A few years ago, Penny Allen heard from her old friend and longtime collaborator Eric Edwards about a box of half-inch magnetic tape that he found in his basement. Edwards couldn’t discern what it was – the box was unmarked and the materials inside were in the kind of shape one would expect of a film made sometime in the ’70s and only casually protected from the moisture of the outside rain in Portland – but he saw fit to take the tape to someone who could restore it, and after being committed to DVD, he and Allen realized it was rushes from their first film, “The Didier Connection.”
“We edited it into this 12-minute movie about time and what is lost and what is found and that sort of thing,” says Allen, recently in old hometown in Oregon for the holidays away from her adopted hometown of Paris. “It’s a very odd film because it was in such crummy condition — and it’s still in crummy condition — but that’s part of its charm because it’s like you’re looking at something that’s so far back you can’t see it.”
It was a happy rediscovery, reminding Allen of when she observed a young French boy named Didier who had come to stay with his grandmother for a summer in Portland, a sensation that is not unlike what New Yorkers will be able to experience later this week at the Metrograph when the all-too-small yet vital collection of filmmaker’s work will be shown in a retrospective of her films. A largely unheralded trailblazer in American independent cinema, the director was among the first to realize the soil was as fertile in the Pacific Northwest for art as it was for trees, carving a path out of the region that directors including Kelly Reichardt, Todd Haynes and Gus Van Sant, who worked as a sound recordist on Allen’s first film “Property,” have since followed.
Incidentally, Allen was spurred into filmmaking by her desire to bring attention to the issue of land use planning and while organizing for planning board meetings might not sound like the stuff of great cinema, the passion behind every frame in her films make it so. Once set to be displaced from her neighborhood in South Portland by high rises, Allen began to make mini-documentaries with Edwards, the cinematographer who has gone on to have a fine career behind the camera for such groundbreaking films as Van Sant’s “My Own Private Idaho,” Eagle Pennell’s “The Whole Shootin’ Match” and Larry Clark’s “Kids,” and others that surveyed the cultural history of the area. With “Property,” she took her experiences of interacting with the community and drew upon the ensemble of theater actors she had cultivated as a writer/director for the stage to create a lively film in which a group of anti-establishmentarians of all different stripes aim to purchase the block they live on to protect it from developers, only to be wary of becoming the thing they’ve rallied against either because of the fear of responsibility or disinterest in it.
“We weren’t modeling after anyone in particular,” says Allen of the loose, kinetic filmmaking style that drove her first feature. “I was certainly a cinephile and I saw a lot of movies — a lot of Fassbinder — [but] even before that, I had become a Brecht fan and studied Brecht in a theater course and I think “Property” is kind of Brechtian – I don’t know if any of the other movies are, and that was a strong influence, but not film. I tend to do things that come out of the circumstances that led to the film and the form follows that content.”
While the fashion of the late 1970s gives it away, “Property” feels more relevant than ever as Portland’s eccentricities have lured out-of-towners to the region and brought greater gentrification to the city and her second film, “Paydirt” packs a similar contemporary punch, set on a winery that has turned to harvesting marijuana to make ends meet, naturally luring a trio of criminals to attempt to steal the bounty. There’s a greater measure of control in the 1981 thriller — certainly, a stillness befitting of the idyllic vineyard setting that sends the pulse racing when interrupted — that is at odds with the wild “Property,” where many in the cast used their own names and dialogue was scripted but personalized by the actors, though the film is no less exciting, and within “Paydirt” itself, Allen has said dualities informed the creation of the story, as audiences are led to consider arbitrary nature of defining heroes from villains as the three captors come to reflect their hostages and the value of equally potent narcotics in wine and pot based on varying legality.
“‘Property’ is what I call my “urban land-use planning movie” and since it’s urban, it’s dense dialogue and very talkative whereas “Paydirt” is the rural land use movie and so I wanted it to be laconic and say little and talk slower,” says Allen, whose distinctive voice comes across crisply in both.
Allen’s third Oregon-set narrative wouldn’t come in the form of the film, having fallen in love and being whisked away to a ranch where naturally there was intrigue all abound — murder! illegal timber selling! sexual indiscretions! — that she could channel into the memoir “A Geography of Saints.” And she would ultimately move to Paris in 1991, settling into a job assisting the Minister of Environment upon deciding that the French film industry would be too difficult to penetrate. Still, the films wound up finding her.
