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Shooting from the Hip: An Interview with Cinematographer Maryse Alberti

By Joseph Di Mattia

Maryse Alberti shooting 'The Golden Boat' with director Raul Ruiz (right). A woman looks through the camera as a group of others discuss filming.

Almost every review I've seen of Stephanie Black's exceptionally moving 70- minute film concerning the labor abuses suffered by Jamaican men brought to Southern Florida to pick sugarcane, mentions the way the picture looks. This is fairly unusual for a new documentary, but particularly for one in which most of the footage was shot clandestinely. For her work on H-2 Worker, Maryse Alberti, the director of photography, was awarded the 1990 Sundance Film Festival Award for Best Cinematography.

Access to the heavily guarded camps is severely restricted; after sneaking in­side, Alberti was often only able to shoot for a few minutes at a time. In spite of this, the film is filled with striking images: silhouettes of men in the fields at dusk, bending below the towering cane, suggest the back-breaking work; slow pans of the over-crowded barracks and the seemingly endless landscape of harvested crops convey the torpor of camp life. Without being arry or picturesque, Alberti's work heightens the film's sense of realism.

Indeed, if some of these images seem right out of Miller, after talking to Alberti, I am sure she is just as interested in Melies. Or as she puts it, "I think cinema has to move away from being merely documentarist. In the early days of the medium it was OK to show a train coming into a station, but now we have television for that kind of documentation. Today we need to rake the medium of film, in all of its forms, in a different direction, so that it has a more meaningful impact upon us."

Being radical or challenging, or, for that matter, even playful with the conventions of movies, including documentaries, is very important to Alberti. She admires people who have a strong interest in visual style and are willing to take chances—like the director of Poison, Todd Haynes. Haynes' first feature, which won the best film award at Sundance this year, consists of three different stories rolled into one continu­ously disjunctive narrative. Shot on different film stock, each part has a distinct look: from that of a tabloid TV news show, to a prison picture with stylized flashbacks, to a black and white low­ budget horror movie circa 1960. Alberti lit all the sections and photographed the two color sequences. "The thing I like about working with Todd is that he really plays with the cinema. We used three different types of film on Poison, you really felt like a painter. You can feel the difference between 'oil' and 'acrylic'­—thick and thin—and that's fascinating."

Born and raised in the south of France, the New York-based, 35-year­ old cinematographer has worked on a number of independent projects, including Paris Is Burning and Jill Godmilow forthcoming The Lear Tapes, as well as for PBS and Frontline. Alberti was also director of photography on The Golden Boat, the first English language feature film by Chilean born French-based film­maker, Raul Ruiz.

Currently working on Michael Apted's documentary about American Indian activist Leonard Peltier, Alberti is also shooting a film on cartoonist R. Crumb and discussing a future project with Todd Haynes. Although she has only been shooting for four years, Maryse Alberti has managed to como quite far, quite fast. What follows is a discussion of what she's done and what she hopes to do.

Documentary: How did you start out shooting?

MARYSE ALBERTI: I started out as a rock-and-roll photographer. You know, you always know someone who's in a rock-and-roll band. Then one day a friend, who was an electrician on a feature, said they needed a still photographer for $25-a-day and I said OK. I was quite fascinated with the movie set and I decided I wanted to be like the person behind the big camera. So I started working as an assistant on low-budget features. But being an assistant on features is boring, it 's all technical and you can't say I like that light or that angle. So I moved very quickly on to documentaries, where it's such a small crew you can light, you can talk to the director, you travel a lot. So when I started to shoot, I Started out in documentaries and now I want to move on to features.

D: How long did you work on H-2 Worker?

MA: Three years. First because of the money, but also because of the nature of the film. It's not a film where you can go for a month and shoot and come back and edit. We had to learn how to get into the camps, and how to get the trust of the Jamaicans. Also the idea of this film is to understand how these men live, to understand what they go through. They leave their families and stay here for six months. In the beginning, of course, they like being in America; after a while, their backs are breaking, they realize they can't leave the camps, and eventually they desperately want to go home. So there was this whole process we wanted to get. I think more documentaries should be made like that.

For example, I work a lot for Frontline, which is a really good show, but they don't make good films. What they make are really good essays. A producer or a director goes some place and does some research for three weeks, gets a crew and goes back and shoots for a month and that's it. So what you end u p with is a kind of illustration for the essay. You don't find the film as you are filming it, you find it in your research. For me that is a big problem in documentaries right now. Also, I think you take away the subject's uniqueness by using the same boring format that you've seen a h u and red rimes. I think we should emphasize the cinematic aspects of the medium more. I think if we make the filmic qualities stronger, a larger audience will be drawn to this form of storytelling.

D: Why do you think people mistrust style in documentaries?

