At their best, documentaries have the unique power to narrow the gap between ourselves as viewers and the lives of others. More than simple empathy, a skilled documentarian can evoke in an audience a deep understanding of another individual, his thoughts and fears, his feelings and personality. Staring into the eyes of the many subjects featured in DOC NYC’s retrospective of vérité legend Richard Leacock, it’s this understanding, an almost subconscious closeness, that affected me the most. Over four heavily influential observational shorts, The Children Were Watching, The Chair, Primary and Crisis, Leacock and his equally-legendary collaborators—Robert Drew, D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles—bring us directly into the courtroom fighting for the life of a death row inmate, throw us into the whirlwind of racism during Southern integration and place us in the tense back rooms of JFK’s presidential campaign. In each instance and without fail, the filmmakers show us not only another person but his entire reality, the times he’s a part of and the spinning world around him.
Thanks to technological advances, many of them by the filmmakers themselves, Leacock and his team brought mobility and proximity to documentary cinema. They got right behind Kennedy shaking hands with supporters and were caught in the middle of heated segregationist demonstrations, and, even through a beautiful veil of grain, the images and pivotal moments they captured present themselves to us now as if no time had elapsed. The effect is the most surreal during Primary, where extremely intimate close-ups force us to recognize the human being behind the icon of Kennedy. A young Jackie Kennedy looks on with pride as her husband delivers a speech to supporters, enhancing the tragedy of the assassination we know must inevitably follow. These early observational documentaries collapse the time between then and now; we watch with the hindsight of today but the events unfold freshly before our eyes, the outcome somehow still a mystery and a surprise.
Great formal innovators all, Leacock and his team’s most effective tactic of capturing the volatility of these historical moments occurs in Crisis, an account of Kennedy’s struggle with Governor George Wallace, who swore to personally prevent two black students from entering the University of Alabama. Different teams of cameramen captured the action from all angles: with JFK in the White house, in Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s office and with both the students and Wallace in Alabama. The events and the incredible tension unfold dramatically, as if on The West Wing. In one serendipitous moment they capture both sides of phone call between Robert Kennedy and his deputy in Alabama, a tender scene that neither cameraman knew the other was covering. Appearing at the IFC Center, Pennebaker marveled at the “simultaneity” they were able to achieve, and it’s remarkable effect as a living document of history. “We weren’t news cameramen, we were historians,” he said, “and Kennedy dug that.”
Equally impressive is Leacock’s ability to capture these people fairly, for who they are. For example, Wallace emerges as a passionate, articulate man, despite the error of his belief in segregation. In The Children Were Watching, Leacock is on the front lines of a frightening battle against integration in New Orleans. He fixes his gaze on the hatred behind the eyes of the rabid mob as they mercilessly heckle a six-year-old black girl leaving school, pausing to wonder the lesson that children on both sides of the issue are learning from their parents. While these are obviously political films and their makers hold very strong beliefs, each documentary allows the events and the participants to explain themselves, proving its possible to be truthful and opinionated at the same time. Above all, these films are truthful and startlingly real. They don’t capture past events, but current ones, continually unfolding anew, happening right before our eyes.