Yesterday here at the Silverdocs Documentary Film Festival, hundreds gathered in the large theater at the AFI Silver for the Guggenheim Symposium to honor the careers of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, the cinema verite filmmakers behind such classics as “The Energy War” (which took viewers into Carter’s White House to watch him and his team deal with the fuel catastrophe), “The War Room” (a look at the 1992 Clinton/Gore presidential campaign), “StartUp.com” (a look at the rise and fall of a dot-com boom startup), and the recently released “Kings of Pastry.”
After festival director Sky Sitney introduced the filmmaking duo as filmmakers that “demonstrate penetrating insight and anonymity” with “astute instinct,” she passed the baton to Senator Al Franken, who was profiled in two of their documentaries, “Franken v. Fox” and “Al Franken: God Spoke.” In introducing the filmmakers, Senator Al Franken recounted a story from his time in Hollywood. A room of television movers and shakers were honoring the retirement of Aaron Spelling and one executive got up to say that Spelling produced 3,000 hours of TV, not one of them good. Franken noted that Hegedus and Pennebaker have made more than fifty films apart and together, “each one of them brilliant.”
Franken loved working with the filmmakers so much that he, in retrospect, would have loved to have his run for the Senate documented by them on film. He was worried, at the time, that his constituents would think he had an inflated ego if he had documentary crews following him during the campaign and joked that if around 300 people thought less of him for filming his campaign, he would not be in the Senate today. He finished by noting that the filmmakers’ films will live on long after the filmmakers’ lives.
Watching clips from the illustrious career of the husband and wife team of Pennebaker and Hegedus, the power of the medium’s ability to enter into the intimate nooks and crannies of tense situations was made readily apparent. Pennebaker, who was a part of Robert Drew’s team of TIME LIFE direct cinema/cinema verite filmmakers, met Hegedus when Drew told her he had no jobs for her and sent her to down the street to speak with Pennebaker. Pennebaker told her he had no jobs for her either, but reconsidered and called her the next day to bring her on board. From then on, from the time Hegedus began to work editing Pennebaker’s then-current film, they were a team, working together on dozens of documentaries over several decades.
Responding to a question about the lack of narration in their films, Pennebaker noted, “When you go to the theater, you don’t expect the manager to come out and explain to you why the characters are in trouble.” Speaking to the troubles of shooting verite before cameras were light, Pennebaker admitted that it was this problem that convinced Robert Drew and company to work for TIME LIFE; they crafted light, efficient cameras for their filmmakers.
But eventually TIME LIFE would stop subsidizing their work, and Hegedus and Pennebaker were out on their own. “Money is the biggest problem,” confessed Pennebaker. He continued, “We rob banks, whatever we have to do. Today you can make films very cheaply, even finish them, but once you want them on the big screen, the labs are waiting for you and your money.” Hegedus added, “We’re very bad at raising money.” Using “The War Room” as an example, she noted, “Who would want to invest in a film that could potentially be the story of the losing candidates? We’re lucky to stay doing what we’re doing because we’ve held onto the rights to almost all of our films. We joke all the time that we stay alive because of dead rock stars.”
While their work is diverse, Pennebaker and Hegedus have had a knack for recording show business. They are responsible for iconic film clips of Jimi Hendrix at the Monterey Pop Festival, Bob Dylan running down alleyways, Elaine Stritch having trouble while recording the Original Broadway Cast Recording of “Company,” and Carol Burnett playing off a stage malfunction in “Moon Over Broadway.”
Far from simple concert or stage play recorders, the team and their collaborators provide perspectives of these events that unpeel layers of staged performances of all kinds. On their draw to performers and situations like campaigns and other competitions that are inherently wrought with tension, Pennebaker noted, “With musicians [and politicians] it’s easy to do film them do what they do when they do it. With most people, it’s hard to be there when fate turns against them.”