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Penny Lane, filmmaker and professor, offers candid look at creative process

By Laura D'Angelo '14 on September 19, 2013
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Penny Lane — a seasoned storyteller, nonfiction filmmaker, assistant professor of art and art history at Colgate, and …  self-proclaimed thief?

In a thought-provoking and honest lecture about her role as a visual artist, Lane discussed the complexities of being a filmmaker who appropriates others’ images exclusively to create her own nonfiction narratives.

“Everything [in my work] in a sense is stolen and reflects my lack of interest in creating images. I’m much more interested in finding things than making things, which leads me to my work in nonfiction,” she explained in a September 11 lecture in Golden Auditorium.

After showing three of her most popular works – How to Make an Autobiography, an excerpt from Our Nixon, and The Voyagers – Lane revealed specific moments in the films where her storytelling needs took precedence over an accurate or factual representation.

According to Lane, the most challenging aspect of creating nonfiction films is striking a balance between telling a compelling story and not distorting reality. In her award-winning documentary Our Nixon – which recently premiered on CNN and at Colgate – Lane appropriated archived home movies filmed by three of Nixon’s closest aides during his presidency.

Lane said she used artistic license to construct sentences – it took her three days to create an eight-word sentence by advisor John Ehrlichman – that better fit the story she was telling through the compiled footage.

“I feel like if I did some of these things as a paper in a college class, I’d be called in front of the academic integrity board. And I’m wondering why we don’t have anything like that in the world of visual arts. I’m intrigued by the idea that in art and film, we should have better standards of how we explain these ‘distortions’ to our viewers,” she said.

Lane entertained the idea of providing her audience with an annotated guide to every edit and manipulation after her next film, but understands that it could potentially backfire since many other documentary filmmakers are not as transparent about their edits.

Ultimately, Lane has shown a keen ability to put seemingly unrelated images, sounds, and words together to form cohesive and relatable films.

“When you’re telling a nonfiction story, you have to take a whole bunch of messy material from the world and shape it into something that reads as a story to your viewer. It’s a really intense process,” she explained.

Named one of Filmmaker magazine’s “25 New Faces of Independent Film,” Lane is currently working on a new project and has some of her work showcased in an exhibition in Clifford Gallery.

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