The Night in 1968 I Was Born: Public Broadcast Laboratory’s “Birth and Death”

My lifetime of interest in documentary film began sometime during the week of December 4, 1968.

I was 17 years old. The $12.5 million Ford Foundation experiment in public television and precursor to PBS, the Public Broadcast Laboratory, was starting its second and final season with a two hour cinema verite film by Arthur Barron and Gene Marner, “Birth and Death.” The concept was to follow the birth of a baby in the first hour and the death of a man in the second hour.

I have always felt like I was born that night. Neither childbirth nor death had yet become the openly discussed public events that they are now, and the film was a revelation.

Coming around the same time as “Salesman” by Albert and David Maysles, and a year before two incredible semesters at UCLA studying the history of documentary film with Professor Edgar Brokaw, it was the first time in my life that I saw the raw and emotionally jarring power of cinema verite documentary. Before that night I had no idea what was possible when a first-rate cinematographer, often working with a handheld camera, would use excruciatingly intimate close-ups and candid reaction shots to capture the inherent power of lived experience.

“Birth and Death”  (1968) is discussed and remembered far too seldom, and was very much an early, brief precursor to POV. The night of that broadcast began what became PBS’s proud history of showing the work of outstanding documentary filmmakers to national audiences. It was also the night on which, as a teenager typically oblivious to mortality, it first struck me at the deepest level that going to Viet Nam with the rest of my age cohort might mean that I would die.  And I remember thinking after seeing the Barron film: Dying means you stop breathing. Dying means darkness. Not good. Not good at all.

I thought of all those years tonight when I heard that Fred Wiseman’s film company, Zipporah, has gradually been releasing his extraordinary body of work on DVD. Wiseman, I only learned a year later in 1969 at UCLA, had — at the very same time as Barron’s “Birth and Death” — already begun his astounding body of verite work in 1967 with “Titicut Follies.”

I later saw most of that work, much of which was also broadcast on PBS. Check out the Zipporah site and catch up on some of the greatest verite film ever made. I have a personal favorite, “Near Death,” and I’m sure many of you have yours.

1967 – 1972.

An amazing time for cinema verite. An amazing time to be coming of age. And – for a 17 year old about to contend with the Viet Nam draft — an amazing time to realize that, sooner or later, for good or for bad, birth would eventually be followed by death.

16 thoughts on “The Night in 1968 I Was Born: Public Broadcast Laboratory’s “Birth and Death”

  1. in 1968 my partner, Nick Proferes & i made 4 films for PBL:CARL STOKES (the first black mayor of a major city in the US, Cleveland ohio;GEORGE WALLACE & HIS AMERICANS ( the governor running for president ) ; RENAISSANCE, a classical music film and FREE AT LAST.(we spent the last 3 months of his life with Dr Martin Luther King as he began the Poor Peoples Campaign. It won the Venice Prize for best TV documentary of the year 1968 and was an Emmy nominee. They, PBS, then PBL (WNET IN NEW YORK the actual owners of the film) HAVE LOST ALL OF THE ORIGINAL MATERIAL FOR ALL OF THES FILMS. Did you see any of those? They showed once and disappeared into the ozone.
    Jim Desmond

  2. From 1967-69, I was on the staff of PBL. The highlight was working with Don Lenzer on “Fathers and Sons”, a documentary about radical students at Stanford, which aired in 1969.

    Tomorrow, Don flies from NYC to San Francisco to screen his 1968 film about the SF Mime Troupe, which he did for King Screen Productions of Seattle. It will be wonderful to see him.

  3. dear steve,\\

    i worked for pbl as a cameraman for a couple of years…..i worked on several documentaries at pbl (particularly one about the welfare system which had barbarba jordan in it…i often wondered where pbl stores these films… you have an idea or do you know anyone who might know…..thanks, prof.arnie baskin
    (i now teach at the nyu film school)

    • Arnie

      A pleasure to hear from you. I have no idea where they may be. I would give anything to see a number of those early PBLs. They really did open a new world to me, a world that I have happily inhabited ever since the first night PBL was on the air.

      In fact, the early one-two knockout punch of my adolescence, the most formative and inspiring things I saw, were 1) the first night of PBL with the back to back docs “Birth” and “Death” and 2) the day at UCLA a year or two later when a large group of us at the Melnitz Film Archive saw the Maysles brothers film Salesman for the first time. My 10 favorite doc list has always had Salesman at #1. 40 years!

      Now let me ask you a question: Just this minute I had a flashback and imagined that the earliest host on the first PBL magazine-show experiment was Sandy Vanocur. Am I hallucinating?

      Best Steve

  4. I was a PA on PBL and worked on the film with Arnie Baskin and David Brenner about Nicholas Rabe and migrant workers in the San Joachin Valley . I have looked everywhere for it. PBS seems to have a few PBL films but not this one. If anyone has a suggestion where I might search further, I’d appreciate it.
    Many thanks,
    Emily Squires

    • Perhaps your comment here will be caught by someone searching the Internet. I have no idea. But should you find something, you will have no more eager audience member.

  5. I too am looking for a print/copy of “Negros Next Door”. Filmed in St. Louis, at my parent’s house. Parents and neighbors were the talent. Broadcast in St. Louis on KETC on 26Jan1969. Producer: Danielle Hunebelle. New York Film crew. (including the sound man for “Candid Camera”). Part of the PBL series.
    Thanks for any help,
    John Weiss

  6. The PBL shows were donated to the Library of Congress in 1994. Contact the LOC Moving Images dept and they can find it. They found the segment I was looking for. If you want a copy, you’ll need to sign a release form, and pay ~$300. The shows are archived on very old 2″ quadraplex video tape. After the release and $, they will send it on DVD.

  7. I began with PBL in Washington, DC, in January 1968. John O’Toole was my exec producer, Elizabeth Farmer my colleague, Carol Oughton my associate. I returned to NYC at the end of 1968, finished out with PBL in June of 1969, then became a producer of the movie, WOODSTOCK, in August. Harry Wiland, who produced JOHNNY CASH: THE MAN, HIS WORLD AND MUSIC for PBL in March 1969, is now my business partner in Santa Monica. We founded MEDIA POLICY CENTER in 2003 and are both Ashoka Fellows. We have been working together since 1999, our longest business relationship. Go figure…Dale Bell

    • The funny thing is that — for me — the shock of seeing PBL, and the almost instant realization of what was possible in doc film, looms even larger for me today.

      It was a revelation in every sense of the word.

      So much hit me at once: PBL, Al and David and Charlotte’s Salesman, then Fred Wiseman, meeting and becoming friends with Kent MacKenzie, and the clincher —— Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool.

      Wasn’t that a time?

  8. To go beyond the Library of Congress, has anyone contacted Ray Fincke? or Gerry Slater, formerly of WETA? Or Arnold Labotan, formerly of WNET? these were the three principal people in “operations”…also add David Buskin, I think, who worked closely with Av Westin at ABC…these people might just know. I have contacted some archival people at WNET and they do have “lists of stuff”…I would suggest gong there. John Adams, who was music supervisor for many years at WNET, at PBL, and also at NET, may have some clue, too….

    • I am interested in seeing some of the old PBL films. Thanks so much for your suggestions. Thanks for posting!

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