Digital Cinema: Keep Her Steady By Norman Wilner

in 50th London BFI London Film Festival

by Norman Wilner

The advent of digital cinema has allowed cameras to be placed where 35mm rigs could not comfortably go. Directors and cinematographers can now offer viewers a level of intimacy never before imagined; think of Susanne Bier and Tom Stern’s collaboration on Things We Lost in the Fire, bringing the camera so close to Benicio del Toro’s face that one is able to count the number of pores in his cheek. (Which is nice, actually, because by that point in the film, one is so bored that it’s good to have something to do.) But with great freedom comes a moderate amount of responsibility, and more than a decade after Lars von Trier nailed his manifesto to cinema’s doors, it seems that the only enduring legacy of the Dogma 95 declaration is that handheld camerawork has suddenly become chic.

It’s true, absolutely, that shoving a camera in your actors’ faces will bring a greater sense of intimacy to your production. And the freedom to go handheld has liberated a generation of young filmmakers from what they seem to perceive as the tyranny of the tripod. But as film after film demonstrated in London, increased intimacy isn’t always what a project needs: Sometimes, it just gives the audience a headache.

I’m thinking of two films screened for our FIPRESCI jury, Lee Isaac Chung’s Munyurangabo and César Charlone’s The Pope’s Toilet (El Baño del Papa). Both films used lightweight cameras and a hand-held strategy to bring the audience ever closer to the characters — running alongside the hapless working-class schemer of The Pope’s Toilet as he rushes about on his foolhardy errands, or shadowing the young Rwandans of Munyurangabo as they stalk one another through the endless brown landscape. The level of intimacy and identification is impressive, even if the films themselves are ultimately rather generic efforts.

The slightly watery aesthetic of the bleak psychological drama Night Train (Ye che) by Yinan Diao gave away the production’s videotape origination, but somehow that worked to the film’s advantage; the rough quality of the images gave the film — and its grimily allegorical story of a miserable executioner seeking to atone for her role in her country’s justice system — an additional shot of outsider credibility.

Other films embraced the austerity of the tripod, using long, static takes to force the audience to consider the meaning of the images before them. Leonard Abrahamson’s Garage; Samuel Benchetrit’s I Always Wanted to Be a Gangster (J’ai toujours rêvé d’être un gangster); Prasanna Jayakody’s Sankara; Jeff Nichols’ Shotgun Stories — all of these films gave us a lot of time — and sometimes a lot more than was necessary — to meditate upon their respective messages.

Garth Jennings’ delightful Son of Rambow struck the right marriage of content and form, simulating cheap consumer video for the fanciful home-movie sequences produced by its characters — two enthusiastic 1980s lads who set out to make a sequel to First Blood in which John Rambo’s English-schoolboy son sets out to save his father from an evil scarecrow — and a far slicker and more composed 35mm for the film surrounding them. And our prize-winner, Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated, used the flexibility of digital cinema to follow her characters through varying light strategies and imposing locations without ever losing focus on the emotional undercurrents that made the story so quietly devastating. With long, observant takes reminiscent of Eric Rohmer, Hogg and her cinematographer, Oliver Curtis, understand that digital cinema doesn’t have to be a gimmick; it’s just as valid a storytelling tool — and as intimate — as celluloid.