• Interviews

Theresa Navarro of AmDoc: Keeping Diverse Storytellers Heard

Filipina American Theresa Navarro, Vice President for External Affairs of American Documentary (AmDoc), a Hollywood Foreign Press Association grantee, grew up in a family which loved cinema.

“My fondest childhood memories involve going to the drive-in theater with my family or sneaking Asian snacks into the matinee with my cousins,” Navarro recalled. “We had a local video store with movies from the Philippines which, despite leaning toward action and melodrama, helped normalize faces ‘like mine’ as the lead characters on screen. One major inspiration was my maternal grandfather, who regularly ordered classic movies and musicals on VHS and kept the boxes in pristine condition with the plastic intact.”

Now Navarro and her department at AmDoc lead the “branding, messaging and positioning for our nonprofit and raise awareness and support for our programs like POV and America ReFramed. This includes marketing, communications, fundraising, and government affairs.”

“I also have the honor and privilege of collaborating with diverse, independent storytellers and sharing their work with audiences across the country,” she continued. “When my kids ask what I do, I tell them mommy gets to watch documentaries for a living – which is truly a dream come true.”

AmDoc is a national nonprofit media arts organization that strives to make essential documentaries accessible as a catalyst for public discourse. They collaborate with passionate filmmakers to amplify their voices, and to nurture the nonfiction community.

Navarro, who is a working mother (she has two daughters ages 4½ and 2), cultural worker, and an Independent Spirit Award-nominated producer, has led the development, communications, and audience engagement initiatives for award-winning arts and cultural organizations, including marketing collaborations with Disney, HBO, MTV, Toyota, and Verizon over the past decade.

AmDoc is behind the PBS series POV, the longest-running nonfiction showcase on American television. POV (a cinematic term for “point of view”) is US TV’s longest-running showcase for independent nonfiction films.

It premieres 14 to 16 of the best, boldest, and most innovative programs every year on PBS. Since 1988, POV has presented over 400 films to public television audiences across the country.

Prior to her current position at AmDoc, Navarro served as associate producer for the Emmy-nominated series America ReFramed, a co-production with WGBH/WORLD Channel.

Navarro’s producing credits include Daylight Savings (SXSW 2012), sports documentary 9-Man (DOCNYC 2014), and sci-fi feminist film Advantageous (Sundance 2015) which won the festival’s special jury prize for collaborative vision and was nominated for Film Independent’s John Cassavetes Award.

America ReFramed is a year-round documentary series that illuminates the changing contours of the ever evolving US. A co-production with the World Channel, the series launched in 2012 to respond to the growing need for intimate and diverse stories that are domestically based.

Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, AmDoc has presented more than 700 documentaries on-air, online, and in communities in collaboration with generations of bold, independent filmmakers. It has won every major broadcast and journalism award, including 45 Emmy Awards, 26 George Foster Peabody Awards, 15 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, three Academy Awards, and the first-ever George Polk Documentary Film Award.

We interviewed Navarro via email. Below are excerpts of our conversation:

Congratulations on the recent awards and nominations for your series POV. How did you get involved with AmDoc and POV?

I grew up watching PBS as a kid and always thought of POV as a place for films that expanded the way I saw the world. The series was also the first place I saw works by filmmakers like Marlon Riggs, Lourdes Portillo, and Deann Borshay Liem, and challenged mainstream ideas of what a documentary can be and who can make one.

When I started producing, I was introduced to American Documentary when a friend’s film was acquired by its then-newest series America ReFramed. I couldn’t believe this small but mighty nonprofit was behind some of my favorite nonfiction series, and I applied to be an associate producer on the series. Eight years later, I’m still inspired by the work we get to do.

What are the challenges that you encounter in your position and how do you handle them?

I’m a cultural worker who sees narrative change as an important step in shifting our perceptions and lived realities. One of our biggest challenges is navigating this cluttered and continually shifting media landscape, with 24-hour news cycles and content feeds on screens both big and small. We are up against industry players with incredibly deep pockets, but we’ve also seen major platforms rise and fall so we know that money can’t solve everything.

We’re also living through an age of information, or misinformation, where many of us are constantly “plugged in” yet feel more disconnected than ever before. Our echo chambers are exasperated by algorithms that only reinforce our own world views. Then, of course, there’s the ongoing pandemic, which has affected every aspect of our lives as an industry, as viewers, and as humans.

Where does AmDoc come in? We double down on our belief that independent documentaries provide an important reminder of our shared humanity, especially during these troubling times. We’re proud of our 35-year reputation as a trusted curator, reviewing hundreds of submissions through an inclusive editorial process that includes local station programmers and the independent filmmaking community. We consider things like craft, ethics, and impact, and take seriously our role in presenting real stories about real people with dignity and care.

Then we do our part to make artful nonfiction storytelling accessible to all by partnering with PBS to serve the American viewing public; our shows like POV are carried by 97 percent of PBS stations, reaching millions of viewers for free on-air, online, and through on the ground screening events with local community partners.

Above all, we remain nimble whenever possible and find new and meaningful ways to address gaps in the field today.

What are your criteria for choosing a documentary to support?

