D.A. Pennebaker has died. Much like Albert Maysles and Jonas Mekas, who both passed away only relatively recently after a lifetime of service to the art form they loved and helped mold, the man seemed immortal. His last feature, UNLOCKING THE CAGE, co-directed with his wife Chris Hegedus, was released just 3 years ago, and in the meantime he's appeared at countless documentary related events, including DOC NYC and Pure Nonfiction to discuss his career and the always fluctuating state of the documentary form, a modern medium he helped to reinvent and continued to promote throughout his lifetime. I had the great honor of meeting Hegedus & Pennebaker about six years ago following a special screening of THE WAR ROOM at Hot Docs. It was the final screening of the festival and my girlfriend was parked outside the venue waiting to drive me home to Buffalo, but I selfishly made her wait so I could linger around for my chance to thank them for all of their beautiful, deeply moving contributions to cinema. I had interviewed AJ Schnack and Nathan Truesdell about their films WE ALWAYS LIE TO STRANGERS and CAUCUS the day before, CAUCUS showing obvious influence from H & P's celebrated campaign doc, and Schnack had conducted the post-screening Q&A with his heroes at the fairly intimate Isabel Bader Theatre. Lingering around the lobby, he graciously offered to use my terrible phone to snap this much cherished, super blurry, cheese eating photo of Penny, Chris and I. My heart goes out to Chris and their family. Thanks again.
-Jordan M. Smith
Documentary Filmmaking Pioneer D.A. Pennebaker Dies at 94
According to various reports, D.A. Pennebaker, the Oscar winning filmmaker died of natural causes at his home in Sag Harbor, NY on Thursday at the age of 94. Anyone reading this memo likely knows his filmography all too well, as he was at the helm of direct cinema classics such as DONT LOOK BACK and MONTEREY POP, worked alongside Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and Albert Maysles on PRIMARY and other Drew Associates pictures, and for the past 40 years has co-directed a barrage of films with his wife and partner Chris Hegedus, including TOWN BLOODY HALL, THE WAR ROOM and most recently, UNLOCKING THE CAGE. It’s impossible to fully account for just how much impact D.A. Pennebaker has had on the field of documentary filmmaking, but if the outpouring of love and respect from filmmakers, musicians and critics alike in the wake of the legendary filmmaker’s death over the weekend is any indicator, it has been massive indeed. I can’t begin to sum up all the writing that has taken place in just the last day and a half, but I’ve collected a few of the most notable here:
Additionally, Pennebaker and Hegedus were frequent flyers at DOC NYC and the Stranger Than Fiction film series (now Pure Nonfiction) over the years, not to mention the recipients of a DOC NYC Lifetime Achievement Award, so I've linked to a wealth of interviews, roundtables and extras that explore their work and documentary filmmaking more generally:
DA Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus have been collaborating for 40 years. In this interview with Thom Powers, they talk about films throughout their career including TOWN BLOODY HALL about a 1970s debate over women’s liberation; THE WAR ROOM about Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign; and their newest HBO documentary UNLOCKING THE CAGE about animal rights lawyer Steve Wise, now playing in theaters. Pennebaker also shares memories of working with David Bowie on the 1970s concert film ZIGGY STARDUST AND THE SPIDERS FROM MARS. The interview was recorded in May at the Montclair Film Festival’s Audible Lounge before a live audience. During the conversation, Chris refers to Pennebaker’s son Frazer who has been a key producer on their projects since the 1980s.
Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and The Who are among the classic acts captured by D.A. Pennebaker in MONTEREY POP. Now for the 50th anniversary of the concert, the film is being released in a new 4k restoration by The Criterion Collection and Janus Films. Pure Nonfiction host Thom Powers interviewed Pennebaker along with two of the film’s cameramen Jim Desmond and Nick Proferes on June 14, 2017 at the IFC Center in front of a live audience.
D.A. Pennebaker’s1970 documentary ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: COMPANY captures the dramatic recording session of the Stephen Sondheim musical. The film is a cult classic among Broadway fans. Now it’s the target of a loving parody in the third season of Documentary Now!, the IFC TV series created by Seth Meyers, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Rhys Thomas. Their version is called “Original Cast Album: Co-op” set inside a New York co-op apartment building.
SAY WHAT HAPPENED: A STORY
By Nick Fraser
"Documentary films are the rock and roll of our times. Why are they made? Who are in the tribe of documentary film-makers? Do their films really change the world? Eighteen years ago, Nick Fraser created BBC Storyville, producing films that won Oscars, BAFTAs, and Peabody Awards. He found film-makers from all across the world covering important subjects in documentaries. In Say What Happened he describes the frenzied, intense world of documentary film-making, tracing its history back to the early pioneers, such as Dziga Vertov and his ground-breaking MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA."
ON THE FESTIVAL CIRCUIT
TIFF ’19: Canadian Slate Announced Frederick Blichert reported on the latest Toronto International Film Festival lineup announcements for Realscreen: “A number of documentary films, including new titles from Alanis Obomsawin and Alan Zweig, are set to premiere as part of the Canadian Features program at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival. Obomsawin’s JORDAN RIVER ANDERSON, THE MESSENGER will be presented as part of the Masters program, holding its world premiere at TIFF ’19. The film tells the story of Jordan River Anderson, whose healthcare struggles were exacerbated by mismanagement relating to his Indian status, leading to “Jordan’s Principle,” a law ensuring access to care for indigenous peoples, despite continued systemic challenges. Meanwhile, the TIFF Docs program will include the world premieres of Canadian docs COPPERS (Alan Zweig), about the highs and lows of policing; THIS IS NOTE A MOVIE (Yung Chang), about the work of veteran journalist Robert Fisk; and THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE WATER (Ellen Page, Ian Daniel), about environmental racism in indigenous and black communities.”
