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COLLECTION Identifier: hfa00023

Ed Pincus Collection


This collection contains film and video materials produced by documentary filmmaker Ed Pincus in collaboration with David Neuman, Steve Asher, and Lucia Small from the beginning of his career in 1967 to his reappearance in 2007, as well as nine 16mm projection prints from his personal film collection. The majority of the collection consists of 16mm projection prints, internegatives, track negatives, and original camera reversal elements of Pincus and his collaborators' documentary films from the sixties and seventies: Black Natchez, Panola, One Step Away, Harry’s Trip, Portrait of a McCarthy Supporter, The Way We See It, Diaries (1971-1976), and Life and Other Anxieties, as well as two prints from his classroom work with Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies and a few rolls of unpublished film material. Pincus has created preservation masters for Panola and One Step Away on Digital Betacam, and these preservation masters are included the collection, along with an HDCam preservation master of One Step Away created by the Harvard Film Archive. The collection also holds original digital video material on D5 and D5 master copies of 2007’s The Axe in the Attic, and trailers for the film on Digital Betacam.


  • Creation: 1967-2007

Language of Materials

Material is in English.

Access Restrictions

Access by appointment only. Applications to consult this material should be directed to the staff of the Harvard Film Archive.

Film prints are made accessible in close consultation with HFA staff. Although materials do not circulate for individual use, students, filmmakers, artists, and researchers are encouraged to use the collections on-site.

Use Restrictions

Reproduction and/or publication of materials subject to copyright requires written permission from a) the copyright owner, his/her heirs or assigns and from b) the Harvard Film Archive, owner of the original material.


1 collection (116 cans 16mm film material, 11 videotapes, and 1 audio tape)

The Ed Pincus Collection at Harvard is the only known collection of Pincus' work, most of them donated to the archive by the filmmaker. It includes elements from all of Pincus' films, including four short works (Harry's Trip, Portrait of a McCarthy Supporter, The Way We See It and Panola) that had never been publicly screened before their premiere at the Harvard Film Archive in April 2012. Pincus has provided notes on all his films, listed below. The collection also includes two prints from Pincus' classroom work with Harvard’s Department of Visual and Environmental Studies and a few rolls of unpublished film material, as well as nine 16mm commercial film prints from Pincus' personal collection.


  1. Black Natchez. Ed Pincus and David Neuman, 1967

    The advent of portable sync-sound equipment in the early 60s meant, for the first time in the sound era, that filmmakers could go to the subject as opposed to bringing the subject to the camera. The ability to take a camera out into the world created the desire to "get it right," to film the world independent of the act of filmmaking. In the US, all sorts of rules were being created in documentary film — no script, no narration, no interviews, no lighting, no mic boom, no collusion between subject and filmmaker.

    In 1965, the second year of intense voter registration drives in Mississippi, we decided to make a film in the southwest corner of the state. Little civil rights work had been done there because of the danger in the region. Our approach was to seek out several story lines and then continue with the most interesting. A car bombing of a civil rights leader while we were there changed everything. The event emphasized the rifts in the black community around the demands for equality. Rifts between teenagers and women on one hand and the black business community on the other. Rifts between black males forming armed protection groups and the call for non-violence by the major civil rights groups. And rifts between grassroots organizations and more traditional leadership organizations such as the FDP (Freedom Democratic Party) and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).

  2. One Step Away. Ed Pincus and David Neuman, 1968

    It was the Summer of Love, 1967. The Haight-Ashbury section of San Francisco was to be the center of a vast cultural experiment. Ideologically it was an attempt at a post-industrial society, where people no longer needed to work and communities of choice allowed people to "do their own thing.” David Neuman and I set off to film what happened that summer. We decided to do what we thought would be a film about a rural commune, because that seemed to be the apotheosis of hippie ideals. What we found was a bizarre replication of bourgeois society — the sun rose on the nothing new. We decided to use an anecdotal editing style with an attempt to enforce a narrative line.

  3. Harry's Trip. Ed Pincus and David Neuman, 1969

    Harry, the leader of a commune, was in the middle of an acid trip when we put him in a room all by himself in front of the camera.

  4. The Way We See It. Ed Pincus and David Neuman, 1969

    David Neuman and I were commissioned by Public Television to do a film on a Hispanic film project on the Lower East Side of New York City where disadvantaged kids were given the opportunity to make their own films.

