Public's television's "P.O.V." is doing two things a documentary series should do. It's stirring things up and making people think.
Two weeks ago, the series was in the news because it chose not to air a film it helped fund. Mark Weiss, executive producer of "P.O.V.," said "Blood in the Face" -- which focused on racists and skinheads -- was dropped because its final form was not what the filmmakers had promised. The filmmakers charged timidity and the debate escalated to encompass the role of PBS in airing alternative points of view.
Two weeks from now the program will likely be back in the news for a documentary it will offer for airing. But a third of the PBS stations carrying "P.O.V" -- 17 of the top 50 stations -- have already announced that they will not air "Tongues Untied," a film about black homosexuals with AIDS.
Many expect the local pre-emptions to become the next flash point in debates over freedom of expression, federal funding and the arts. (Maryland Public Television said yesterday that it will air "Tongues Untied.")
Tonight's "P.O.V." is not generating controversy the way "Tongues Untied" has. But "Honorable Nations," which airs at 11 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67), does something else a good documentary ought to: It takes a complicated issue and makes it understandable. You're smarter when you get up from the television set than you were when you sat down and started to watch.
"Honorable Nations," which was co-produced by Annapolitan Michael Allen, examines three years of negotiations between the Seneca Indians and the residents of Salamanca, N.Y., over a treaty signed in 1892. The treaty was a essentially a 99-year lease: The Senecas got a few dollars from the white residents of the area and a bolt of cloth every year from the federal government. The citizens of Salamanca got the Seneca land.
It might seem like merely another historical -- almost abstract -- incident of American Indians being exploited. Except that the lease expired and the Senecas wanted either lots of money or the land back. The film is a flesh-and-blood civics lesson in how this country works from the local courthouse to Washington.
"Honorable Nations" is a bit more than that, too. Ultimately, it reminds us of the ties that bind us to our ancestors and how sins and blessings are visited upon succeeding generations.