Alternative Programming

From suicide to child abuse to politics, Public Broadcasting's `P.O.V.' series is more determined than ever to probe personal and provocative issues

`P.O.V.," the PBS film series that prides itself on having a "point of view," made a provocative statement with its very first programming choice of the current season.

"Color Adjustment," a critical look at race relations in American television, was directed by Marlon T. Riggs, whose earlier "Tongues Untied" raised a ruckus when some PBS affiliates refused to broadcast its outspoken examination of the gay African-American subculture.

"Color Adjustment" was less radical in its subject and less caustic in its criticisms. But the very fact that it came from Mr. Riggs, who hasn't mellowed in his combative view of mainstream attitudes and behaviors, made it a feisty selection to open the latest "P.O.V." slate.

Other items in the lineup, which began in mid-June and continues through the end of August, find the series - now in its fifth year - as determined as ever to explore a great variety of issues, from the highly social to the deeply personal.

The weeks immediately following "Color Adjustment," for instance, have brought documentaries that focus on family values in diverse ways. "Intimate Stranger," by Alan Berliner, is an ingeniously crafted look at the filmmaker's late grandfather, a world-traveling Brooklynite whose unusual life generated riddles and uncertainties as well as memories and mementos.

"Finding Christa," by Camille Billops and James Hatch, chronicles Ms. Billops's reunion with a daughter she had placed for adoption years earlier.

Coming weeks extend the program's range into numerous other areas. Films on the schedule include:

Promise Not to Tell (week of July 27). The legally complex and emotionally charged subject of child abuse is the focus of Rhea Gavry's documentary about a well-to-do suburb of Salt Lake City where literally dozens of parents, neighbors, and caretakers have been accused of sexually assaulting youngsters from the area.

Should one simply "believe the children," as bumper stickers advise, no matter how outlandish some of their accusations may seem? Or must families, professionals, and other concerned individuals pick their way through a painful thicket of claims and allegations that often appear contradictory or outright impossible? These are some of the issues raised by this discomfiting and thought-provoking film.

Dream Deceivers (week of August 3). About seven years ago, two Nevada teenagers decided to kill themselves with a shotgun.

One of them survived, with severe injuries, and his parents proceeded to sue the rock group Judas Priest for allegedly causing the tragedy by planting subliminal messages in the sound-mix of a song.

Are such messages indeed present in the song, affording proof of how corrupt and insidious today's "cultural elite" has become? Or was the lawsuit a sad attempt by deluded parents to pin the blame for their tragedy on a scapegoat? Again, the questions raised by the film are well worth pondering. David Van Taylor directed it.

Louisiana Boys: Raised on Politics (week of August 31). Everyone has seen television ads placed by candidates for Congress and the presidency. But high-priced TV spots pushing candidates for coroner, or sheriff, or tax assessor?

It could only happen in Louisiana, where politics is regarded as a leading spectator sport, second only to the Mardi Gras for sheer entertainment value.

This documentary scampers through the history of Bayou State elections, finding a pattern of sober "reform" candidates alternating with "populists" so colorful that their credentials hardly seem to matter. Paul Stekler, Louis Alvarez, and Andrew Kolker were the directors.

What all these documentaries have in common, besides fascinating material to explore, is a relatively conservative style.

"P.O.V." showcases independent productions, which means the selections should be unpredictable in approach as well as subject. Yet none of the works I've mentioned, except "Intimate Stranger," has an unusual structure or fresh-looking texture that might yield original insights and stir up original thinking. In some cases, such as "Finding Christa" and "Promise Not to Tell," a heavy-handed style actively diminishes the work's potential impact.

This criticism aside, "P.O.V." deserves continuing high marks for bringing serious works of nonfiction cinema to the TV screen on a regular basis. PBS, may we please have more?

In addition to the films I've discussed, the 1992 slate includes "Last Images of War" and "The Longest Shadow," about crusading journalists in Afghanistan and Bulgaria, respectively; "Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman," about sexual identity; "A Season in Hell," about eating disorders; "Fast Food Women," about low-paid workers, and "Takeover," about homeless activists; "American Tongues," about social attitudes revealed through language; and "Faith Even to the Fire," about activist nuns within the Roman Cath olic Church.

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