Poland's Camerimage fest is an eye-opening celebration of cinematographers


The gala opening of the 26th edition of EnergaCAMERIMAGE featured some surprise guests along with the usual array of jury introductions, film clips and special awards before a packed house at the Opera Nova in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

After a greeting from Bydgoszcz mayor Rafał Bruski, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences president John Bailey spoke of his affection for the festival, and of the opportunity it gives to cinematographers young and old from around the world to meet and discuss their craft. In a later conversation, he referred to Camerimage as “home” for himself and colleagues. Bailey’s wife Carol Littleton received an award for her unique visual sensitivity as an editor of films like Body Heat and Silverado.

Jean-Marie Dreujou and Jean-Jacques Annaud accepted the Cinematographer-Director Duo Award for their intense collaborations on Two Brothers, Wolf Totem and other movies.

Festival director Marek Żydowicz introduced director Roman Polanski, who spoke admiringly about his collaborator Witold Sobociński, recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award. Over his 90 features, Sobociński worked with just about every significant Polish director. His cinematography on films like Hands Up! (dir. Jerzy Skolimowski) and Everything for Sale (dir. Andrzej Wajda) placed him at the forefront of the 1960s renaissance in European cinema. The festival screened a half-dozen of his movies, including Polanski’s Frantic.

Screenings make up the bulk of the festival, which offers ten competitive categories. Opening night saw director Julian Schnabel and cinematographer Benoit Delhomme’s interpretation of Vincent van Gogh, At Eternity’s Gate. Delhomme’s impromptu demonstration of how he filmed the movie, using emcee and translator Zbyszek Banaś as a model, delighted the audience. His actual work in the movie is an astonishing example of handheld camerawork tied to a psychological framework.

Most of the cinematographers in the main competition were at the festival at one point or another. Alfonso Cuarón’s impassioned Q&A after Roma thrilled the overflow crowd, and his film took the Bronze Frog. To resounding cheers, local favorite Łukasz Żal accepted the Silver Frog for Cold War. The winner was Ji Yong Kim, who shot the Korean epic The Fortress. Robbie Ryan won the Audience Award for The Favourite, while Dick Pope picked up the Fipresci Award for Mike Leigh’s Peterloo.

Earlier in the week, three-time Oscar-winner Vittorio Storaro led a digital seminar with Rob Hummel, who worked on restorations of films like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. Storaro opened with an 45-minute talk detailing his increasing dismay at discovering how poorly the films he and other artists worked on so carefully were being treated. He pointed out that each year negatives lose approximately one percent of their color balance. And that’s for prints stored in optimal, archival conditions.

Determined to find a permanent and “visible” method of preserving films, Storaro turned to Hummel’s DOTS (Digital Optical Tape System) program. Using binary codes on a metal-alloy tape, the system can permanently preserve all the visual material for a feature film at a tenth of the cost of other archival methods. Made up of tin, antimony and indium, the tape is impervious to water (but not Coca-Cola, as Hummel warned).

Camerimage is known for its parties, which start early and end late. But most of the cinematographers attending actually put in long hours of work. Dan Laustsen, who screened The Shape of Water at last year’s Camerimage, arrived this year immediately after finishing John Wick 3. He was one of five jury members judging the main competition.

James Laxton brought If Beale Street Could Talk, but he also ran a three-hour workshop for Arri, hosted a Creative Light Expert roundtable, and took part in a three-hour panel led by Chris Doyle and Ed Lachman called “The Language of Cinema Is Images.” That on top of being a jury member in the Polish film competition, and sitting in on press interviews.

Even attendees can find their time filled. In addition to meeting up with old friends and networking with gaffers, agents and vendors, cinematographer Danna Kinsky shot testimonials from guests to celebrate the centennial of the American Society of Cinematographers.

Kinsky was operating out of Bydgoszcz’s first cinema, built over 100 years ago but abandoned after construction of a multiplex outside of the city center. A derelict but striking space, the theatre is the centerpiece of a planned restoration into a cultural center that will host concerts and plays as well as movies. During Camerimage it was a place to test new equipment, and a fantastic opportunity to see professionals at work. When Kinsky asked Ed Lachman to sit for a testimonial, for example, young attendees crowded around to watch how he lit his scene, building a mood with just two lights. They also saw how Kinsky worked with talent and crew to get the material she needed.

