PBS’ ‘Independent Lens’ Executive Producer Talks Season 17, Power of Public Media and Documentary ‘Boon’

In an era of “so much divisiveness,” people are “desperately hungry” for “inclusiveness,” Lois Vossen tells TheWrap about “Won’t You Be My Neighbor”

Last Updated: July 9, 2018 @ 10:18 AM

Lois Vossen, longtime exec producer of PBS’ documentary series “Independent Lens,” says she wasn’t surprised when “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” began to dominate the indie box office, receiving critical acclaim and pulling in more than $9 million from theaters across the country.

“Fred Rogers is beloved, and at a time when there is so much divisiveness, when there is a film about this person who stood for inclusiveness, love, tolerance, I think people are desperately hungry,” Vossen said in an interview with TheWrap.

In her 22 years at the Independent Television Service, and her 17 years overseeing the Emmy award-winning “Independent Lens,” Vossen said she’s developed a deep understanding of the power of documentary films and public media. And as part of the “Independent Lens” team that co-presented the Fred Rogers biopic, she envisioned its potential for success long before it hit theaters.

“When I saw the cuts of the film, a year ago or so, and was in the edit suite with [director Morgan Neville] and the editors, we could imagine [this success] happening because of the divisiveness.”

The upcoming 17th season of “Independent Lens” will feature 22 documentaries. The series has announced the six titles from the first part of the series: “Young Men and Fire,” which puts a spotlight on the firefighters who battled wildfires in the American West last fall; “Dawnland,” a story about the first truth and reconciliation commission for Native Americans; “The Judge,” about the first female Shari’a law judge in the Middle East; “The Cleaners,” an investigative documentary about the industry of digital cleaning;  “Man on Fire,” about the white preacher Charles Moore, who set himself on fire to bring attention to racism in his hometown in Texas; and “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World,” a documentary about the influence of indigenous people on American music.

(See an exclusive clip from “Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked the World” above. The documentary will air on January 28, 2019.)

Vossen has produced “Independent Lens” since 2002, when ITVS took over production and distribution of the series from PBS. ITVS provides funding for documentary films and distributes to public media stations throughout the country. Some of the series’ other producing credits include “I Am Not Your Negro,” which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 89th Academy Awards, and “The King,” a recently released documentary from Eugene Jarecki that connects Elvis Presley to the American Dream.

Vossen is responsible for commissioning new films, programming the series and working with filmmakers on editorial and broadcast issues. The series is about to enter its 17th season, and Vossen was recently invited to join the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences as part of the largest class in Academy history.

As the world grows increasingly fractured, Vossen believes that public media, and documentaries in particular, have the power to unite divided communities across the United States and beyond.

“Documentary film is soaring right now, because it’s doing this incredible deep work of telling stories from around the country, different kinds of people who hold different kinds of beliefs from different political parties,” she said. “People see a lot of the news as divisive, and we’re not the news. We’re character-driven stories, and we feel as though we have a lot of people across the country who support the mission of public television.”

Vossen said that she is excited for all of the titles in the upcoming season of “Independent Lens,” but pointed to “Young Men and Fire,” the season opener, as one of her favorites.  

“Here in California, we’re experiencing yet another season of extraordinary wildfires, and the film is obviously very timely in terms of environmental issues, and the growing concerns about wildfires,” she said. “[The film] asks people to take a look at these heroes, who put their lives on the line every day, when a lot of them are formerly incarcerated people. What does that say about the general narrative that everyone who’s been in prison is somebody we should throw away?”

With the upcoming season set to air in the fall, Vossen also spoke about the shift in the documentary film landscape, encapsulated by films like “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” “RBG,” and “Three Identical Strangers,” all of which have soared at the box office in recent months.

“There’s a lot shifting in the environment,” she said. “The success of some films theatrically has created a boon in terms of what people think is possible, and it’s great when a few films can break out, and make money, but it’s just a few films, against a backdrop of literally hundreds of other films, where the filmmakers don’t make money or don’t even break even.”

Vossen also defended the role that public broadcasting can play — and decried calls to defund the service in Congress.  “Not every American can afford digital subscriptions or cable. This is an important part of a democracy, and we feel it’s an essential part of a democracy,” she said.

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