Erika Dilday, Exec Director of American Documentary, Talks About ‘POV’s’ New Season and the PBS-Ken Burns Controversy

Erika Dilday
Courtesy of Edward Wilkey

Erika Dilday, who earlier this year became the first Black executive director of American Documentary Inc., oversees various ventures for the nonprofit, including management of the long-running “POV” series on PBS and “America ReFramed,” a showcase of independent documentaries on the World Channel. Formerly executive director of the Maysles Documentary Center, where she produced Albert Maysles’ final film, “In Transit,” she joined AmDoc from Futuro Media Group, a nonprofit that produces programming including “Latino USA,” where she had been CEO since 2017. She spoke with Variety about the 34th season lineup of “POV,” which she executive produces and kicked off July 5, along with the recent PBS-Ken Burns controversy about diversity and competing with streaming services such as Netflix.

You most recently were CEO of Futuro Media Group and before that executive director of Maysles Documentary Center. What do you expect to carry over from those experiences into your new role at “POV”?

All the organizations and teams I’ve worked with have a passion for authentic storytelling or creating opportunities for people who are not normally seen to be seen. So, I’ll continue to focus on that — for people to see themselves and for filmmakers and other storytellers, who might not think that they have a place in the media landscape to know that they do, and to be able to share their stories and their truth authentically and without restriction.

You are the organization’s first Black executive director. Recently Richard Perez became the first person of color to be named the executive director of the International Documentary Assn. Do you think putting more people of color in gatekeeper positions will help change documentary landscape when it comes to inclusion and diversity?

Without question. One of the things that I’ve encountered throughout my career, with different media organizations, is that if you don’t have people in decision-making positions who see things differently than the historical majority, you aren’t really going to be able to create change. There’s a lot of power that comes with a platform, but if you are on the bottom levels of that platform, there’s only so much you can do. We haven’t historically understood how important it is, not just to have the right people in the room, but people who feel that they have the power to use their voices and that’s a big change.

Last year, HBO’s Tiger Woods series faced backlash over the fact that two white men directed the project. That led to the question of who is allowed to chronicle stories outside their race. What is your take on that?

This is another reason why I think we have to have more people of color in positions of authority — because it’s far more nuanced to me than having people outside of a particular racial or ethnic identity doing the chronicling. It’s about being able to make sure that you are telling that story from the right perspective. Being able to consider all sides and often that is very difficult to do when you have a team who looks nothing like the person or the issue they’re covering. I’m not saying that it’s impossible, but I’m saying it’s something that you have to be able to weigh. And nine times out of 10, you’re going to have a better product if you have people involved in that process in the creation of it deeply understanding what it is they are covering.

In March nearly 140 documentary filmmakers sent an open letter to PBS chief executive Paula Kerger that argued the broadcaster’s programming had shown a “systemic failure to fulfill a mandate for a diversity of voices” and that PBS gave an unfair level of support to white creators like Ken Burns.

The letter from Beyond Inclusion — a BIPOC-led collective of non-fiction makers, executives, and field builders — was signed by filmmakers including Dawn Porter, Sam Pollard and Garrett Bradley, and stated that “PBS has an exclusive relationship with Burns until at least 2022, exclusive home video and audio-visual rights to existing and new films through 2025, and the Amazon Prime channel boasts the entire catalogue of Burns’ films. How many other ‘independent’ filmmakers have a decades-long exclusive relationship with a publicly funded entity? Public television supporting this level of uninvestigated privilege is troubling not just for us as filmmakers but as tax-paying Americans.”

What’s your take on the situation?

I don’t see this as a Ken Burns problem. I see this as a blind spot that has gone throughout leadership, which I think is changing now. Sylvia Bugg, PBS chief programming executive and general manager, general audience programming, and PBS president and chief executive officer Paula Kerger, who had a conversation with the Beyond Inclusion team (after the letter was sent) are really looking to change this. I do agree that in the past, probably the right people were not in the room to make the right decisions.

But this is far more nuanced than just numbers. It’s far more nuanced than making sure that you have this many people of color, BIPOC people, Latino or Hispanic people, women or gender non-identifying people making films. It’s about content and impact and really digging in and saying, ‘How do we make this landscape reflective of our country, the world and people with different perspectives and points of view?’

I don’t want to just count numbers. I really don’t. I want us to dig deeper. I want us to try harder. We owe a debt to our audiences to bring them content that stretches them, that enriches them and that sometimes will make them a little uncomfortable. But that takes the trust that they put in us to deliver information and ideas that they might not normally get in their arm chairs, and bring them something that really does reflect what’s going on in this country that’s informed by voices that maybe they would never hear.

The 34th season of “POV” features 13 docus, half of which were directed by filmmakers of color and women, trans or gender non-conforming filmmakers, including five of the seven Latin American and U.S. Latinx titles. I realize that you just recently took over as executive director, but do you know if it was a mandate to have half of this year’s fare directed by people who were not white males?

I think it would be unfair to say that it was a mandate because I don’t think we look at a film that way. Film to film, we’re looking at: who are the storytellers? What are the stories they are telling and is this what we should be bringing to our audiences? And why should we be bringing this to our audiences?

A good example in the upcoming season is a film directed by Elegance Bratton called “Pier Kids.” It’s a film about LGBTQ youth of color who congregate at the piers in New York City, their struggles and how they formed a certain family, but it’s not an easy film. (Bratton) is able to reach through a lot of these issues and talk to the youth in this film because he is a filmmaker of color and because he is someone who has struggled with gender identity. You couldn’t get that story without someone like Elegance telling it. And it’s an important story to tell, not because they’re youth of color. And not because they’re LGBTQ youth, but because they are part of the fabric of our nation and of our identity. People need to know about them and hear them in an authentic way.

So, no. There was no mandate, but there is an obligation. And I think with every film we look at we try and fulfill that obligation.

When you are programming for “POV,” are you hoping that audiences want to make a change of some sort due to the documentary’s content?

Absolutely. There are two things with a documentary. Fifty percent of it is getting it on the air and having people see it and having it change them or want to change things. The other 50 percent is the engagement part that we do, where we work with communities and groups who can use (the documentary) as a tool to help them start dialogue and move to action if what they see helps them on their path.

Documentary is a social tool as well as a form of art and entertainment. I feel that we would only be doing 50 percent of our job if we weren’t making sure that people had ways to take the information that they absorb and, in some way, do something with it once the credits roll. That’s part of our mandate. It’s part of the reason why documentaries exist — to make people see themselves, feel empowered, feel something, and then hopefully do something with that.

Why was “The Neutral Ground” selected to kick off Season 34?

It’s about such a timely, important issue right now. The humor and grit and courage of that film really speaks to how we wanted to start the season.

How does “POV” position itself against subscription VOD services like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu who have deep pockets?

I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hard to compete, but I think what we offer filmmakers is completely different from what they’re going to get say from a Netflix. We offer an investment in their film and a partnership in not just getting the film out but working with engagement around it. That speaks to a lot of filmmakers, and it is a certain type of both care and attention that you’re not necessarily going to get on a streaming service that’s putting out who knows how many documentaries. We do 16 films a season (on “POV”) and we are deeply invested in each of those films and those filmmakers and what their films can do. It’s not just about, will this make a lot of money? Or will we get new subscribers? It’s also about what can this film do and how can we help this filmmaker do it?

What do you hope for “POV” in the immediate future?

There are two things internally as the new leader, I am very much focused on. One is making sure that we are an organization where people feel the value of what they do every day and where they know that what we do is important. Number two at “POV,” I want to make sure that we are a voice. That we are putting out films, working with filmmakers and helping to create the dialogue and action that our country needs.