by Frako Loden
In all my filmgoing career, spotting a female name for the cinematographer credit has been a rare and confounding experience. First, its rarity makes me take notice. (Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated for a cinematography Oscar, for 2017’s Mudbound. The first woman invited to join the American Society of Cinematographers, in existence since 1919, was Brianne Murphy in 1980 for Anne Bancroft’s Fatso.) Second, what’s confounding is not knowing what to make of the credit. Should I look for what might be an essentialist female vision? A feminist vision? A female gaze? A gaze that transcends notions of gender? A completely rare vantage altogether, and then what would that be? As the number of women directors of photography increases in narrative and documentary films, will their gender cease to matter?
The Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive’s current series “View Finders: Women Cinematographers” is sure to get you twisted up in such questions. Organized by Kathy Geritz, PFA’s notes say it was inspired by and draws on Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Female Gaze program.
What place does a “female camera” take in a film full of males? In Robin Campillo’s Eastern Boys (2013), Jeanne Lapoirie‘s camera establishes an intriguing matrix of gazes between the three principal male characters and a highrise apartment window. Frenchman Daniel picks up an East European rent boy at Gare du Nord for an assignation at Daniel’s place, where shades are drawn at picture windows that display an expansive view of a Paris suburb. But hooking up with “Marek” involves unforeseen complications, like a gang of trafficked boys whose Russian leader enjoys invading and pillaging Daniel’s sleek 12th-floor apartment. Lapoirie’s camerawork, seen in films by André Téchiné and François Ozon, demands to be noticed when it insists on a place among the three males, at one moment serving as surveillance and another searching restlessly for a vantage of freedom.
This series forced a second look at Kurosawa Kiyoshi’s Tokyo Sonata (2008), which was not a favorite of mine. I thought this family melodrama, crammed with wild coincidences and implausible intrusions into the plot, was an awkward departure from Kurosawa’s specialty in supernatural criminality. But his frequent cinematographer Ashizawa Akiko keeps this film rooted in his signature moments of wordless entrapment, as when a family eats at a dining table that feels squashed by foreground shelves, or a group of humiliated janitors laid off from their white-collar jobs must change into their uniforms in a cramped corridor exposed to mall shoppers. When the family breaks free of their blind conformity to corporate and parental authority, Ashizawa stays with them in a new register: wide shots from a cool, moderate high angle that evoke the awed mystery and exhilaration that is new to them, bathed in a “particularly Japanese sense of light” that Ashizawa says she inherits from the early-Edo Rinpa school of Japanese painting.
As we see in Claudia Llosa’s The Milk of Sorrow (2009), in peacetime Peru the bride peels a potato in one long spiral ribbon to prove her worthiness in marriage. In times of civil war and terrorism back in the countryside, young indigenous Fausta has had a potato pushed up her vagina to prevent rape. She was in her mother’s womb when the women of the village were sexually assaulted by terrorists, contracting an illness they called “the frightened teat”—but translated here into the gentler “milk of sorrow,” or the toxic effect of political and sexual violence nursed into the children of its victims. Fausta learns these stories from improvised songs sung by her mother, who dies in an early scene. Now living on the outskirts of Lima with her wedding-planner relatives and determined to return her mother’s body to her village despite having no money, Fausta suffers nosebleeds and fainting when she’s frightened. DP Natasha Braier (In the City of Sylvia, XXY, Gloria Bell) uses her camera to balance the tempting escapes into exotic magical realism—a potato plant gestating inside a woman’s body needs trimming, after all!—with the cruelties of poverty and exploitation of indigenous Peruvians. The vast wide shots of Fausta’s shantytown give context to her life and the raucous wedding rituals performed by her family, while the camera is her intimate companion in the darkened middle-class home where she works as a maid and fights her debilitating fear.
Cinematographer Caroline Champetier keeps the action fluid and sweeping in Jacques Rivette’s 1989 Gang of Four, which is new to me partly because it was never released theatrically in the US. Four aspiring actresses share an old house in the Paris suburbs while attending an exclusive drama school run by a demanding Madame Constance (Bulle Ogier). While they rehearse Pierre Marivaux’s La double inconstance, an 18th-century play about love, disguise, kidnapping and betrayal, a mysterious man begins questioning and seducing them in turns. Rivette’s world, says Jonathan Rosenbaum, is one “where a fanatical devotion to theater and paranoia are often viewed as the only viable alternatives in a tightly closeted universe.” Champetier shoots casual ensemble scenes in the house in ways that mimic and parody the stagey rehearsal scenes, while TV news and radio reports fill the rooms with hints of larceny, corruption and conspiracy. It’s a master class in the love-hate relationship between theater and cinema and the intricate levels of performance this engenders in the actors.
The series appropriately includes American cinematographer Kirsten Johnson‘s 2016 documentary Cameraperson, which she calls a “memoir” comprising “images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.” They include clips she shot from such outstanding docs as The Invisible War, Trapped, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Fahrenheit 9/11, Two Towns of Jasper and many more. Without titles or explanatory narration, this footage probing scandals and atrocities in Kabul, Penn State, Uganda, Bosnia and Jasper, Texas, asks us to imagine their effect not just on the world of images but on Johnson herself, who bears witness. Like a translator in Sarajevo says to her, they see and hear so many stories of mass rape and ethnic cleansing that they stuff inside themselves and never really process them. How do documentary cinematographers deal with nightmares and PTSD? Johnson mingles images of her twin toddlers and mother living with Alzheimer’s with those of friends she has made, and reunited with, from past assignments like Bosnia.
Acclaimed Bay Area-based cinematographer Emiko Omori (Rabbit in the Moon; To Chris Marker, an Unsent Letter) will appear in person at the screening of Cameraperson to show and discuss her work-in-progress documentary Trashed: The Lost World of May’s Studios, on the salvaging of photographs from a studio in San Francisco’s Chinatown. May’s Studios chronicled Chinese American life and indulged families separated by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act with creative license: bringing them together in photocollages in the days before Photoshop.
The series doesn’t end here. The second half presents narrative films by Todd Haynes, Tom Kalin and Gus Van Sant, and documentaries by Sarah Polley, Jean-Pierre Gorin and Erika Cohn and many others, extending to November. Before seeing all their work, you can only conclude that women cinematographers are no longer so rare after all, and their visions range free from traditional notions of gender, from the delicately intimate to the enthrallingly spectacular.
Interviews, video and written, with the cinematographers discussed in this article can be found below.
Frako Loden is a free-lance film writer and contributing editor to Documentary.org. She teaches film history and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College. She doesn’t like anyone messing with her assigned seat at the Pacific Film Archive. Frako has written for EatDrinkFilms about Japanese film master director Kenji Mizoguchi, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman and Polish animation. Her Twitter page is a good way to keep up with her current writings.
What’s in Your Kit? The Shell Collector Cinematographer Akiko Ashizawa Interview on MovieMaker.
Caroline Champetier interviewed by Margarita Sophia Cortes