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11 Great Female Cinematographers Who Subvert the Male Gaze

IndieWire celebrates the work of Rachel Morrison, Ellen Kuras, and nine other cinematography greats with the help of some of their greatest collaborators and admirers.

“11 Great Female Cinematographers Who Subvert The Male Gaze”

FSLC/New Yorker Films/David Bomba/HBO

Kirsten Johnson

Kirsten Johnson ("Cameraperson")

Kirsten Johnson on the set of “Cameraperson”

Sundance

Key Films: “Derrida,” “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” “Deadline,” “Darfur Now,” “Farenheit 9/11,” “Aslyum,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” “Throw Down Your Heart,” “The Oath,” “Women, War and Peace,” “The Invisible War,” “No Woman, No Cry,” “Citizenfour,” “Cameraperson,” “Risk.”

A rare artist who represents the full potential of nonfiction cinema. A cinematographer whose deep personal connection with subjects can be felt onscreen, Johnson is also intensely conscientious of the deeper issues of representation and the ethical pitfalls that come with making a documentary. She combines a journalist’s understanding of our chaotic world with the tools of a disciplined artist using the camera to translate that into images and emotions. Johnson’s toolbox and understanding of form is deep, able to do more with nuanced frames stationed in one place than any multi-camera set — and then, when she does move us through space, it’s with grace and purpose. For many of us these talents became clear in Johnson’s masterful memoir “Cameraperson,” but to the dozens of great directors who have leaned on her talents for 25 years, she has always been documentary film’s best kept secret.

Laura Poitras: Kirsten brings an intellectual rigor combined with this really emotive eye to her work, and so often with cinematographers you get one without the other. She has this extraordinary ability to work across the spectrum, from the most deepest connections with people – you can feel when she’s behind the camera, it’s palpable how she connects with people – and this love and deep understanding of the aesthetic side of cinema.

The first film that we worked on together was called “The Oath.” It was a unique set of circumstances. I had been following this man who use to be Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard and I was filming in Yemen, and his brother-in-law was in prison and on trial at Guantanamo Bay prison. I needed to find a cinematographer who would be willing to go there because I was, and am probably still am on a U.S. government watch list.

I explained the complicated set of circumstances on the phone: “It would be going to Guantanamo, I won’t be able to be there, I want to be able to follow the trial, but you can’t film in the court room where the drama is, so you will have to figure out how to use cinema to embody what was happening, while under extreme constraints of government minders and restrictions.” This was our first encounter, there was, “No, let me think about this.” Immediately on the phone she started thinking about other ways to capture things you are not able to see. Or how do you translate an emotional experience into a visual language. She immediately embraced this idea and was so thrilled by the aesthetic challenges this would pose and how to actualize them.

Later when we watched her footage, there was more traditional coverage of what was happening, but there was this whole other set of visual footage, that she describes as having shot for herself. These shots were a bit more eschewed, complex compositions, more her own way to process being in Guantanamo. She would sit in the courtroom listening to the trial and by the end of the day take the emotional experience and translate that to doing these amazing landscapes. That was the footage I fell in love with and put in the film.

On a personal level, she has become this incredibly close confidant I rely on. Before I knew who Ed Snowden was and I was getting these emails and making this decision to go to Hong Kong (“Citizenfour”), it was a lot of Kirsten and I talking about how to film it and how to navigate the pressures and challenges that project posed.

Ellen Kuras

Ellen Kuras and Errol Morris shooting "Wormwood"

Ellen Kuras and Errol Morris shooting “Wormwood”

Netflix

Key Films: “Swoon,” “Angela,” “I Shot Andy Warhol,” “He Got Game,” “Summer of Sam,” “4 Little Girls,” “Blow,” “Bamboozled,” “Personal Velocity,” “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” “The Ballad of Jack and Rose,” “Be Kind Rewind,” “Wormwood.”

Cinematography as bold as the films she’s drawn to, and the directors (Spike Lee, Rebecca Miller, Michel Gondry to name just a few) who are drawn to her. When we look back at the better aspects of independent films from the 1990s it’s often best represented by Kuras’ work – cinematically exciting, inventive, sometimes gritty, always visceral. While the energy of her work was always felt wild, there is also something incredibly sculpted about it.

The secret of the success of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is Kuras’ cinematography, which is the glue holding together writer Charlie Kaufman’s narrative insanity and director Michel Gondry’s ephemeral visual poetry. Kuras’ lighting serves as vital exposition – clearly delineating the different dimensions and supplying inventive transitions – which allows the complex science fiction device to melt into the background and the metaphysical poetry to rise to the top. In a film about the erasing of memories, the lighting itself has a fragility in its washed-out beauty that creates a visual texture. The result not only mirrors the film’s themes; it becomes the primary storytelling device.

