Camerimage 2016 : My Life as a Juror…

By Gérard Simon, AFC

par Gérard Simon La Lettre AFC n°270

[English] [français]

At the Camerimage festival, God only knows why, we award frogs (zaba in Polish, I forgot to ask why…) instead of palm fronds. I received a golden one fifteen years ago, and it earned me an invitation to be a member of the jury for the 2016 festival.

Either by negligence or a lack of curiosity, I neglected to enquire about the identity of my fellow jury members beforehand, and when I found myself standing in front of Alan Parker and seated alongside the famous DoPs Michael Seresin, BSC, Robert D. Yeoman, ASC, Oliver Stapleton, BSC, and Neil Courbould (two-time Oscar winning SFX Supervisor), I wondered what I was doing there. But none of them seemed too surprised (or at least didn’t show it), and so I decided not to run off straight away… (I later realized that French cinema, with a few rare exceptions – such as Amélie Poulain and a few oldies like Godard and Coutard – was completely unknown to them).

Watching movies and commenting on the images with the five of them was an experience both unsettling and exciting. Stapleton and Courbould, the English technicians, and Seresin, the New Zealander, regularly work in the United States, and the directors had either emigrated there (Parker) or were American by birth (Yeoman) ; therefore, everyone else was suffused with the culture of Hollywood. Their way of understanding filmmaking and lighting was completely different than mine : they didn’t only judge the lighting, but rather the entire “cinematography,” and felt it was the DoP’s responsibility to set-up and choose the shots and the camera movements.
Beyond aesthetics, they judged the way the visuals served the storyline, and were guided in that direction by “Chairman” Alan Parker, whose acuity of script analysis delighted me (they delighted in detecting the interventions in some scripts of the Studio’s “script doctors”), which confirmed how important the visuals are in American filmmaking.

- Golden Frog : Greig Fraser, ACS, ASC, for Lion, by Garth Davis.
The story follows a lost Indian child who is taken in by an orphanage before being adopted by a Tasmanian family and who, upon attaining adulthood, goes back to India to look for his birth parents.
In India, the urban sets (trains, train stations, streets, bridges) are astonishing, neglected spaces that Fraser didn’t light or barely lit, pushing the possibilities of public lighting and his digital camera (Arri Alexa) to their limits. The setting, the lighting, the live filming at the eye-level of a child were extremely masterful and quite unlike the unpolished result one might expect from filming in an urban setting in Calcutta (whoever has tried to take a camera out on an Indian street will be extremely impressed by the performance).

- Silver Frog : Bradford Young for Arrival, by Denis Villeneuve
Arrival is based on a story similar to Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind : alien spaceships land in a number of locations on the planet, the authorities at each landing site (the USA are shown in the film) attempt to establish communication and decipher the language of these unexpected visitors in order to understand their intentions. A specialist in linguistics (Amy Adams) is called in to help…
The pitch is quite boring, you can imagine the spaceships filled with technology and lights, the army on alert that sets up camp near the spaceship, trying to communicate with the aliens (remember the five notes played by Truffaut), and the officers tempted by radical solutions.
But, to our great pleasure, Villeneuve and Young subvert these clichés with innovations in the screenplay and the visuals that constantly surprise : the “landing” site, the army base, the aliens, and even their language, take on novel and creative forms that create a philosophical tale that Encounters…, with its almost messianic tone, did not have.

As in A Most Violent Year, Young creates unique ambiences, very low, very soft, and often unidirectional lighting (he says he is inspired by photographer Martina Ivanov’s album Speedway). His colour timing is dense without any deep blacks, and succeeds in creating visuals that are never flat. In my opinion, he is one of the rare DoPs that uses the possibilities of digital cinematography to their fullest in low light situations (again, an Arri Alexa).
To be mentioned in passing, this is a Sony film entirely shot in Quebec…

- Bronze Frog : Anthony Dod Mantle, DFF, BSC, ASC, for Snowen, by Oliver Stone
Even though I hadn’t seen Laure Poitras’ documentary (Citizenfour) on Edward Snowden’s crazy journey, I already knew about this affair in which a whistle-blower makes documents public that prove that the NSA is illegally spying on millions of citizens.
Oliver Stone’s accomplishment is even greater for making out of this story and out of this protagonist, who is, it must be admitted, a bit dull, a very attractive film. Mantle (“the thinking cameraman” as my fellow jurors called him with a smile) had a role in this, as his multiple camera angles, his lighting choices (often coloured and in motion) helped the story be dynamic (still an Arri Alexa). Energy suffuses the images and one is reminded of the audacity of the filming of Slumdog Millionaire for which he received an Oscar in 2009.
Snowden, except for a few outdoor shots in Hong Kong, was entirely shot in Germany (Bavaria Studios).

Camerimage is one of the only festivals dedicated to cinematography.
It has acquired global notoriety, especially in the English-speaking world. It is reported on by journals such as American Cinematographer and British Cinematographer.
I was surprised to see that no French film and only one film lit by a member of the AFC (Michel Abramowicz) were in the official selection. This isn’t because of a lack of quality ; in my opinion, several recently released French films could have advantageously been in this year’s selection. Perhaps for future years, we should consider a more systematic submission of AFC films to the festival ?

Thanks to my kind fellow jurors who, valiantly and with humour, put up with my shaky English, thanks to the brilliant team of the festival, both Mareks, my graceful chaperone Maia, thanks to the “French Quarter” : the members of the AFC in attendance, the French sponsors with both Natasz(ch)as, Alexander, Marc, thank to whom I was able to take a few breaks in my native language, and thanks to the film lovers from across the globe whom I met by chance during the events…

(Translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe)