Leacock-Pennebaker Tribute at SF State's Documentary Film Institute

Susan Gerhard February 27, 2006

To watch any single frame of the 1972 movie “One P.M.” – initially a Godardian manifesto that transmogrified into a D.A. Pennebaker dream state – is to feel like someone dug up an old spot of LSD and dropped it into your Dasani. A five o’clock shadowed Jean-Luc Godard doesn’t lose the sunglasses inside the well-lit offices of Leacock-Pennebaker as he drops his Mao-by-way-of-Bazin scheme on the documentary filmmaking team. He’ll have real-yet-staged performances/speeches by The Jefferson Starship, Eldridge Cleaver, Tom Hayden, among others, followed by fictional – but equally real, in his view – mirrors of those performances by actors.

Stay around for a few more frames, and you’ll see the results of this vision, a man costumed as an American Indian reciting ideology he’s picking up from a tape recorder, followed by more cassette creeds repeated by a crew visiting the emptied floor of a factory, followed by potent, impromptu wisdom from Eldridge Cleaver who, like some of the filmmakers involved, was frustrated with the filmmaking process. “We begin to hate filmmakers around here,” Cleaver warns. “If you want to do any shooting – this situation is so immediate – you have to shoot with guns.”

Pennebaker chose to continue shooting with his camera. He was, he says, the “extra” camera, and the footage he collected on the sly while Godard was orchestrating a revolution turned what was originally to be “One A.M.” (One American Movie) into “One P.M.” (One Parallel Movie, or, to Godard, One Pennebaker Movie).

Stephen Ujlaki, the director of San Francisco State’s Documentary Film Institute, who not only worked with Godard at the beginning of his career, but, along with Telluride’s Tom Luddy, is the force behind bringing both D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock to the City along with 22 of their greatest films, reminded me that “extra” cameras have come a long way, of course, since 1972, and it’s a lot easier being a fly on the wall these days with cameras the size of your wallet rather than the size of your oven.

The Documentary Film Institute is a project of the International Center for the Arts at SF State and was funded by a generous 3 million-dollar start-up grant from George and Judy Marcus. It burst onto the Bay Area filmmaking scene last summer with its Green Screen festival of environmental films, which came up with West Coast premieres of Werner Herzog’s “Grizzly Man” and Hubert Sauper’s “Darwin’s Nightmare.” This arguably even more ambitious project, a tribute to Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebeaker (along with two days of screenings of all nine Oscar-nominated documentary features and shorts), took place Feb. 28-March 5. It gave audiences in San Francisco a chance to witness, first-hand, the revolutionary Direct Cinema movement that changed forever both fiction and nonfiction features. I spoke with Ujlaki in late February about the Institute and documentary filmmaking over the phone from his office at San Francisco State.

SF360: What are your personal feelings about cinéma vérité?

Stephen Ujlaki: It comes from the French in theory, but in practice, it’s Americans who’ve made most of it. The notion of actual “nonintervention” does not exist; just observation alone affects the landscape. But the goal of cinéma vérité, to become a fly on the wall, it’s rare to get that situation if you are there. The question is, What we can accomplish if we don’t do a staged, scripted kind of movie? Documentary’s strength has always been authenticity. Fiction features are borrowing documentary styles now to lend themselves more credibility. I love cinéma vérité

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