Barbara Kopple on DA Pennebaker: "I remember being a very young first-time director coming to his office for a screening of Harlan County USA." Photo: Barbara Kopple
The day after I contacted Barbara Kopple, the two-time Oscar-winning director for Harlan County U.S.A. and American Dream, she sent her remembrance of the legendary filmmaker, DA Pennebaker, who died last Thursday. Barbara, along with Pennebaker, is a DOC NYC Lifetime Achievement Award honoree.
"On August 1st 2019 I lost someone irreplaceable in my life, my friend and inspiration DA Pennebaker. Penne was one of the first filmmakers to ever really support me. I remember being a very young first-time director coming to his office for a screening of Harlan County USA. He had offered to bring his friends in the industry there to see it, people I so respected and revered. You can imagine how petrified I was about what they would think. I have never forgotten his incredible generosity in doing that, using his position to advocate for me, a young unknown filmmaker, and to amplify the hopes for my unknown film. That was Penne.
"A few years later, he, Fred Wiseman and I were serving together on the first jury for Sundance. I soon came to know the love of his life and his greatest collaborator, the wonderful Chris Hegedus, an absolute joy to spend time with. Whenever I saw them, Penne would embrace me and we would talk endlessly about film and life and everything in-between. He had such enthusiasm for all of it. Over the rest of his life, he and Chris made a point of showing up to screenings of almost every film I ever made. This kind of graciousness and love and support has meant everything to me. Even if you never knew Penne, you can come to know him now through his incredible movies.
"The first time I saw his Bob Dylan film Don’t Look Back, I thought it was just about the coolest thing I had ever seen. That movie and Monterey Pop were two that helped spark my passion to spend my life telling true stories that excite me. Many of his films over the years, from The War Room to one of his and Chris’s last, Unlocking the Cage. They reminded me of just how close an audience can be brought to the subject of a film, how along-for-the-ride and visceral it could be, and how much energy and joy could come out of the screen and into our hearts.
"Unlocking The Cage in 2016 really put Penne’s and Chris’s compassion on display, going beyond human people to animal people too! I am sad that my friend is gone. I will miss him dearly. In this moment, though, I am also overwhelmed with a feeling that is hard to describe, one of great privilege in having felt this incredible person’s presence in my life. That presence I will continue to feel always." - Barbara Kopple