- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 2, 2001

Chris Hegedus and Jehane Noujaim successfully finessed a generation gap while collaborating on the timely feature "Startup.com," which follows the rise and fall of an Internet service company from May 1998 to the end of 2000.
Miss Hegedus began working as a documentary photographer about 30 years ago, while employed by a surgeon at the University of Michigan who specialized in burn injuries. Subsequently, she married a pioneer of the cinema-verite documentary movement of the early 1960s, Donn Alan Pennebaker. Now 75, he sometimes is billed as "DA Pennebaker" and known to intimates as "Penny." Miss Hegedus seems to prefer "Pennebaker" when discussing her spouse.
Miss Noujaim was trained in documentary production and aesthetics while a student at Harvard University in the 1990s. She got her degree in visual arts and philosophy. She worked in television production for several years before realizing that an intriguing subject could be found right in her New York City apartment: her roomie Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, a Harvard classmate who had decided to abandon his day job at Goldman Sachs to devote all his time to raising money for an aspiring Internet service. Known ultimately as govWorks.com, it envisioned a potentially prodigious market of $600 billion for facilitating computer transactions between government agencies and the public.
The movie observes how these high hopes crested, attracting about $60 million in venture capital, only to recede with a decisive thud when it became apparent that the services offered remained a little spotty, not to mention premature. An urgent or lucrative demand for govWorks.com failed to materialize, and the company folded.
Miss Hegedus and Miss Noujaim returned to Washington to introduce their movie at Filmfest DC. They have certain Washington connections and recollections. Miss Hegedus best-known project of recent years was "The War Room," which observed Clinton campaign strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos at close quarters during the 1992 primary campaign.
During the Jimmy Carter administration, the Pennebakers ended up spending two years in Washington while shooting footage for a Public Broadcasting Service documentary called "The Energy War," which ran in three installments.
"We didnt expect to be here that long," Miss Hegedus says, "but everything about the topic got longer. Carters energy proposal was the longest bill ever to go through Congress. Now it looks as if the whole issue may be up for grabs again. It was more complicated than this venture capital business."
Miss Noujaim was born in Washington and lived in Chevy Chase occasionally. "My mother is American, and my father is Egyptian," she explains. "Although I grew up in Egypt, my mother kept her house here, kind of like an escape. Eventually they divorced. She sold it about four years ago, Im sorry to say. I have very fond memories of the neighborhood and excursions down to the Mall."
Miss Noujaim points out that although she and Mr. Tuzman shared an apartment in New York, they never were romantically involved. "I wouldnt have had enough objectivity to do this if Id been a girlfriend," she says. "I did get great background information from his ex-girlfriend Dora, whos a big hit with everyone who sees the movie. We had long conversations while he was on the phone… . Shes got a radio show in Miami now. She knows as much about the movie as we do."
Backtracking to college for a moment, Miss Noujaim explains, "Kaleil and I knew each other socially at Harvard. He was in government, I think. Or maybe it was something that also involved Latin America. Kaleils father is Colombian, but after his parents divorced, his mother, whos American and Jewish, moved to Amherst, N.H. Thats where Kaleil met the other subject of our movie, Tom Herman, who became a co-founder of the company. They were high school friends.
"I didnt get to know Kaleil well until we shared the apartment. Id walk into his total disaster of a room and watch him trying to recruit friends to go into business. Tom was one of the first people he contacted. He raised hundreds of thousands of dollars while on the phone and reclining in bed. It was unbelievable but also very energized and compelling. I decided it was a story I wanted to follow. I started filming systematically at about the time he quit his job at Goldman Sachs."
Miss Noujaim was in something of a fund-raising bind herself. A globe-trotting cinematographer and documentary producer for several years, she had settled in New York with a producers job at MTV. She quit when the "Startup" project began, then went back to try to keep it solvent.
"It became apparent we couldnt raise enough without a pilot film," she says. "A marketing director who knew Chris and Penny joined the company at about that time and advised me to talk to them. So we met, and I was thrilled that Chris was already interested in the subject. She had been looking for something similar. We decided to collaborate."
Miss Hegedus recalls: "It was really like fate or something. I had made contacts in the investment world with companies that were financing dot-coms. One was called Flatiron Partners, funded by Chase Manhattan Bank. Id been watching these kids in their 20s walk in the door with ideas and walk out with millions of dollars. I knew there was definitely a story in this phenomenon. It was a matter of finding the right person to follow. I thought Kaleil was very charismatic and charming, and he was still in the early stage of his money hunt. The company Kaleil and Tom had in mind was not as sexy or quirky as some of the ideas I had learned about, but it was a big, ambitious idea. It would take quite an effort to transform the way government conducted business, but Kaleil seemed ready to take on the world."
Miss Hegedus points out that every movie project also partakes of venture capital hope and risk. "What if Bill Clinton had lost the nomination in 1992? What would we have had to show for all our time and investment in 'The War Room? You have to be ready for that. Ironically, failure proved the typical outcome of the dot-com craze, so the fact that govWorks collapsed is not a commercial liability for the movie. You have to trust your luck. If you dont think of yourself as a fundamentally lucky person, you shouldnt be in the movie business."
Miss Noujaim remained the principal photographer, concentrating on friend Kaleil. "I spent about 18 hours a day with him, but a lot of that is sitting around waiting. You dont have the camera on all the time," she says. "I dont know what the daily ratio would be for our 400 hours of exposed footage, but as a practical matter, you spend long days with your subjects. Even if its a boring meeting, youd like to get something out of it. I figured that as the story went on, wed be able to concentrate more. In the beginning of any project, the possibilities seem infinite. Fortunately, they start to narrow down. Pretty soon we were interested in the relationship between Kaleil and Tom. That was the emotional dynamic we wanted to follow."
Miss Hegedus agrees: "Just follow the characters. Its tough enough trying to keep up with any story. Nine months into it, we assembled a sample film for additional fund raising. The topic and the footage are the essential things, but our company also has a track record and an extensive library. That helps to give you credibility. We always sustain ourselves on dead rock stars, I like to say."
She alludes to vintage Pennebaker coverage of Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Monterey Pops festivals and other landmarks of rock culture.
The filmmakers failed to secure access to every meeting they would have desired, notably the board meetings that eventually sealed the downfall of govWorks.com. "We thought wed be able to get in," Miss Noujaim says, "but we were kidding ourselves. Wed heard so much from Kaleil about all these Wizard of Oz types who were pulling the strings that we really wanted to meet them. When we got there, the lawyers said, 'No way. Our society is so legalistic now. These people dont even keep their notes because they want no documentation lying around that could prove compromising if they end up in court.
"I think it ends up working for us that theyre an unseen power. Or maybe thats just what we like to think."


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