Series Blog

Staff Favorite Films


This Fall, American Experience will celebrate its 25th anniversary. That's 25 years of documentaries broadcast on PBS -- 287 films, 399 hours of programming, and 428 nights of television. Everyone has a favorite, including all of us on staff at American Experience, and we want to share that with you. As part of our 25th anniversary celebration, we are going to publish a Staff Favorite Film blog post every month, starting today.

My favorite American Experience documentary premiered in 2010. It just so happens that two other staffers had the same favorite film as I did, so in an effort to be a little less boring I am going to choose something else. As the master of all things digital here at American Experience, I will side with the masses on this choice; every year, without fail, we have one legacy (read: old) film that people keep coming back to online. We update it, people keep coming back to it. We post about it on Facebook and Twitter, people keep coming back to it. We ignore it completely, people keep coming back to it. It's the cockroach after the nuclear war -- except that it's very very popular. It premiered March 2, 1998, back when Natalie Portman looked like this and Seinfeld was battling ER for the most popular tv show of the year. It is Surviving the Dust Bowl.

We call it "The story of the farmers who came to the Southern Plains of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas dreaming of prosperity and lived through ten years of drought, dust, disease and death," but surely it is more than that. It's a story about probably the toughest Americans that ever lived. They were simple people. Mostly farmers. Doing what they were supposed to be doing. Working hard. Hands growing calloused while raising crops in the beautiful and bountiful Southern Plains. And not having any idea of how lucky they really were… until the rain stopped coming.

Today, stock market will have a bad day, the unemployment rate might grow for a month, housing prices don't rise as fast as we'd like them to, and it's front-page news. In 1931 the rain stopped for ten years. Ten years! Imagine it. Storms of dust. Dust coating every surface. Dust in your nose. Dust in your stomach. Dust pneumonia.

But this film is not called "The Dust Bowl." It is "Surviving the Dust Bowl," and that is what makes us come back to it again and again. It is the majority of the residents who chose to stay and tough it out. Theirs are stories not only of sadness and loss, but also determination, perseverance, and ultimately preservation and conservation. It's the story of the little guy who stayed the course, made some adjustments, and kept on chugging until the skies finally opened up again late in 1939. The guy who had such faith in his life and work that he promised "to stay here 'til hell freezes over, and skate out on the ice." And isn't that guy just the ultimate American hero? Isn't that the guy that we all really want to be? 

Or, maybe people keep coming back to this website because it's one of the top results when you Google "The Great Depression." Either way, Surviving the Dust Bowl is a great film, and it's one for which I have successfully lobbied my superiors at American Experience to pay the extra money to be able to keep streaming online for free for all of our amazing super fans. So watch it while it lasts!

(You'll have to come back again to later blog posts to find out what my #1 favorite American Experience documentary is…) 

Molly Jacobs is the Web Producer for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE


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