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Pennebaker: Doc innovator gets a moment to look back

Eye on the Oscars: Governors Awards - Honorary Oscar: Alan Pennebaker

Donn Alan Pennebaker didn’t just make a mark on documentary filmmaking — he helped reinvent the documentary art form.

Over the course of his six-decade career, he helped develop one of the first fully portable 16mm synchronized camera and sound systems; was a founding father of the cinema verite movement; and compiled more than 100 credits as a director, cinematographer, editor and/or producer.

“There is not a single documentary filmmaker out there who has not been influenced in some way by D.A. Pennebaker,” says acclaimed doc director, Ken Burns. “He liberated and revolutionized the medium.”

Pennebaker made his first film, the short “Daybreak Express,” in 1953. Since then, helmer has documented landmark American political events (“Primary,” “Crisis”); captured musical icons at their best and worst moments (“Don’t Look Back,” “Monterey Pop” “Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars”); and provided audiences a front-row-center-seat to the inner workings of the road to the Great White Way (“Jane” and “Moon Over Broadway”).

He was nommed for 1993’s docu feature Academy Award for his behind-the-scenes look at the Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign “The War Room” — alongside his co-director and wife of 30 years, Chris Hegedus — yet has never before received an Oscar statuette.

“Sometimes people apply a kind of rule book to the documentary form,” says Oscar-winning doc filmmaker, Alex Gibney. “But if you look at that scene in ‘Don’t Look Back’ when Bob Dylan is flipping those cue cards to ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’ — that was a magic moment in cinema. (Pennebaker) wasn’t thinking about rules. For that moment alone he should be celebrated.”

That iconic scene stands out from Pennebaker’s proverbial fly-on-the-wall insights — a mainstay in all of his films. The helmer, who will be the first docu filmmaker to receive an honorary Oscar, says he made a conscious decision very early on to avoid narration and to not intrude on his subjects by conducting on-camera interviews.

“I wanted my films to be a true witness of the event, not second-hand stories,” the 87-year-old Pennebaker says. “The extraordinary thing about the movie camera is that when pointed at something it can’t lie to you. Subjects can lie to the camera and find ways to avoid it, but the camera doesn’t lie, so I think that the strongest way to show (events) to people is through a witnessing of the actual event. Anything else added, I feel, is unnecessary.”

Eye on the Oscars: Governors Awards
Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award: Jeffrey Katzenberg | Honorary Oscar: George Stevens Jr. | Honorary Oscar: Hal Needham | Honorary Oscar: D.A. Pennebaker

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