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Refocused

Pioneering filmmaker Ed Pincus returns to the field

The story sounds like fiction from a screenwriter's imagination: Groundbreaking filmmaker abandons his career to protect his family from a madman, reinvents himself as a farmer in a remote Vermont village, doesn't make a movie for a quarter century. And then comes back.

That this has happened in real life - and happened to a man who helped to pioneer the art of autobiographical filmmaking - seems especially fitting. As a Cambridge documentary filmmaker in the 1960s and '70s, Ed Pincus philosophized about a director's connection to his subject, then made an epic film about his family life. He moved to Vermont to escape from a man who had been featured in one of his earlier movies, a paranoid-schizophrenic civil rights worker who eventually shot and killed a US Congressman.

This week, Pincus, 69, is returning from self-imposed exile with a new filmmaking partner a generation younger, and a new documentary about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. "The Axe in the Attic," co-directed by Pincus and Lucia Small, premieres at the prestigious New York Film Festival today. Filmmaking circles are abuzz. And even Pincus is amazed at the turn of events.

"It happened," he said last week, from his cut-flower farm in Roxbury, Vt. "And it's a miracle."

Pincus may not be a household name, but in the flourishing world of documentary films, his legacy is indisputable. He worked and taught in the 1960s and '70s, helping to cofound the MIT Film Section, an influential filmmaking lab. He developed an innovative way of capturing sound with a 16mm camera. He co-wrote, with filmmaker Steven Ascher, a gold-standard technical reference book for filmmakers.

And though he started out making cinema-verite films about social justice - his first film, 1965's "Black Natchez," visited civil rights era Mississippi - he eventually decided to turn the cameras on himself. With "Diaries: 1971-1976," a film about his wife, kids, friends, and mistresses, Pincus pioneered a self-centered form of documentary that seems familiar now, in the age of personalized polemics and fast-food-eating stunts.

"People now talk about Michael Moore. Michael Moore talks about Ross McElwee [director of the documentary 'Sherman's March']. Ross McElwee talks about Ed Pincus," said Ascher, a onetime Pincus protege and an Academy Award-nominated documentarian. "There's a through-line there."

In fact, the 3 1/2-hour "Diaries" still feels startling for its openness. Pincus and his wife, Jane - one of the original authors of the feminist health manual "Our Bodies, Ourselves" - talk candidly about abortions and extramarital affairs. They bare souls and bodies; there is nudity all around. And they discuss the ebb and flow of their relationship in painful detail. (The film also serves as a remarkable time capsule of '70s-era clothes and sexual-revolution mores.)

A young man named Dennis Sweeney plays a small part. He first appears in footage from "Black Natchez," as a white civil rights worker trying to spark hope in young black men. Then he turns up, years later, at the Pincuses' kitchen table, complaining that someone is sending him evil messages through his teeth. Toward the end of "Diaries," Pincus mentions that Sweeney has been threatening his wife and son, and Jane Pincus voices her frustration.

Sweeney loomed larger in Pincus's actual life; he came to believe that Pincus, US Representative Allard Lowenstein, and activist Angela Davis were part of a "killer elite" that was planting voices in his head. By phone from Vermont, Pincus recalls driving from Cambridge to Vermont after one encounter, finishing in two hours a drive that usually took three, arriving white as a sheet. He recalls getting a gun and taking target practice on tin cans. And he recalls the day in 1980 when Sweeney, unable to contact Pincus, walked into Lowenstein's Manhattan office, shot him six times, then waited patiently as his secretary called the police.

By the mid-'70s, when Sweeney first grew threatening, Pincus and his wife were already toying with a full-time move to Vermont, where they had a summer cottage with a two-seater outhouse. Now, they tried living there for a winter, and stayed.

Pincus tried to travel back and forth and stay in filmmaking, but the commute grew too hard. He finished filming "Diaries," then set about the long process of editing it. He went to Minnesota with Ascher to make one last film, "Life and Other Anxieties," released before "Diaries" was finished. He dabbled with a project photographing his Vermont neighbors, but found it too disturbing: One man, suffused with quirky small-town charm, turned out to have molested his grandchildren.

