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By Sarah Boslaugh
March 31, 2009

cinematographerstyleYou can make a movie without actors, without sound, without sets, and without a script. But you can’t make a movie without images: they’re called “moving pictures” for a reason. So it’s somewhat surprising that only two documentaries have been made about the art of cinematography: Visions of Light, directed by Arnold Glassman, Todd McCarthy and Stuart Samuels in 1992, and Cinematographer Style, directed by Jon Fauer in 2006.  

The two films take opposite approaches.  Visions of Light included segments of many classic films along with commentary by some of the leading cinematographers of the day. Cinematographer Style includes no clips of other films. It’s composed entirely of interviews with 110 cinematographers speaking about everything from how they got into the business to the differences between working with film and video. No particular point is pursued at great length; Cinematographer Style is more of a collage of well-chosen opinions and anecdotes about the art and practice of cinematography than a tutorial or overview of the profession. 

The 86 minutes of Cinematographer Style were edited down by Matt Blute from 33 hours of interviews (or 200 hours, according to a different source), some recorded before a black screen, some in more natural settings. That may sound like the most boring 86 minutes of your life, but it’s not: Blute arranges the interview clips thematically so the cinematographers seem to be engaged in a collective conversation about their work. Visually as well Cinematographer Style is the opposite of dull. In fact, the amazing variety of lighting and backgrounds used in what are primarily talking-head interviews itself constitutes a testimony to the cinematographer’s art.  

Each cinematographer introduces themselves at the beginning of the film, but after that they appear without identification. Some are sufficiently famous to be recognized by their appearance alone (Allen Daviau, Gordon Willis) but many of equal accomplishment are not; it’s a largely anonymous profession and the average film-goer may not even be aware of (or interested in knowing) who was responsible for the images they see on the screen. Fauer’s choice to not identify his interview subjects furthers the impression that they are craftsmen engaged in a collective conversation about their work, without ever expecting to enjoy the kind of celebrity enjoyed by actors and directors. And to their credit, one point becomes clear immediately: for people whose work is centered on images rather than words, these cinematographers are quite articulate about what they do and why.  

The subjects interviewed are male and female, young and old, and come from 15 different countries. Alphabetically, they range from Remi Adefarasin, BSC (a British cinematographer with extensive credits primarily in British and European television and film) to Vilmos Zsigmond, ASC (a native of Hungary who has worked in the United States since the 1960’s, and who has shot many well-known American films including Close Encounters of the Third Kind, The Deer Hunter, and The Witches of Eastwick). On average, each cinematographer has less than one minute of screen time, and it’s not surprising that some get more face time than others. First among equals (and by the way, he wants you to know that he’s a cinematographer not a director of photography) is Vittorio Storario, three-time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now (directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979), Reds (directed by Warren Beatty, 1981) and The Last Emperor (directed by Bernardo Bertulucci, 1987). He also gets the primary sequence in which the art of cinematography is simultaneously demonstrated and discussed: illuminated by a single bare light bulb, Storario moves it around his face and chest to demonstrate how different he looks (and the difference in mood accomplished) simply by changing the location of the light source.  

Cinematographer Style is of vital interest to those who shoot films and critique them. But even the more casual film fan will find a lot to appreciate in this documentary, including revelations by the cinematographers about how they chose the look of some of the most famous films of our time (everything from The Conformist to The Matrix to Gangs of New York) and how that look was achieved. Sometimes the answers are surprising: I always assumed that the color palette of The Godfather was worked out in advance, in consultations between director Francis Ford Coppola and cinematographer Gordon Willis. In fact, Willis says he decided on the film’s look about 20 minutes before shooting began, and still can’t explain why he made the choices that he did.   

DVD extras include extended interviews with Vittorio Storario (58 min.) and Gordon Willis (59 min.) and a biographer of director Jon Fauer. There is a scene index, but it’s not sufficiently detailed to locate particular clips, which is frustrating (but perhaps intentional, given the “collective conversation” nature of the film).


Cinematographer Style

Docurama Films

Directed by Jon Fauer

Color, 2006, 86 Minutes

Further information, including a trailer, is available from the film’s web site,, as is an accompanying book, Cinematographer Style vol. 1. The DVD of Cinematographer Style is also distributed by Docurama Films: further information is available from their web site or by calling 1-800-314-8822.


By Sarah Boslaugh
February 15, 2009 

Few people are neutral on the subject of graffiti. One the one hand you have the practitioners who see themselves as everything from the true artists of the urban landscape to revolutionaries reclaiming public space on behalf of the people. On the other, you have property owners and government officials who see graffiti as vandalism and those who create it as at best public nuisances and at worse as criminals.

One reason graffiti is such a volatile issue is because it touches on many fundamental questions of urban life. What constitutes public space? Who gets to decide how it will be used? Is advertising in public spaces a form of pollution? Can graffiti achieve the status of art, and as such should it be protected from defacement by other graffiti artists? What constitutes a work of art anyway, and who gets to decide? Does spraying your name on a wall constitute a significant political act, or would such energies be better directed elsewhere?

