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Trusting the Vérité Eye: Joan Churchill

By Bob Fisher

Joan Churchill, ASC, received the first International Documentary Association Award for Outstanding Documentary Achievement in Cinematography. She also recently became the first pure documentary shooter and only the seventh woman inducted into the American Society of Cinematographers in the 86-year history of the organization.

Churchill has already compiled some 50 cinematography credits, including Bearing Witness, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Biggie and Tupac, Home of the Brave, Kurt and Courtney, The Story of Mothers & Daughters, Asylum, Lily Tomlin and Soldier Girls.

"My father, 'Church,' [Robert] produced and distributed what were surely among the more imaginative films made for the classroom," Churchill reflects. "When my brother Jim and I were kids, we were actors in many of them. We were the kids turning over rocks looking for lizards and worms in Wonders in Your Own Backyard. I was also a slate girl on some of his films and worked in the mailroom at Churchill Films."

Churchill wasn't inclined to follow the path that her father had blazed. She enrolled at University of California, Los Angeles as an English major. One summer, she signed up for a six-week class in filmmaking, where she made a cinema vérité-style 16mm film about a used car salesman.

"I had an epiphany: Imagine doing this and making a living as well," she says. "It sure beat teaching English." Steven Larner, ASC, was one of her mentors at UCLA. The five-time Emmy nominee encouraged Churchill to pursue a career in cinematography, and fellow students asked her to shoot their films.

The reality was that there were very few female cinematographers working in the motion picture industry. After graduation, Churchill signed on as an editor for an educational film company. Meanwhile, some of her former classmates got jobs and brought Churchill on as a cinematographer.

She decided to take a chance. There was a rough period when Churchill didn't know if she could make a living as a cinematographer. Sometimes she went months between jobs, although she did make a film about Jimi Hendrix performing at Berkeley (Jimi Plays Berkeley), which led to working on Gimme Shelter (1970) with Albert and David Maysles.

In 1971 British director, Peter Watkins came to California to shoot Punishment Park, a narrative film produced in documentary style. It was a story about the escalating domestic turmoil as the Vietnam War dragged on. Watkins only had a $25,000 budget for production and post-production. He visited UCLA with the hope of hiring a student cinematographer. The dean recommended Churchill instead.

There were no professional actors and no script. Churchill covered the action with an clair NPR camera and Kodak Ektachrome film, which had an exposure index of 25 in daylight. She had heard that Haskell Wexler, ASC, had a special rig made for the camera. She made a cold call to him; he answered her questions and soon became a mentor.

Churchill says that Punishment Park was controversial largely because audiences didn't realize it was fiction. That film marked a turning point in her career. That resulted in an opportunity to shoot on the seminal vérité PBS series, An American Family (1973).

In 1974, film professor Colin Young asked Churchill to teach cinematography at the National Film School in England, which he had founded, for a month. She ended up living and working in the UK for 10 years. "At first, working in England was like going back in time," she recalls. "They had never heard of a camerawoman. They thought it was preposterous. I finally got into the union when a producer made a television film about an abortion clinic, and needed a woman to shoot it."

In 1975, Churchill teamed up with producer/director Nick Broomfield on Juvenile Liaison, which revealed how police in northern England were dealing harshly with school children involved in minor mischief. Their film was suppressed after premiering at the London Film Festival, but a screening for Parliament resulted in a law designed to protect children.

Churchill and Broomfield subsequently made several feature-length documentaries in the United States with funding provided by the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Tattooed Tears (1981) focused on the lives of youthful offenders inside a maximum-security prison. That film earned a DuPont Columbia Award for Outstanding Journalism after it aired on PBS and Channel 4 in England.

The DuPont recognition convinced Pentagon officials to allow Churchill and Broomfield to follow a platoon of women soldiers through basic training after the US Army was forced to take them in because of the new Equal Opportunity laws. Soldier Girls won the 1982 British Academy of Film and Television Arts Flaherty Award. In 1985, she and Broomfield spent 20 months tracking the evolution of the Lily Tomlin's hit Broadway show The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe. Lily Tomlin screened at the Sundance Film Festival and aired on both PBS outlets and Channel 4 in England.

"We were doing observational filmmaking, which is another way of saying cinema vérité," Churchill says. "We didn't use lights or interview people, and we never knew what was going to happen next. We didn't invent the idea. Frederick Wiseman, the Maysles brothers and Robert Drew were among the filmmakers who were choosing to tell their stories that way."

Churchill and Broomfield have revisited some of the subjects of their earlier films. Some 15 years after their first film, they went back to have a look at what had happened to the children in Juvenile Liaison. They also recently went to South Africa for an update of a 1991 Broomfield film, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver's Wife. The Afrikaner leader who was the subject of the earlier film got out of prison. They also shared the Amnesty International DOEN Award and an IDA Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award nomination for Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer (2003), a follow-up to the 1993 film Aileen Wuornos: The Selling of a Serial Killer.

Her more recent projects include Concert for George (2002), a musical tribute to the late George Harrison; Bearing Witness (2005), a collaboration with Barbara Kopple about women journalists who are on the ground in war zones in Iraq; and Home of the Brave (2004), a retrospective probe of the death of Viola Liuzzo, the only white woman killed in the US civil rights movement.

Churchill is upbeat about the future of the nonfiction genre. "Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have opened it up theatrically by proving documentaries can make money," she observes. "There are abundant cable channels interested in documentaries, and all sorts of new media, from DVDs to cyberspace, which are exciting new outlets."

When asked if she has ever been tempted to venture into narrative filmmaking, Churchill responds, "I've never for one minute been interested in making narrative films. I don't have the temperament. I love shooting in unstructured environments, where you have no control. You learn how to listen and follow what's happening with a 'subjective' camera that actively participates in the story so the audience can experience it much as you do, by a process of discovery. For me that process is the most fascinating thing imaginable."


Bob Fisher has been writing about cinematography and other industry issues for over 25 years.