Month: March, 2012

Cinema as Social Enterprise

Muhammad Ali, as featured in Leon Gast’s superb 1996 documentary, “When We Were Kings.” Interesting that the best documentary about Africa has none of the usual shots of poverty, war, or blight. There is much to be learned here.

I recently came across the Acumen Fund’s eye-opening publication, 10 Things We’ve Learned About Tackling Global Poverty, and the list has led me to revisit my views on the role of cinema as an engine of social change. Though I approach shooting work principally as artistic endeavor, my aesthetic sensibilities have always been framed by a belief in the tremendous potential of film, and filmmakers, to effect positive change in the world. My views on how film does this best, however, seem to differ from the accepted model, which has traditionally been rooted exclusively in the documentary genre.

I find the lessons outlined in The 10 Things We’ve Learned to be remarkably astute, and I’m struck by how many of them hinge on the critical importance of inspiration in social enterprise. Without leaders who are inspired and inspiring, no amount of innovation, manpower, or cold hard cash can make an enduring dent in the world’s social problems. And so it goes with cinema as well. To have a real and lasting influence on people’s lives, films should do what films do best: inspire.

Why is a sixty-second Superbowl commercial so much more engaging than most feature-length documentary films? The answer has little to do with production budgets and everything to do with method. Too many documentaries prioritize their message over the film’s viewing experience––they put story over storytelling––and this is part of why so many docs feel like medicine. Films that seek to raise awareness about the world’s ills and injustices are often far more closely aligned with journalism than cinema, and they grossly underestimate the latter’s sophistication and power. This model of filmmaking relies on guilt, not inspiration, to reach viewers, and this is one of the reasons the genre has so consistently struggled to connect with mainstream audiences. At the end of the day, it’s a spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down, and Hollywood, for all its faults, has much to teach us about confectionery.

I think clues for a more tenable cinematic model of social enterprise can be found in the 1996 film When We Were Kings, director Leon Gast’s superb documentary about Muhammad Ali’s 1974 fight with George Foreman in Zaire. In contrast to almost every other film I’ve seen about Africa, When We Were Kings doesn’t show us the continent’s suffering, but rather what is possible in the face of overwhelming odds. In place of the familiar images of poverty, war, and blight, it gives us instead the story of the underdog, a tried-and-true narrative that never fails to inspire. The result is exhilarating, and in this strategy lies an important lesson for filmmakers in all genres, myself included.

When the goal is inspiration, the medium doesn’t have to be non-fictional, and after ten years in the trenches of film production––on projects ranging from the smallest indy docs to some of the biggest Hollywood features––I find these ideas incredibly refreshing to think about. At the end of the day, cinema, like all great art, is a form of leadership. And like all good leaders, films should inspire.

I can’t wait to see what’s next.

The Sea as Portrait

The sea as portrait. Provenance: Max Ekelin.

The Caspian: a sea by any other name.

Over the past several years I’ve developed an interest in producing a collection of portraits about seas and oceans.

I am a bit surprised to find myself so drawn to this project, as I have always preferred mountains to oceans––the endless, impossibly flat horizon has always put me at unease. But while living in Azerbaijan I spent time exploring the Absheron Peninsula, a thin sliver of land that reaches gingerly into the dream-like waters of the Caspian Sea. When I visited the Caspian I was immediately struck by the sea’s personality, by a kind of energy it emits that seeps quietly into one’s awareness. I consider myself a rational man, generally inclined to favor science over spirituality, but over time, near this body of water, I found myself accepting that it possessed what seemed like emotive, if not intelligent, qualities. And this seemed entirely normal, as if these qualities were a fact of life on earth that I simply hadn’t yet encountered. The sea’s effect is hypnotic.

When I spoke about the Caspian with men whose families had fished it for centuries, I understood that I am not alone. They speak of the sea as a living organism, almost as a kind of sentient being, and I have found this relationship to be not unusual among those who spend their lives at sea. Bodies of water this size have their own personalities, and whether these personalities are formed by weather patterns, biological factors, or man’s unquenchable thirst for legend and lore––or something else entirely––they are a subject I want to explore photographically.

My research for this project has converged on two works of literature: Stanisław Lem’s Solaris, about human interaction with a planet covered by a powerful living “sea,” and Patrick O’Brian’s epic 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series, a brilliant collection about the adventures of British naval captain Jack Aubrey during the Napoleonic Wars. In both works the principle character is not the story’s protagonist, but rather the sea, a powerful and ultimately unknowable body that commands deference from man and ship alike. Interestingly, these works have been adapted into two of my favorite films: Solaris (1972, dir. Andrei Tarkovsky) and Master and Commander (2003, dir. Peter Weir). Given how influential these films have been on my own aesthetic sensibilities, I sometimes wonder how I didn’t come to this project sooner. As an aside, it is actually Patrick O’Brian’s work, and not books about photography, that I recommend aspiring cinematographers read to better understand the craft.

Why is this project portraiture? Most photographers would consider such a collection a landscape treatment, but to me the project has qualities that I think more closely fit the portrait model. The practice of portraiture seeks to convey emotional states and latent narratives through focused studies of human form (or, more accurately, through studies of how light and shadow interact with human form). From a successful portrait the audience is able to extract what it needs in order to assign personality to the subject, decode the emotional tenor of the scene, and extrapolate latent narrative into something more manifest. But a subject doesn’t have to be human to ascribe it personality, and, whether we realize it or not, we search for personality in images of non-human subjects as well, from architecture to vegetables to African elephants. Or, in my case, seas and oceans. How successfully an artist is able to ignite the viewer’s awareness of these personalities is largely what separates strong photography from all the rest.

Looking forward to seeing what comes from this.