Penny Lane is a writer, professor, award-winning documentarian, and at Fandor we are proud to have her as one of our Fandor Funded Filmmakers. The occasional irreverence of the subjects of her films somewhat disguises how they negotiate the conflict between personal and objective truth. If a doctor claims to have cured impotence by implanting goat testicles into a man’s scrotum, and his patients report real improvement, is the procedure successful? If thousands of people claim to have a disease that is uncorroborated by medical professionals, does it mean their pain isn’t real?
Fandor editorial staffers Shaina Hodgkinson and Joaquin Lowe sat down with Penny lane to discuss her new movie, The Pain of Others, her film practice, Morgellons disease, truth, and the place of documentaries in the modern world.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Joaquin Lowe: What drew you to making The Pain of Others? What is it about Morgellons that attracted you to the subject?
Penny Lane: I heard about Morgellons from an essay from a really great writer named Leslie Jamison, and the essay really poses the question of, “What kind of belief is required for empathy?” Let’s say you are devastated because of this experience that you had and you’re heartbroken and you’re sobbing, and I’m your best friend and I think that your experience is not what you think it is. Of course, I still feel sorry for you if you are standing in front of me sobbing, but it definitely complicates your ability to feel empathy for someone if you’re not sure you believe them.
The Pain of Others is composed of YouTube videos. What draws you to using found footage?
It’s something that I’ve done from the very beginning of my art-making career…I just like it! I enjoy this process, and it’s true, I’m very aware that I like editing more than I like filming. I think, personally, one of the reasons I like archival is that I like having this artistic process where I’m negotiating my subject’s pre-existing self-representation. It becomes a very interesting dance of authorship…there’s a kind of double authorship that I think is pretty interesting, and I think it’s intellectually stimulating and artistically fun.
Shaina Hodgkinson: I’m curious about how you are drawn to editing more than directing. What is the motivation behind that?
Well, I don’t think there’s any motivation, it’s just what I like. I’ve been doing this now for twelve years and I can say for sure that my favorite workday is where I stay home all day and I am editing. Period. I am alone in my underwear. That’s like my ideal day. There are a million reasons for that. One is when you’re alone and edit[ing], you can really get into the zone. No one’s there to distract you, and you can get something amazing done. And a very common experience is that at the end of the day, you look at what you did and it’s terrible, but nobody saw you do that and nobody was like, “Look at this idiotic thing you did!” Only you know that. So all the kind of “normal” failure that goes into the process is not on display for the whole world to see, and I think that appeals to me as opposed to when you’re on set and you’re shooting and you’re directing and you make your mistakes in front of people…It makes me very self-conscious.
I’m just not that drawn to the construction of an image. I’m just not that into it. I just don’t care enough! I know that because I’ve done plenty of my own filming over the years and when I’m the one filming I’m like, “Yeah, alright, got it, the end.” A person who really cares about the image is not doing that. They’re really taking their time and considering all these different elements of putting together an image. I mean I teach filmmaking, I know all this stuff. I just know that I’m not drawn to do it myself…People think that filmmaking is all about the camera. That’s a very standard idea, and it penetrates into our psyches in ways that I’m still undoing because it’s not true. It’s not just about the camera at all.
The Pain of Others is, I believe, a Susan Sontag quote—is Sontag one of your inspirations?
Yeah, it’s a pretty glancing reference to her book…although I wouldn’t say the book was a major influence on the film. I just really liked the title. I think this film is really in the tradition of compilation film. There’s very little manipulation on the part of the director, which is me. It’s really more of an observational style of filmmaking just applied to found footage. So I think of Ken Jacobs or Emile de Antonio as being some of the direct influences on my whole career, and thoughts on what to do with found footage.
Many people describe the moment we’re living in as “post-truth.” Do you see your movies (and documentaries) in general as comments on truth?
One thing I would say is that I’m constantly surprised to find myself on documentary panels at conferences and film festivals where someone will turn to me and be like, “Well, we all agree there’s no such thing as truth,” and I’m like, “What!? What are you talking about? No, we don’t!” The future of our survival as a species depends on our ability to agree on certain truths.
If you were to put the spectrum between Errol Morris and Werner Herzog, I think Errol Morris is really concerned with truth and that doesn’t mean the truth is easy to understand or easy to find because often it’s impossible to find, but I think his entire artistic career has been trying to find it. And then you’ve got someone like Werner Herzog who’s like whatever, you know? Who cares?
I align myself more with Errol Morris and I don’t mean to set them up as opponents in any way, but I do think of them as a spectrum in that sense. I think it’s funny because I make all these films that are about contested versions of reality, or contested versions of the truth, that I think there are people who interpret my stance as being like, “Well whatever. Everyone has their own truth.” That’s not what I think. I happen to think that those conflicts are interesting, and I think that’s my subject. Conflicts and how we construct our story with what the world is, or how we establish what reality is. People who go into documentaries, I think in general, feel some sense that they honor the truth, and they have some idea that they want to tell the truth in their films, and then it just gets into a question of tactics.
Having gone through the process of making The Pain of Others and doing all the research and putting it all together, did your opinion of Morgellons change?
I think it changed completely, I absolutely started the project believing I knew what to think, I was like “Okay, I get it, this is a delusional disorder, the end.” That’s the conventional wisdom in mainstream culture. But doing all this research, and working on this project, and reading, I know a lot more than is in the film. There’s some compelling evidence out there that there are people who have this strange skin condition…And I don’t know, maybe I’m being totally duped by some elaborate scam but I think there’s some chance that it exists. And there are some people who are pursuing science, real science, peer-reviewed research, into the question of that mystery…It’s not a simple story but the world is not simple.
And it seems that’s what the film ultimately ends up on as well: It challenges the audience to arrive at their own conclusion.
[It’s] an unsettling film in a kind of obvious way from its tone, and the experience of watching it, but the reason it’s unsettling is that you should feel unsettled. We are not finishing this film with really an answer to the question, “Is Morgellons real?” Sorry, I don’t know yet.