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Camerimage Celebrates Cinematography

By madelyn most

Covering  documentaries at Camerimage, the Bydgoszcz, Poland-based festival dedicated to the art of cinematography, is more difficult these days because the festival has grown so large, with almost too many films, too little time, and too much else going on to attract and distract you. Dramatic feature films are screened upstairs in the Opera Nova building's Grand Theatre, while feature-length and short documentaries play downstairs in a space much too small to accommodate the eager crowds. Staying for the Q&As is rewarding, though; the discussions are  focused, given that most of the audience members are documentarians themselves. What's more, Camerimage attracts visitors from all over Europe and Russia, so audiences bring to the discussions different points of reference in terms of their society, culture and values.  

While writing this from France, I am watching images of riot police trampling over citizens in Kiev's Independence Square on the anniversary of the Ukraine's 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union. What has this got to do with documentaries at Camerimage? Not much—and at the same time, a great deal.

Ukraine is Poland's next-door neighbor, sharing a 575 km. border, so sitting in Bydgoszcz, we were only hours away from where these events unfolded; when Camerimage was in Lodz, it was easy to jump on a train to nearby Ukraine for a day trip. Although this year there were disappointingly few films in the documentary section that touched on historical or political events, many of the narrative films did. Like a mirrored image of this weekend's violent scenes of a brutal crackdown, Agnieska Holland's Burning Bush portrays a decisive event in 1969 Prague that changed the course of history, as did  Krzysztof  Lukaszewicz's Viva Belarus, which re-creates events in 2009, with  raw, rough jostling images that simulate newsreel footage of mass demonstrations, protest marches and rallies against the Soviet satellite regimes. Reflecting on this now, those films seem more relevant, timely and valuable towards understanding the struggle in the Ukraine.

Two notable documentaries that did address history and politics were Haskell Wexler's exuberant Four Days in Chicago, in which Americans demand a better life and a more equal share of the wealth, and Matthew VanDyke's Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution, which brings us to the war in Syria and the struggle for freedom there amid one of the most catastrophic humanitarian and refugee crises ever recorded.

The 12 documentaries selected for this year's Feature competition  included work from Austria, Switzerland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, the US, Germany and Poland. Among the titles were Thomas Reidelsheimer's Breathing Earth—Susumu Shingu's Dream, which portrays an artist conversing with nature through his scuptures and  the wind; Steve Hoover's Blood Brother, about  a disillusioned American who "finds authenticity" through working with HIV orphans in India; Inigo Westmeier's Dragon Girls, about a kung fu academy in China; Sebastian Junger's Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington, which examines the life and inner motivations of photographers in war zones; and Manuel von Stürler's Winter Nomads, about an elderly man and a young woman making a yearly trek, with 800 sheep, for fresh pasture land in winter.   

The  Camerimage's prestigious Award for Outstanding Achievements in Documentary Filmmaking was  presented to  Joan Churchill, the first woman to ever receive such an honor. Churchill also chaired the jury of the Feature Length Documentary Competition, which presented the  Golden Frog Award  to Camille Cottagnoud, who photographed the aforementioned  Winter Nomads, with a Special Mention going to cinemtogaphers Aage Hollander and Marc Schmidt for their work on Schmidt's Matthew's Laws.


From Manuel von Stürler's Winter Nomads


Veteran cinematographer Stephen Lighthill presided over the Documentary Shorts Jury , which awarded the Golden Frog-Grand Prix to cinematographer Johan Palmgren and directors Åsa Blanck and Johan Palmgren for Grandpa and Me and a Helicopter to Heaven, about the relationship between a perceptive young boy and his wise, bedridden grandfather. A Special Mention went to cinematographer/director Matthew VanDyke for Not Anymore: A Story of Revolution.

Camerimage also presented a selection of Churchill's work, including two of her collaborations with Nick Broomfield—Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer and Soldier Girls—and Peter Watkins' Punishment Park. For those lucky enough to get a place in their Masterclass on Experiential Cinema, Churchill and  cinematographer/sound recordist Alan Barker debunked the early myths of cinema vérité or direct cinema that the cameraperson  was a "fly on the wall." "That was so false," said Churchill at the Masterclass. "A more honest approach is when the cameraperson interacts with those 'inside the circle.' You have to establish a relationship with the person you are pointing a camera at, and with the small digital cameras that are held away from your eyes and face, they can see my emotions and my reactions, and it acknowledges that relationship. You have to earn their trust every day. I think you have to be a little crazy to do this kind of filmmaking because you need a lot of patience and you spend long periods of time just waiting around. You have to be prepared to take as long as it takes. But while you are waiting around, you have to be present, in the moment, aware of what is happening, alert and engaged all the time. You  can't be thumbing your iPhone"


Filmmaker Joan Churchill, being interviewed at Camerimage. Photo: Darek Kuzma


Based in Paris and London, Madelyn Grace Most develops independent films, writes about cinema and covers film festivals for European film magazines. She is a member of French Film Critics, Union of Cinema Journalists and the Foreign Press Association in Paris.