Frederick Wiseman and D A Pennebaker: The truth is still out there

Even in their 80s, two legendary documentary makers still crave the intimacy – and humanity – of their art. Geoffrey Macnab reports
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Frederick Wiseman (whose new film, La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, opens in the UK next month) is a "legend" of the documentary world. That much is official. The 80-year-old film-maker was presented with the inaugural Living Legend award at IDFA, the world's largest documentary festival, in Holland last autumn. He was given a prize of €5000 to underline his legendary credentials.

However, being a "living legend" of documentary making doesn't confer quite the level of riches and celebrity that you might expect. Wiseman's contemporary D A Pennebaker, now 85, is equally celebrated – but both men still often struggle to get their work financed or into mainstream distribution.

Wiseman, Pennebaker and the other 60s US directors associated with cinéma vérité (or "truthful cinema") have had a huge influence on today's documentary makers. However, it is debatable how acknowledged this influence has been. In today's digital era, anyone can make a cinéma vérité movie. Reality TV is seen by some as the ultimate bastardisation of a form of film-making that seemed fresh and groundbreaking at the time of a film like the Robert Drew-produced Primary (1960). Back then, the idea of training a camera on Senator John F Kennedy as he campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination seemed revolutionary. Primary showed Kennedy off-duty, relaxing with his wife, Jackie, while on the road. It strove for an intimacy and spontaneity that newsreels lacked. The film-makers were using cumbersome equipment, but they attempted to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Half a century on, many of the 60s US practitioners are still active. Directors like Wiseman, Pennebaker and his partner, Chris Hegedus, and Albert Maysles are making films in the same painstaking, observational way they always have ... and their work is still marginalised: shown in ghetto slots on public TV stations, feted at festivals, but given only the most limited cinema releases.

The film-makers don't always relish being lumped together. Wiseman, in particular, is resistant to the idea that he is part of the cinéma vérité movement. "I've met them all but I have little or no relationship with them," he says of his fellow documentary makers from the 60s. "The fact that I am linked with them is not my doing." However, there are links between them: early in his career, Wiseman rented equipment from Pennebaker. Pennebaker, meanwhile, acknowledges that Wiseman gave him valuable advice about how to secure "releases" from interviewees and subjects by "holding up the microphone and saying 'do you give us permission to use this photography?'"

Since making Titicut Follies in 1967, his celebrated film set in a Massachusetts hospital for the "criminally insane", Wiseman has been engaged in his own documentary version of Balzac's La Comédie Humaine. He has delved into many different corners of American life, making documentaries about high schools, hospitals and police departments, about public housing and domestic violence, about ballet and about boxing. His films explore behaviour institutions ... and many institutions are grim – perhaps one reason why his work is often so hard to track down for viewers.

La Danse is Wiseman's most popular film in many years. It has been shown at many festivals and has been sold to distributors around the world. The New York Times recently called it "one of the finest dance films ever made". It has a joyousness about it that isn't always there in his earlier films.

In La Danse, Wiseman's camera is trained on the dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet as they rehearse and perform. The director is clearly fascinated by the sense of tradition that runs through the company. This is a state subsidised body where the star dancers are coached by the star dancers from the previous generation. There is a line of influence that can easily be traced back 300 years.

It's clear, too, that the relentless work ethic and self-discipline of the dancers is something he shares. In his 80s, Wiseman still works 16-hour days.

Pennebaker and Hegedus have just completed a new documentary of their own, Kings of Pastry, a film about pastry chefs competing for the "Collar", a hugely competitive event held in France. Just as Wiseman is fascinated by the drive of the dancer, they identify with the obsessiveness of the chefs. "That's all they do in their lives ... and all we do in our lives is film. We have a dog and a cat and children, but basically, that's all we think about: how to make a film and how to go some place new with a film."

The old vérité maestros seem to be lightening up in their 80s. The optimism of La Danse makes an absolute contrast with the horror and squalor that Wiseman caught on camera in his 1967 masterpiece, Titicut Follies, about the (mis)treatment of inmates at a hospital for the criminally insane. Even today, the film has some of the impact as the Abu Ghraib photos.

Kings of Pastry, with its zany music and sequences showing chefs preparing huge edifices out of icing and chocolate, has a levity about it that you don't find in the earlier work by Pennebaker and Hegedus, whether The War Room, their riveting film about Bill Clinton's 1992 US presidential election campaign or Don't Look Back, Pennebaker's celebrated film about Bob Dylan's 1965 concert tour of Britain.

Making La Danse, he and his two other crew members shot 130 hours of footage. The director then spent over a year winnowing it down to its eventual two-and-a-half hour running time.

There is never a predetermined length to a Wiseman movie. The structure evolves as he pieces the images together. His shortest film is 73 minutes and his longest six hours. La Danse was the first film he has ever edited digitally, on Avid.

Wiseman is already close to completing a new film, about a boxing gym in Texas. Pennebaker and Hegedus have been on the festival trail with Kings of Pastry, which screened last month in the Culinary Cinema section of the Berlin Festival. As Pennebaker puts it, these documentaries were made outside "momentary fervour or fashion." He argues that we will look back on this work "to find out our history. I think that's really important. It's more important than films on penguins."

Frederick Wiseman's 'La Danse' is released in the UK on 23 April