Pincus's interest in filmmaking was waning, too; he didn't like the aesthetics of video, which was then rising in prominence, and he felt some creative closure when he finished "Diaries." So he set about reinventing himself as a farmer - toying with garlic, growing ginseng, eventually moving to flowers - and learned that a man reared in Brooklyn could succeed in the fields of Vermont.

Third Branch Flower LLC, the farm Ed and Jane Pincus run, sells everything from lilac to snowball viburnum and has an international clientele. Pincus found he enjoyed the learning process, and also the reclusive way of life. "The kind of films I do demand a public life," he said. "You have to go show your films and stuff like that. And, um, I got used to lying low."

So he was surprised when the call came three years ago, out of the blue: Would he serve as a judge at the New England Film & Video Festival? Pincus hesitated, then decided to go.

"I thought I'd be bored," Pincus said. "Instead, I was incredibly alert, very interested, understood what the filmmakers were trying to do."

He served on a panel with Lucia Small, a self-taught filmmaker whose 2002 documentary, "My Father, the Genius," had won critical acclaim and film festival awards. They shared a sensibility about the movies they saw. They started an e-mail correspondence. And Pincus began to think about re-releasing his own films, and returning to filmmaking himself.

"I was very excited about the prospect of helping him do that," said Small, 44, who had largely known of Pincus as a mentor to other filmmakers she admired. "I also was a little wary because so much had changed in the world of film. And he had come from such a position of prestige and access . . . I was trepidatious."

Since Pincus's days at MIT and Harvard, she said, competition had increased, funding had grown more scant, and technology had changed dramatically. Indeed, Pincus liked the quality of digital video, but he had to adjust to new cameras; he found he felt best with a larger one, which sat on his shoulder like an old film camera did. He also found that would-be subjects were far more media-savvy, in an age of ubiquitous reality TV.

"It wasn't very difficult in the '60s and '70s, to film stuff as though the camera wasn't there," Pincus said. "People would get bored with it and go about their daily lives. I think that's not so easy anymore."

Another challenge was coming up with a topic. Pincus and Small toyed with broad themes: the legacy of busing in Boston, soldiers returning from Iraq, race and class in America. They decided that, in September 2005, they would hit the road and start filming something.

That August, Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, and Small became obsessed; she started to film news coverage on her TV. Pincus sold some flower root divisions to help with financing. And in the fall of 2005, Pincus and Small took a 60-day road trip to film Katrina exiles, inside and outside New Orleans.

"The Axe in the Attic" is a travelogue through the Katrina diaspora, but it's also an examination of the filmmakers themselves: the way northerners feel out-of-place when they travel through the south, the difficult choices that come with observing people in crisis.

Pincus and Small had conflicts over the course of the film. Pincus was accustomed to shooting sparingly on film stock; to make "Diaries," he filmed 33 hours over the course of five years. Small, accustomed to less-expensive video, wanted to film everything. They shot 200 hours of footage in 60 days.

They also disagreed about how to treat the Katrina victims they met. At one point in the film, Small wrestles with whether to give a subject money for bus fare to his job. She eventually turns him down - deciding that would break a rule of objectivity - and then grows incensed when Pincus gives another man $10.

Their sparring appears onscreen, as do their reactions to what they see - Small cries when a volunteer accuses her of exploiting people, Pincus marvels at how many men he sees sobbing on the streets. Some test audiences haven't approved, Pincus said. But he and Small considered it essential that filmmakers become part of the film.

"We hope at least sometimes we stand in for the viewer," he said, "and we sort of take away the safe space that people usually have in watching social documentary films, in which they know exactly what they're supposed to feel at every moment."

The Pincus in "The Axe in the Attic" looks different from the one in "Diaries." His long blond hair is now shorter and gray, his face is a bit more weathered. But his voice is the same, as is his wry humor and his propensity to say things straight. Unlike some filmmakers, who create "literary" versions of themselves for the purposes of the camera, Small said, Pincus on film is himself.

At first, he and Small toyed with incorporating his return to filmmaking into their Katrina story. They decided in the editing room that it wouldn't work.

Pincus won't say what their next joint project is about. But Small thinks that, at some point, her partner would make a good subject for a film.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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