May 16, 2023
Documentarian Penny Lane made her feature debut in 2013 with Our Nixon, an intimate peek into the disgraced president’s White House using home movies taken by his aides. Her features since include Nuts! (Festival 2016), about a radio personality and quack doctor of the early 20th century who sold an impotence “cure” involving goat testicles; The Pain of Others, a found footage documentary about Morgellons disease; Hail Satan?, focused on the Satanic Temple; and Listening to Kenny G, a look at the popular but polarizing smooth jazz saxophonist. It is a wide range of subjects that reflects Lane’s curious mind. Now that curiosity has led her to put herself in front of the camera in Confessions of a Good Samaritan, a look at kidney donation, a serious subject handled with Lane’s typical light touch and good humor, which screens at the Festival on Sunday, April 16, with Lane in attendance.
She made the decision to donate a kidney, not to a family member or friend but to a stranger, before she even imagined making a film on the subject. Lane had an “aha moment” shortly after learning altruistic kidney donation. She thought it sounded interesting and decided it was something she wanted to do. It was then that the research started and that is something she loves to do. From that sprung the idea to make a new film. Lane could have made the film about a donor other than herself. She admits putting herself front and center presented an extra layer of difficulty.
“I have no idea how actors direct themselves when they’re directing movies that they’re starring in,” Lane says during a recent Zoom call. “I have a whole newfound respect for that because it’s literally like how do you even know where to stand if you’re not looking at the monitor?”
But given what she was trying to achieve and the intimate nature of the project, Lane realized she was her only option for a subject if she was going to make this particular documentary.
“I did really want to interrogate the donor,” Lane says. “’Why are you doing this? No, really, why are you doing this? Are you a narcissist? Are you psychologically damaged?’ I never would have done that to any other donor. The other donors I met were so nice and I just never would have put another done through what I put myself through in making the film and so it had to be me. I was the only person I was willing to subject to that sort of torment.”
What is Confessions of a Good Samaritan about?
Confessions of a Good Samaritan expands on the history of kidney donation and why there is such a need for donors like Lane–there are simply far more people stuck on dialysis and dying of kidney disease than there are transplant organs to save them. The documentary follows Lane’s complete journey right up to the operating room door and then through her post-op experiences. Whatever vanity she may have, she had to push out of the way to capture an honest portrayal of her ordeal.
“I knew I had to try to be honest and try to be vulnerable the way I would want someone to be for me if I was filming someone else,” she says. “In some ways, it’s easier because I find the act of filming other people pretty awkward, at best. It’s awkward to film another person, at best. At worst, it’s much worse. At least in putting myself through it, I didn’t have the added layer of being like, ‘Oh, I’m filming this person, post-op talking about the rash on their ass. Like, is that too invasive? Should I use that in the end?’ It’s so intimate, but at least it was me. The person I was exploiting was me.”
Lane discovered her biggest challenge in making the film once she went from post-op to post-production. It is in the editing room that Lane typically constructs her characters and their odysseys. Character development is one of her strengths as is determining what does and does not belong in a story and constructing an arc. Presented with herself as her main character she found her normal decisiveness eluding her.
“The irony is this is my most personal film but, because of that, I really had to lean on my collaborators to help me construct the persona of Penny that was relevant to the story,” she says. “I found myself really uncertain – like, is this detail about my schizophrenic grandmother a random detail or does that unlock something for the viewer? I didn’t usually know the answer. So, I had to ask my editor and my other editor and my producer what they thought. That was a really important part of it. It was super-hard to make myself into a character.”
What is next for Penny Lane?
Lane’s next film, Mrs. America, explores American womanhood through the lens of the titular beauty pageant. An introvert, Lane credits documentary filmmaking with forcing her out of her shell and prodding her to do things she maybe wouldn’t do without that particular career. When she started out, she gravitated toward working with archival and found footage because she loves editing and being alone at home. But as her portfolio expands, so, too, does her filmmaking as she constantly pushes herself to learn new ways to tell a story and grow her skills.
“Considering a project, there’s a million good ideas, but what’s the new challenge?” she says. “What’s the new thing I’m going to have to learn to do that’s going to be challenging and difficult and for which there’s a strong possibility of failure? That aspect of it is what really makes me excited. Doing the same thing twice makes me not excited, but doesn’t make me feel comfortable… Half of the project should be pretty comfortable for me, and the other half should be something I’ve never done before that’s going to challenge me and make me super uncomfortable and lose sleep at night… Why do I always do these hard projects? But that’s actually the part that keeps me going.
“I’m not aiming for mastery. I’m aiming for whatever the opposite of that is, where I always feel like a beginner to some extent, because that’s the part that I like. If I ever feel like I really am not feeling like a beginner, I’ll probably just get a new career. But I do think it’s always going to be possible with documentary to feel like a beginner because there’s so many different kinds of stories you could tell, approaches you could take, and types of directing to engage in. I think I’ll probably stick with it for a while.”
About the Author
Pam Grady is a freelance writer, whose work appears in the San Francisco Chronicle, 48 Hills, and other publications. She also has her own web site.
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