“We Are All The Camera”

When is nonfiction really nonfiction? Aren’t we, as filmmakers, always creating a certain amount of fiction (regardless of how the genre is labeled) that is vital to tell the story at hand? Many documentaries use recreations, which are themselves fictionalized versions of real events. Nothing is more true to that example than features made about real people, like Oliver Stone’s recent Snowden, which surprised me for the lack of sensationalism for which that director is typically known in similarly “real world” films like JFK, Nixon, W. etc. Snowden is not a documentary and is not marketed as such, but it is a film comprising interpretative recreations because its creators were not there to witness real events. Contrast that with its nonfiction precursor, Citizenfour, for which director Laura Poitras made the extensive interviews she conducted with Edward Snowden the film’s core.

I have a particular love and affinity for nonfiction because I came out of Chicago’s cinéma vérité world of the 1960s. My influences, still present in my work today, were nonfiction pioneers like Mike Gray, whose films American Revolution 2 and The Murder of Fred Hampton truly reflected (and impacted) the real world, and Kartemquin Films co-founder Gordon Quinn, one of America’s longest continuing documentary producers, who was responsible for landmark films like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams and Stevie. Gordon was also a lifelong member of ICG. The man who inspired me to become a cinematographer (and the reason I joined the union) was my next-door neighbor Morris “Morry” Bleckman, a longtime news camera operator for CBS. Morry was a tough combat veteran who always put recording the truth above photography aesthetics. Being mentored by these three nonfiction lights was exciting, as they taught me how to always find the “power spot” of any location, i.e., where to put the camera so it had the best chance of being an objective observer.

Many will point out that such a notion brings up the key question of whether the camera can ever be totally objective. Take a master documentarian like Frederick Wiseman, who spent months with his subjects, hoisting a camera that had no film, simply to make everyone oblivious to the presence of a lens. Wiseman’s classic films (Titicut Follies, Hospital, High School, and others) were marvels of fly-on-the-wall moviemaking, and yet Wiseman always said his camera became subjective the moment he decided where it would be pointed. Or consider TV’s original reality show, An American Family, twelve episodes that aired on PBS in 1973 (including photography from longtime Guild member Joan Churchill), which presented subjects who appeared to be oblivious to the camera. It was only later, after the show had finished, that viewers learned the family members were, in some respects, “performing” for the camera. So if the camera always becomes a character, does that make the cinematographer an actor in the story, realistic as that story may seem?

I think the answer is yes, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Take our current run of reality television, which is really more “improvisation” than documentary. The situations seem to unfold before the camera, but with so many cameras trained on each moment, the outcome, although unpredictable, is mostly scripted – and our Guild members play a huge part in ensuring each dramatic moment is captured for Editorial to piece together into the story the producers want to tell.

Maybe it’s bragging, but the very best reality shows are all shot by Local 600 members (and are IATSE-crewed across the board). Huge success stories, like Dancing With The Stars, The Voice, So You Can Think You Can Dance, America’s Got Talent, Project Runway, Master Chef, Hell’s Kitchen, Big Brother, and The Bachelor/The Bachelorette, have more visual quality and skilled storytelling than most anything else in their genre because their camera crews are ICG. And, yes, those union craftspeople supporting the multiple cameras these shows employ are “characters” within plays that feature real people, and (sort-of) real-world situations.

Here’s an interesting thought to end on: If the camera drives the “reality meter” an audience will believe in nonfiction storytelling, would that make the cinematographer working in this genre, the ultimate “selfie shooter?”

 

Steven Poster, ASC
National President
International Cinematographers Guild
IATSE Local 600