As part of her busy schedule, which included an extensive retrospective, Churchill, who was also president of Camerimage’s Feature Length Documentary Films Competition, along with cinematographer and sound designer Alan Barker, held a workshop on “experiential cinema.”
In a career that spans over 40 years, cinematographer and director Joan Churchill can lay claim to many compelling documentaries, including Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Soldier Girls, Shut Up & Sing and Punishment Park, which made her a key figure in defining modern-day cinéma vérité.
For Churchill, however, filmmaking is nothing but a means to engage people – “a means to have incredibly intense experiences” with them.
“I think that the really brilliant filmmakers are genuinely interested in people. My mentors like Richard Leacock and D.A. Pennebaker, for example, are really engaging and charming people. At the end, it’s about the relationship that you build up with your subjects, and I try to not make the filmmaking process overbearing. I try to make the camera just a part of my own eyes,” she says.
Churchill’s extensive body of work, for which she spent long periods of time filming in hospitals, prisons and army barracks, clearly demonstrates her strong communication skills and her ability to gain her subjects’ trust. In her 1981 documentary Soldier Girls, which she co-directed with Nick Broomfield, she follows several young women in the US army as they undergo the psychical and emotional ordeal of basic military training at Fort Gordon under cruel superiors. Having gained unprecedented access to the barracks, Churchill and Broomfield let incredibly dramatic moments, a rarely seen perspective on life in the military, unfold before our eyes, capturing the shocking sadism of the sergeants as it clashes with the tremendous resilience exhibited by the soldier girls. Similarly, Churchill and Barker filmed in a hospital over the course of a year for the TV series The Residents, bonding closely with patients, some of whom died during the series, and the hospital staff, who were desperate to save them.
Barker explains that one of the primary aspects of experiential cinema is to use the camera as “a character that is not a full participant, but an engaged witness with a point of view.” In order to keep that point of view consistent as a character in the scene, he says, there should be “a minimization of visual rhetoric”.
“You’re following the logic of the conversation, the process,” Churchill says, “you’re not thinking about getting a master shot or certain angles, you’re there trying to make sense of what the camera is shooting.”
I think that the really brilliant filmmakers
are genuinely interested in people
A good example is Peter Watkins’s subversive Punishment Park (1971), a mockumentary, featuring a group of young anti-war, anti-establishment protesters who are followed by a film crew as they traverse the hot California desert as part of a sentence meted out by a tribunal for their protests. In order to sustain the documentary feel throughout, Churchill was excluded from pre-production, thus having no clue as to what was going to happen at the set. In order to heighten the realism, Churchill says, Peter Watkins would even “nudge” her to put her off balance, or intentionally confuse her by changing something in the story for each take. Not surprisingly, a significant number of the audience members didn’t realize the film was fiction, which created a lot of controversy.
Being a good communicator, being able to listen and to follow processes, is key for Churchill: “That’s very different than getting pretty shots, having them perfectly composed and lit. As long as I see or hear something, that’s what’s important, not the way it looks.”
Therefore, a strong relationship between the filmmaker and the subject is indispensible. Churchill calls it “being part of the circle”: “When people are talking to each other, they form a kind of circle. You don’t want to be outside looking in. You have to constantly renegotiate your space within that circle – this is something you have to work for everyday. You have to make it OK with the people you’re shooting, to reassure them if they are not happy with something they do or say.”
Giving them the tape to check is one way of gaining trust. “When you give your subjects the tape, the power, they’ll know that you’re looking out for their interest. The next time, they will probably just let you shoot,” Churchill adds, “as you follow them, they’ll get to know you and you get to know them. After a while, it doesn’t even matter if there is a camera there.”
How does she manage to include herself in the circle?
“I tend to find a place to settle. One of my favourite ways of shooting is to focus on the main speaker and whoever he’s speaking to. I tend not to move that much, especially if there’s a lot of emotional heat. You don’t want to call attention to yourself. It upsets the intensity of what’s happening,” she replies.
Churchill says that the arrival of small cameras completely revolutionized the way she makes films. “I’m left-eyed, so if I hold the camera at my eye level, I’m just a glass eye to them. To be able to take the camera down so they can see my face and my emotions is so liberating for me. I’m much more engaged in seeing what happens, and being where I need to be with my camera, to follow and make it understandable. ” In the end, it’s always a question of following the process.