Open City Documentary Festival

Open City Documentary Festival 2018 – Focus: Penny Lane: Observing Observation Itself

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In an essay originally produced for our festival brochure, Kiva Reardon looks at the work of Penny Lane, one of our two ‘In Focus’ directors for the 2018 festival.

“I haven’t held a camera in many years.” A seemingly strange comment for a director to make, but this is what Penny Lane said to Filmmaker after being named in their prestigious “25 New Faces” list in 2012. On the heels of the success of her debut documentary Our Nixon (2013), her statement wasn’t meant as a provocation: the film was “made” from 500 hours of Super 8 home videos shot by aides in the Nixon White House. (Lane had looked at this era before in The Voyagers (2010) about NASA’s “golden record” and love; and Lane and Frye had previously made a New York Times Op-Doc, Silent Majority (2011), of crowd shots from the same Nixon footage.) As such, her remark summarizes how Lane engages with the seventh art, which is a mode of research and culling, creating new meanings and images with ones that often are already in existence.

In her follow-up feature, NUTS! (2016), Lane didn’t pick up a camera in the traditional sense again, this time directing a partially animated doc. It was a return to form, in that Lane had experimented with this combination of mediums before in her short The Abortion Diaries (2005) and in what she calls its “sort of epilogue”, She Used To See Him Most Weekends (2007). NUTS! chronicles “the mostly true story” of John Romulus Brinkley, one of America’s greatest charlatans who claimed to cure impotence by implanting goat testicles in men’s scrotums. Or maybe this really did work? Maybe the truth lies in who can tell the best version of the truth? Such is how Lane structures the doc, unbalancing the faith we have in “seeing is believing.”

Her third documentary, The Pain of Others (2018), digs deeper into this philosophical riddle, as Lane documents the lives of three women living with the mysterious (or maybe not real) Morgellons disease. Here she amasses the material of her film from their YouTube testimonials, which poses complex questions about objectivity, suffering and even social media. In this way, the film echoes with one of her earliest shorts, Men Seeking Women (2007): a robotic “male” voice reads Albany, NYC Craigslist personal ads, as “his” image is superimposed on computers in stock images of women sitting in front of their screens. In some four minutes Lane captures the desperation, misogyny and disorienting disconnect of the reality of “talking” through technology. Or How To Write An Autobiography (2010), which uses similar technological distancing techniques to undermine how we document our lives.

In 2018, Lane continues to explore the (dis)connect that technology and images has on our lives with Normal Appearances (2018), once again digging into American history to unearth the story of a pioneering reporter in Nellie Bly Makes the News (2018). But perhaps the strongest through-thread between her three works this year is the exploration of how women are (or are not) represented in images. In this way, while Lane has called The Pain of Others “an observational documentary where what you’re observing is YouTube,” more broadly, Lane’s works also draw attention to observing observation itself.