Call it the 40-Year War. New York’s DCTV (Downtown Community Television), a media arts center that produces documentary films, provides education courses and has spent four decades using the power of the moving image to open eyes and grip hearts, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week at a party that you’re invited to — though unless you’re willing to pay for the VIP tickets, it appears to be sold out. (Visit dctvny.org for more information).
While there were many similar outfits that cropped up in the 60s and 70s, DCTV, led by husband-and-wife founders Jon Alpert and Keiko Tsuno, is the last one standing. Arts Engine, founded in 1997, is just the latest progressive media outfit to fold. Alpert told me he’s feeling the wear and tear of running a 40-year-old organization.
“Arthritic — I hurt,” he joked. “But the rest of the organization is young and vibrant.”
DCTV has an interesting position in the world of documentary production companies. They’ve been around so long, working closely with PBS, then NBC, and now HBO. Having an outlet for their work is just part of their bread and butter. While a third of DCTV’s income comes from broadcast revenue, another third is from government and foundation grants, and then the last third is through classes and equipment rental. They also have a unique and enviable home base — DCTV is located in a beautiful, big firehouse in downtown Manhattan. (Alpert says they have plans to build a theater that will be “devoted to all documentaries all the time.”)
Their original productions cover many front lines, from gang wars to homelessness, and extend from the Emmy-winning 1980 documentary Third Avenue: Only the Strong Survive to the more recent, 2009 Oscar-nominated short, China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Province.
If DCTV isn’t on your radar, that may not be coincidental. DCTV hasn’t jumped for the high-profile projects and you won’t see them on the film festival circuit. But they’ve had their coups. Here’s just one: Alpert shot what’s considered to be the only substantial footage of civilian casualties during the Persian Gulf War. NBC declined to air his footage and it has been suggested to have been subject to a media blackout.
Alpert’s clearly a fighter — and a good storyteller — throwing down about his dealings with The Fighter actor Mark Wahlberg and about not getting proper due for the High on Crack Street: Lost Lives in Lowell, upon which the best Oscar nominee was partly based — the documentary in the film in is a recreation. (More on this in a later column, perhaps.)
Alpert also takes issue with the new breed of mainstream doc filmmakers that puts a priority on style and theatrical distribution. “We didn’t consider ourselves filmmakers. We were reporters first,” he said, adding that you won’t find a “Film By,” credit next to his name, just DCTV as the production company.
It’s no wonder, then, that he refers to the training programs, where low-income high school students attend classes for free, as his way of “deputizing people in order to change the world as fast as we could.”
DCTV marches to its own beat. And the beat goes on.