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2000 Lifetime Achievement Award: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

Two Witnesses to History: A tribute to D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

“I love to watch people,” confesses D.A. Pennebaker. The veteran documentarian, still youthful at the age of 75, is musing about his creative process. “I seem to be answering my own bell. It must be a peculiarity of my genetic structure.” But not his alone. Speaking separately, his partner Chris Hegedus readily admits to the same quirk, adding, “I love being part of somebody’s adventure.”

Luckily, Hegedus and Pennebaker are in a profession where voyeurism may well be a necessity. Filmmakers willing to spend months observing other people getting on with their lives are always going to be in short supply. Even rarer are those with the knack for finding the revealing moments in the chaotic lives of their subjects and, afterwards, the ability to craft a film that transforms those moments into a dramatic whole. Pennebaker and Hegedus can do just that and have done so with an admirable professional consistency for the past quarter of a century.

The two started working together in 1976. Hegedus, a recent arrival in New York, had quickly become part of the local independent film scene. “I thought that Pennebaker had an operation that could provide me with a normal job,” she recalls, “but quickly I realized that he was in upheaval himself, having recently gone bankrupt. We ended up teaming up and eventually got a grant to shoot The Energy War.” The film, which Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government called “one of the best political films ever made,” launching a new documentary company, Pennebaker Hegedus Films, Inc. which exists to this day.

Pennebaker, of course, had been involved in a number of companies before he partnered with Hegedus. His first, Electronics Engineering, designed the original computerized reservation system for airlines back in the early 1950s. abandoning engineering, Pennebaker began to paint, write and make films. Daybreak Express, his first film, a lyrical look at Manhattan’s long-gone and lamented Third Avenue elevated train, placed him in filmmaking circles with such notables as avant-gardist Shirly Clarke and documentarians Ricky Leacock and Willard van Dyke.

When Robert Drew came along in 1959 with an offer to join a new documentary unit, which was going to make hour-long films for television under the auspices of Life magazine, Pennebaker leaped at the opportunity. Over the next four years, in association with, among others, Terence Macartney-Filgate, Leacock and Albert Maysles, Pennebaker worked on such cinéma vérité classics as Jane (on Jane Fonda’s disastrous debut on Broadway), Primary (on John Kennedy’s victory in the Wisconsin primary in 1960) and Crisis (on Robert Kennedy’s civil rights confrontation with then-racist Governor George Wallace).

With Leacock, Pennebaker developed a lighter camera which could be easily operated by one person and a system where sound could be recorded in sync with the camera. This liberated the documentary form, turning it into a medium where real-life dramas could be shown without the director, or editor, unduly affecting how audiences would perceive events. “It’s the difference between telling you something and showing you something,” comments Pennebaker.

After leaving Drew Associates, Leacock and Pennebaker formed their own company, it was during those heady times in the 1960s that Pennebaker directed Don’t Look Back, his study of Bob Dylan, and the first rock concert film Monterey Pop, which featured Jimi Hendrix, the Mamas and the Papas and The Who. Despite those successes, the partnership eventually dissolved and Pennebaker was at loose ends when Hegedus arrived.

As partners, Hegedus and Pennebaker have produced over 30 films – and two children. They have concentrated their artistic endeavours on creative artists such as actors Billie Whitelaw and Carol Burnett, choreographers Katherine Dunham and Bessie Schonberg and musicians Randy Newman and Jimi Hendrix. “We have a real fondness for people in the arts, especially musicians,” allows Hegedus. “Musicians are very special; filming them is an incredible experience.”

Although not recognized as artists, politicians have proved to be as appealing to Hegedus and Pennebaker. When the two first saw James Carville, Clinton’s campaign consultant who starred in their film The War Room, Pennebaker recalls that “whoever he was, we knew he was camera happy.” The result was their most successful film in years.

After two lifetimes of fine work, Hegedus and Pennebaker still believe in what they do. “When you watch real people going through things,” says Hegedus, “it’s a very powerful, compassionate, empowering experience for the audience, as opposed to watching actors acting.” She pauses and adds, “what we are doing, in a way, is witnessing history.”

Marc Glassman

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