In a recent interview with IndieWire, Errol Morris, in discussing the unique and highly stylized multi-perspective interviews in “Wormwood,” credited Kuras’ engineering background (she graduated with an engineering degree) and how she figured out how to create a set up that somehow kept 10 cameras – shooting the interview from vastly different angles – and numerous lights out of frame, while also allowing for the flexibility to move two cameras in reaction to what was being said. It’s an anecdote that unlocks an incredible insight to Kuras: A cinematographer whose work can feel so raw, but underneath it there is an expertly drawn blueprint making it possible.

Rebecca Miller: I met Ellen Kuras in 1995. I had written an intensely visual and emotional film called “Angela” and John Ventimiglia, my friend who was going to be acting in the film, recommended I meet her. We met at a bar in the East Village, and right off the bat it was clear we were kindred spirits. At that bar, a friendship began and a deep collaboration took root. Ellen understood the spiritual needs of the film, as well as the technical needs. We shot “Angela” on 35mm, in an economical way, with moving masters, a style which Ellen was already very adept at. She had, and still has, a keen sense of visual poetry.

The next film we made together was “Personal Velocity.” I wanted to attack this film in a very direct and documentary way. We had to use digital, in the early days of the medium. Ellen’s experience making documentary films made her particularly adept at finding the truth in a scene with a hand-held roving camera. I used to say her lens was a heat-seeking missile. She also used a lot of smoke to take the greasy shine off the video image. We accepted the limitations of the cameras, using few wide shots and concentrating on the idea of the film as portraiture.

The next film we made was “The Ballad of Jack and Rose.” I very much wanted to free Daniel Day-Lewis of the technical burdens of filmmaking and allow the actors to be at the center of the technology rather than at the service of it. We ended up building a set to enable us to shoot much of the film in very long sequences with two 16mm film cameras shooting continuously. Often one camera had to re-load during a take while the first camera kept shooting. This was in a sense a continuation of the “Personal Velocity” experiment, again shot with two hand-held cameras, but, as we were shooting on film, and the location (Prince Edward Island) was so beautiful, the overall effect was less gritty and more dream-like. In our working relationship we became nearly of one mind on set. There was a special intimacy and trust that developed. Overall I would say that Ellen is a true cinema artist.

Hélène Louvart

“Beach Rats”

Neon

Key Films: “History of a Secret,” “My Mother,” “Pina,” “Petra,” “The Wonders,” “The Beaches of Agnès,” “The Smell of Us,” “Dark Night,” “Parisienne,” “Beach Rats.”

It is near impossible to summarize the work of the great French cinematographer, whose collaborations are as varied as her dozens of collaborators, including directors Wim Wenders, Agnes Varda, Leos Carax, Claire Denis, Christian Vincent, Christophe Honoré, Larry Clark, Tim Sutton, Alice Rohrwacher, and Eliza Hittman. Also, from the standpoint of an American audience, it is also difficult to fully appreciate the work of a cinematographer with 109 titles on her IMDB page, when it has only been a couple handfuls of her recent films that has reached the international stage.

That which we have seen though is staggering and invigorating, from the formal rigor of dance in 3-D (“Pina”) to the energy of the grainy ephemeral color images of Coney Island at night (“Beach Rats”) to the organic beauty of Alice Rohrwacher’s first films (“The Wonders,” “Happy as Lazzaro,” “Corpo Celeste”). The best part is now that Louvart has entered our cinematic lives, she doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon, with two films at Cannes 2018 and a new collaboration with Mia Hansen-Løve already in the can.

Eliza Hittman (director, “Beach Rats”): Hélène came to Brooklyn for a week of prep for “Beach Rats” months before our official prep. We walked through the neighborhoods where the film was set, talking through the story. We sat in a dark car together at night, watching men cruise the beach for sex. They walked from a dimly lit parking lot, vanishing into the darkness of the dunes. We knew then we were telling a story about a young man confronting something that he perceived as a darkness within himself.

I wanted to shoot on film to capture total darkness. Digital is too light sensitive. We decided to use a frontal hand-held unmotivated light to feel as if we were shining a light in the darkness, exposing something hidden. My financiers pushed back. They were nervous about our conceptual approach to lighting. Hélène stepped in, saying something like, “We could put light up here and it would be ‘the moon’ or here and it would look like ‘street lights,’ but we won’t do those things. After all, this is cinema.”

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