It was a chance encounter on Allen’s annual commute from Paris to Portland that led to her second wave of filmmaking, meeting a young sergeant on her flight who wanted to show her photos and video from his experience in the battlefield of Iraq. Allen couldn’t look at the photos at first – they were too gruesome and even in seeing the importance of sharing the story that he imparted to her – of his ambivalence towards war after becoming inured to it and his feeling of no longer having a home anywhere – she wasn’t intending to make a movie, instead seeking out a producer who might be able to do something with all the material the soldier had sent her. When all offers came with the prohibitively expensive suggestion that additional filming would need to be done in Iraq to fill out a movie, Allen took it upon herself to create a photo strip (“War is Hell”) that would run in newspapers around the world, beginning with Libération in France.
“After that, I started to get a lot of messages on my website and people would say, ‘So what happened to him? Is he dead?’ And I realized I had to do more, so I was forced into making a movie,” she laughs, noting that the finished film was comprised of just the original material the soldier, known as Sergeant R. in the film had given her, and a one-day interview they did subsequently. “We had to use our imagination in order to tell this story. That was a question of just responding to the circumstances once again.”
If anything has defined Allen’s idiosyncratic filmmaking career, it may just be her ability to answer the call and listen. Her next film, “Late for My Mother’s Funeral” actually came about because the filmmaker stayed to answer questions at a screening of “A Soldier’s Tale” and was approached by a man named Abdeljalil Zouhri, who had been upset about the situation facing his Moroccan family living in Algeria where the threat constantly loomed of being deported to their country of ancestry without ever actually having lived there.
“I did actually agree to meet with him [after the screening] and then we met about once a month for a whole year [where] he would talk and talk and talk and talk, and I just filled up notebook after notebook,” recalls Allen. “I didn’t really want to make a movie about [the situation in Algeria] and then one day, his mother died and he turned into a completely different person. I knew nothing about his personal story, only about this political story, so then I got interested in making a movie.”
The film is an arresting foray into Northwest Africa where Allen learns of Abdel’s nine brothers and sisters and their late mother Zineb, a former gold smuggler whose death shakes up an already unsettled family. As in all of Allen’s work, a theme of displacement comes to the fore, as well as a compassionate curiosity about other cultures, that lets the filmmaker find a language everyone can understand, even if venturing into Algeria with a family that only peppered little bits of French into their Arabic sans a translator complicated putting the film together for herself.
“I was around the family members so often and when they would talk [and] I actually grew to understand what they were saying,” says Allen. “It was a real challenge when it came to editing the parts that were in Arabic because you don’t know where to cut and we didn’t have a translator standing behind us — we wouldn’t necessarily know where the end of a sentence was, so we would just do what sounded right to us and then [a translator] came onboard and she was amazed – she said all the cuts are in the right place, so that was gratifying.”
Although Allen shrugs off the notion that there’s been a sudden resurgence of interest in her work — the Metrograph retrospective comes on the heels of screenings of “Paydirt” at the Cinefamily in Los Angeles and “Property” at La Cinémathèque Française in 2016 – the films’ originality has kept them evergreen and she has, thankfully, renewed her commitment to making movies. Currently, she’s at work on what would be her first narrative feature since “Property,” a French-American co-production that she describes cryptically as a “kind of a Romeo and Juliet story,” and at this point in her life, Allen can be inspired by the reactions that her films have provoked and the lives they’ve had on their own. She experienced this firsthand when “The Didier Connection” began to make it around the world in 2014.
“At the end of the movie, I say ‘Didier, if you see this, please get in touch,’ so of course, it was a message in a bottle to try and find him again,” says Allen. “I did, but that took three years or so to track down his sister in Mexico and she told me he was deceased. It was a very sad ending, but better maybe than never knowing.”
In a medium built upon illusions, it is that desire to know the truth of a situation and place — and the ability to convey it — that has set Allen’s work apart, and with this week’s all-too-rare screenings of her films in New York, the opportunity to get to know her better is one that shouldn’t be missed.