MA: Because I think people still have this somewhat absurd notion that documentaries are about truth and reality. This summer I worked on a film about the women of Chile. And I can tell you that five Gringos in a ghetto house in Chile is no longer the truth. So this fear of style somehow undermining the truth is a mistake—it's not understanding what the tools are. For me, a film like The Thin Blue Line, which is kind of a cliche now, is a good example because even if the film is not completely successful, at least it really uses the medium of cinema. And for me the stylization doesn't take away from the content; on the contrary, I think it makes the film even stronger. Of course, you can't shoot the women of Chile in the same style. So you have to be intelligent about how you tie the style to the subject. I think at times you can say more about the truth if you trust your­ self. I mean, you're the person telling the story and if you trust yourselfyour own guts—you can get closer to what the truth might be.

D: So how do you make the style fit the story?

MA: It depends. What is your story? Who are the characters? What is it about? I think one of the most important things in film making is money. Every Time you try to find a new way, to experiment, you realize the price of film is very expensive. I think the lack of innovation in film is partly economical; not a lot of people are willing to give you a hundred thousand dollars and say go play and try to find a look. This economic aspect I think makes film more reliant on formulas-it's so difficult to take risks and dive into different forms. I don't know what's going to happen with Video 8 and all of the new technologies that will give filmmakers more options, but the reality is, film is very cosy.

D: Do you think your job is to convey a state of mind?

MA: Who's?

D: Your subject's.

MA: It might be a bit pretentious to say that. It is more to understand what it is that I see, because at times you see more tha n a table and someone talking-you see the whole ambience, the buzz of the place, the special quality of the place. How do you convey that? That's what you see, but there is also what you hear and smell, and how do you translate that into this square? So not so much their state of mind—I can't know that—but it's more my way of seeing; what it is that I feel, what it is I want to tell you. It's the makers' view, it's our state of mind.

D: So if I look at the footage of the ghetto house in Chile would I get a sense of what you saw there?

MA: What you are going to get is the Frontline formula, but hopefully you're going to get a little bit of me within that structure—that is a given because I am behind the camera. Ultimately, though, I'm just hired to do a job. A cinematographer is really a worker. You're hired by a producer to shoot something. Most of the time the film has been chosen, the research has been done, they know when and where you're going, so they just bring you there and have you shoot when they want you to. I've come to terms with that. I really like to shoot movies, and I've been lucky to shoot some good ones—even the Frontline ones—they're smart films and the producers are very committed. Even if I don't learn about cinema I can learn about life. For example, I never thought I would meet a miner in Siberia and then all of a sudden there I am with him, his family and his co-workers. So for me, being a cinematographer is a great job.

D: You worked on Paris Is Burning. How much of that did you shoot?

MA: About a third.

D: How does a film like Paris Is Burning fit into what you were saying? Is it politically correct and...

MA: I don't like that phrase, politically correct.

D: I meant politically correct in quotes.

MA: I don't like that sentence anyway. After a while we can get into Fascism. I think in some ways Paris Is Burning is a regression in documentaries. It's some­ what like the first white man with a camera going to Africa or some exotic culture and watching the "natives." It's not that simple of course. I think in many ways the film has great social value and it does show us an extraordinary subculture, but at the same time, how it shows it to us is not very advanced and really nor very far from the form of those early films. I think it is a good film about a great subject, but I don't think it is a great film about a great subject.

D: What are you working on now?

MA: Right now I'm working on a film about Leonard Peltier. It's a film about his case. We hope to show that he didn't get a fair trial. It's produced by Robert Redford and directed by Michael Apted. On this film, I really am the director of photography. Michael's great to work with—although he watches me—he gives me the frame, the camera and the movement. Another reason it's great for me, is this is a documentary project with money and we're also shooting in Super 16. It's a pleasure to get out of that little square and work in a rectangle. When you're in South Dakota on a reservation in the Badlands, you need a long rectangle. There is a lot of talking and a lot of interviews so it's very interesting to put a face in that wide "spaghetti western" landscape.

D: What do you see for yourself?

MA: I want to keep working with people like Todd and Raul; it's more fun. I'm not going to get rich that way, but I'm kind of resolved to that. I mean that's one good thing about doing documenta ries; you end up at both extremes of life. When I worked on the Quincy Jones film I traveled in jets, and then I've slept on the floor in the jungle of Honduras. It makes you realize just how privileged we really are. I mean it's OK if I don't make $5,000 a day—if I make $500 it's really great. I think working in documentary keeps things in perspective and I don't think in the world of commercials and features they have that kind of perspective. Of course I want to make money, of course I want to have kids, a house in the country, but at the same time I want to make really good films. Right now I'm trying to get an agent in LA. I met with one I liked. I told him that I didn't want to shoot Nightmare on Elm Street 8 or 9 no matter how much they paid me. I prefer to work on films that may be less popular, but where you come home at night and feel really good about your work and about yourself. So that's what I want to do. And of course I want to become the first woman D.P. in Hollywood. (Laughter.)

Joseph Di Mattia is a New York-based freelance writer.