    Note: As The Way We See It was a commercial film for hire made by Pincus and Newman, it is therefore very atypical of their work- with an omniscient voice-over narration for example that is antithetical to the mode of cinema they were pioneering at the time.

  5. Portrait of a McCarthy Supporter. Ed Pincus and David Neuman, 1969

    Portrait of a McCarthy Supporter was a commission from Public Television. Each of five filmmakers were asked to make a twenty-minute film about the state of the country. The Vietnam War was on everyone's agenda. We felt that Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war Democratic candidate for President, was co-opting the left's opposition to the war. We decided to make a film about my father-in-law to represent how far Eugene McCarthy's ideology was from progressive politics. The title’s ambiguity between Joe McCarthy and Eugene McCarthy faded as Eugene became a minor footnote in history.

  6. Panola. Ed Pincus and David Neuman, 1970

    Panola’s life was a performance. He was always “on the set.” Wino, tree pruner, possible police informant, philosopher, "the most dangerous X that ever was," "father of eight with one more on the way," Panola challenged our filmmaking convictions. In no way could we film him independently of the presence of the camera. The conflict between our aesthetic convictions and the reality and authenticity Panola expressed led to few years of confusion, unsuccessful attempts at edits, and ultimately the need to find an outside editor (primarily Michal Goldman).

  7. Diaries (1971-76). Ed Pincus, 1980

    It was a time of upheaval in people's personal relations. Everything was on the table. Feminism had a slogan: “The personal is political.” Filmmaking technology was rapidly evolving. It became possible for the first time to shoot single-person sync. A crew of one meant that intimate relations could be filmed in a documentary. Films could be shot over a long duration without skyrocketing costs. I decided to do an experiment. I would film for five years, not look at the footage, leave it in the can for five more years and then edit. Editing would mimic what came out of the camera ("the rushes"). David Hume had called the self no more than a bundle of perceptions. How much of individual personhood could be recreated in such a film? I wanted to test the personal is political in this brave new world of relationships.

  8. Life and Other Anxieties. Ed Pincus and Steve Ascher, 1977

    In 1975, I was invited to “make any film I wanted as long as it was shot in Minneapolis." David Hancock, a filmmaker friend in Vermont, who coincidentally grew up in Minneapolis, had just asked me to film him. He had been recently diagnosed with terminal cancer in his early thirties and wanted me to document the craziness of his dying days, as he was buffeted from chemotherapy to New Age cures recommended by friends. I didn’t have the stomach to follow much of David’s last days. Meanwhile, Steve Ascher and I teamed up to go to Minneapolis. We wanted to ask strangers what in their lives they would like to have filmed. For me, it was almost like an act of expiation.

  9. The Axe in the Attic. Ed Pincus and Lucia Small, 2007

    When I finished Diaries in 1980, I thought my life in film was over. I had completed the work I wanted to do and saw no encore. Then, some twenty years later, a chance meeting as a judge at a film festival led to a collaboration with Lucia Small. For three years, Lucia and I discussed film ideas and decided we wanted to make a film about the temperature of America during the Bush era. Then, Hurricane Katrina hit and our film found a focus in the diaspora of the hurricane. The Axe in the Attic was the distillation of a sixty-day road trip to document what happened to a country displaced, and the role of the filmmakers who bore witness.


Ed Pincus is one of the most crucial figures in the history of American documentary filmmaking. Having studied philosophy and photography at Harvard, Pincus turned to film and in 1967 made a significant contribution to “direct cinema” (that is, fly-on-the-wall observational filmmaking) with Black Natchez. Pincus and David Neuman traveled to the Deep South with a camera rented from John Marshall to record the African-American community in Natchez as it struggled to decide how to effectively challenge white racism. In a second feature, One Step Away (1968), Pincus and Neuman (who again took sound) focused on members of a San Francisco hippie community, questioning whether the hippies were fundamentally different from the society they were rebelling against, and confronting the then popular assumption among documentary filmmakers that editing in observational cinema needed to be invisible.

In 1967, Pincus was hired to teach filmmaking at MIT, where he was soon joined by Ricky Leacock – together they were the heart of the MIT Film Section into the 1980s. The freewheeling Film Section nurtured not only prospective filmmakers among the MIT student body, but non-matriculated men and women who had promising ideas for documentary films. Pincus continued to develop his expertise with the filmmaking process, and in 1969 the New American Library published his Guide to Filmmaking, a widely read and widely used guide for independent filmmakers. Later Pincus would team up with Steve Ascher to expand the Guide, and they transformed it into The Filmmaker’s Handbook – in several editions since 1984.

