Since the early seventies Pennebaker Hegedus Films is producing documentary films. The independent film company, settled in New York City, is managed by producer Frazer Pennebaker and filmmakers D.A. (Donn Alan) Pennebaker und Chris Hegedus. One of their latest political films THE WAR ROOM was nominated Best Documentary Feature for an Academy Award, and received the D.W. Griffith Award for Best Documentary by the National Board of Review. Hegedus’ and Pennebaker’s intimate, narrative style of filmmaking, which follows the drama inherent in real events, has recorded some of the best known public figures and personalities of our times as e.g. the Kennedys, Jane Fonda, Franz-Josef Strauß, John DeLorean, Bob Dylan, Bill Clinton, Marius Müller-Westernhagen many more. Their unobtrusive fly-on-the-wall-style, working as a two-person crew using handheld cameras and available light, allows them to observe without interrupting. They do not direct, nor interview for information, They prefer that the protagonist determine what will happen, not the filmmaker. The result is a candid protrait of real characters in action and confrontation.
»For us it is crucial that the person is doing something that matters to them…and be doing it at a time when the stakes are high. There has to be a pressure not to just do it right or well, but to be extraordinary when the rest of us would settle for ordinary« says Pennebaker. »If you’re lucky enough, persistent enough,« responds Hegedus, »to follow someone through the drama of real life at these moments, the film can be just as emotionally moving as any acted movie.«
The name Pennebaker, however, leads back far into film/television history, since D.A. Pennebaker is producing films since more than 45 years. Born in Evanston, Illinois, on July 15th, 1925, D.A. (Donn Alan) Pennebaker attended Massachussetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) and graduated from Yale with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. After a year-and-a-half World-War II hitch in the Navy, he worked as a project engineer for a Texas power station, and six months later started his own company, Electronics Engineering, which among other projects, helped develop and manufacture the first computerized reservation system for American Airlines. It was during this period that he met filmmaker Francis Thompson, who showed him an unfinished film he had been working on called NYNY. a series of abstract film images of New York City added to the music of Bartok. In view of this small work of art, the masterly montage of images and sounds/music, D.A. Pennebaker realized what he wanted to do with the rest of his life – filming. With an old Ciné-Special (windup) camera picked up at a pawn shop and a super-wide-angle lens made from war-surplus equipment, Pennebaker filmed the Third Avenue elevated, soon to be demolished. The film, DAYBREAK EXPRESS, was named after the Duke Ellington piece that accompanies it. Gideon Bachman in Film Culture, wrote »one of the best films about the city I have ever seen.«
His place in film/telvision history Pennebaker gained through his achievements within the context of the Direct Cinema, a specific movement in American documentary film. In the spring of 1959, Pennebaker joined Richard Leacock, Albert Maysles, Terry Filgate, and Robert Drew in a project organized by Drew and backed by the media giant, Time Inc., designed to further film as a journalistic medium. During the next four years, the team at Drew Associates produced the highly acclaimed and revolutionary LIVING CAMERA series of documentaries and developed as well, one of the first fully portable 16mm synchronized camera and sound recording systems.
»Cinema verite asks nothing of people beyond their permission to be filmed.« (Stephen Mamber, Cinema Verite in America. Studies in Uncontrolled Documentary.)
Aesthetically, the Direct Cinema, like no other documentary technique, tried to involve the audience into the scenes filmed to let them see the protagonists acting as they would also have acted without the camera present. The filmmakers’ role is that of a neutral observer, approaching the subject matter without any preconceived opinions or shooting scripts to get hold of events in the very process of realization. During the shooting they work spontaneously, do not direct and avoid interviews and every direct communication with the person filmed. From a todays point of view, one can only guess how revolutionary this technological innovations and new visual strategy of the Direct Cinema has been; today they are considered practical standards in documentary films. Still, according to Pennebaker, the terms cinema verité and direct cinema should be used with caution and he puts more emphasis on the aesthetic autonomy of the filmmaker working with the material and the consideration of the audience. »Obviously, the filmmaker makes selections, in his choice of what to shoot and in his editing, that reflect the biases and limitations of his emotions and intellect, and his instincts of what will make a film »work« for an audience.« Furthermore he avoids the word »documentary«, since »documentary – that is the kiss of death at the box office.« Not only therefore, he preferres the notion »observed drama« to give an idea of his film works.
In subject matter, the LIVING CAMERA films varied widely, form JANE, the Broadway debut of Jane Fonda, to CRISIS, the confrontation between Attorney General Robert Kennedy and Governor George Wllace over the desegregation of the University of Alabama. Films like THE CHAIR and PRIMARY offer revealing insights into the procedures of politics and jurisdiction and were paradigmatically put in their proper place in film/television history.
