A growing number of documentaries are screened at Plus Camerimage in the charming town of Bydgoszcz, Poland this year, which makes for an ever more growing and manifold screening program. Seminars and workshops, however, circle around the theme which has always been the true turning point of the festival, namely the art of cinematography. And since knowledge of and sensitivity in camera use is just as relevant and important in documentary cinematography as in fiction there are many vital lessons to be learned for a documentary filmmaker.

Wojciech Marczewski

Take for instance Wojciech Marczewski’s master class on what he refers to as camera psychology. Marcewski, who together with Andrzej Wajda opened the Wajda Film School ten years ago, sees the camera not only as a technical device but also as a living creature that demands to be treated with sensitivity. The language of cinema is in many ways similar to our way of being in the world. Marcewski illustrated his thoughts with an example: A man sits in an empty bar with little action. The perspective is anonymous. Then a woman enters. The man’s face moves. The perspective changes. The way the man looks changes as well. He focuses on the female, perhaps a certain detail on the female. His vision zooms in on her. Treating the camera as a living creature means to position the camera as if it were a human being seeing the drama because as human beings we are in our very nature drawn to the drama. And yet we do not want to be too close. We are hesitant. And so the camera should be hesitant. The camera should refrain from giving away all the information at once because in the holding back of information we engage the viewer’s imagination. TV news shows everything at once and they should do that according to Marcewski because when watching television we do not want to use our imagination. We just want to be told what is going on in the world. In cinema, and this means documentary as well I would argue, we need only to suggest to the viewer because what you don’t see is just as important as what you see.

Marcewski’s example of an intelligent use of suggestive cinema was from the opening scene in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). A large view depicts a busy plaza in an American city. People walking back and forth. One part of the plaza is filled with sunlight; the other part is dark with shadows. A pantomime artist jumps around doing impressions on the left hand side of the screen. The viewer will automatically be drawn to the left, light side and start to look at the pantomime artist as he is the only individual who stands out from the crowd because of his strange movements. Later in the scene Gene Hackman’s character is introduced and we as viewers learn that the pantomime artist was not of importance to the narrative. Later we see what appears to be a sniper on the roof tops, only it’s not a sniper rifle the man is holding but an audio recording device. The guiding and misguiding continues throughout the film. By the movement of the camera and the framing of the image Coppola and cinematographer Haskell Wexler lead and mislead the viewer.

Director Francis Ford Coppola advises his film crew as they set up to shoot a scene

This kind of cinematography is a clear example of not only the aesthetics but also the psychology of filmmaking. As Marcewski stated in the master class: “Film as an art form is not democratic, it’s a dictatorship” meaning that a film always presents the audience with a certain world view and that the world view is established by among other factors the cinematography in use.

Building on the reflections by Marcewski we can aspire to use the documentary camera as a living creature as well. As cinematographer Haskell Wexler puts it in the interview next to this article, subjectivity is the main driving force behind all art. Even observational documentary one might add. We never just point the camera and let reality in. As documentary filmmakers we also create world views for the audience to deconstruct and often planning or just thinking in advance about a shot will have great stylistic advantages in a documentary. Take for instance Albert Maysles’ documentary classic Primary (1960, See also text on Richard Leacock, the photographer at page XX) which observes John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the Wisconsin primary. As film scholars Louise Spence and Vinicius Navarro illustrate in Crafting Truth the shot of Kennedy entering a campaign rally may look like a spontaneous direct cinema shot captured with a wide-angle lens but once analyzed the shot also implies an artificial construct. As Spence and Navarro write: “Maysles did convey the impression of being there. But he also drew upon specific cinematic tools – lens and camera angle – to produce an experience that ‘enhanced’ our perspective” (Spence & Navarro 2011: p197)1)Spence, Louise & Navarro, Vinicius (2011). Crafting Truth – Documentary, Form and Meaning New Jersey: Rutgers University Press..

Maysles, who is still going strong at the age of 86, acknowledged this understanding of camera work when we sat down with him at Plus Camerimage this year, saying: “The documentary cinematographer always has to take reality into account but not let reality dictate how you shoot. You have to treat the camera with intelligence. I have always been an advocate of coming close in documentary but coming closer has not necessarily something to do with proximity to objects. Closeness can be created in many ways.”


At Plus Camerimage 2011 DOX had the opportunity to talk to Ed Lachman and Haskell Wexler, both accomplished cinematographers who have worked on both fiction and documentary films. Lachman was a cinematographer on for instance I’m Not There (2007) and Life during Wartime (2009) but he has also worked with Wim Wenders on the documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985) and Werner Herzog’s La Soufrière (1977). Wexler has worked on a number of feature films such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Conversation (1974). Today both Wexler and Lachman also direct their own documentaries.

 How would you say you use your documentary skills when being cinematographers on a narrative film?

(EL) I have always carried over ideas from documentary to narrative shooting. One is the immediacy. I always try to keep one eye on reality, on the scene while shooting. The camera is just another actor who is reacting to an action. Also in documentaries you have to respond to the light in the environment you are in. Often in narrative films I try to work with the light I have because any artificial light will respond to the natural light and the surroundings too.

Haskell Wexle
What would you say are the differences being a cinematographer in nonfiction and in fiction?
(HW) The main difference is that in fiction you are part of bigger team and have more technology at your disposal. You have to listen to a lot of people who have different demands. I am not saying that’s bad, but it’s very different from being on a small documentary crew.
(EL) Sometimes in documentaries the cinematographer needs to have a function more like a co-director because he needs to decide just in that given moment what to shoot and how to shoot it. But all films are really documents. Also ‘in narrative film, you cannot plan everything, film deals with time and space, and any given shot is a depiction of that given moment – and moments are never the same.
Does the documentary cinematographer need to be more adaptable? I mean reality only happens once and he or she has to be able to capture that reality just as it unfolds.
(HW) I don’t buy the idea that in documentary things only happen once. You can retake a lot of shots in a documentary but of course it depends on the subject and your relationship with your sources. It doesn’t make it less real if I move a chair or ask a person to try to walk up the stairs one more time to get the shot from a different angle. As long as you can cope with it yourself, as long as it feels honest for you, it is all right because our notion of honesty is different from one another.

 Also the line between fiction and documentary is really artificial. Both types of filmmaking are the results of people’s storytelling. That said, I still think a good documentary should be a learning process. I like the documentaries that not just fill in blanks but where the director gets something that he didn’t want or didn’t know he could or would get.

Ed Lachman, ASC Photo by: Wilson Webb
Is there a certain limit to which kind of cinematographical styles a documentary can obtain?
(HW) Who should set up such a limit? I think it’s very subjective. If something looks too slick in the visual look and the film takes place in reality it makes me suspicious. It shouldn’t but it does. But then again, subjectivity is the key to create art. Without subjectivity we might as well put up surveillance cameras and use that footage in our documentaries.
 (EL) Generally I don’t like too stylized shooting in documentaries. For instance some of the interview scenes in Martin Scorsese’s No Direction Home, they were too cosmetic for my taste. I like the feeling of the sense of the moment which is one of the major strengths of documentary. You want as little technological impact as possible.



References   [ + ]

1. Spence, Louise & Navarro, Vinicius (2011). Crafting Truth – Documentary, Form and Meaning New Jersey: Rutgers University Press.
Steffen Moestrup
Regular critic in ModernTimes.review and NY TID, the Monthly Norwegian newspaper. He is also doing his PhD in Aarhus, Denmark.