By the early 1970s, Pincus’ approach to filmmaking was changing. The women’s movement and the on-going struggle for black liberation were assuming that “the personal is the political,” and in an attempt to see if this held true for his own experience, Pincus began what would become his magnum opus: Diaries (1971-76). His plan: to cinematically investigate his own (open) marriage and family life during what was an experimental and turbulent time, to shoot footage for five years; then wait another five years before finally editing the footage into a finished film. This plan was adhered to, though Pincus’ willingness to share rushes and early rough cuts of passages of the material became a primary – perhaps the primary – instigation for what is now called the “personal documentary.” Diaries (1971-76) remains one of the masterworks of the genre, and Pincus’ breakthrough has contributed, directly or indirectly, to the films of Ross McElwee, Robb Moss, Miriam Weinstein, Nina Davenport, Jonathan Caouette, Lucia Small and many others.

Diaries revealed not just Pincus’ personal experience, but an increasing self-reflexivity. In 1977 Pincus and Steve Ascher completed Life and Other Anxieties, part personal documentary and part experiment in the mode of cinema verité filmmaking explored by Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin in Chronicle of a Summer – Paris 1960, where the film reveals the filmmakers instigating a situation that is then documented. In Life and Other Anxieties Pincus and Ascher interview people on the street in Minneapolis to find out what part of their lives they would like the filmmakers to document, then document what these individuals have requested. With Diaries, Life and Other Anxieties seems to have completed, at least for a time, Pincus’ investigation of the potentials and limitations of portable sync-sound filming.

Pincus’ “low profile” after the mid-1970s was a result of a bizarre circumstance. Dennis Sweeney, who had helped instigate the visit to Mississippi that produced Black Natchez, had become delusional and dangerous, and was threatening the lives of Pincus and his family. These were not empty threats: Sweeney would kill civil rights lawyer and U.S. Congressman Allard Lowenstein in his Manhattan office in 1980. In order to stay out of harm’s way, Pincus stopped making public appearances with his work and the Pincus family made their rural Vermont farm their permanent residence, working to establish Third Branch Flower, what has become a thriving flower-growing business. Pincus returned to filmmaking in 2005 when the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its socio-political implications drew Pincus into collaboration with Lucia Small on what became The Axe in the Attic (2007), a feature about the impacts of the disaster on New Orleans and New Orleanians and on the process of cinematically recording such events.

-- Scott MacDonald, author of The Cambridge Turn in Documentary Filmmaking, forthcoming


Organized into the following series:

  1. I. Pincus Films (organized chronologically)
  2. II. Films in Pincus' Personal Collection (organized alphabetically)

Related Collection

The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University holds a rich collection of moving images and sound recordings from the making of Black Natchez and Panola:

Ed Pincus Collection, 1965-1967.1965-1967.

An online guide to this collection is available at the Amistad Research Center website.

A PDF version is available for viewing here.


  • Ed Pincus's career, particularly his shift to autobiographical documentary, is discussed in the following essay: Lane, Jim. "The Career and Influence of Ed Pincus: Shifts in Documentary Epistemology." Journal of Film and Video 49:4 (Winter 1997), 3-17.
  • A major interview with Ed Pincus can be found in: Levin, G. Roy. Documentary Explorations: 15 Interviews with Film-makers. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1971.
  • The development of ethnographic and autobiographical filmmaking in Cambridge, Mass. is discussed in the following book (forthcoming): MacDonald, Scott. The Cambridge Turn in Documentary Filmmaking.

Processing Information

Encoded by: Rebecca Fraimow, June 2012

Ed Pincus Collection, 1967-2007 : An Inventory
Harvard Film Archive, Harvard University
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Harvard Film Archive, Harvard Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard Film Archive is one of the largest university-based motion picture collections in the United States, with a collection of 40,000 audio visual items, a growing number of manuscript collections, and nearly one million still photographs, posters, and other promotional materials from around the world and from almost every period in film history. The HFA's collection of paper materials, including the documentation of individual filmmakers as well as promotional materials such as posters, film stills, and ephemera are accessible to Harvard affiliates as well as to outside researchers.

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