Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award–Ethics Amidst the Fog of War: Danfung Dennis
Like almost all of the subjects he has explored in his sublime, handcrafted works over six decades of filmmaking, Les Blank is a master of an art that one must go off the beaten path to find. Even while he has been honored with retrospectives at lofty locales like the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he still hawks his wares–DVDs, t-shirts, posters and pins–that he totes in a well-traveled suitcase.
Burden of Dreams, which he made with longtime collaborator Maureen Gosling, is perhaps the greatest film about filmmaking–or even the creative process–ever made. And yet, it’s more than that. It immerses us as much in the Peruvian Amazon and the culture of its native inhabitants as it does in the careening imagination of Les’ longtime friend, Werner Herzog. And it seems clear that the film played a role in helping the indigenous people of that region gain legal rights to their land.
A Poem Is a Naked Person is perhaps the greatest film about rock ‘n’ roll and American music that you will likely never see. This film about Leon Russell can only be viewed in a non-commercial screening in Blank’s presence–the aftermath of a lawsuit between Russell and the producer. “He never did tell me why he didn’t want it shown,” says Blank. “I try not to mention the name of the film or the subject [in publicity] because he’s sued me a couple of times to stop me.”
These two opuses merely hint at the vivid cultural universe explored in Blank’s body of work. Other musicians profiled in his films include Lightnin’ Hopkins, Dizzy Gillespie, Lydia Mendoza, Tommy Jarrell, Flaco Jimenez, Boozoo Chavis, Mance Lipscomb, Francisco Aquabella and Clifton Chenier. And then there are films about garlic, gap-toothed women, a cowboy artist and, of course, Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe. Legendary folklorist Alan Lomax, a friend and an influence of Blank’s, called his short The Sun Gonna Shine “One of the three most important films on the South.” Blank seems to have followed his own American muse and captured magic along the way (he was even a camera operator on Easy Rider).