Dispatch: FIDMarseille 2019 Christopher Small reported for Film Comment on the 30th edition of FIDMarseille: “As befits a festival specializing in documentary cinema with porous boundaries, the 30th edition of FIDMarseille rubbed shoulders with a media event all but unrelated to the cinema: the semi-final of the 2019 Africa Cup of Nations. In this city with large Tunisian and Algerian populations, there was a special kind of charge in the air. Whereas film festivals often feel cloistered from the outside world, the twin spectacles of football match and sometimes violent Bastille Day celebrations were impossible to ignore in Marseille, even in the space of the cinema itself. Explosions—presumably fireworks—periodically rocked theaters on the night of July 14, shuddering in the heavy air like muffled peels of thunder. Leaving the cinema late that night, I walked cautiously past an army of hulking riot police buckling thick plastic shields onto their arms and strapping on helmets and visors, there to violently enforce order on a national holiday rocked by protest. In front of the café next to them, 50 or more Algerian football supporters formed a crescent around a distant 25-inch television blaring out the match. Despite the chaos around them, these supporters were as transfixed by the game as they had been when I’d slipped past into the movie an hour before."
Stephen Wilkes' DOC NYC alum JAY MYSELF, which profiles photographer Jay Maisel, is the only new theatrical release this week, while Avi Belkin's true crime mini-series NO ONE SAW A THING is now available via Sundance TV.
Pedagogy and Play: The Films of Abbas Kiarostami Lawrence Garcia outlined the pedagogical riches to be found in the new travelling retrospective of Abbas Kiarostami’s work for MUBI’s Notebook: “That the filmmaking practice of Abbas Kiarostami can be described as pedagogical is, in some sense, self-evident—at least for the early portion of his directorial career. In 1969, as the Iranian New Wave was cresting, he joined the filmmaking department of Kanun (or the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults), and would, for the subsequent two decades, produce a set of films that laid the groundwork for one of the most original and varied of filmmaking careers. ‘We were supposed to make films that dealt with childhood problems,’ said Kiarostami of his work during that period. ‘At the beginning it was just a job, but it was the making of me as an artist.’ It is no coincidence that many of these—mostly shorts and short features, newly restored—are set in around schools and classrooms, nor that they primarily feature schoolchildren, teachers, or pedagogical scenes. Formerly difficult to see, and thus the centerpiece attraction of a new touring retrospective from Janus Films, this early run provides a chance to re-encounter and re-contextualize a director whose reputation is perhaps too rigidly circumscribed by discussions of his humanism.”
How Reality and Nonfiction DPs Prepare for the Unexpected At Variety, Karen Idelson spoke with a handful of Emmy nominated nonfiction cinematographers about how they deal with the unexpected: “Matt Aeberhard, nommed for nonfiction cinematography for the “Jungles” episode of OUR PLANET, says he hopes some of his and his colleagues’ footage will inspire interest in the subjects. ‘Those of us who do these kinds of shoots see that it’s not good what’s happening to the beings we film and there’s a responsibility to the next generation,’ says Aeberhard. ‘In this show, we were always trying to take advantage of the moment when we could film orangutans. We set out to film them using tools, and that was the first time that had been done professionally. It was all very reactive. And then sometimes you have a male orangutan pushing a tree in the direction of a camera crew, and you have to move very quickly.’”
SFFILM Announces Recipients of 2019 SFFILM Catapult Doc Fellowships
Revealed via press release: “SFFILM and the Catapult Film Fund have announced the three filmmaking teams that have been awarded 2019 SFFILM Catapult Film Fellowships: Ilse Fernandez, Allison Otto, and Yusef Srouji. These fellowships are awarded to filmmakers working in the early stages of developing compelling, story-driven documentary features, and run August through December of this year. Also, in keeping with SFFILM’s broader commitment to the Bay Area’s documentary filmmaking community, SFFILM’s popular Doc Talks series of nonfiction filmmaking workshops will continue at the organization’s FilmHouse residency space through a renewed grant from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.”
Science Sandbox Nonfiction Project Grant Recipients
The Simons Foundation and the Sundance Institute’s Documentary Film Program announced nine grant recipients for their Science Sandbox Nonfiction Project, which “offers grants, engagement events, and other opportunities for independent artists seeking to explore the intrinsic link between science and culture through innovative storytelling.” The complete recipient list can be found here.
Havana Marking & Sam Hobkinson's THE KLEPTOCRATS 2018 DOC NYC Viewfinders
Will be broadcast on Starz tonight.
Alan Elliott & Sydney Pollack's AMAZING GRACE 2018 DOC NYC Special Events
Will be released on DVD/VOD tomorrow.
Clay Tweel’s OUT OF OMAHA 2018 DOC NYC Viewfinders
Will premiere on Starz Network on September 9th at 9 pm.
FEATURED STREAMING DOC SHORT
SIX DEGREES OF IMMIGRATION
Directed by Jayme Gershen
Jayme Gershen’s SIX DEGREES OF IMMIGRATION tells the story of a romantic relationship tied up in the complexities of immigration law. Gershen’s work is beautifully visual and endlessly inventive, a mosaic of photos, video chats and documentary footage that coalesce into a portrait of two intertwined places — and two people in love.
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