Six decades of documentary filmmaking and one lifetime Achievement Oscar haven’t gotten legendary director D.A. Pennebaker thinking about retirement.
This week, the 90-year-old Pennebaker and his wife Chris Hegedus released their latest film, “Unlocking the Cage,” about an animal rights lawyer’s quest to protect “cognitively complex” animals like chimpanzees from abuse based on their heightened levels of intelligence. Executive produced by HBO Documentary Films, the doc premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and is being released theatrically by First Run Features. The film marks the 40th year of Pennebaker’s collaboration with his wife and co-director.
With nearly 50 directing credits to his name, Pennebaker shows no signs of fatigue describing the moment he learned of attorney Steve Wise’s plan to give animals personhood rights and eliminate the legal barrier separating them from humans. “I had a vision of our being in a court room with a camera and a judge saying ‘Well, let me think about that,’ and I just couldn’t miss that,” he said. “That seemed to me such an amazing moment of history for the law.”
Though known best for his 1967 film “Don’t Look Back,” about Bob Dylan’s final acoustic tour, and 1993’s “The War Room,” about Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign — the latter of which earned Pennebaker and Hegedus an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary — Pennebaker is also a technical innovator. In the 1960s, he helped build the first fully portable 16mm camera that could follow subjects through rooms while capturing footage and sound in sync. His early work in camera technology has earned him a reputation as one of the founders of the cinéma vérité movement.
His reaction to being awarded a lifetime achievement Oscar in 2012, however, was one of surprise. “My first sense was, why are they reaching out to us?” he said. “We’re not a part of that world, but when I went out there, they were so gracious and people were just so kind, like they knew we were part of their world in some way. It changed my feelings about Hollywood a lot.”
As a New York-based documentarian, Pennebaker has always been shielded from the Hollywood studio system. During a trip to the Cannes Film Festival where Pennebaker planned to show a rough cut of “Don’t Look Back,” he quickly became disillusioned with the experience of screening a film at the most prestigious film festival in the world. “All anybody talked about was money and deals and I felt so far away from that world that I took the film back and never showed it,” he said.
Despite having lived through decades of filmmaking innovations, Pennebaker still sees the documentary form as being in its infancy. “I think it’s a new language and it will take us another generation or two to figure out exactly how to use it effectively,” he said. “It’s not going to be used just as an entertainment facility, and it’s going to be very purposeful in the way cultures educate themselves, so I think that we’re at the beginning of it.”
Unlike some feature film directors — from David Lynch to Terry Gilliam — who loathe the idea of people watching movies on iPhones, Pennebaker calls the trend “the future,” particularly for education. “You can’t teach people just by putting it in a book,” he said. “You have to show them what the effect was on live people, who they care about.” Asked whether he’d be interested in making another documentary about a presidential election, this time focusing on Donald Trump, Pennebaker said, “I’m glad I don’t have to.”
One of the changes Pennebaker sees as inevitable in the future has to do with the way many documentaries follow the story arc of narrative feature films that run for 90 minutes. “We still cling to a lot of that old device, and I think that will gradually disappear over the next 20 to 30 years and they’ll become maybe more lyrical,” he said. “They’ll change in ways that will be really interesting, but that I have no idea about.” Despite these changes, Pennebaker still contends that all stories should start “at the beginning,” whether documentary or fiction. “You shouldn’t have to have somebody explain what happened before,” he said.
With “Unlocking the Cage,” Pennebaker and Hegedus never wanted to stop shooting, as Wise’s fight to win more rights for certain nonhuman creatures is still ongoing. Wise calls the current phase “the end of the beginning” for granting new protections for certain animals. “It’s the drive to make any nonhuman animal a person instead of a thing,” he said. “As we move forward, everything else becomes the beginning of the end.”
Despite the long track record of Pennebaker/Hegedus Films, the pair have always struggled in one way or another to find funding for their projects. In 2014, two years after starting work on “Unlocking the Cage,” Pennebaker and Hegedus turned to Kickstarter, where they raised nearly $90,000 to help fund production of the film. “It’s always a challenge,” Hegedus said, adding that investing in a documentary always comes with an added level of uncertainty. “We follow real life stories, and nobody knows what’s going to happen.”
Their next project, for which they’re still trying to put together financing, will focus on Pennebaker’s own career and working relationship with the late documentarian Albert Maysles. Pennebaker and Maysles’s collaboration dates back to the 1959 film “Opening in Moscow,” about the American trade exhibition in Russia, where the two became good friends.
When pressed for more details about the movie, Pennebaker insisted that he had already shared everything he could. “I won’t tell you what’s going to happen,” he said, “because I don’t know yet.”
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