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For the week of Apr. 5 through Apr. 11, 2000

Filmmakers who made history

Pioneers of documentary film discuss truth, revolution and the future

Express Staff Writer

famous filmmakersThe filmmakers Al Maysles, left, D.A. Pennebaker, Bob Drew and Ricky Leacock discuss their careers and the future of documentary filmmaking.

"We knew we were creating a revolution," said an impassioned Al Maysles during a panel discussion he and the other founders of the cinema verite genre participated in Saturday.

The discussion, held at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts in Ketchum, was the centerpiece of Document: The Sun Valley Documentary Film Festival, which brought 25 documentary films and their directors to the valley during the weekend.

"These filmmakers and their work are a unique part of American cultural history," said media scholar and Harvard fellow Jerry O’Grady as he introduced the panel.

Document co-director Ben Robbins called the panel discussion itself "a historic moment."

Indeed, sitting next to each other for the first time since pioneering the cinema verite movement in the 1960s were Albert Maysles, D.A. Pennebaker, Bob Drew and Ricky Leacock.

They were joined by filmmaker Lilibet Foster, film historian Thelma Vickroy and O’Grady to discuss documentary filmmaking: its liberating possibilities, its frustrations and its future.

In the early 1960s, Maysles, Pennebaker, Drew and Leacock, who were journalists at the time, did something revolutionary. They developed a mobile camera with a recorder and microphone.

This unintrusive technology allowed them to fulfill their mission of documenting humanity with little interference; or, as Drew said during the discussion, to "allow stories to tell themselves through characters in action."

"We were on fire with enthusiasm," Maysles said, when asked about that early part of his career.

"A whole new kind of filmmaking was ahead of us," added Drew.

That kind of filmmaking would become known as cinema verite—or direct cinema—and the films by Drew, Maysles, Pennebaker and Leacock would define the genre.

Their early films, including Gimme Shelter, Grey Gardens, On the Road With Duke Ellington, Primary, Don’t Look Back and Salesmen, were groundbreaking because they told the truth as no American film had before.

To get at the truth, Leacock said the filmmakers adhered to rules that had never been followed before. "No interviews. Never ask a subject to do anything. Never expect a line or action. The same people that shoot the film edit the film."

And if the subject acts for the camera or becomes self conscious?

"You leave the room," Drew said. "You leave the story behind. You turn off. If they’re acting for the camera, that’s the death of reality."

"It’s a delicate game," Leacock said. "People want to help, but that’s a death trap. They’ve got to do what they want to do."

"The best thing is the real thing, and to discover it rather than direct it," Maysles said.

If a documentary does capture the truth, it has the potential to unite a nation.

"The greatest idea of this century is the idea that we can share with each other our feelings," he said. "We can do that most truly with this notion of a small camera and two-person filmmaking team. Those stories should be shared by the whole country."

Drew agreed.

"The dream is that if we could link up our commonly shared experiences, the country could be better," he said.

While their films do tell the truth better than any fiction film, the filmmakers remain second-class citizens in film and television.

"We had created a revolution, but the goddamn TV and motion picture people weren’t interested," Maysles said. "The revolution was just amongst us. There wasn’t a way to show the stuff. We all still have work in the can that isn’t going to get shown because of the system."

That could be changing with widely available technology and cheap Internet distribution from websites such as

"Anybody can make a film who wants to try," Drew said. "I expect to see masterpieces from 13-year-olds, but I haven’t seen one yet. I do think that there will be really good films from people who you wouldn’t expect. That will be a breakthrough for humanity."

"I feel a sense of freedom with the new and inexpensive technology," Pennebaker said. "I think some kind of amazing conversation will come out of it."

The careers of Maysles, Drew, Leacock and Pennebaker are far from over. Each is currently working on film projects or on books about filmmaking. And, each filmmaker continues to influence a new generation of filmmakers, like Lilibet Foster, who are, as Maysles said, "finding the extraordinary in the ordinary."


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