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Plus Camerimage 2010: Poland Fest Celebrates Cinematography

By madelyn most

Plus Camerimage, which ran from November 27 through December 4, is a unique film festival celebrating the art of cinematography; eight days are devoted each year honoring the importance of these artists/technicians whose visual imagery contribute so much to cinematic storytelling. Overlooked, downplayed or not fully understood, it is the intelligence, originality and beauty of the photography and camerawork that can intensify the emotional impact of a scene, convince the audience to suspend reality, or energize enough brain cells to process large quantities of information--something today's audiences with impaired attention spans might find challenging.       

No one knew what to expect in Plus Camerimage's 18th year: political fallout with local government officials forced the festival's organizers to flee their native Lodz, Poland, home of the distinguished Leon Schiller National Higher School of Film, Television and Theatre, to a northerly town closer to Warsaw called Bydgoszcz. The festival's infrastructure was successfully transplanted onto the Opera Nova building, and most events, scaled down in size and numbers, took place within this one centralized venue--thankfully, as this year's blizzard-like conditions with temperatures of 22 degrees C stung not only your cheeks but your energy for the long day to come. After perilously navigating a path through fresh snowdrifts over glacial tramway lines, arriving at the warmth, comfort and safety of a protected screening room surrounded by familiar friendly faces became a reward in itself.


The route to the Opera Nova Building, the main venue for Plus Camerimage 2010. Photo: Madelyn Most



One thing missing this year was the hoards of exuberant Polish film students who could not make the long, costly journey to this new location. Camped out on the floor and in the aisles of the Grand Theatre, responding spontaneously to what's on the screen with outbursts of cheering, jeering, laughter or applause, they're not in any way inhibited about expressing their approval or disapproval--even if the director is sitting in front of them. Such raw honesty meant screenings were always highly charged and so much fun to be part of.

The Documentary Film Competition, entitled "Image of the World--World in Images," included 12 feature length and 22 short films. There were also special screenings of Documentary Films, Documentaries on Art and Documentary Films Panorama, providing a rich banquet of nonfiction fare from early morning to late into the night. This year Camerimage screened perhaps more documentaries than ever before, which was especially surprising, given the fiscal cutbacks that  the festival has had to undergo.

Presiding over the jury for feature-length documentaries was filmmaker Jay Rosenblatt. Other members included cinematographer Nancy Schreiber, writer/lecturer Lawrence Grobel, cinematographer/writer Marcin Koszalka, Discovery Channel's Barbara Bilinska, sound editor Midge Costin and veteran cinematographer Michael Chapman, who, with a packed audience, animated the post-screening Q&A sessions with attending directors and cinematographers.

Worthy of mentioning were Australian filmmakers Bentley Dean and Martin Butler's Contact, a strange, if disjointed, story of aboriginal women and their first contact with white men; and Michal Marczak's At the Edge of Russia, set at a remote Russian Army outpost. The film is a fascinating probe into human psychology; Marczak filmed without permission and with significant intimidation from Soviet authorities.

Other notable docs included Thierry Paladino and Jacek Naglowski's La Machina, an old-fashioned tale of wandering puppeteers in Nice's mountainous regions; Lynn True and Nelson Walker's Summer Pasture, which documents nomadic life for a family living with their yaks in the coldest, highest, poorest, most remote region of Tibet; and Tom Burstyn's This Way of Life , which portrays the unconventional lifestyle of a Maori family in New Zealand plagued by the actions of a dysfunctional family member.


From Lynn True and Nelson Walker's Summer Pasture. Courtesy of the filmmakers.


Most of the feature documentaries were engaging stories that were technically very professionally executed--well photographed, perfectly lit and composed, often seamlessly blending 16mm film with digital footage. These films were so well edited, with perfectly recorded, uncluttered soundtracks, that I ended up wondering what we were actually watching.  Was it really a fiction film disguised as a  documentary ?   

Mugabe and the White African by Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson, is the story of Michael Campbell and his son-in-law, Ben Freeth, who challenge Zimbabwe's crazed president, Robert Mugabe, and his Land Reform program by bringing their case before the South African Development International Courts. It was the most compelling film I saw--simple, straightforward storytelling, with everything unfolding, developing and escalating before your eyes. You become part of it; you feel the danger and experience the violence. The bewildering question is, How can the world stand by and do nothing while a nation is subjected to such brutality and devastation? The film captured the Discovery Networks Central Europe Award at Plus Camerimage.


From Lucy Bailey and Andrew Thompson's Mugabe and the White African. Photo: Robin Hammond


The other winners in the Documentary Feature Films category included an Honorable Mention to Paul Mirabet's Letters from the Desert (Eulogy to Slowness) and the Grand Prix Golden Frog to Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger's Restrepo.

In  closing, the thrill and high point of my week was watching Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud's OCEANS on a big screen again and attending a technical seminar by Luc Drion, Rene Heuzey and Philippe Ros , three of the 17 cinematographers who filmed this epic above and below the oceans for over five years. Both the screening and the seminar were simply wondrous, breathtaking, transforming--so magical I never want to come up for air.


Based in Paris and London, Madelyn Grace Most develops independent feature 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.