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Pennebaker & Hegedus Profile

WEDNESDAY 17th April 2002 

By Caroline Frost

DA Pennebaker has been behind a camera for nearly 50 years. One of America's leading documentarians, he has focussed his lens on subjects as diverse as Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Bill Clinton.

With no idea what he was going to do when he graduated from college, Pennebaker spent time in the Navy, worked as an engineer and founded Electronics Engineering, the makers of the first computerised airline reservation system, before embarking on a film career.

The archivist of hundreds of jazz records, he decided to make a film based on a Duke Ellington piece in his collection. Daybreak Express showed laughing girls running through the New York underground, and was "a collection of 20th century craziness". On loan to a local cinema for $25 a week, it ran for a year.

Pennebaker films Bob Dylan in Don't Look Back

Groundbreaking early films for Pennebaker included Primary (1960) and Jane (1962), looking behind the scenes at the lives of American icons John Kennedy and Jane Fonda. And in 1967, his film Don't Look Back followed Bob Dylan on his concert tour of England. It was the first ever rock documentary and cemented the director's reputation as the foremost chronicler of 1960s youth culture.

DA Pennebaker is a seminal figure in modern American documentary film making, credited as one of the country's founding fathers of "direct cinema" or "cinema verite". Back in 1959, he helped further film technology, creating lightweight equipment, new mobility, and high quality on-location sound.

In the hands of Pennebaker and his imaginative contemporaries, these techniques have provided a realism, intimacy and immediacy not previously seen in documentaries. There is no commentary or voice over to praise or condone. Protagonists determine events, and events speak for themselves. Pennebaker calls it "filming people in the real world".

In this attention to detail, and this confidence in letting others take centre stage, is Pennebaker the man who made possible the likes of Maureen and her fly-on-the-wall contemporaries?

The idea obviously horrifies him. "I never wanted to be a fly on the wall, it's a kind of disgusting idea. But you don't necessarily need a script a script or actors to tell a compelling tale. Finding a person at a key moment in his life and rendering the truth as you see it - that's the truest form of drama."

Pennebaker described his first film as one with "a certain amount of youthful exuberance", and this sense has carried on through much of his later work. His wife and creative partner Chris Hegedus explains, "The films of ours that have been most successful have been films that have a youthful, hopeful sense to them"

Such an idea has carried this husband/wife duo through such screen successes as Startup.com, Down from the Mountain and The War Room, which was awarded a 1993 Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.

After a mid-1970s financial disaster and creative hiatus, Pennebaker was inspired again by his personal and professional partnership with Hegedus. A one-time camera operator for the University of Michigan Hospital, she had recently moved to New York and was making avant-garde films herself.

Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer in Town Bloody Hall

During their 25-year partnership, the filmmakers have made scores of rock and jazz music films and several political documentaries including The Energy War (1978), Town Bloody Hall (1979) and The War Room (1993).

The directors' warmth and immediacy is evident even in the ruthless, political confines of The War Room. Going behind the scenes of a power-driven political agenda, the election campaign of Clinton, the directing team concentrated on the very full personalities of political advisors James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.

And despite the verbal warfare between Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer at the rowdy round table of Town Bloody Hall, Pennebaker and Hegedus even then ensured their cameras captured the best aspects of their subjects.

Pennebaker explains their approach, "We have to like the people and the work that they do. We like to think that we take a cautious view, but what happens is that you become a fan of the people you are filming."

Hegedus adds, "We are not journalists and we don't try to distance ourselves."