Simon Kilmurry 

POV Executive Director not interested in 'polemic films that preach to the choir'

Simon Kilmurry didn't know what he wanted to do for a living while growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, but he was certain where he wanted to live.

"I fell in love with New York City from the movies," said Kilmurry, 46. "From the Thin Man films, where everyone was drinking martinis in Park Avenue apartments, to Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets, a rough, dangerous downtown."

Indeed, Kilmurry made his way to New York, which he now proudly calls home, and not surprisingly, he works in the film industry.

"It was always about getting to a place where there was so much possibility," he said.

As executive director of the Public Broadcasting Service series POV, Kilmurry cultivates new possibilities for filmmakers producing critically acclaimed documentaries for public television's longest-running nonfiction showcase, picking up Peabody Awards, Emmys and three Oscars along the way.

Do you remember the first nonfiction film that left an indelible effect on you?

In the early 1990s, I saw a film called Brother's Keeper, about two brothers living in a dilapidated farmhouse. In what could have been a patronizing look at social outsiders, the filmmakers instead crafted a film with affection, warmth and integrity.

I also remember watching the early years of POV and I recall thinking how illuminating great documentaries could be.

How many films do you begin with before you winnow down to 16 films each season?

Oh my gosh, 1,200.

How is it possible to watch that many?

After an open call to filmmakers each June, each submission is seen by at least two screeners. About 20 filmmakers screen the films, and they write extensive evaluations on each entry.

Does your list include some films that you thought wouldn't have made the cut?

Always. Each October, we have an editorial weekend where we bring together independent producers and managers from PBS stations from around the country; different backgrounds and different agendas. There's always a film that I'm sure is an easy pick, but then I hear them talk about it and the film doesn't make the cut. I've been doing this a long time and it never fails to surprise me.

Do you always take films that score high?

We're looking for films that score very well, but we're also looking at films that either score very high or very low. Those films are interesting because they've created a disparate reaction and they're usually worth a closer look.

How financially threatened do you think PBS will be in the coming year?

There's certainly a lot of talk around possible defunding of public television and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but also the arts in general. I think we've heard this drumbeat before. Public television is remarkably resilient but is definitely quite fragile.

Is it fair to say that some of POV's films have been controversial?

We are never controversial for the sake of being provocative. We are provocative for the sake of raising what we think are important and challenging issues. We're not interested in polemic films that preach to the choir.

Do you push back on some films that include obvious or sympathetic viewpoints?

We look for films to challenge our assumptions. Life is complex, and we look for films that tackle that complexity in a respectful and fair way.

Does the Motion Picture Academy require that a film be screened in a theater before being televised in order to be eligible for an Oscar?

We work closely with distributors if that's a possibility. We'll adjust our schedule accordingly to allow that to happen. I must say it was pretty gratifying to take Marshall Curry to the 2006 Academy Awards. We were co-producers for Street Fight, and that was his first film.

I know that POV films have won three Oscars to date, and I lost count of how many other Emmys, Peabody Awards and duPont-Columbia awards you've brought home.

It's fun. We won our first primetime Emmy a couple of years ago, and we just received 16 Emmy nominations this year, which is the most ever for the series.

Are the hallways of your offices lined with trophies?

There are quite a few.

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