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April 6 - April 9, 2012

Ed Pincus, Lost and Found

For half a century, the Boston area – and Cambridge in particular – has been the fountainhead of American documentary filmmaking; Ed Pincus remains one of the crucial figures in this history. Having studied philosophy and photography at Harvard, Pincus turned to film and in 1967 made a significant contribution to “direct cinema” (that is, fly-on-the-wall observational filmmaking) with Black Natchez. Pincus and David Neuman traveled to the Deep South with a camera rented from John Marshall to record the African-American community in Natchez as it struggled to decide how to effectively challenge white racism. In a second feature, One Step Away (1968), Pincus and Neuman (who again took sound) focused on members of a San Francisco hippie community, questioning whether the hippies were fundamentally different from the society they were rebelling against, and confronting the then popular assumption among documentary filmmakers that editing in observational cinema needed to be invisible.

In 1967, Pincus was hired to teach filmmaking at MIT, where he was soon joined by Ricky Leacock – together they were the heart of the MIT Film Section into the 1980s. The freewheeling Film Section nurtured not only prospective filmmakers among the MIT student body, but non-matriculated men and women who had promising ideas for documentary films. Pincus continued to develop his expertise with the filmmaking process, and in 1969 the New American Library published his Guide to Filmmaking, a widely read and widely used guide for independent filmmakers. Later Pincus would team up with Steve Ascher to expand the Guide, and they transformed it into The Filmmaker’s Handbook – in several editions since 1984.

By the early 1970s, Pincus’ approach to filmmaking was changing. The women’s movement and the on-going struggle for black liberation were assuming that “the personal is the political,” and in an attempt to see if this held true for his own experience, Pincus began what would become his magnum opus: Diaries (1971-76). His plan: to cinematically investigate his own (open) marriage and family life during what was an experimental and turbulent time, to shoot footage for five years; then wait another five years before finally editing the footage into a finished film. This plan was adhered to, though Pincus’ willingness to share rushes and early rough cuts of passages of the material became a primary – perhaps the primary – instigation for what is now called the “personal documentary.” Diaries (1971-76) remains one of the masterworks of the genre, and Pincus’ breakthrough has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the films of Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Miriam Weinstein, Nina Davenport, Jonathan Caouette, Lucia Small and many others.

Diaries revealed not just Pincus’ personal experience, but an increasing self-reflexivity. In 1977 Pincus and Steve Ascher completed Life and Other Anxieties, part personal documentary and part experiment in the mode of cinema verité filmmaking explored by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in Chronicle of a Summer – Paris 1960, where the film reveals the filmmakers instigating a situation that is then documented. In Life and Other Anxieties Pincus and Ascher interview people on the street in Minneapolis to find out what part of their lives they would like the filmmakers to document, then document what these individuals have requested. With Diaries, Life and Other Anxieties seems to have completed, at least for a time, Pincus’ investigation of the potentials and limitations of portable sync-sound filming.

Pincus’ “low profile” after the mid-1970s was a result of a bizarre circumstance. Dennis Sweeney, who had helped instigate the visit to Mississippi that produced Black Natchez, had become delusional and dangerous, and was threatening the lives of Pincus and his family. These were not empty threats: Sweeney would kill civil rights lawyer and U.S. Congressman Allard Lowenstein in his Manhattan office in 1980. In order to stay out of harm’s way, Pincus stopped making public appearances with his work and the Pincus family made their rural Vermont farm their permanent residence, working to establish Third Branch Flower, what has become a thriving flower-growing business. Pincus returned to filmmaking in 2005 when the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its socio-political implications drew Pincus into collaboration with Lucia Small on what became The Axe in the Attic (2007), a feature about the impacts of the disaster on New Orleans and New Orleanians and on the process of cinematically recording such events.

The strange circumstances surrounding Pincus’ filmmaking career and his early retirement from academe have had the unfortunate result of keeping his considerable accomplishments out of the public eye for nearly a generation. This Harvard Film Archive retrospective offers the first opportunity in decades for the public to experience Pincus’s better known films and, equally exciting, to hear Pincus discuss his work with his most important collaborators. For all practical purposes, this program will provide a public premiere of four lesser known films made in collaboration with David Neuman during 1969-70: Harry’s Trip, Portrait of a McCarthy Supporter, The Way We See It and Panola.

– Scott MacDonald, author of The Cambridge Turn in Documentary Filmmaking, forthcoming

All film notes by Ed Pincus.

Program co-sponsored by the Film Study Center, Harvard University. Special thanks to Lucien Castaing-Taylor.

Special Event Tickets $12 - Ed Pincus and David Neuman in Person
Please note: a ticket for the 7pm show allows you to also attend the 9:15pm screening.

Friday April 6 at 7pm

Black Natchez

Directed by Ed Pincus and David Neuman
USA 1967, 16mm, b/w, 62 min

The advent of portable sync-sound equipment in the early 60s meant, for the first time in the sound era, that filmmakers could go to the subject as opposed to bringing the subject to the camera. The ability to take a camera out into the world created the desire to "get it right," to film the world independent of the act of filmmaking. In the US, all sorts of rules were being created in documentary film — no script, no narration, no interviews, no lighting, no mic boom, no collusion between subject and filmmaker.

