Few filmmakers have done more to help create the modern art of documentary than D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus. During the Sixties, Pennebaker was one of the key figures of “direct cinema,” the fly-on-the-wall, roving camera system of doc filmmaking that dramatised the non-fiction genre. Working with such filmmakers as Albert Maysles, Ricky Leacock and Terence Macartney-Filgate, he contributed to numerous docs such as Primary and Jane. His own directorial classics Monterey Pop and Dont Look Back remain as vital as the first day they were screened.
For four decades, Pennebaker has been collaborating with Hegedus, and together they’ve crafted new classics such as The War Room that continued the tradition of the direct cinema form. Their latest work, Unlocking The Cage, follows Steven Wise’s quixotic quest to use the American legal system to bestow habeas corpus rights upon great apes, elephants, cetaceans and other intelligent creatures. The film is sympathetic without being simplistic, showcasing the complexity of the issues while focussing on the passions of Wise and his team.
POV Magazine spoke to Hegedus and Pennebaker while they were in Toronto for this year’s Hot Docs festival.
POV: Jason Gorber
CH: Chris Hegedus
DAP: D.A. Pennebaker
POV: What brought you to this story?
CH: Someone brought the story to us! Steve Wise came to the office and explained what he was trying to do for animals. It seemed very novel and was about a world we didn’t know, so that interested us immediately. I think we were naïve in that we didn’t really understand how long the process would take, but certainly the subject matter seemed to be in the zeitgeist. It was before Food, Inc. and Blackfish. [Films about organic farming and animal rights were unusual then.] I mean, there are amazingly successful things like silly cat videos on the Internet. It seems evident that we’re looking at animals very differently all of a sudden.
POV: Do you have to agree with the political message of the participants in order to make a film like this?
DAP: I never think of Wise as having a political message, other than a legal need to do something for animals.
POV: Do you have to agree with your subjects in order to tell their stories?
DAP: We probably do because they’re people we like, but I don’t think you have to, no. Could I make a film about somebody I didn’t like, or whose political message I disagreed with? Probably, but it wouldn’t be as much fun to do. I did it once in Germany with somebody and I didn’t speak German and he didn’t speak English and it turned out to be more interesting to other people than it did to me. But I could do it.
CH: We like to make films about people who are doing something that we believe in and think is good. But along the way, you don’t always know what somebody’s like. We’re usually just meeting them during the process and quite often people don’t turn out to be the heroes that you think they are.
I remember when we did the (1981) DeLorean film, he was going to be the saviour of the automobile industry and start making this stainless steel gull window car and then segue into making the people’s car out of stainless steel. I think his intentions were good, but he was a little bit like a Disney villain in some ways to us, and that was often problematic. We were in a very political situation in Northern Ireland at the time, and I think the DeLorean factory was amazing for that community. It brought them financial security that they didn’t previously have, both Catholics and Protestants.
POV: I think Food, Inc. and Blackfish are very straightforward and superficial. I think that they are advocacy docs, essentially commercials for a cause. What I find remarkable about your films is their complexity. You’re not simply turning on your camera to show one point of view. And that seems to be true of Unlocking the Cage.
CH: You want to show people in all of their complexity. I think you’re absolutely right. The audience comes away and forms their own opinion. We’ve had reviews of Steve Wise that look at him as kind of a shyster and that he’s doing it just for publicity. I mean, never in a million years did he think that he would have get this far.
POV: That’s how you start the film, with Wise admitting that he “didn’t think that he’d get this far.” Then, bang, you take us back three years. Can you tell me about your style of filmmaking?
DAP: Whatever happens when you’re shooting necessarily becomes part of your film because it’s what you saw. We’re not making a sermon. I think that’s the failure in a lot of current documentaries. They’re sermonizing, and for perfectly understandable reasons—-they want people to act better, or whatever. It’s the same reason the bishops sermonize, but that’s not our kind of filmmaking.
POV: What’s frustrating is that too many filmmakers uses the notion of the “objective camera” to present a point of view while pretending to give the audience a level of epistemological truth. They’re using the techniques of documentary to deliver propaganda at a base level. Does that disturb you?
DAP: Frances and Robert Flaherty were doing that, almost before I was born. It isn’t something new. The idea of using the camera as a way of exploring the world was Frances’s whole notion. Many times, she would hit me on the head with that idea.
CH: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a call-to-arms kind of film if it’s a moving story and has some authenticity to it. But I think there’s something more engaging for an audience if you let them form their own opinions and not sermonize.
POV: How did your own reaction to Wise’s campaign change in the course of making the film?
CH: Well, mine changed immediately when we went to visit animals. That really sealed it for me. You do see a little bit of animal abuse in our film because it’s front and centre in the argument to protect animals more, but what I wanted to show was the other reason, especially with the animals that Steve was choosing. Some of the animals were just so incredibly smart. Once you met them, especially the ones that had been taught to communicate with us through one of our languages, you couldn’t help but being impressed.
POV: Do you think that documentaries can affect people’s political choices?
CH: John McCain’s daughter, who was living in Canada, asked us if we would do a film with her father when he was running for President. That really scared me because I understood from the other political films that we’ve done that there’s power in making a film on anyone. Putting somebody on TV bumps their ratings. Even if you hate them, even if it was George Bush and you just couldn’t stand him, it would still bump ratings. I thought, ‘I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that for this person.’
POV: Did The War Room come direct to you?
CH: Yeah, even Don’t Look Back came to Penny. Almost all of our films….
POV: Dylan approached you? Albert Grossman?
DAP: Albert did. He said, ‘Would you like to make a film with my client Bob Dylan?’ I really didn’t know who he was. I mean, maybe one song I’d heard it on the radio, but he was new to Greenwich Village. He was playing down there and I didn’t spend a lot of time in Greenwich Village then. So I got to know him by making the film.
POV: [Laughs] So, the way to be a genius filmmaker is to have stories come to you?
CH: It’s simple! [Laughs]
POV: Through all of these films, there’s a consistency of exploration and form but the subjects continue to change.
CH: We’re always making the same film.
POV: It’s as if the lens is staying the same, the same focal range. But what’s in front of the lens changes. What have you not captured that you’re still desperate to do?
DAP: I don’t know yet. The film that I would love to have done is with [jazz legend] Bix Beiderbecke because he’s the anomaly that art always mythologizes. The idea of a person who couldn’t read music, really didn’t know how to play the cornet, his fingering was all wrong. [Yet people love him.]
POV: Does the direct cinema form prevent you from doing films like the one on Bix—or other topics besides those involving living history?
CH: Well, you do what you do.
DAP: It has to be true. It has to be real.
CH: I think you do what you do best. And I think both of us like to shoot and follow stories. It’s exciting to drop into other people’s world and experience it with them. Other people like investigating and finding the archival footage. It’s not something that interests me that much. But I love when I see other people’s films that do it well.
POV: I think it’s fair to say that your films are not about B-roll.
CH: Both of our sons are camera people and when they use the word B-roll we hate it.
DAP: I don’t even know what “B-roll” means.