Influential documentary filmmaker Peter Davis visits campus, talks legacy

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • April 8, 2015

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Peter Davis, 78, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 1975 for Hearts and Minds, his humanizing chronicle of the Vietnam War from the perspective of the American soldiers and the local Vietnamese. 

Davis, who has had a diverse career as a journalist, documentary filmmaker, and author, visited Emerson from his nearby home in Cambridge as a special guest in the college’s fourth annual It’s All True Documentary Film Festival, which took place on April 1 and 2. Davis introduced and screened Hearts and Minds at the festival and also visited several film classes.

The Beacon sat down with Davis last week to talk about his career, Hearts and Minds, and how he interprets the role of a documentary filmmaker.

 

The Berkeley Beacon: How do you understand the legacy of your seminal documentary film, Hearts and Minds

 

Peter Davis: Well, I’m not a war correspondent at all. All of my work is really about America. And so Hearts and Minds is a film of why we went to war. 

 

BB: How do you see Hearts and Minds in the context of the rest of your career?

 

Davis: My first film was about American slavery. My second film was about an art exhibit. I’ve always been interested in America and we shouldn’t ignore history. 

 

BB: How would you describe your style as a documentary filmmaker?

 

Davis: Part of my method as a storyteller is that I want to give the audience a perspective, but I don’t want to lecture them about it. I want them to have an experience, whether that be pro-war or anti-war in the case of Hearts and Minds. I did want them to feel pain, because I felt pain. So I was more interested in emotion than ideology. 

 

BB: How do you see the role of the documentary filmmaker and what advice do you have for students?

 

Davis: I see the role of a documentarian in the plural. I’m not against a filmmaker making a film that preaches at you. That’s just a film that I’m personally not interested in. I’m interested in the psychological inquiry, like in Hearts and Minds. 

 

BB: After such a long career, what’s next for you?

 

Davis: My new book, Girl of My Dreams, comes out May 19. Even though I’m most known for Hearts and Minds, I hope that I’m not a one trick pony.