Andrew Rossi remembers DA Pennebaker

"How does a person get so close to these raw emotional moments?"

by Anne-Katrin Titze and Andrew Rossi

Andrew Rossi honours DA Pennebaker: "His films were so poetic and historically important, putting him on the Mt. Rushmore of documentarians like Maysles, Wiseman and Varda."
Andrew Rossi honours DA Pennebaker: "His films were so poetic and historically important, putting him on the Mt. Rushmore of documentarians like Maysles, Wiseman and Varda." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Donn Alan Pennebaker, grand master of Direct Cinema, died at the age of 94 on August 1 at his home in Sag Harbor, New York. He is best known for the documentaries Bob Dylan: Don't Look Back, Monterey Pop, and The War Room, co-directed with his wife Chris Hegedus, for which they received a Best Documentary Oscar nomination. DA Pennebaker was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2013 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from DOC NYC in 2014.

This morning, I contacted Andrew Rossi, director of The First Monday In May, Bronx Gothic, and Page One: Inside The New York Times, and he sent the following remembrance in honour of D.A. Pennebaker.

Andrew Rossi: "DA Pennebaker was such a monumental influence on so many filmmakers."
Andrew Rossi: "DA Pennebaker was such a monumental influence on so many filmmakers." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Remembering Penny by Andrew Rossi

"DA Pennebaker was such a monumental influence on so many filmmakers. It's not just because his films were so poetic and historically important, putting him on the Mt. Rushmore of documentarians like Maysles, Wiseman and Varda. Even more deeply, he was always out and about meeting young filmmakers, telling them his war stories, giving them feedback and making the work of documentary feel accessible and attainable. 'You can do it too' was the feeling you'd always get from a chat with Penny and Chris under the tent at the Full Frame Film Festival, where they would always welcome an unknown person to their table. At premiere screenings, they were frequently in the front row, listening to you trudge your way through an intro or a Q&A, always focusing intently with a smile that said, 'you got this.'

"The first time I met DA Pennebaker was back in 2001. It was just a few weeks after I had quit my job as a lawyer to try to make films. Jehane Noujaim was in post on 'Startup.com,' and she invited me to the edit bay to watch a rough cut with her co-director Chris Hegedus and Chris' husband, Penny. Penny had just done a pass on the cut. I sat on the top of a metal desk in the back of the room and was mesmerised. How did Jehane and Chris get access to these people and assemble the little moments of their lives into a cinematic story? The camera work was visceral and intimate. I felt at times like a lightning bolt was channeling me into the rooms with these characters.

"It was the same way I had felt when watching 'The War Room' in a New Haven movie theatre a few years before. How does a person get so close to these raw emotional moments and then make them flow together in a poetry that makes it seem as if reality had unfolded exactly this way? Like a series of moving images that form one giant, lyrical, observational photograph?

"I don't think anyone has the answer to that question or can accomplish it quite the way that Penny did in his films. Other movies that we sometimes label 'verite' follow in that tradition, and when they achieve the sublime state of 'being' with their characters, it's breathtaking. For me as a filmmaker, that's an incredibly high bar. But what I take away from Penny's life and career is the encouragement to try to reach it." - Andrew Rossi

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