LOS ANGELES – Lois Vossen’s journey to become one of the most powerful gatekeepers in the documentary film world includes stints at the Loft and Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and the Sundance Film Festival. But the most intriguing stop may be the summer she spent in Cold Spring, Minn., yanking feathers off carcasses in a chicken production plant.
Vossen, who grew up on a dairy farm in nearby Watkins, Minn., wasn’t looking to become a Gold’n Plump lifer. The plan was to save enough money after graduating from high school to travel the world. College could wait. Then she started plucking.
“I remember sitting outside the factory after the first few days and thinking: I can’t spend my whole week thinking about what I’m going to do Friday night,” said Vossen. “There’s got to be a better way to live life. I’ll go to any college that takes me at this point.”
A sheepish Vossen was granted late admission into St. Cloud State University, where she studied arts administration, the formal foundation for her rise to the top as executive producer of PBS’ acclaimed documentary series “Independent Lens.”
Her efforts have led to eight Academy Award nominations, 17 Emmys and 17 Peabody Awards for such nonfiction films as “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “I Am Not Your Negro” and “Dolores,” a profile of United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta that will have its TV premiere Tuesday.
Since the launch of “Lens” 19 years ago, Vossen has used her influence to commission new films and encourage directors to invest their personal perspectives into their work.
“There’s a handful of people you want in your corner as a filmmaker, and Lois is one of them,” said Eugene Jarecki, whose film for “Lens” about the war on drugs, “The House I Live In,” won Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for documentaries in 2012. “She’ll lay down the law but also make sure that your voice and pursuit of the truth is paramount.”
Vossen credits her years in small-town Minnesota — and her months on the factory line — with instilling in her a respect for individual integrity, a running thread in the more than two dozen movies that “Lens” presents each season.
“Those experiences deeply affected my interest in rural stories, obviously, but also the working class,” she said. “Even disenfranchised farmers are independent. They don’t want to answer to anybody, and they’re stubborn.
“I don’t think I would be happy to be in a place that just churns out stuff. I love that we work with filmmakers to help their visions come true.”
Vossen’s Minnesota childhood seems an unlikely launchpad for a career in cinema.
Aside from the time her father, Elmer Vossen, took the family of eight kids to see “Flipper” at a drive-in, she didn’t go to a movie theater until she turned 16. Dad, who doesn’t have an answering machine or computer, said he and his wife, Julianna, rarely watch their daughter’s series; it’s on too late at night.
But as a child, Vossen would sneak out of her room on Saturday nights, after her parents went to bed, and watch classics starring Jimmy Stewart and Katharine Hepburn, the volume turned down so low that she had to read the actors’ lips.
“It seemed literally a million miles away, a land of fairy dust, so far from my reality,” she said. “I guess that’s what I loved about it.”
Elmer Vossen said he was unaware of his daughter’s late-night misdemeanors. In fact, he can’t think of a single time he had to enforce any sort of discipline.
“She asked me once, ‘How come you never gave us a scolding or a licking?’ I told her, ‘You guys kind of took care of yourself.’ ”
But Vossen isn’t afraid to get tough with filmmakers.
Jarecki said she was “relentlessly brutal” in attacking his latest film’s original title, “Promised Land,” in which he visits cities that played an integral role in Elvis Presley’s life while traveling in the music legend’s 1963 Rolls-Royce. He also praised her for removing segments that distracted from the main arc of the film, now called “The King” and scheduled to air next season. “She has the demeanor as a happy-go-lucky Minnesota kind of schoolteacher, but little do you know there’s a V-12 engine under the hood,” he said.
He had just returned from spending time with Vossen at Sundance, where she consistently outmaneuvers better-funded distributors such as Netflix and Amazon.
“She’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” he said.
Finally hitting the prime time on TPT
Dressed in a black sweater, bluejeans and sandals on the patio of a posh L.A. hotel, her rollaway luggage beside her (she lives in San Francisco), Vossen had just come from a meeting for the documentary branch of the Television Academy board.
Her commitment to personalized stories and diverse voices — more than half of this season’s films were directed by people of color — attracts big names to “Lens.” Steven Soderbergh is executive producer for “The King.” Carlos Santana and Benjamin Bratt are among the producers for “Dolores.”
“This is a real opportunity to demonstrate that we as Americans are not defined by the singular narrative that we learned in school,” said Bratt, whose brother Peter directed the film. “The definition is a lot more expansive than what’s been let on, and this is one more step in hopefully correcting that falsehood.”
“Dolores” will air locally in prime time, which might seem a given considering the track record of “Lens.” But for most of the series’ run, it has bounced around Twin Cities Public Television’s schedule. Highly touted films usually aired days, if not weeks, after being shown in other markets.
This season, however, the station started premiering installments of “Lens” in better, more high-profile time slots. “The audience’s appetite has been whetted for independent voices in film,” said Tom Holter, TPT’s executive director for programming. “It’s clear that there’s real momentum.”
That attitude comes as a relief to Vossen, who admits it was frustrating that her films were difficult to find in the market where she grew up.
“We would have a big article in People magazine that says we were going to be on a certain night and then people [in the Twin Cities] were not able to find it on that night, which kind of defeated the purpose of having a national premiere,” she said. “We had a lot of conversations about it over the years. I’m hoping that started to make sense.”
It certainly makes sense for Minnesota film fans — even if Vossen’s early-to-bed, early-to-rise parents aren’t among them.