Green screen: Greg Pak's Mister Green, created for ITVS's FUTURESTATES, is a parable about change.

Karim Ahmad on ITVS's Forward-Thinking FUTURESTATES

Adam Hartzell March 21, 2010

When you think of public television in the United States, science fiction, or any type of fiction, may not spring to mind. Independent Television Service (ITVS) is trying to change that perception by creating a series of 11 fictional mini-features on American society in the not-too-distant future. Launched March 8 as an immersive destination website to be available for free via streaming video with subsequent distribution on, FUTURESTATES feautres directors such as Greg Pak (Robot Stories) and Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye, Solo) thinking into the future while staying tethered to current events. The series dropped down on the South by Southwest and San Francisco International Asian American film festival this past month, and after viewing two of the mini-features at an event held at the Jellyfish Gallery in SOMA sponsored by Next American City magazine and ITVS, I sat down with FUTURESTATES programming manager Karim Ahmad to talk about the forward-thinking initiative.

SF360: You mentioned something at the event launching the series about only having the filmmakers project a little bit into the future, not going 100 years from now but more so 10, 15 into the future.

Karim Ahmad: Well, there’s definitely some variance from film to film. One film Plastic Bag which was directed by Ramin Bahrani . . . you follow a plastic bag as it goes home with its ‘maker,’ the woman who takes it home from the store. It lives with this woman for a period of months until it gets thrown away eventually. And then it goes to a landfill where it’s buried for years and years, an unforeseeable amount of time. And then when it finally becomes free . . . .

So that one really casts way into the future. But then when you look at something like Tent City (Aldo Velasco), which we watched at the event, that’s something that could happen tomorrow, next year.

SF360: Or is happening now. . . That’s the thing about the future, when we predict certain things, when we imagine what megalopolises are going to be, some people are experiencing that in Mumbai and Lagos now. What resonated for me about Tent City is that it is as much a Now as it is a Future.

The two contributions you screened were graspable because they were grounded in stuff I already knew. That provided me an entry point of believability even though I knew this was the future. Was that your intent for choosing the requirement of including current events?

Ahmad: The way the series’ concepts evolved was actually kind of an interesting one. We definitely wanted to do something that was cutting edge. We wanted to do something that, because we knew it was going to be for online, something that would sort of broaden the traditional public media viewership. It was interesting in discussions where we were talking about what the theme for the series would be because we knew it would have to have some sort of cohesion but at the same time be diverse enough that we wouldn’t have 12 films about the exact same thing. And as we were discussing it amongst the programming department, we started talking more and more about the future and what the future will hold. In particular, one touchstone in this discussion which was really informative was The Twilight Zone. . . ., We were all big Twilight Zone fans. The great thing about that series is that it’s obviously very fantastical, had all kinds of very surreal elements to it, but it was all about the hopes and fears of the time. I think that science fiction in general has its history and genesis in being referential about the hopes and fears of its time.

. . . Thinking about all these great science fiction films and television series, that was something we really thought was a great opportunity, not only to accentuate the social value of the series and the social messages of the series, but also to break new ground with public media. Like, the idea of doing a science fiction series for public media, it’s very ’out there.’ But it’s also, like, there’s nothing to say why we can’t do that. Why can’t we do something that’s a little edgy and bring a new audience into public media in that way that’s younger and maybe isn’t interested in straightforward social issues documentaries that they are seeing on broadcast?

SF360: You’re also trying to make a space for drama, giving people the opportunity to do drama on public television, enabling an opportunity to do something different that isn’t happening on cable or terrestrial television.

Ahmad: . . . There’s definitely a real budgetary challenge in the terms of the way that we’d get involved in [fiction production]. Because the amount of money that we are able to commit to a single project is often only enough to fully fund a very, very low budget project. And because of the way that fiction films are made, it’s not the same type of situation where a documentary will be sort of halfway through production, they’ll come to us, we’ll be able to give them completion funding. A fiction film wouldn’t come to us halfway through being in production. It just doesn’t work that way. Most fiction filmmakers know that they shouldn’t go into production unless they have money to go all the way through and complete post-production.

. . .That’s one challenge, but I think the really bigger challenge is actually the distribution challenge. There’re just very, very few, almost no places on PBS that we can actually broadcast this stuff. Independent Lens is really the only standing series that actually within its mandate can broadcast a fiction program.

We‘ve sort of struggled with this. In the past we thought of a number of different ways to approach fiction programming. Fiction filmmakers are still very much a part of our constituency. We’re publicly funded. We’re funded indirectly through U.S. tax dollars. For us to say, ‘We’re just going to work with documentary filmmakers and these fiction guys can just sort of figure out something else,’ goes against the ethos and spirit of what ITVS is. And in a very real way it goes against our mission. So we’re trying to figure out a way to do it that makes sense, given the reality of the marketplace, given the reality of our funding streams.

That’s sort of how we came to FUTURESTATES. . . . It was the distribution challenges of traditional broadcast coupled with wanting to do fiction but having challenges with long-form, coupled with this new opportunity that’s come up in the last couple of years, which is the idea of public media moving more into the digital space. We have these challenges and we have this opportunity here and we thought we would marry the two. ‘Let’s do shorter format fiction as a series that’s commissioned, guaranteed distribution, will fund filmmakers through development and production, and we’ll package them as a series and distribute them on the web.’ And hopefully we can do a broadcast later down the line, but the success of the series isn’t tied to that. It’s primarily, first and foremost, a fiction series for online.

SF360: This makes me think of a key difference between PBS and other public television entities like the CBC or Australia’s ABC, where they do have this aspect of fiction as part of their mandates. Partly because they are competing against us, the U.S. They have to create some local product. That’s why something like the animated series bro’Town can come out of New Zealand through partial public funding because they need to have that contingent represented. Like, ‘Ok, a Simpsons-esque animated series featuring a bunch of Pacific Islander kids, let’s do it because the U.S. is not going to do that.’ So that’s an interesting difference with various countries’ public media.

…What have your yourself learned about the future, or at least the way we depict it, from this first season of FUTURESTATES?

Ahmad: That’s a good question. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve thought about my own particular perspective on the future in that way. I definitely consider myself an optimist. It’s difficult to be an optimist in these times. I certainly used to be more pessimistic than I am now. Working on FUTURESTATES definitely reinforced and reconnected me with my own inner optimism.

Coming off a time when everyone was so incredibly hopeful about the future, particularly around the election, and having very, very high hopes for the future, and very quickly having a lot of those hopes dashed. The world, and this country in particular, is very much on this roller-coaster. And I think now we’re more on that downturn and it’s hard to really reconnect with that hope that I think myself and a lot of us in this country had right around the time we were developing this series. One of the great things that working on this series does is it gives me an opportunity to continuously reconnect with that sense of optimism.

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