A highlight of Silverdocs 2011 was a chance to sit for a bit to listen to D A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, honored last night at the AFI Silver Theater.
Like Albert Maysles, Robert Drew and Frederick Wiseman, Pennebaker and Hegedus are lasting symbols of a exciting tradition of documentary filmmaking. That they continue to make movies and appear at festivals like SilverDocs means that they are still affecting non fiction filmmaking today. These are the grandparents of an ongoing rich movement in American non fiction moviemaking.
Taking the stage last night after an intro by Senator Al Franken, subject of their recent doc, “Al Franken: God Spoke,” Pennebaker and Hegedus talked about their life and work together.
“You’re not going to live forever,” Franken told them, “But your films will!”
On stage later, during a Q & A, Pennebaker and Hegedus bemoaned their ability to raise funds to make their movies over the years. “We are very bad at raising money because we dont know the end of our story,” Chris Hegedus explained. But, Pennebaker said they made a crucial decision early on. That is, to hold onto the rights to their films. He joked that they’ve survived over the years thanks to money they’ve made off of dead rock stars.
“Not owning rights to your film means you can’t make money from them after,” Pennebaker explained.
Later, they were asked how they met. The story involves Film Forum, its chief Karen Cooper and a showing of their doc, “Jane.” After the showing Pennebaker met Hegedus.
“I couldn’t take my eyes off her,” he said sweetly, looking over at his wife on stage last night.
I was particularly moved by Silverdocs festival director Sky Sitney’s introduction of Pennebaker and Hegedus last night. I asked her for a copy of her speech and am including excerpts below. Cheers Penne and Chris!
One of the miraculous achievements of a documentary filmmaker is to demonstrate – at one and the same time – penetrating insight and anonymity. That is, to make one’s work so iconic that the images are taken as natural phenomenon.
If you’ve ever held an image in your mind of the young Bob Dylan of 1965. If you’ve ever glimpsed Janis Joplin or Jimi Hendrix perform in the Monterey Pop Festival. Or saw a glimmer of David Bowie’s final performance as Ziggy Stardust, then you’ve looked through Hegedus and Pennebaker’s eyes.
I doubt that there is one person in this room whose imagination has not been furnished by many of their images.
The capacity to portray people with such immediacy and such naturalness is one of the hardest and most underrated of cinematic virtues.
It is only with a passionate love of reality and a humility of craftsmanship that one can achieve a feeling as if we were right there ourselves. Right there in Bill Clinton’s “war room’ alongside James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Right there as a young entrepreneur, Kaleil Tuzman, creates a website, raises 60 million dollars within a year, and then loses everything.
A more naïve viewer might think that Hegedus and Pennebaker have been lucky; lucky to have always already been in the right place at the right time. To have always found the perfect subjects. To have always managed to capture both the subtle and the grandiose moments.
But we know that this is not luck… It is a combination of the most astute social insight and impeccable skill that have made these filmmakers such luminaries in the art of cinema vérité.
For they are among the chiefs iconographers of America culture, who have an uncanny ability to show us how we will be seen long after we pass from this earth.