Ed Pincus

The image is a black and white portrait of filmmaker Ed Pincus. He was an older white man with white hair and his face is partially hit by shadows from light.
Photo credit Corey Hendrickson

Ed Pincus was 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.


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

Selected Works

  • One Cut, One Life
  • The Axe in the Attic
  • Diaries: 1971-1976
  • Life and Other Anxieties
  • Black Natchez

Screenings featuring this Filmmaker