We support artful, thought-provoking films with character-driven storytelling. We look for documentaries that put a human face on the headlines and have a long history of working with filmmakers from underrepresented communities as well as international artists.

POV remains one of the few US broadcasters of international documentaries, including short-form films, and America ReFramed is known for year-round programming of diverse independent filmmakers.

Talk about your Philippine background and how it inspired your career to champion diverse storytellers.

As we say in the Bay Area, I’m “hella Pinay.” My mom, the fifth of 12 children, grew up in Quezon City and immigrated to the States during the Marcos dictatorship.

The story goes, her dad, a Bicolano from Sorsogon, met her mom, a fierce Samareña, during World War II when she helped free him from internment as a POW. My dad, the eldest of eight children, grew up in Naga City and was an OFW (Overseas Filipino Worker) in the Middle East before joining my mom here in the States.

His father, who passed when I was very young, was a veterano who survived the Bataan Death March, while his mother used to tell me stories growing up of hiding in the mountains when the soldiers would come. Their stories are part of the reason I have such a strong sense of culture and identity and inspire my belief in the power of storytelling as a form of collective memory.

I was born here in the States and grew up in Union City, a small-town half an hour away from Oakland. I was raised in a multigenerational household, with my parents and my grandparents (both my mom’s parents and my dad’s mom). We were part of a tight-knit Filipino community: our church had Simbang Gabi (Midnight Mass) masses; our high school was one of the first to teach Tagalog classes; and our middle school was recently renamed in honor of Filipino labor leaders Larry Itliong and Philip Vera Cruz.

My own family was working class and highly valued education. I was able to go to college on a small scholarship. I studied history and ethnic studies at the University of California in Riverside, then completed my graduate work in American Studies at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. After grad school, I moved to New York and lived there for a decade until returning to the Bay Area during the pandemic. I definitely miss our life on the East Coast but I’m grateful to be raising my young daughters closer to their grandparents.

At what point in your life did you discover your love for cinema? Who or what inspired you?

I’ve always loved movies though I’m not sure how much of that is unique to me or part of a broader cultural attitude. How does the saying go? “Filipinos lived 300 years in the convent and 50 years in Hollywood.”

Growing up, certain films felt like a rite of passage, like Boyz n the Hood or Kids. Later, I was drawn to international films like Amelie, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Y Tu Mamá También, as well as independent and Third World Cinema like Bontoc Eulogy and The Battle of Algiers.

Another important inspiration was the Center for Asian American Media, where I worked as part of the festival and exhibition staff. This was my version of film school, where I watched hundreds of shorts, independent features, and international films, including a memorable seven-film retrospective of Hong Sang-Soo. This was also during a time when Asian American films were few and far between.

It’s exciting to see more Asian and Asian American films gaining recognition and success, as well as more opportunities to get these films distributed. I also can’t imagine how many incredible stories I would have missed if I had been stopped by what Bong Joon-ho famously called the “one-inch subtitle barrier!”

One of the films in the 35th season of POV is the documentary, Delikado, which is about environmental crusaders fighting illegal logging in Palawan, Philippines. What interested you about this film and what do you think audiences will get after watching the documentary?

When I first watched Delikado, I was immediately drawn in by its storytelling style. It’s an environmental thriller that follows local activists who risk their lives to protect the Philippines’ “last ecological frontier” – sometimes with tragic consequences. I believe the film will make audiences think differently about places they see as just another tourist destination and get a first-hand look at the economic and political forces that profit from “paradise.”

Before watching the film, I wasn’t aware that the Philippines was actually one of the most dangerous places in the world for land defenders. This feels even more timely in the wake of the Philippine elections.

It’s an impressive debut feature from director Karl Malakunas, who was a regional news bureau chief. I’m also a big fan of producers Kara Magsanoc-Alikpala and the Thoughtful Robot team Marty Syjuco and Michael Collins, whose previous films have been shown on POV.


Any other documentaries in the 35th season that you are excited to show to the public and why?

It’s a special year, and I’m honestly excited about all of them. We have our signature first-person narratives like Tribeca pick An Act of Worship, Sundance prize winner I Didn’t See You There, and Love & Stuff from Peabody Award-winning filmmaker Judith Helfand.

I’m always inspired by films that can spark conversation on today’s most pressing issues, like immigration with The Last Out and education equity with Let the Little Light Shine. I also love how POV spotlights global nonfiction you won’t find anywhere else, including films like Midwives from Myanmar and Oscar-shortlisted titles like President, which is currently banned in Zimbabwe, and Faya Dayi, a lyrical meditation on a euphoria-inducing plant in Ethiopia.

We’re getting ready to announce the fifth season of our POV Shorts series which includes festival favorites like Coming Home, about the ways a Brooklyn dance crew stays connected to their Palestinian culture.

Lastly, if you were given a chance to make your own documentary, what will it be about and why?

Most of my dream projects are deeply personal; if I only had the budget (and time and energy). For example, I’d love to do a travel documentary that retraces my dad’s journey as an overseas Filipino worker and his circuitous route leaving Saudi Arabia to the States. I believe OFWs from his generation sacrificed so much for the chance at a better life for their families back home.

It would be great to preserve these kinds of personal histories that otherwise might be lost to time.