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Ed Pincus Remembered: A Selection of Reflections

By Tom White

As reported in The New York Times, filmmaker Ed Pincus, one of the pioneers in the personal documentary genre, died last week at home in Vermont, at age 75, of complications from leukemia.

Pincus was best known for Diaries, which documented five years of his life, from 1971 to 1976, with his wife, Jane, their two children—and a number of women with whom he had affairs. In an essay he wrote for Documentary magazine back in 2001, filmmaker Ross McElwee described Diaries as  a "portrait of a particular era—the early 1970s—a time in which a willingness to experiment in life, love and political expression was still present, but on the wane. That title—Diaries—is as unadorned, direct and honest, as is the film itself. What I experienced when I first saw Diaries was not a sense of voyeurism, but of privileged intimacy." (For the complete essay, click here.)


Ed Pincus and his wife, Jane. From Diaries.


Pincus graduated from Brown University in 1960 with a degree in philosophy, and earned his master's in philosophy from Harvard, where he also developed an interest in photography. Although he never formally studied film, he appreciated the newly evolving direct cinema style. His first films, made for public television, included Black Natchez (1967), about tensions within a black community in Mississippi during the civil rights struggle, and One Step Away (1967), which documented the lives of hippies in San Francisco. But following those films, Pincus began to question the possibility of objectivity in documentary. As his son Benjamin told The New York Times, "He wanted to eliminate the illusion that there was an objective observer behind the camera. He wanted to make this statement that the documentarian's job was to be subjective."


From Ed Pincus' first film, Black Natchez (1967).


Which led him to Diaries, followed by Life and Other Anxieties (1977), a collaboration with filmmaker Steven Ascher, in which they traveled to Minneapolis and, taking cues from Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in their film Chronicle of a Summer,  interviewed people at random on the street, then asked them what aspect of their lives they'd like to be documented. Ascher and Pincus would later collaborate on several editions of The Filmmakers Handbook, an essential guide to the art and business of independent filmmaking.

By this time, Pincus was ten years into heading the film department at MIT with the legendary Richard Leacock. Their students included McElwee and Ascher, as well as  Robb Moss, Jeff Kreines, Joel DeMott, Michel Negroponte, Mira Nair and many others.

But following an unsettling series of incidents involving death threats from a former associate, Pincus and his family moved to Vermont in the early 1980s—and took what amounted to a decades-long break from filmmaking.

It was Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that compelled his return, and he and filmmaker Lucia Small embarked on a 60-day road trip from Vermont to New Orleans to document the sociopolitical fallout of that disaster. In their statement about the resulting film, The Axe in the Attic, the filmmakers wrote, "We wanted the viewers to understand on a visceral level what happens when a trust is broken between a government and its people."


From Ed Pincus and Lucia Small's The Axe in the Attic (2007)


In his final film, One Cut, One Life, Pincus once again teamed up with Small to explore their respective experiences with and observations about loss, grieving and dying-and living life well despite those experiences. Small is working to complete the film. For an article about One Cut, One Life that appeared in The New York Times, click here.

We reached out to various friends and colleagues of Pincus to share their thoughts about the late filmmaker.

 "I'm fortunate to have known Ed for over 35 years. I worked on Diaries, we co-directed Life and Other Anxieties and we co-wrote the first edition of The Filmmaker's Handbook.  Ed came out of philosophy and thought deeply about the experiment of film and the strategies he'd employ. But making a film was a spontaneous act that he didn't want to overthink.  He talked about trying to capture in Diaries the raw, often surprising feel of rushes, and some of the most challenging juxtapositions in the movie don't come from studied editing decisions but because that's the way the footage came out of the camera. Ed could at times be a tough critic of people's films, but I always admired that he didn't exempt himself from criticism or posture to make himself look better.  He never flinched from leaving in scenes that risked turning the audience against him; it's a kind of bracing honesty and willingness to just be himself. In Diaries, he opened doors to personal documentary by bringing audiences inside his and Jane's life, taking us through scenes that could be difficult, unresolved and full of emotion, a lot like our own lives. Ed tested the boundaries of what could be filmed and was looking for a new relationship between a film and its subjects. At the center was the inimitable Ed, such a warm, funny, truly interesting and interested human being.  Over all the years I've relished our conversations in which nothing was off the table, and I'll miss them most of all."

—Steven Ascher

"The last time I saw Ed was a few months ago in Vermont. He whispered a few things to me about his declining health as if it was a well kept secret (it wasn't). What he really wanted to talk about was film and photography; his illness wasn't going to sideline his passion. Maybe because he studied philosophy, he found questions more interesting than answers. This was evidenced in his films, which had a probing quality. Seeking to lay bare the relationship between subject and filmmaker, he spent five years filming his own family. Diaries is a landmark because Ed pioneered working solo in 16mm film and found magic in the everyday. He looked for the sublime and the essential in all his work, whether he was filming a counterculture commune in Haight Asbury in the 1960s (One Step Away), or the civil rights movement in Natchez, Mississippi, (Black Natchez). His rigor inspired a generation of filmmakers, and I am thankful to be one of them. "

—Michel Negroponte

"I didn't know Ed well and I've only seen his most renowned work, Diaries, once on DVD (which is never the proper way to see a classic doc). So his influence on me comes more through work of the great filmmakers who worked with or were taught by Ed—Ross McElwee, Steve Ascher, Michel Negroponte and Lucia Small, among numerous others.

But I'm deeply appreciative of Ed's role as pioneer of the personal documentary. His bravery and talent paved the way for all of us who work nin that most hazardous of film forms.

I also appreciate his golden years comeback working in collaboration with Lucia. The Axe in the Attic is a superlative film that never got its proper due.  And One Cut, One Life promises to be an incredibly powerful and poignant swan song. It's the doc I'm most looking forward to seeing in the coming year."

—Doug Block 


"Before I met Ed, I was unaware how much his work had indirectly influenced so many of us. I, like many others who were interested in first-person work, had not seen Diaries. Instead, I was influenced by the work of Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Nina Davenport, Steve Ascher and Jeannie Jordan. So, when I met Ed and was exposed to his early work—and not just Diaries—I was pretty floored by the profound impact he had on so many of us. It was as though I had come full circle.

In addition to being a philosopher and mathematician, Ed had been a photographer before he picked up a moving camera. Ed was in love with natural light-how natural light would frame a leaf, a face, a moment. That is a part of his work that is talked about less. In fact, one of the reasons Ed left film in the early '80s was that he didn't like the "tinny quality" that video initially offered. 

I do remember how Ed boldly re-entered this world of filmmaking, with dogged determination. He simultaneously impressed and frustrated me with his endless inquiries and recalculations about which camera to get, which film topic to choose, and even which route to travel when we were on the road shooting Axe in the Attic. I used to have to remind myself, 'Oh, yeah, Ed wrote the book: Guide to Filmmaking. Of course, he has to exhaust every option and question me along the way.'

He had an incredibly dry sense of humor. He once said to me that all his films are comedies, once you understand what they are about: the human comedy. I think that is also a more subtle influence that he has had on nonfiction work." 

—Lucia Small