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Documentary as a Spawning Ground for Female Cinematographers

By Bob Fisher

Ferne Pearlstein, Ellen Kuras, Sandi Sissel, Nancy Schreiber and Judy Irola

"I went into documentaries because I wanted to make socially responsible movies. It was a way to use cinematography to make a statement about the human condition. They were also the only opportunity available to women."

—Ellen Kuras, ASC


The American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) was founded in Los Angeles in 1919 as a peer group, much like the International Documentary Association (IDA). The first 15 members were exploring the frontier of a new art form. The purpose of the organization was to provide a forum for sharing ideas and advocating advances in technology. It was a man's world until Brianne Murphy came on the scene in 1973.

Murphy was a still photographer who took publicity shots for the circus. At the end of the season, she applied for a job as a photographer at a Hollywood nightclub. That's where she met a producer who hired her as a script supervisor on a non-union movie. Pretty soon, Murphy was doing it all. She was the production manager, cinematographer and editor on low-budget movies and "no-budget" documentaries.

"NBC-TV was preparing to produce a documentary about the women's rights movement," Murphy said in an interview some 25 years ago. "The women insisted on a female cinematographer. NBC choose me from a field of one. That's how I became the first woman cinematographer in the Camera Guild in 1973. After I shot several other TV documentaries, Michael Landon hired me to shoot Little House on the Prairie in 1974."

Murphy was invited to join the ASC in 1980. She was the only female member until the 1990s. Murphy died in 2003. How many women have followed the trail she blazed? ASC has a global membership of some 270 cinematographers today. Judy Irola, Sandi Sissel, Nancy Schreiber, Amy Vincent and Ellen Kuras are the only female members. It's no coincidence that all of them but Vincent began their careers shooting documentaries.

Kuras got interested in still photography while she was studying social anthropology at Brown University in the late 1970s. Attending the Margaret Meade Film Festival one year turned her on to documentaries. She found a niche as an electrician on camera crews, mainly on documentaries and low-budget features made in New York. Kuras talked her way into shooting her first documentary in war-torn El Salvador in 1987.

 Later that year, she invested in an ARRI SR2 camera and traveled to Cambodia with producer/director Ellen Bruno to document the aftermath of another tragic civil war. Samsara: Death and Rebirth in Cambodia was released in 1990. Kuras has subsequently earned Emmy nominations for her documentaries A Century of Women (1994) and Four Little Girls (1997). She earned top cinematography honors at Sundance for her narrative films Swoon (1992), Angela (1996) and Personal Velocity (2002). Her credits also include Blow (2001), Summer of Sam (1999), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2005).  

"My documentary experience totally influences how I think about dramatic filmmaking," she says. "It teaches you to think on your feet. You have to figure out how to use your eyes and the camera in service of the story. Documentaries also gave me a more rounded world view. I've traveled to remote places, vicariously experiencing other people's lives and often empathized with their situations."

Irola followed a somewhat different path. After completing a two-year Peace Corps stint in Niger, Africa, she landed a job as a secretary at KQED-TV in San Francisco in 1968. Irola hung out in the news department after hours and learned how to use a camera, which subsequently led to shooting local documentaries. She was a member of Cine Manifest, a collective organized by seven aspiring filmmakers in 1972.

"We were influenced by Godard, the New Wave and American films like Bonnie and Clyde," she says. "We supported ourselves by working on film crews, and collaborated on writing, producing, directing and shooting our own films."

Irola shot Northern Lights, one of th collective's two feature films. The black-and-white film was produced at practical locations in North Dakota. It won the Camera d'Or Award at Cannes in 1979. By then, Irola was freelancing in New York. She shot news magazine segments for 60 Minutes, 20/20, NOVA and various British channels, including BBC and Channel 4. Irola subsequently compiled an impressive list of nonfiction credits such as Dawn Is Breaking, Sister and AIDS: Changing the Rules. Her narrative films include Working Girls (1987) and Ambush of Ghosts, which won the 1993 Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize for Excellence in Cinematography.

"Documentaries are the window to your soul," she observes. "You see how real people move in their homes and workplaces. It's the best training in the world. You learn that there has to be an intimate connection between the camera and characters and how lighting, framing and camera movement can help set the mood."

She has been teaching cinematography at the University of Southern California since 1992, and heading the department since 1999. She is currently working on a documentary about Cine Manifest. Irola has filmed interviews with her former colleagues and people who worked with them, and she is tracking down clips from their films and other period images.

"It's going to be about who we were and a reflection on our generation," Irola says. "It was a very polarized time, which in a lot of ways mirrors today. I think it will be good for our students to see this film. They are a lot like the people I worked with at Cine Manifest. They have a collaborative spirit and share resources, ideas and dreams."

Sissel's father was the editor of her hometown newspaper in Paris, Texas. She briefly pondered pursuing a career as a TV news reporter after earning a master of fine arts degree from the University of Wisconsin, but decided it would feel more natural being behind the camera. Sissel migrated to New York after graduating in 1974.

She shot some 50 magazine stories for 60 minutes and 20/20 and such nonfiction films as Chicken Ranch (1983) and The Wobblies (1987). Her narrative credits range from Saalam Bombay! (1988) to the TV miniseries Drug Wars: The Camarena Story (1990) to the Wes Craven thriller The People Under the Stairs (1991).