In 1965, the second year of intense voter registration drives in Mississippi, we decided to make a film in the southwest corner of the state. Little civil rights work had been done there because of the danger in the region. Our approach was to seek out several story lines and then continue with the most interesting. A car bombing of a civil rights leader while we were there changed everything. The event emphasized the rifts in the black community around the demands for equality. Rifts between teenagers and women on one hand and the black business community on the other. Rifts between black males forming armed protection groups and the call for non-violence by the major civil rights groups. And rifts between grassroots organizations and more traditional leadership organizations such as the FDP (Freedom Democratic Party) and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

Panolapanola still

Directed by Ed Pincus and David Neuman
USA 1970, digital video, b/w, 21 min

Panola’s life was a performance. He was always “on the set.” Wino, tree pruner, possible police informant, philosopher, "the most dangerous X that ever was," "father of eight with one more on the way," Panola challenged our filmmaking convictions.  In no way could we film him independently of the presence of the camera.  The conflict between our aesthetic convictions and the reality and authenticity Panola expressed led to few years of confusion, unsuccessful attempts at edits, and ultimately the need to find an outside editor (primarily Michal Goldman).

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Special Event Tickets $12 - Ed Pincus and David Neuman in Person
Friday April 6 at 9:15pm

One Step Away

Directed by Ed Pincus and David Neuman
USA 1968, 16mm, b/w, 54 min

It was the Summer of Love, 1967. The Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco was to be the center of a vast cultural experiment. Ideologically it was an attempt at a post-industrial society, where people no longer needed to work and communities of choice allowed people to "do their own thing.” David Neuman and I set off to film what happened that summer. We decided to do what we thought would be a film about a rural commune, because that seemed to be the apotheosis of hippie ideals. What we found was a bizarre replication of bourgeois society — the sun rose on the nothing new. We decided to use an anecdotal editing style with an attempt to enforce a narrative line.

Harry's Trip

Directed by Ed Pincus and David Neuman
USA 1969, 16mm, b/w, 16 min


Harry, the leader of a commune, was in the middle of an acid trip when we put him in a room all by himself in front of the camera.

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Special Event Tickets $12 - Ed Pincus in conversation with Robb Moss and Ross McElwee
Saturday April 7 at 7pm

Diaries (1971 - 76)

Directed by Ed Pincus
USA 1980, 16mm, color, 200 min

It was a time of upheaval in people's personal relations.  Everything was on the table.  Feminism had a slogan: “The personal is political.”  Filmmaking technology was rapidly evolving. It became possible for the first time to shoot single-person sync. A crew of one meant that intimate relations could be filmed in a documentary. Films could be shot over a long duration without skyrocketing costs. I decided to do an experiment. I would film for five years, not look at the footage, leave it in the can for five more years and then edit. Editing would mimic what came out of the camera ("the rushes"). David Hume had called the self no more than a bundle of perceptions. How much of individual personhood could be recreated in such a film? I wanted to test the personal is political in this brave new world of relationships.


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Special Event Tickets $12 - Ed Pincus and David Neuman in Person
Please note: a ticket for the 4:30pm show allows you to also attend the 7pm screening.

Sunday April 8 at 4:30pm

The Way We See It

Directed by Ed Pincus and David Neuman
USA 1969, 16mm, b/w, 57 min

David Neuman and I were commissioned by Public Television to do a film on a Hispanic film project on the Lower East Side of New York City where disadvantaged kids were given the opportunity to make their own films.

Portrait of a McCarthy Supporter

Directed by Ed Pincus and David Neuman
USA 1969, 16mm, color, 16 min

Portrait of a McCarthy Supporter was a commission from Public Television. Each of five filmmakers were asked to make a twenty-minute film about the state of the country. The Vietnam War was on everyone's agenda. We felt that Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war Democratic candidate for President, was co-opting the left's opposition to the war.  We decided to make a film about my father-in-law to represent how far Eugene McCarthy's ideology was from progressive politics. The title’s ambiguity between Joe McCarthy and Eugene McCarthy faded as Eugene became a minor footnote in history.

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Special Event Tickets $12 - Ed Pincus and Steve Ascher in conversation with Scott MacDonald
Sunday April 8 at 7pm

Life and Other Anxieties

Directed by Ed Pincus and Steve Ascher
USA 1977, 16mm, color, 90 min

In 1975, I was invited to “make any film I wanted as long as it was shot in Minneapolis."  David Hancock, a filmmaker friend in Vermont, who coincidentally grew up in Minneapolis, had just asked me to film him. He had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer in his early thirties and wanted me to document the craziness of his dying days, as he was buffeted from chemotherapy to New Age cures recommended by friends. I didn’t have the stomach to follow much of David’s last days. Meanwhile, Steve Ascher and I teamed up to go to Minneapolis. We wanted to ask strangers what in their lives they would like to have filmed. For me, it was almost like an act of expiation.

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Special Event Tickets $12 - Ed Pincus and Lucia Small in Person
Monday April 9 at 7pm

The Axe in the Attic

Directed by Ed Pincus and Lucia Small
USA 2007, digital video, color, 110 min

When I finished Diaries in 1980, I thought my life in film was over. I had completed the work I wanted to do and saw no encore. Then, some twenty years later, a chance meeting as a judge at a film festival led to a collaboration with Lucia Small.  For three years, Lucia and I discussed film ideas and decided we wanted to make a film about the temperature of America during the Bush era. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit and our film found a focus in the diaspora of the hurricane. The Axe in the Attic was the distillation of a sixty-day road trip to document what happened to a country displaced, and the role of the filmmakers who bare witness.

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