Jon Reiss’s 2008 documentary Bomb It raises these questions and more, presenting a wide sampling of graffiti art from around the world, and a variety of viewpoints relating to graffiti. He includes interviews with everyone from first-generation graffiti artists to academic theorists: segments shot in South Africa, Brazil, Europe and Japan are particularly useful in broadening the discussion. The main weakness of this documentary is the lack of integration or analysis: most often viewpoints are simply juxtaposed with the result that the documentary acts primarily as a collage of statements and images to be taken at face value, with no attempt on the part of the filmmaker to verify them or inquire further.

Bomb It is clearly in the pro-graffiti camp, as signaled by its tag line: “Street Art is Revolution.” Reiss does give some screen time to anti-graffiti voices, but the preponderance of the film presents graffiti as fun, daring, revolutionary, and beautiful, while the anti-graffiti camp not only gets less time to state their case, but are filmed in a manner which often makes them come off as scolds and killjoys. Ironically, the words of the graffiti artists are often contradicted by the ugly scrawls evident on the walls behind them: if anyone is free to write and paint on public walls, there’s no reason to expect that the artistically untalented will decline to participate.

The pro-graffiti stance of Bomb It may have been influenced by aesthetics as well as politics: taggers appeal to everyone’s inner child (until your own property gets tagged, at least), and many present themselves in a colorful manner which makes for interesting footage. It’s no surprise that Cornbread (the Philadelphia resident often cited as the father of modern graffiti) plays to the camera far more blatantly than the distinguished academic George Kelling (co-author of the “broken windows” hypothesis that visual signs of vandalism create a climate of fear and will prompt further vandalism), or that a midnight expedition of hooded taggers is more fun to watch than a city official being interviewed in his office.

There’s nothing wrong with a documentary taking sides: indeed, it’s almost an expectation these days. The best approach to viewing Bomb It is to sit back and enjoy the ride, while bearing in mind that the tour presented to you has a definite point of view which is hardly universal. If you live in a city, you have should have plenty of your own experiences with graffiti to balance against the viewpoints presented here; if not, better to reserve judgment until you acquire that experience, or at least consider a broader selection of opinions.

Reiss begins his overview of graffiti with Cornbread in 1970’s Philadelphia, then follows it through the 1980’s in New York City (the city and era which many associate most strongly with graffiti) and up to the current day, with brief excursions back to cave paintings and Alexander the Great. He takes an inclusive approach: scribbles with a black marker are juxtaposed with elaborate and colorful painted murals, and articulate interview subjects are interspersed among the inane and trendy.

Bomb It also presents views from several cities in Europe, South Africa, Brazil and Japan. The similarities and differences with the U.S. are striking: in France Reiss interviews both disaffected young men who echo American taggers in both their spray painted styles and their motivations (the racism of French society), and the older artist “Blek le Rat” who has developed a striking stencil art style similar to that of British artist Banksy. As in the U.S., some embrace graffiti as art or political protest, while others consider it vandalism. There are differences also: in Cape Town, graffiti became a means of political protest during the Apartheid years and remains common today. In Barcelona, there are no laws against painting on city walls, and colorful murals have become a well-known feature of the city.

In a few countries, graffiti has become mainstream, with former taggers receiving commissions to execute murals on public property or to create billboards for advertisers. Graffiti-inspired art also became chic for a period in the 1980’s, when it was sold in commercial galleries at gallery prices. This sparked a debate among graffiti artists which continues to this day: since accepting commissions or selling one’s work in a gallery requires at least temporarily abandoning the stance of outlaw, does profiting from your work mean losing your street cred? Should such work even be considered graffiti, even if it is made to order and serves governmental or commercial interests?

Taken as a worldwide sampler of graffiti styles and attitudes toward it, Bomb It is an excellent documentary which is sure to spark further discussion. On the down side, the film’s organization is unnecessarily random at times, and the steady stream of self-aggrandizing taggers and their justifications (everything from “there’s nothing to do” to “rebellion is the cornerstone of our society”) becomes tiresome. DVD extras include a commentary track with director Reiss and producer Tracy Wares, a 14-minute “behind the scenes” documentary, two extended interviews, and three extended time-lapse sequences which document the creation of murals by Kid Acne (England), Ise and Koyok (Brazil) and Shinzentomotel (Japan).



Bomb It


Directed by Jon Reiss

Color, 2008, 93 Minutes


By Sarah Boslaugh
February 6, 2009 


Many Americans still think of AIDS as a disease of gay men, but this is a misconception: about half the adults infected with HIV worldwide are women and the usual route of infection reported is heterosexual sex. In Malawi, the subject of the documentary The Female Face of AIDS, the national rate of infection is estimated at 14%, with almost 60% of the infected being female.  

