Cinematographer Virginie Surdej discusses her work on Philippe Van Leeuw’s film "Insyriated"

La Lettre AFC n°278

[English] [français]

I have a very precise memory of my state of mind when I finished my first read-through of the screenplay of Insyriated : I was overwhelmed and even physically worn out. I felt as though I had personally lived through that day of war. Not war as one imagines it : adventurous, heroic, on the front…masculine…

Instead, war from the perspective of a family holed up at home, trying to manage the constant fear of seeing violence break and go on living at all costs. I was right beside them, holding my breath with them, anxiously watching for anything that might filter in from the outside into which one dares not venture, and like them, taking advantage of the moments of respite to breathe and sometimes to laugh.
I was deeply touched by Philippe’s writing choices, by his desire to immerse himself into the seclusion of a Syrian family like so many others to show what the television cameras don’t. I see this film as a gesture of empathy towards the people in Syria who are victims of war and whose sufferings are hardly documented at all. This film is a way of paying tribute to them and to make them into an “image”. We had to get it right.

When I met Philippe, we quickly realized that we had the same intentions for this film in terms of image : naturalist, sober and authentic. Since Philippe is a cinematographer himself, I was honoured by the trust he placed in me, the way he listened to me, especially since I knew that he was knowledgeable about cinematography and had his own expertise. Our tastes and desires were compatible and that’s what made our collaboration enriching and possible.
Philippe mentioned a “dirty” image… Or not too clean in any case. That naturalism was supposed to allow the audience to be closer to what the characters were experiencing. So we began to look for what qualities the lighting would have in an apartment in that region of the world during wartime at different times of the day.

Virginie Surdej sur le tournage d’"Une famille syrienne"
Virginie Surdej sur le tournage d’"Une famille syrienne"

In the film, this apartment is located in Damascus during aerial bombardments. The film takes place over the course of one day : it begins and ends at dawn, with the morning prayer. The family is stuck at home and leaves the apartment as little as possible. The front door and the windows are the only openings onto the outside world. But war comes in through them, too. Tarps, curtains, shutters, and items of furniture protect them, isolate them, and help reduce the amount of light and the outside world that is able to reach the life of this family. From time to time, a ray of light gets in…but never for long.

The rest of the time, the light that gets in through the window is a soft light, reflected from surface to surface off of the walls of the buildings surrounding the apartment building, and it varies throughout the day in function of the angle of the sun. Sometimes, the black smoke from the bombings suddenly makes everything go dark. At night, the many power outages force them to light candles and cause the emergency fluorescent tubes to light up. We looked for the temporality of the film’s light in these observations and reflections. Kathy Lebrun, the production designer, and I attempted to find the right atmosphere for this apartment before filming began : how it should be lighted in relation to the choice of shutters and draperies that would sculpt it, the tone of the walls and the materials of the accessories. The book In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki guided us as a common source of inspiration in our work on these shadows.

Although at first Philippe wanted to film in a studio – especially in order to be able to control the light, which is particularly important on this film that takes place over the course of one day, it was absolutely clear to him from the beginning that this film was not to be filmed in Europe. He wanted the European team to “move” and to be confronted with an environment closer to the film’s reality. We quickly decided on Lebanon because of its geographical proximity to Syria, its recent history also marked by war, and the ease with which one can film there (availability of equipment, teams, welcoming attitude).

At the end of the day, it wasn’t possible to film in studio because of economic reasons. But Philippe had found an apartment during his tests that became our on-location studio. As soon as we saw the first photos, and even before the production design team went in, the place had a soul that lent itself to the film. But it was located on the fifth floor, in the very heart of Beirut ! Besides the noise, its location made it very hard to change the light coming in from outdoors, either to make it stronger or to lessen it.

No matter. We were going to spend twenty-five days in that apartment and Philippe wanted us to film as continuously as possible. I brought gaffers Nicolas Lebecque, a long-time collaborator, and Bertrand Monette along from Belgium with me, and they divided up shooting between them ; the rest of our team was Lebanese, as was the key grip. We set up the apartment as though it were a real studio, with a ceiling system, despite the limited ceiling height.

