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Tribeca Talk: Today's Technological Tools or Tomorrow's?

By Pamela Yoder

At the Tribeca Film Festival, left to right: Alan Raymond, Steve Rosenbaurm, Cara Mertes, DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus. Photo courtesy ol CameraPlanet

What would happen if technology stopped in its tracks?  If filmmaking's tools of tomorrow were the same as today?

 It's slightly ironic in the midst of the Tribeca Film Festival—a festival itself with one leg in silver oxide and the other in hi-def digital projection—that this debate took center stage. The question was somewhat rhetorical, since all of the people on stage at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center acknowledged that the tools that make film are evolving in a dramatic and explosive evolution. But not everyone was willing to agree that all this change is good for documentary.

The forum was a panel discussion featuring some of the best-known and most respected filmmakers in documentary. But it's pretty clear that the debate is one that's taking place all throughout the documentary world.

At first blush, the debate split across predictable lines. Cara Mertes, executive director of the PBS series P.O.V., moderator (and Full Frame Festival director) Nancy Buirski and I touted the powerful new voices in film being made possible by DV cameras, Final Cut Pro software and other new, low-cost storytelling tools. After all, Cara and I are both distributors and we embrace new filmmakers without prejudice.

Across the aisle, Ken Burns, the dean of the historic documentary, talked with passion and dedication about the feel of film and his almost karmic connection with his Steenbeck.

But then there were the converts. DA Pennebaker spoke of the passion of film, but also the freedom that tape has given him to explore, experiment and make mistakes that didn't break the bank. Finally acknowledging that he's past his days of shooting on film, he wondered aloud where his Arri 16mm camera was. His wife and partner Chris Hegedus suggested that she'd sent it to Burns.

The truth is that the work of Pennebaker/Hegedus Films in many ways chronicles the change in filmmaking tools. From Dont Look Back to Monterey Pop to The War Room, this remarkable duo, either together or separately, has created a distinctive style within the vérité genre. But recent work has completed the move from film to tape;, directed by Hegedus and produced by Pennebaker, was shot entirely on tape.

As the discussion progressed, technology took a back seat to the real underlying questions that face so many of us: Does making something easy in some way damage the end product? Is all art supposed to be hard? Does struggle improve the creative output?

Alan Raymond, who along with his wife Susan made the film that will be remembered as the precursor to the current "reality TV" wave—An American Family—seemed to understand the complex debate most personally. He talked about his 14-year-old son, who is making films every day as part of his school's film club, and seemed almost jealous that someone that young has easy access to tools that Raymond and his peers had to struggle to borrow, and then beg for money for film stock.

And then, just as it seemed like we'd all been typecast, the bombshell fell. It was dropped by Ken. He's already loaned his name and his remarkable reputation to...are you ready for this?...a piece of software!

He may never edit on a computer, but the Ken Burns Effect is already available in Apple's iMovie software package. Burns donated the fees he would have received in the form of computers that Apple in turn donated to schools. But he's donated far more than that, as young filmmakers everywhere can use the Ken Burns Effect to make photomontages and move images within their films.

Bravo, Ken! Tools are tools-but teachers, now that's an important topic. And that's what immortalizing one's craft means to a new generation.


Steve Rosenbaum can be reached at