When TV execs talk about "reality," they use the term loosely. It's relative. But Taxi Dreams (PBS, Aug. 20, 9-10 p.m.) is a documentary that slices into the lives of five real immigrant taxi drivers who navigate the perilous streets of New York in search of the American dream. Filmed in cinéma vérité style, these men (less than 1 percent are women) represent different walks of life in their own countries. All came to America to find freedom from poverty.
The streets are mean, the fares unfair, the police tough on ticketing, and few make a good living at driving. Out of the 40,000 licensed cab drivers in New York, 95 percent of them are immigrants - 70 percent from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh.
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Rafik Bakayev, a Jewish refugee from Tajikistan, moved his wife and daughters to New York when his Muslim-ruled republic began to feel unsafe. He talks about driving, about the ethnic diversity of New York, and about trying to maintain ethnic identity in the face of Americanization.
Kwame Fosu of Ghana was a teacher in his country, and came to the US to pursue higher education. Articulate and philosophical, he describes how he came to cab driving out of necessity. But when he brings his wife and children to America, their culture shock is palpable.
Sumon Ahsan came to New York from Bangladesh to get an education. He drives a cab for one day, and the grueling 12 hours he spends dodging pedestrians and missing other cars is enough for him. He makes $70 in cab fares, but cab rental and gas take a $40 chunk.
Pakistan-born Riwan Raja was an accountant - but his skills were out of date the minute he arrived here. After a few days on the road as a cabbie, he is mugged at gunpoint.
The most successful of the group is Om Dutta Sharma of India. This ex-lawyer has managed to raise a family here and to support a girls' school in his native village, where he returns to help his sons understand their roots. Intelligent and kind, he talks to his passengers in order to learn from them, and his strong-minded embrace of his culture smacks of nobility and spirit.
Filmmaker Joanna Head intersperses the poetry of Robert Scott, a New York cabbie whose vision of driving is hip and romantic - "an indomitable warrior hack," he calls himself.
What is smart and special about this film is the sense we have of the cab drivers' daily experience. Who they are is not what they do, and it's a handy reminder for all of us. It's a dangerous job, often a thankless job, in a big city. No one can watch this film and ever look at a cab driver the same way. Now, that's a taste of reality.
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The love of money, the Bible tells us, is the root of all evil. A new documentary explains how gold is power, and how the ruthless pursuit of gold has built and destroyed ancient and modern empires, conquered the "new" world, and fueled the expansion of the United States. Gold! (Aug. 21-24, 9-10 p.m.) is the History Channel's special mini that covers 6,000 years, five continents, and dozens of cultures.
History has been shaped by the pursuit of gold, just as it has been by the religions of the world - in many cultures, gold itself was worshiped. But in others, the worship was secular rather than ecumenical. Gold was used to fuel wars; the Aztecs and the Incas were destroyed for love of gold, and whole peoples have been enslaved to mine it.
One of the great tragedies of the 19th century was the desecration of the Black Hills of South Dakota and the displacement of the plains Indians who held the hills sacred. But in Southern Africa, the Boer wars (also over gold mines) killed 27,000 Boer children in the first concentration camps - more than all the soldiers who died on both sides.
About 140,000 tons of gold have been mined for thousands of years.
It was probably the first metal ever to be worked by man, and it is so malleable that a single ounce can be hammered into a sheet of a hundred square feet. Its history is amazing, and this documentary grips the imagination as it uncovers the history of greed as well as of metal.
But it is also the history of the common man's chance of raising himself above poverty. The cautionary tale cuts more than one way here.
And speaking of cautionary tales ... The Sins (BBC America, Tuesdays, beginning Aug. 21, check local listings) is an astonishingly thoughtful and entertaining seven-part drama about the seven "deadly" sins.
Pete Postlethwaite ("The Usual Suspects," "Brassed Off") stars as a professional getaway driver, popular among the whole criminal class, who decides, after four years in prison, to go straight. The first episode ("Pride") has Len denouncing his mates. He's too good for the likes of them, and all of them - including his wife and daughters - turn on him for his arrogance.
When Len learns a little humility, he accepts a job with his uncle as an apprentice undertaker, does go straight, and takes his family and some of his friends with him. His wife hasearned to enjoy the respect due a first class criminal's wife, and she has to swallow her pride, too, for the good of her husband and family.
It's all very funny and poignant. And the twist that writer William Ivory brings to the meanings of pride, covetousness, lust, envy, greed, anger, and sloth reminds us that these sins are still the enemy. It's all written without a hint of moralizing, arrogance, or superiority. For mature audiences.