Juliette Navis à la lumière d’une lampe camping-gaz
Juliette Navis à la lumière d’une lampe camping-gaz
Cette lampe est construite par le chef électricien Bertrand Monette avec des LEDs et un système de "flickering" pour reproduire l’effet lampe à gaz

We spent a long time thinking about how we could optimize the placement of our light sources for the different light situations in the film, so that we could allow the director as much leeway as possible once shooting began. It was one of Philippe’s requests : he wanted, quite rightly, that the actors should be interrupted as little as possible over time. At the same time, the light source should be as unobtrusive as possible so that the naturalist feel could be maintained. It seems simple when said like that, but remaining “naturalist” all day long – as the sunlight changed – while avoiding interrupting the screenplay and taking very little time to light was a complicated task that required a lot of preparation. Fortunately, I had the time to precisely study the way the light would cross the space at different times of day. We really relied on that work to utilise the sunlight to our advantage on each take…since we were on the fifth floor, we couldn’t really set up lighting from the outside.
For the inside of the apartment, we brought a number of Avolon lamps with us, which are spots created by gaffer Bruno Verstraete, that I prefer for their lightness and manageability. Now they exist in a LED version, but at the time they were made with fluorescent bulbs and PLLs. We used them a lot to control contrast by placing them in such a way that they would reflect off of the ceiling. Rarely, we added a few HMIs to that setup. We built frames using varying densities of tulle and more or less translucent black fabrics that we could easily attach to the windows and that were dense enough to transform daylight into dawn.

Un des seuls tournages hors de l’appartement
Un des seuls tournages hors de l’appartement
Quand Halima court dans la nuit pour retrouver le corps de son mari, la caméra court avec elle. Des M40 ont été installés en réflexion sur des toiles sur les toits d’un bâtiment assez haut pour garder une certaine douceur dans la lumière lunaire ainsi à recrée tout en couvrant une assez grande surface.
Les toiles et les M40 en réflexion installés sur le toit
Les toiles et les M40 en réflexion installés sur le toit
Les toiles réfléchissantes en haut du bâtiment
Les toiles réfléchissantes en haut du bâtiment

The other part of my discussions with Philippe of course involved editing.
Philippe’s experience as a cinematographer allowed him to acquire a deep understanding of the camera as a tool, lenses, point of view, and spatial management. I believe that his knowledge comes across in the screenplay : Philippe writes as though he were holding a camera in his hands and suggests frames, a rhythm, hinges in the scenography, or breaks the script down. This gives his writing an extremely fluid and intuitive dimension. We began breaking down the script in Paris, as he was writing, and he had already envisioned a certain number of shots that he intended to provide the foundation for the film, others remained open-ended, and some came about on location once the actors were there.

We’d had the great good luck to have had a full week of rehearsal on location with the actors, and this was something Philippe had asked for since the beginning. I filmed or photographed with a Canon 5D camera and these rehearsals were an ongoing source of inspiration to refine the script breakdown, lighting and decoration. Philippe doesn’t break the script down too heavily and likes to improvise. The camera had to be close to the actors, its shot, movement and effect on the rhythm of the film always considered very carefully. The camera sometimes was set up on a dolly, but often it was on a tripod or carried on the shoulder during long takes, like during the bomb raid when we followed Hyam Abbas as she ran through the apartment trying to get all of her many family members together to take refuge in the centre of the apartment. We put a veritable choreography in place so that we could move throughout the apartment, shadowing our characters. We had to go through narrow hallways, turn around, go in and out of the many bedrooms. So much so that the actors would sometimes actually pick up the camera and the team would crawl on all fours to stay out of the shot during the camera movements. My focus-puller was Agathe Corniquet, with whom I’d previously shot a couple of films with shoulder camera, and who felt comfortable with this type of energy.

Virginie Surdej, à la caméra, et Agathe Corniquet
Virginie Surdej, à la caméra, et Agathe Corniquet

We’d chosen Arri’s Amira for its texture, the roundness of its sensor and its ergonomics. This camera is extremely ergonomic when carried on the shoulder and I was able to become one with it. We shot in ProRes 2K, which seemed to us to be sufficient for the needs of our film. Philippe and I were looking for softness and roundness in the image. That’s why we chose to use the Cook S4 series of lenses. Most of the film was shot between the 32mm and the 50mm which I occasionally filtered. The team was international, French, Belgian, and Lebanese, with all of the charm caused by misunderstandings and conversations in which we questioned one another’s methods and learned from each other’s habits.

After Christophe Bousquet and I had sought out the correct saturation of black and correctly adjusted the curve to preserve the shadow, the softness and the presence of the actors, colour timing took place at M141 in only six days, thanks to his experience and trained eye. The film was brilliantly and efficiently edited by Gladys Joujou along with the soundtrack by Jean-Luc Fafchamp.
This film was very rich on both the interpersonal and cinematographic level because of its subject, its actors, and the team, and I am infinitely grateful to Philippe for having allowed me to be a part of it.

  • Read an article in which Philippe Van Leeuw, AFC, discusses his choice of cinematographer Virginie Surdej and his work with her on this film.

Translated from French by Alexander Baron-Raiffe for the AFC