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Pennebaker and Hegedus documentary film collection finally archived

A famous documentary filmmaking couple, D.A. Pennebaker and his wife Chris Hegedus, have archived their entire collection of work. 800 boxes of mostly unseen film reel are lying idle in a temperature-controlled compound in upstate New York, waiting to be sold to a public institution.

They include hours of outtakes from iconic films such as the 60s Bob Dylan rockumenatary Don’t Look Back and also footage of films that never ended up being made. These boxes contain a lifetime of work and span 50 years of both culture and documentary history. Dasha Lisitsina reports.

Pennebaker and Hegedus’s townhouse on the Upper West Side is choc-full of movie memorabilia. There are original film posters covering most of the walls and old cameras poking out from various nooks and crannies. Hegedus and Pennebaker (his wife calls him Penny) show me around.

CHRIS: This is basically the 16mm camera that Penny engineered. And we had two. We had a kind of his and hers.

That camera – the Auricon – is a big deal in the history of documentary film. It’s the first fully portable 16mm camera that was able to record image and sound at the same time, so it actually created a new style of documentary film – the more intimate, in the thick of the action style that is so popular today.

PENNEBAKER: It means that you have a camera that you can carry around and find the story. It’s like a microscope is to a lab worker. It enables him to really see what’s going on.

Most of what went on didn’t make it into their final films. Hence the reels of unused footage lying around the place, some still in their basement.

HEGEDUS: Well I think from the very beginning we felt that documentaries are a kind of history of our times and were important to save. And one of the unique aspects of documentaries as opposed to fiction films is that the outtakes are quite valuable.

For example, the film Don’t Look Back doesn’t actually feature Dylan’s full songs. But Pennebaker filmed them.

PENNEBAKER: Later we went back and pulled it out and we made a second little film – it wasn’t so little, about an hour – of Dylan singing the whole songs and that was quite a different film. So in a way that’s the jewel for which you dig. That piece of history remains now. It’s caught by a machine that can’t lie.

One of Pennebaker and Hegedus’ jewels is that iconic scene where Dylan is holding up cardboard sheets with separate words from his song Subterranean Homesick Blues. This device is almost a gimmick now, but that scene is what started it and it’s considered a kind of precursor to the music video. Their son Frazer says there are a couple of films they’re thinking of making with all the unseen footage.

FRAZER: One is called Wake a Generation. Right after MLK was shot, they had a wake down at the generation club. It was like Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin…Joni Mitchell and I think others. They got together and played for like 12h straight. My father went down there with two cameras and sound and he just filmed and we’ve never done anything with it.

Professional archivist Michael Chaiken spent the best part of this year, sitting in their basement, sorting all the things that got left out.

CHAIKEN: You know the shooting ratio in these films is huge. So if the Dylan film is 98 mins, that comes out 30 hours of film. So with the outtakes it’s very interesting because you see the films from a completely different perspective.

These hours of golden outtakes that most people have never seen will soon be made available to the public, thanks to Pennebaker and Hegedus’ careful preservation.

HEGEDUS: We’ve saved it all, all these years, which has become kind of a noose around our necks, because it’s big and expensive to save it…We need help and it needs a home.

The couple, who won a Lifetime Achievement Award last year, are trying to get their collection to a public institution that will appreciate it and use it as a centerpiece for the study of American documentary film more broadly.

Dasha Lisitsina, Columbia Radio News


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