In 1964 Pennebaker and Leacock formed their own company, Leacock Pennebaker, Inc. and they dedicated many films to their passion for music. Above all they specialized in filming identification figures of the increasing sub- and youth cultures like Timothy Leary, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan (DON’T LOOK BACK). Legedary Films like MONTEREY POP (1967) or KEEP ON ROCKIN’ (1972) do not simply show great musicians at work, but let us see rock concerts as rituals of counter culture and capture the spirit of a whole generation. The special technique of Pennebaker and Leacock, the complete involvement into the action filmed, even then anticipated decisive aesthetic devices of the video clip which nowadays flourish.
Chris Hegedus, his partner and later wife, has been co-directing with Pennebaker since the mid-seventies. Hegedus studied fine arts at two progressive Eastern colleges. She moved from Photography into experimenta film and the mulit-media art forms that characterized her generation. Her film career Hegedus began as a camera person for the University of Michigan Hospital, filming one of the most devastating areas of medicine, burn surgery. In 1975, she moved to New York becoming part of a community of Soho artist-filmmakers who began focusing their cameras on more political subject matter. During this time she began working with Pennebaker, editing footage he shot in 1971 at a legendary feminist confrontation between Norman Mailer and the forces of women’s liberation led by Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston and Diane Trilling. Working with material thought unmanageable, she produced a feature length film TOWN BLOODY HALL released theatrically to stunning reviews. In 1977, Hegedus and Pennebaker co-directed THE ENERGY WAR, a five-hour, three-part special for PBS. For two years they followed one of the greatest legislative battles in American politics, filming President Carter, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, congressmen and lobbyists on all sides of the struggle. Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government cited the film as »one of the best political films ever made.«
From this point on, Hegedus and Pennebaker realized that they shared a similar vision and they began working together as a filmmaking team; co-producing, directing, shooting and editing. Best known for their behind-the-scenes-portraits of personalities and special events, their informal, intimate style has gained them international attention and access to many situations and persons not mormally available to film documentation. DELOREAN, a revealing, pre-cocaine bust view of the controversial auto entrepreneur John DeLorean, ELLIOTT CARTER AT BUFFALO, a portrait of the famous composer and Pulitzer Price winner, but also ROCKABY, a piece, Samuel Beckett wrote especially for this film and DANCE BLACK AMERICA, filmed at Brooklyn Academy of Music during a four-day festival celebrating the contributions and roots of African American dancers – this makes just a small extract of the extensive and frequently awarded filmography of Pennebaker Hegedus Films. In 1994 their feature-length film, THE WAR ROOM, a behind-the-scenes view of the Clinton Presidential campaign, featuring George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, the two men responsible for the strategy that has carried Clinton into the White House, was nominated for an Academy Award and was awarded the prestigious D.W. Griffith Award for Best Documentary.
Before MTV busts onto the scene Pennebaker and Hegedus were asked to make music videos, e.g. Randy Newman’s BALTIMORE for Warner Records. Debuting on Saturday Night Live, the film played in record stores across the country, a prototype for the music video form which has since flourished.
»What I love about these films«, says Hegedus, »is that I’m dropped into someone’s life. It’s an inside view I might never have witnessed; each experience is fascinating and unpredictable. I’ve made a lot of friends along the way and when the filming is over a unique bond remains. Together, we’ve experienced something special in our lives.«
And Pennebaker: »It is exciting indeed, almost in a pornographic sense, to buid a relationship to somebody through the eye of a camera.«
However, the filmmakers are happiest when filming live performance and real-drama. In 1987, they accompanied singer/songwriter Victoria Williams back home to the Lousiana Bayou. For A&O Records they followed Suzanne Vega on tour, and for Columbia Records, a live musci video of jazz saxophonist, Branford Marsalis and his trio, led to a one-hour on-the-road-film, THE MUSIC TELLS YOU released theatrically at New York’s Public Theater. In 1988, they filmed DEPECHE MODE 101, capturing the adventures of the British rock band and a bus of fans during their US-tour and final sold-out concert at the Rose Bowl. Their latest theatrical release was KEINE ZEIT, which resulted from an invitation to Germany to film one of its most popular rock stars, Marius Müller-Westernhagen.
Hegedus and Pennebaker are the ideal of a »filming couple«. After a long time working together, they married in 1982 and live with their two children in Manhattan and Sag Harbour, N.Y. »I’ve spent the better part of my life making thee films«, reflects Hegedus, »traveling, editing – figuring scenes out at night in my dreams. It’s more than a nine-to-five job, it’s my art, and I can’t think of any better way to make it with someone I love and respect.«
The retrospective of the Cologne Conference wants to give an impression of the vision of these extraordinary »cinematic observers«. Apart from the development of the filmmakers, the focus should be on their specific documentary technique in film and television as of today and on places where the two coincide. Legendary works will receive the recognition they naturally deserve, but shouldn’t keep from looking at the present.
The Cologne Conference would like to thank the Filmstiftung Nordrhein Westfalen, whose support has made possible this retrospective of the International Television Festival now for the second time. Thanks are also due to Gerhard Schmidt (Gemini Filmproduktion), Walter Greifenstein (Bayerischer Rundfunk) and above all to Frazer Pennebaker.