For the past three years, Sissel has been teaching cinematography at New York University, shooting such recent documentaries as Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry and Chisholm '72: Unbought & Unbossed, and serving as director of photography for second units on such epic films as Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  

"I can't imagine what my career would be like without the documentaries I did in my 20s and early 30s," she says. "I've worked on documentaries in Vietnam, Haiti, the Philippines, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Beirut. We shot most of them in cinema vérité style on 16mm film. I learned when it was right to shoot close-ups, wide angle and longer shots, when to squat and when to stand, when and how to move the camera, and how to use light and darkness. It made me who I am today."

After Schreiber graduated from the University of Michigan, she was involved in the underground film scene in Ann Arbor for about a year, including a film festival and an art house theater. Schreiber moved to New York and took a six-week crash course in filmmaking. She got a job as a PA through a newspaper ad.

That led to opportunities to work on electrical crews. Schreiber quickly stepped up to gaffer, mainly on music videos, commercials and documentaries.

One memorable project took her to China for a documentary co-directed by Shirley MacLaine and Claudia Weill about how the reign of Mao affected women. 

"I was trying to become a cinematographer but I couldn't get hired, so I produced, directed and shot a cinema vérité documentary called Possum Living [1980]," she says. "It was about a father and daughter living in Pennsylvania on no money."

Her subsequent documentaries include the six-part PBS series Middletown (1982), The Celluloid Closet (1996), The Source (1999), My America...or Honk If you Love Buddha (1997) and Imaginary Witness: Hollywood and the Holocaust (2004).

"One of the documentaries I'm proudest of is Robert Capa: In Love and War [2003], which was part of the American Masters series," she says. "We traveled all over Europe and did interviews with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Isabella Rossellini and other amazing people who knew Capa, including Magnum photographers. We shot interviews in DV format because we couldn't afford film. Recreations of his life are recorded on Super-16 and Super-8 film to match period looks, including impressionistic shots on black-and-white film of an actor playing Capa in a Paris café. I wanted that texture and a really grainy look. I used a Nizo camera to shoot certain scenes at six and 12 frames a second."

Schreiber's narrative credits include Lush Life (1993), Your Friends & Neighbors (1998) and November (2004), which won a cinematography award at Sundance. She has two narrative films, Loverboy and American Gun, slated for release in 2005.

"My documentaries have fueled my fiction work," she says. "That doesn't mean I always shoot movies in naturalistic ways, but I've been influenced even in my most stylized movies by people I've met and places I've gone. Documentaries taught me how to work quickly and with limited resources; however, I don't necessarily do it on movies when I have the budget and the time. I've also done documentaries about movie stars and other celebrities where I wasn't sparse with lights, flags and grip equipment."

Ferne Pearlstein is in the front ranks of a new wave of documentary shooters who are segueing into narrative films. During her last semester at the University of Michigan, she decided to take a shot at photojournalism. She had never picked up a camera before.

After graduation, Pearlstein moved to Washington, DC, hoping to find a job with a Latin American relief organization while taking still pictures on the side. She moved to New York City, where she immersed herself in a yearlong photojournalism workshop at the International Center of Photography, and found a job taking still pictures for the news bureau of a Japanese newspaper.

Pearlstein enrolled in the graduate documentary program at Stanford University in 1991. She has compiled around a dozen credits as a cinematographer since graduating in 1993. Pearlstein also directed and edited four of those films. She won the cinematography award for documentary at Sundance last year for Imelda, the recipient of the 2004 IDA/ABCNews VideoSource Award. Her other credits include Ruthie and Connie: Every Room in the House (2002), Voice of the Prophet (2002), Secret People (1998), Pleasures of Urban Decay (2000) and her own film, Sumo East and West (2003). Last summer, she shot two short narrative films.

"I had never shot fiction before, so I was sufficiently intimidated," she says. "I quickly realized that every situation we scouted I had shot before in documentaries. I found a gaffer, Anne Etheridge, who is a graduate of AFI," she says. "She was great at interpreting what I wanted. I instantly trusted her. There was a instant shorthand." 

Pearlstein is currently in London directing and shooting second unit for Land of the Blind. The narrative film was scripted and is being directed by Robert Edwards, her husband and frequent collaborator as an editor and co-producer on nonfiction films. "Bob had the idea for this script for years," she says. "He wrote it while we were editing Sumo East and West. Donald Sutherland and Ralph Fiennes are cast in the leading roles. It's my first 35mm experience, but I learned to rely on my instincts from shooting documentaries. The basic sensibilities are the same. My still photography background also helps."

 Pearlstein says that she is being drawn towards fiction filmmaking, because of the opportunity it provides to contribute to the aesthetics of storytelling with thoughtful composition and lighting. She adds that is partially what attracted her to still photography.

 "I think the public assumes that documentaries are objective, but I don't believe that's true," she says. "Most documentaries are subjective with the filmmaker either consciously or subconsciously showing the audience what they want them to see. Everyone has a point of view they want to share with the world. I still love documentaries. That's where my heart has been since I became a still photographer."


Bob Fisher is a film industry journalist who has focused on writing about the art of cinematography for the past 30 or so years.