Having shot footage of her mentor over the past four decades, docu producer Jane Weiner (“Silverlake Life,” “Ravi Shankar: Between Two Worlds”) lets the subject be the primary commentator in “Ricky on Leacock.” This biographical portrait of globetrotting director-cinematographer Richard Leacock limns his key contributions to the evolution of the documentary form — particularly regarding technical innovation — while capturing a buoyant personality already past 50 when Weiner began filming him in 1972. Of primary interest to film students and cineastes, the pic should parlay fest travel into artscaster and educational sales.
Raised in the Canary Islands, Leacock was sent to boarding school in England at age 14. His classmates’ persistent curiosity about his background led him to make his first film at that age, a still-extant short explaining life on his father’s banana plantation. After WWII service as a military cameraman, he found his own mentor in Robert Flaherty, working as d.p. on the legendary documentarian’s 1948 feature “Louisiana Story.” His brief, unhappy exposure to Hollywood’s working methods made it clear he found no affinity there; Leacock thought even independent docu production of the time too artificial and lead-footed, as bulky equipment required lengthy setups that killed any spontaneity.
To escape that limitation, he began devising lightweight cameras with their own synch-sound recording (many models of which Weiner utilized over the course of shooting this pic). While broadcast execs accustomed to the prior standard of narration-driven docus were at first resistant, these developments fostered a quiet revolution in nonfiction filmmaking.
Sometimes made in conjunction with collaborators like Robert Drew and D.A. Pennebaker, early efforts like 1960’s “Primary” (following presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey on the campaign trail), “Happy Mother’s Day” (about South Dakota quintuplets raised under the glare of media attention) and “Ku Klux Klan: Invisible Empire” were striking for giving viewers the feeling of being there, as opposed to being lectured on what they were seeing and what it meant. The immediacy of observation and decreased self-consciousness among his subjects was unprecedented, earning Leacock major supporters (like Henri Langlois), as well as some detractors who argued that unvarnished reality wasn’t art.
After teaching for two decades at the MIT film department he founded, Leacock moved to France, where he continued working on film projects for some years; he died last year at age 89. “Ricky on Leacock” adheres to the direct-cinema and cinema-verite schools he helped foster; beyond clips from the subject’s own films and the occasional TV or public-event appearance, the docu generally limits itself to small-format, fly-on-the-wall footage that shows Leacock casually in his element as a raconteur and enthusiast (of cooking as well as filmmaking). There’s relatively little talking-head input, and no musical scoring.
Results whet the appetite for further reappraisal of Leacock’s screen work, particularly as so much of it has been little seen outside festivals and European TV. Assembly is astute, with some visible archival-footage wear and the different formats utilized over time adding to the pic’s historic breadth.