Shooting the Invisible

The New York Times reviewed THE PRISON IN TWELVE LANDSCAPES the other day in advance of the film’s week-long run at Anthology Film Archives in New York City (Nov 4 -10). It just so happens the article highlights several concepts I’ve been trying to articulate in a draft here the past few days but for which I’ve had trouble finding the proper context.

Every now and then new filmmakers contact me and would like to know how to continue pursuing a life in cinematography. It’s difficult to give this type of advice since every path is very different. But I do firmly believe in one consistent truth: that the projects we choose to shoot directly shape the trajectories our lives will take as cinematographers. They will inform what we continue to shoot, where in the world we go, the creative soulmates we might encounter – broadly speaking, we further cement and refine what we align with through the work that we do, and in this way we can shape the life we give ourselves. More importantly though is the stuff we’re actually outputting. If consistently chosen with the heart, one’s body of work grows to eventually indicate a worldview and an overarching philosophy, as well as a collection of frustrations about and hopes for the world. If you are choosing your projects by identifying fiercely with them, you’re contributing something of yourself in sometimes enormous ways just by putting your energy there instead of some other place.

The Village Voice also did a piece on The Prison in Twelve Landscapes. It opens with the statement, “It’s rare that a film this outraged is also this calm.” This intersection of urgency and patience is what I’m getting at here. In my very first meeting with a director, it’s this sense of urgency that I’m looking for before anything else. Once that’s made clear we move on to the next step, which is figuring out whether or not we can contribute something to the world that we can both agree is essential and, in a small or sometimes massive way, shift a paradigm that needs shifting. Reverse a gaze. Inform hearts and minds by begging an audience to consider what it looks like from the other side of a situation, the side of the Other, or in some cases from a place less dichotomous than that – perhaps from an even tinier, quieted, underrepresented nook shoved elsewhere outside of society’s narrow sightlines. This is really important to me because I believe that well-told stories teach us about ourselves by virtue of their specificity. The more specific they are, the more universal their effects will be. We ask audiences to project themselves and their experiences onto the images we give them, and a hyperspecific story asks the viewer to offer back their own specifics and fill in their own blanks. This process makes a film personal to the viewer and, ideally, timeless. It asks them to investigate the minutiae/details/circumstances of their own existence. A feedback loop is created. A story is successful if it can do that. In terms of representation, the more we ask an audience to identify with a traditionally unfamiliar archetype, the more audiences might find comfort in relating to unlikely heroes on a regular basis. This is the third level. And if, through art, we might create a more compassionate world by engaging with these specific but often unseen realities, why not at least attempt to not tell the same tales ad nauseam in order to fill seats? Urgency, reconsidering the paradigm, compassion. If there is an ounce of strategy in me it is this, and strategically-speaking this seems a simple enough model to follow.

When Jeanette Catsoulis for the NYT writes that Brett’s film “attempts to make the invisible visible”, it speaks to this urgent call for widespread compassion. And there is no reason why these stories should remain in the hands of documentary filmmakers alone. I’m lucky enough to also be working in fiction filmmaking and television that also strives to put veiled, often ignored people on the screen. To infiltrate the mainstream with these stories is to demand that they belong in plain sight – out of the fringes and onto larger platforms. This is the power we have when we decide where and to whom we give our tireless efforts and hard-earned skills. Until we as a culture reach a place where we can coexist, co-produce, cohabit (these are holistic concepts and you’ve gotta really live it) and co-create with real equality and respect for the experiences lived by all people and have those realities represented on screen, we are cheating ourselves out of a fuller, more nuanced picture and keeping ourselves deprived of a deeper relationship with empathy.  If we don’t at least make the attempt, we will always be fighting the battle for more diversity and we will always be going to extremes to be seen and heard in a climate oversaturated with the same stories told by the same people.

Extremes, though, are how some of the best art is made, so for now I’m grateful for the pushback. This is how we can achieve artistic and professional integrity of an elevated level. This is how we can achieve better art for more people.

If you’re interested in seeing THE PRISON IN TWELVE LANDSCAPES in New York City, it’s playing now until November 10th at Anthology Film Archives. Director Brett Story will be in attendance – to hear her speak about the film is life-changing.

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