Ask Aron Ranen about his filmmaking philosophy, and he won't pause long. "I'm a reality surfer. Things pop up as I'm quote-unquote traveling around the world with my camera."
When he says "pop up," he ain't kidding. While attempting to uncover the truth about the Apollo 11 moon landing in Did We Go? (which screened in 2000 at New York's Museum of Modern Art), Ranen stumbled upon the fact that the magnetic tapes used to record the 1969 event had gone missing. This peculiar nugget resurfaced in the news lately, generating enough buzz beyond the conspiracy fringes to nudge NASA into a response via its Web site: "Despite the challenges of the search, NASA does not consider the tapes to be lost."
A month ago Ranen appeared on CNN to discuss the controversy. Host Glenn Beck tried awfully hard to paint the doc maker as a wackjob; the segment ends with a joke likening those who believe the moon landing was faked to those who are "still wondering why Darrin One was mysteriously replaced by Darrin Two." This kind of reaction doesn't seem to bother Ranen, who between movies teaches digital filmmaking at DV Workshops, the school he runs out of his Mission District studio.
"My motto is film the obvious," he explains. (Later in our conversation he expands that motto to include "trust reality ... and also don't fuck it up.") "I'm just trying to illuminate some of the things that are going on in our culture." Did We Go? is actually not a wackjob's manifesto; it features interviews with Apollo 11 flight director Gene Krantz and astronaut Buzz Aldrin — as well as the NASA employee who physically closed the hatch on the rocket before its launch. The film doesn't try to discredit the moon landing; it tries, with sincerity, to prove that it actually happened. (In other words, there's a reason it's not titled We Didn't Go.)
A filmmaker since he was 13, Ranen has made so many short documentaries that he's lost count. Over the years the self-funded artist has developed his own approach to shooting. His films are generally unstructured — expecting the unexpected — and are guided by Ranen's first-person voice-overs, delivered in a tone that hovers between curiosity and amazement.
"Everyone trusts me and talks to me in my films," he says. It's a claim backed up by the openness displayed by his diverse array of subjects, many of whom Ranen meets on the fly. His film Power and Control: LSD in the 60s — a tangent-riddled exploration of the drug's influence on politics and counterculture — features chats with an ex–Stanford University researcher whose simian LSD tests earned him the nickname "Monkey Mike" and a now-elderly professor who was among the Harvard students who participated in Timothy Leary's 1962 Good Friday experiment. Ranen attributes this kind of access to his lone gunman style.
"I refuse to let anyone go with me. I believe so much of documentary is about the relationship between the filmmaker and the subject. I don't want a crew or a sound man to mitigate my relationships with these subjects," he explains. "When I'm talking to someone, you can see their enthusiasm in talking to me."
Ranen's go-with-the-flow methodology extends to postproduction. He "edits organically," subscribing to what he calls "the pinball effect: as you're watching it, the edit speaks to you and says, no, take that stuff in the middle and put it up front." He's also not opposed to altering his films after they are finished. Power and Control screened as a 70-minute feature at the 2005 San Francisco Independent Film Festival; the version at Other Cinema this weekend hovers closer to 40 minutes. Eventually, Ranen hopes to add a chapter exploring the possible LSD-KGB connection.
His most recent film, Black Hair, is also his most widely seen, thanks to a strategy of free distribution via YouTube.