The network documentary: Why is it an exclusive club?
"I found a million-dollar baby in the five-and-ten-cent store" is the way the old song goes. But these days you can find a million-dollar Baybie outside of Bloomingdale's.
She's a 65-year-old gospel-singing, sightless women who calls herself Baybie (Hoover). And she's the subject of one of the most unexpected joyful and uplifting television documentaries of the year: "A Lady Named Baybie" (PBS, Wednesday, 9-10 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats).
Not only is it superb TV and superb filmmaking, "Baybie" is also probably a harbinger of the kind of independently produced nonfiction TV we will be seeing in the future. These are film and videotapes made by nonaligned, creative talent which, I predict, will finally be finding space on the many-channeled cable-TV systems, after trying desperately for so many years to break the documentary exclusivity of the over-the-air monopoly of networks and other commercial channels.
For some time, however, Public Broadcasting has been anticipating a changing future, and has already started to see the light. In addition to now-and-then independent documentaries by such admired filmmakers as Frederick Wiseman and other unscheduled specials from various local affiliated stations, now, for the third season in a row, despite much intercine bickering, WNET/NY is presenting a series titled "Non-Fiction Television," under the aegis of executive producer David Loxton, director of the Television Laboratory at WNET. The series is made possible by the Independent Documentary Fund, created in 1977 to encourage the production of innovative documentaries by independent film and video makers for national broadcast on public television.
The prizewinning documentary "Paul Jacobs and the Nuclear Gang," by Jack Willis and Saul Landau, has been one of the series' most auspicious successes. Still to come this season are documentaries on the history of Harlem; Crystal City, Texas; a naive painter named Clementine Hunter; the struggle of the Hopi Indians to preserve their way of life; a film about an Iranian exile living in Texas; and a film on the incarceration of children.
Film and video makers submit proposals and sample work to an advisory panel that decides on the amount of the grant to be awarded for completion of the project. There are no restrictions on subject matter other than "acceptability for broadcast." As is to be expected, this vague restriction is a continuing source of irritation and conflict. Nevertheless, more then 700 submissions have already been recorded for next season.
"A Lady Named Baybie" is a wise choice for this season's premiere. This film , by Martha Faye Sandlin and Marian Hunter as cinematographer, while in no way a feminist tract, is evidence of the fine work being produced by creative women artists in film, which has seldom reached large audiences.
By some standards Baybie Hoover and her friend Ginger Brown may be considered blind beggars, a hymn-singing pair of "pitchmen" who made their way to New York from Kansas, singing religious music in the streets, holding out their tin cups. They found Bloomingdale's their most profitable location, New York their favorite City: "In Kansas a far-out person is a hunk of junk; in New York City, people enjoy them."
But the two women, who accept honest charity with joy and blessings, also donate their time and efforts as they actively participate in the Radio Gospel Church in Brooklyn. They consider their begging in "street work." Says Baybie: "It took me out of bondage, out of the dependence of county and state social workers. . . ."
The film traces the daily life of these extraordinarily happy women from the moment they arise in the morning till the time they arrive back home at night. There is no petulance, no bitterness, no regret, no recrmination is their attitudes -- they feel they know how they must live to survive and they are determined to make the best of it -- at the same time making life better for all those around them. They ask for aid when they need it -- which is not often -- and feel no shame in reaching out for help or tom help.
There are especially poignant -- and joyous -- moments as the two women delight each other with fantasy stories supposedly about their own experiences to keep up their morale. One of the fantasies concerns as imaginary conversation with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who reassures them that what they are doing cannot be considered begging as long as they put their hearts and souls into it.
The sight of these two unique human beings, who converted their unfortunate circumstances into a livable life style, as they celebrate New Year's Eve by ringing their own bells in concert with their TV set's Times Square celebration, will have most viewers ringing their own bells of compassion and joy.
And keep in mind that "A Lady Named Baybie" has been brought to TV audiences by one one of the few series that feature a bit of the work of hundreds of talented, creative independent filmmakers, most still awaiting their turn. And now, one that doesn't work
Brainwashing tales sometimes have a brainwashing effect of their own.
The alleged brainwashing of young people by obsessive religious cults has been the subject of many news, feature, and fictionalized stories in the print media for the past decade. Mostly, the stories have failed, succeeding only in making questionable mysticism seem more mystic, oversimplified fundamentalism seem more reasonable, to those puzzled by the overwhelming certainty of the cultists and their leaders.
Now, CBS's made-for-TV, make-it-timely-or-bust movie division, utilizing TV's own brother-sister star team, Kristy and Jimmy (pardon me, James Vincent) McNichol, has a go at religious cultism: "Blinded by the Light" (CBS, Tuesday, 9 -11 p.m., check local listings). It also fails.
Perhaps it is the fact that so much of the strength of the cults lies in their own self-befogged obscurity, which tends to make any explanation seem simplistic. Often the main reason for the failure is that the stories cannot come to grips with the concept that some rebellious adolescents find a need to reject much that their families hold dear as part of their private wars of independence against what they have come to consider society's false values.
Based on a teen-age novel of the same name, "Blinded by the Light" tries to deal with some of the complexities -- the questionable legality and motivation of the "deprogrammers," the attitude of the parents, the reactions of friends and relatives. But the cool, unemotional nonacting of Jimmy, combined with the overreacting overacting of Kristy, tends to harm the believability of everybody in the cast -- including such skilled veterans as Anne Jackson as the forbearing mother and Michael McGuire as the overbearing father. Thus what emerges is just another TV thriller -- with a slightly Dracula-esque conclusion (has she, too, become one of them?m ).
The potpourri script tries to cover every aspect just a bit, failing on just about every level. Directed with little distinction by John Alonzo, it seems to have been written by committee. The credit might indicate that this is true: "Script by Robin Vote and Stephen Black & Henry Stern." The character played by Kristy is too smart for her age and experience; the character played by her brother, too naive.
There's nothing wrong with the idea of doing a serious drama on the contemporary theme of the seemingly inexplicable ways in which young people are "brainwashed" by some religious youth cults that prey on both the youngsters and their parents. What is wrong with "Blinded by the Light" is not that is doesn't come up with any easy solutions -- it doesn't -- but that it can't manage to pose the questions properly, either.