Pioneering avant-garde documentarian Ed Pincus began capturing the zeitgeist with his 16mm camera in the 1960s. But after a personal trauma two decades ago, he switched from celluloid frames to clematis blossoms. Candide-like, the filmmaker found peace cultivating a garden. At the hilltop Roxbury home he's inhabited for 35 years, his Third Branch Flower LLC experienced significant commercial success marketing lilacs, lilies, hydrangeas and such all over the world.
The creative drive couldn't be denied forever. Now 67, Pincus recently returned to filmmaking with an untitled work-in-progress about the diaspora of Gulf Coast residents following Hurricane Katrina. "I sold a lot of peony roots to Holland to finance this project," he explains.
Pincus, a Brooklyn native, was earning a graduate degree in philosophy at Harvard University en route to a teaching career. Everything changed when he saw Showman, a 1963 cinema verite look at a movie mogul by brothers Albert and David Maysles.
"I hated the film but loved the technique," Pincus says of the nonfiction genre geared to spontaneity rather than preconceived narrative lines.
He headed South to tap into the dynamic spirit of the times. "I wanted to do something on the civil rights movement," Pincus recalls. "I thought it would be great to go down to Mississippi and see what's happening."
In 1965, he made two films there with colleague David Neuman: Black Natchez, an examination of the power struggle within an African-American community; and Panola, the portrait of a reputed police informant.
Then also a stringer for United Press International's newsreel service, Pincus briefly detoured to shoot footage of Hurricane Betsy, which hit a geographic area similar to that of Katrina.
His next venture, One Step Away, observed hippies living near San Francisco during 1967's heady Summer of Love. By then, Pincus had quit school to devote himself to the art form.
There was no escaping academia, however. A year later, legendary British director Richard Leacock -- cinematographer on Louisiana Story in 1948 and Monterey Pop in 1968 -- joined forces with Pincus to launch a film-studies program at MIT.
Meanwhile, his own cinematic focus hewed closer to home. Diaries chronicles the turbulent lives, from 1971 to 1976, of the filmmaker and his wife Jane Pincus. She's among the original writers of Our Bodies, Ourselves, the seminal women's health manual first published in 1969. The verite film's 1982 release more or less coincided with Pincus' decision to abandon his chosen profession.
Two factors led to that crossroads: He disliked video, which had begun to eclipse 16mm. Far more disturbing, a delusional acquaintance who had threatened Pincus and his family subsequently committed a high-profile murder elsewhere. At a hearing much later, the killer reportedly acknowledged that Pincus' change of occupation did, in fact, protect them from harm.
During this difficult hiatus, he coauthored The Filmmaker's Handbook, a 1984 tome that's still considered the production bible. In 1987, he established Third Branch. Fast-forward almost 20 years: Pincus downsized the flower business when his green thumb began itching to hold a camera again.
The post-Katrina picture has roots in the subconscious of Lucia Small, a Boston auteur Pincus had wanted to collaborate with if the right idea came along. "She had dreams about New Orleans," he says. "To me, it's an important domestic story with political implications."
This winter, he and Small spent 60 days traveling through Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas and other states harboring hurricane refugees. Pincus adapted to high-definition video technology, which he now loves.
During the floods of 1927, President Calvin Coolidge approved a plan to dynamite the levees. Poor neighborhoods were sacrificed to save wealthier parts of the Crescent City.
"In 1965, black people armed themselves to protect the levees," Pincus points out. "About 80 percent of the people we talked with think the levees were purposely breeched again in Katrina -- that it's a land grab. I'm interested in exploring how historical events are communicated within a population. As William Faulkner wrote, 'The past is never dead; it's not even past.'"
The Key Sunday Cinema Club, a showcase for sneak previews of unreleased films, starts up again this weekend at the Roxy in downtown Burlington. Last year the series included Paradise Now, which has since won a Golden Globe and was just nominated for a foreign-language Academy Award. The new season begins with a movie that's also in the running for an Oscar, but -- like all the club's selections -- must remain a surprise until members arrive for the 10:30 a.m. screening. Call 1-888-467-0404 or visit http://www.keysundaycinemaclub.com for more information.