the book I'd want burned.” read more

Be Good, Smile Pretty Season 5, Episode 5

"Be Good, Smile Pretty" chronicles filmmaker Tracy Droz Tragos's effort to establish "my own relationship with my father," a Navy lieutenant who died in Vietnam in 1969, when she was 4 months old. Droz Tragos and her mother visit her father's Missouri home town and meet his mother and relatives. Other stops include the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., where she meets with Sen. John Kerry (who calls her father "my comrade"), and Annapolis, for his 35th Naval Academy renunion. read more

A Wedding in Ramallah Season 5, Episode 4

“A Wedding in Ramallah” and life happily ever after in Cleveland? That's what Palestinians Bassam and Mariam hoped for when they married in 2000. Filmmaker Sherine Salama chronicles what they got in an intriguing, fly-on-the-wall style that doesn't stint on sardonic humor. First, there are Muslim gender roles (the fact that the marriage is arranged doesn't help either). Then there's the intifada, which Mariam can't escape until she gets her visa. It takes months (and means living with her in-laws). And what does she hear when she does get to Cleveland? “Bring me my slippers.” read more

Shaolin Ulysses: Kungfu Monks in America Season 5, Episode 3

“Shaolin Ulysses: Kungfu Monks in America” profiles five Zen Buddhist monks (all of them martial artists) who have immigrated to the U.S. They're “on a road trip of enlightenment,” says narrator Beau Bridges, one that has taken some surprising turns. For Xing Hong, it's Las Vegas, while Xing Hao and De Shan have settled in Houston, where they train aspiring Olympians (officials are considering adding kung fu as a medal sport) and police officers. The hour also visits the orignial Shaolin temple in China's Henan province, and traces its 1500-year history. read more

Foto-Novelas 2: 'Junkyard Saints' and 'Broken Sky' Season 5, Episode 2

Two haunting “foto-novelas,” Latin American pulp dramas with mystical overtones, adapted by filmmaker Carlos Avila and filmed in and around San Antonio. The first, “Junkyard Saints,” concerns a teenage father (Jeremy Ray Valdez), a drug dealer and dashboard saints recovered from car wrecks. Clemente: Leon Singer. Then, in “Broken Sky” (inspired by the Woody Guthrie song “Deportees”), an aging and ailing California farmworker (Victor Campos) has visions of his wife (Diane Uribe) who died in a plane crash some 50 years before. She's urging him to join her on another flight. Mario: Robert Beltran. read more

Worst Possible Illusion: The Curiosity Cabinet of Vik Muniz Season 5, Episode 1

Artist Vik Muniz's style is hard to classify (such as painting with chocolate sauce), but his amiable personality is easy to take in this profile. Producer-director Anne-Marie Russell follows Muniz to Chicago and Paris, where his works (enhanced by such things as thread, spaghetti and sugar) are being shown; to Arizona, where he has difficulty photographing a huge “bone” he had fashioned---with a bulldozer---in the desert; and his native Brazil, where he philosophizes. “Art really isn't about what you say,” he muses. “It's about how you say it.” Don Cheadle hosts. read more

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Premiered: August 09, 1999, on PBS
Rating: TV-PG
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Premise: Independent filmmakers are spotlighted in this anthology, which concentrates on documentaries, but occasionally features artist profiles and offbeat fictional films.

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