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The World in Images: Camerimage Festival Celebrates the Art of Cinematography

By madelyn most

Unlike any other film festival in the world, the Bydgoszcz, Poland-based Plus Camerimage, which ran from November 26 to December 3, celebrates the art of cinematography. Over the years, relocating from Torun to Lodz to Bydgoszcz, the festival has expanded in size and numbers, attracting thousands of filmmakers and film-lovers from around the world who come to meet and learn from cinematographers who rank as the finest masters of visual storytelling in our time.

Originally conceived to nurture students from the Polish and other international film schools, Camerimage presents film screenings, workshops, master classes, seminars, panels and forums. The festival has evolved from "a safe haven" to "the place to be" for anyone aspiring to become part of the tribe. Over an intensive six days, students and working camerapeople are coached, guided, tutored and, hopefully, reinforced with the confidence needed to confront the challenges of a craft that is constantly changing. While not a marketplace for buying or selling, Camerimage provides an environment where individuals dedicated and passionate about cinema and communication exchange ideas and survival skills.   

This year's festival was a veritable banquet: Over 300 works programmed across 18 competitions and showcases, including three strands devoted to documentaries. In addition, Albert Maysles and Jay Rosenblatt, as Special Guests of Camerimage, presented selections from their respective canons.

The XIX Plus Camerimage was particularly memorable in its second year at Bydgoszcz's charming riverside Nova Opera House because the documentary category, non-existent a few years ago, has blossomed into a serious program of  85 titles--feature-length films, shorts, and special screenings ranging from high profile festival winners to tiny, personal observations making their world premieres. The documentary programming not only surpassed that of previous editions of Camerimage in quality and quantity, but it rivaled the somewhat lackluster selection of competition features that screened in the 803-seat Grand Theatre upstairs.     

It may be the turbulent, uncertain times we live in, but the public seems hungrier than ever for nonfiction stories with a more honest, personal  or truthful interpretation of reality. Crammed in the small basement theater, but content to camp out on the stairs, the enthusiastic crowds remained for the Q&As with directors and cinematographers.

Although Camerimage's  purpose is to recognize how important visual imagery is to storytelling, and how the cinematographer's role in documentaries can never be overstated,  the films are judged on their overall merit and excellence, and not for virtuoso camerawork. Each film was so different and original in subject matter, approach and visual style, I wondered how one film could be voted superior to another.

Albert Maysles received Camerimage's Outstanding Achievement Award in Documentary Films. He presented a master class, showing excerpts from his 55-year career to a packed auditorium. In addition, Camerimage screened many of his films throughout the week, from his earliest, Psychiatry in Russia, to his newest, The Love We Make.  

Discussing the editing of The Love We Make, which documents Paul McCartney's musical concert tribute to the New York City fireman in the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, Maysles said, "This film was Paul's idea, but we collaborated on the editing. Paul wanted me to leave in all the edges."  I felt sentimental and nostalgic watching the grainy black-and-white images and Maysles' signature style-his tight, lingering close-ups on faces, his zooms in to find focus then back out again to find the frame, his pans across the theater in search of the unexpected... "Professional cameramen won't like my camerawork," he admitted.


Black and white photo of Paul McCartney, a middle-aged white man, sitting at the piano singing into a microphone
From Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan's The Love We Make. Courtesy of Maysles Films.


Haskell Wexler, recipient of Camerimage's prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award  in 1996, chaired the Documentary Shorts Jury and presented 13 minutes of  his work-in-progress, Occupy LA., with veteran cinematographers/collaborators Joan Churchill and Alan Barker, also  members of  the jury.

Wexler's film directly followed the standing-room-only screening of Churchill and Nick Broomfield's  Sarah Palin: You Betcha, which fascinated this non-American audience, enthralled by the mind-boggling ignorance, blatant corruption and disguised threats posed by those loyal to the former Alaska governor during her now-aborted--and never declared--US Presidential campaign.

After showing the now-famous "Mr. Greed" clip posted on YouTube, Wexler said, "I had to find out  what this ‘Occupy' movement was about. What do they want? It's not like the '60s movement, which was anti-Vietnam War-specific, when the political system and politicians were not so thoroughly purchased  as they are  today...The Occupy movement is different in each city. The media says it's unfocussed, but one of the dangers in America is the news media is a corporation and is implicated in corporate criminality. People are not unfocussed; they're equipped with a greater sense of political awareness. This is a protest against the entire economic system that controls our lives."

The other Documentary Shorts Jury members were filmmaker Piotr Stasik, festival programmer David Kwok and writer/filmmaker Sheila Curran Bernhard, who gave a presentation from her book Documentary Storytelling. The jury honored  Paparazzi, by Polish director/cinematographer Piotr Bernas and  cinematographer Lukasz Zal, with the top award, with Special Mention going to Argentinean Lesson, by Polish director/cinematographer Wojciech Staron. 


Profile of a white man with a shaved head sitting in a car at night, smoking
From Piotr Bernas' Paparazzi. Courtesy of Plus Camerimage

My favorites among the shorts included We Will be Happy One Day (Dir.: Paweł Wysoczański ; Cin.:  Dominik Górski; Poland), for its humorous humanity; What Happened on Pam Island (Dir.: Eliza Kubarska; Cins.: Łukasz Gutt, Eliza Kubarska, David Kaszlikowski; Poland), for its magnificent visuals and relationship lessons; Flying Anne (Dir.: Catherine van Campen; Cin.: Aage Hollander; The Netherlands), for its sensitivity and understatement; and From Palestine with Love (Dir.: Camilla Magid; Cin.: Niels Thastum; Denmark), for compelling us to appreciate the things we take for granted. 

The Documentary Feature Film Jury Chairman, Jay Rosenblatt, worked with  director/cinematographer Wojciech Staron, director/writer/cinematographer Michael Glawogger, cinematographer/sound engineer Alan Barker, and filmmaker/educator Heiner Stadler. Camerimage's Golden Frog went to Doctors, by Polish director/cinematographer Tomasz Wolski, while the Special Mention prize went to the quirky, wonderful  Blinding, by Canadian  director/cinematographer Steve Sanguedolce.   


Close up of a surgeon focusing
From Tomasz Wolski's Doctors. Courtesy of Plus Camerimage


I found the most compelling doc features to be Position Among the Stars (Dir./Cin.:: Leonard Retel Helmrich; The Netherlands), Hell and Back Again (Dir./Cin.: Danfung Dennis; UK/US) and Agnus Dei: Lamb of God (Dir.: Alejandra Sanchez; Cin.: Érika Licea, Pablo Ramírez Duron; Mexico).

Those striving to become feature film cameramen and women are reminded that a great number of Camerimage's Lifetime Achievement Award recipients and Golden, Silver and Bronze Frog winners began their careers in documentaries: Vilmos Zsigmond and Lazlo Kovacs, in Hungary;  David Watkin, Billy Williams, Stephen Goldblatt, Roger Deakins, Chris Menges and Dick Pope, in the UK; Haskell Wexler and Conrad Hall in the US; Pierre Lhomme, in France; and  John Seale, in Australia. As Menges once said, "Shooting documentaries teaches you how to think, how to use natural light, how to construct a story.”


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.