For a director and cinematographer like Farshid Akhlaghi, who brought his documentary short Pain Is Mine, Camerimage was the chance to learn from jury members and professionals like Svetlana Cvetko, Peter Dale, Sophie Fiennes and others. He also appreciated the interaction with guests during the post-screening Q&A.

Shot in a single take, Pain Is Mine shows how difficult it is for spinal patient Robyn Youl to perform the simplest tasks, like rising from her bed. He said his mother’s problems with pain spurred his interest in the subject. Akhlaghi received Special Mention in the Documentary Shorts Competition, which was won by Tomasz Wolski for Horse Riders.

Last year’s panel with Chris Doyle, Ed Lachman and Anthony Dod Mantle was so popular that this year Doyle offered two parts. “The Language of Cinema Is Images” was hosted by Doyle and Lachman at both the Multikino and the MCK Orzeł theatre. The sprawling, freewheeling talk lasted close to six hours. (Meeting guests was so important for Doyle that he scheduled a third session that I was unable to attend.)

Joining Doyle and Lachman were James Laxton, Joewi Verhoeven (DP for Ash, dir. Xioafeng Li) and Jasper J. Spanning (DP for The Guilty, dir. Gustav Möller, the Danish entry for Best Foreign-Language Film. It won the Directors’ Debut competition.). But Doyle refused to begin without a female representative, pulling Polish video artist Malgorzata Rabczuk onto the stage.

Using film clips, jokes, poetry and sarcasm, Doyle covered topics that cinematographers rarely get to talk about. Like how to change directors’ minds, the inspiration for imagery, and how to set realistic goals. Lachman and Laxton offered their own insights, while Rabczuk spoke from the perspective of someone still trying to find her way in the industry. Both Spanning and Verhoeven are relatively new to feature cinematography, and many of the younger attendees will likely face situations similar to what they talked about in their careers.

Everyone returned for the second panel, joined by Cécile Zhang, a cinematographer from China and a graduate of the Beijing Film Academy; and Julie Shalekenova, a gaffer from Kazakhstan. Zhang, who received an award from Angénieux at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, brought up safety issues on Asian sets, reminding Verhoeven that he was almost killed when a light fell during shooting. Almost anything Shalekenova said was outside of the experience of everyone in the hall. As a gaffer, and not a cinematographer, she saw production in a different light. She recalled receiving a dangerous electric shock in terms that made the incident seem even more frightening.

The second panel was more subdued, but also probed more deeply into topics. An especially poignant moment was Doyle’s clip of Leslie Cheung dancing to “Perfidia” in Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild. The other DPs on the panel questioned Doyle about how he achieved the shot without rehearsing it first, leading to a discussion about intuition and trust. Doyle also showed footage he shot with Tilda Swinton in Shanghai, a poetic swirl of images that dazzled the audience.

And Doyle delighted the closing-night crowd when he presented Julien Temple with the award for Outstanding Achievements in Music Videos. Nina, shot by Tomasz Naumiuk and directed by Olga Chajdas, was selected Best Polish Film.

This year’s festival was marred by incidents that received considerable press coverage. A scuffle between a cinematographer and paramedics and police resulted in an arrest. A nightclub that sponsored some festival events was the subject of an attack that is still under investigation. Then came the sad news that Witold Sobociński, a wonderful presence throughout the festival, passed away just hours after the closing night ceremonies.

But the biggest surprise came with festival director Marek Żydowicz’s closing speech. Noting that municipal funds for Camerimage had been cut 25 percent, he said, “I do not see a future for myself here.” Singling out Storaro, a guest since the very first festival, Żydowicz thanked him for opening his eyes to the work of cinematographers. He asked the attendees to consider other sites, vowing to meet next year “in a place to be determined.”

Doyle, for one, wants his colleagues to “stand with Marek. We have to do something to support him.”

Despite the hitches and unexpected drama, this year’s Camerimage proved once again how much of a need the festival fills.

Find the complete list of winners here.