In 2007, a team of four faculty members and eight students from the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice of the Fordham Law School traveled to Malawi to study why Malawian women are disproportionately infected with HIV and how HIV infection affects their lives. Interviews conducted by the team, which are recorded in the documentary, reveal a deadly combination of female inequality, poverty, and cultural practices and beliefs which promote the spread of HIV and severely impact the lives of infected women and their children. 

Some of the factors which promote HIV+ transmission in Malawi are common to many countries of the world. First of all, Malawi is a poor country: the per capital income in 2006 was $690, and per capita government expenditure on health in 2005 was $64. Women do not have the right to assert themselves in sexual situations, for instance by insisting their husband use a condom. They also have few ways to earn a living, and if they are HIV+ are often abandoned by their husband (the most likely route of the woman’s infection, since multiple sexual partners are both common and socially acceptable for Malawian men but not for women) and shunned by their community. As a result, some infected women become prostitutes, further spreading HIV infection to men who will spread it to their wives.  

The Fordham team also discovered some cultural practices specific to Malawi which further support HIV transmission. One is the custom of “widow cleansing” in which a widow is expected to have intercourse with a specific man (the “widow cleanser”) after her husband dies, in order to be accepted back into her community. Another is the practice of requiring girls to have intercourse with an appointed man as soon as they begin to menstruate, in order to be considered a woman. Not coincidentally, both practices deny women the right to control their own bodies or protect themselves from HIV infection.  

Not all is bleak, however: antiretroviral therapy is available in Malawi, and some of the women and children interviewed are receiving it. Some of the women have also begun to take action to help other women: for instance a woman identified only as “Daphne” responded to learning of her infection (by her promiscuous husband, who refused to accept responsibility) by founding the Coalition of Women Living with HIV, the Malawi’s first HIV/AIDS organization run for and by women.

The Female Face of AIDS is a straightforward, high-quality film suitable for classroom use. Despite the serious subject matter (statistics presented at the end of the film highlight the serious consequences of HIV infection for Malawian women), the film itself is not downbeat: high production values, including excellent photography and a soundtrack of traditional African music, and the positive attitude of most interview subjects, emphasize the strength of Malawian women and the possibility of positive change.  

The only DVD extras are a gallery of still photographs accompanied by traditional music, and a link to a guidebook for the film. The Female Face of AIDS is available from Choices, Inc: further information is available from or by calling 1-888-570-5400. Further information about the Leitner Center’s work in Malawi, including a copy of the report We Will Still Live: Confronting Stigma and Discrimination Against Women Living with HIV/AIDS in Malawi, is available from  


The Female Face of AIDS: Crisis in Malawi

Choices, Inc.

Directed by Doug Karr and Edward Boyce

Color, 2008, 33 Minutes


By Sarah Boslaugh
December 22, 2008 

Stanley Njootli, Jr. is a young man at the crossroads: he’s charming and amiable and has a talent for art, but he also a taste for drugs and alcohol and idling his time away in bars. In his early 20’s, Stanley Jr. has already experienced homelessness, and even his drinking buddies tell him its time to go into rehab.  

Stanley’s father, Stanley Njootli, Sr. has a different idea: Stanley Jr. should leave the temptations of the urban world behind and come to live with Stanley Sr. in Old Crow, a small village 80 miles north of the Arctic Circle. There’s no road access to Old Crow, and also no bars, restaurants, or movie theaters: satisfaction comes from work, family and friends, with radio broadcasts and community dances for additional entertainment.  

Besides the absence of urban temptations, Stanley Sr. believes that if Stanley can reconnect with the traditional lifestyle of his ancestors (the First Nations Gwich’in tribe), he’ll find his identity and sense of purpose. And it will give the two a chance to reconnect as well: Stanley Sr. abandoned his wife and children almost 25 years previously, in part because he did not deal well with the temptations of the “south” (the contiguous 48 states), so father and son are virtual strangers. 

The experiment does not begin promisingly: his first night in Old Crow (by law a dry town) Stanley Jr. goes out to party, finds a source of homebrewed alcohol, and comes home drunk. He’s not at home in his new environment, and his initial attempts at traditional skills, from managing a dog team to ice fishing with a net, do not go well. 

But Stanley Sr. is patient and consistent, and gradually Stanley Jr. comes to appreciate a lifestyle which is very different from anything he’s known, and to take pride in his new skills. The relationship between father and son clearly grows stronger as well, although neither is given to displays of emotion or long discourses about their feelings. Stanley Sr. does articulate his beliefs on the value of the traditional lifestyle while Stanley Jr. communicates by his manner that he’s starting to agree. 

But the stay in Old Crow wasn’t meant to be permanent, and Stanley Jr. returns to Washington State. He gets a meal at Burger King, heads to the mall and goes out drinking with friends, but concludes that it’s not as much fun as it used to be. Although Stanley Jr’s future is uncertain, he chooses to return to Old Crow at the end of the film, and his time there has clearly made him a more reflective and responsible young man. 

Calm is the prevailing mood in Arctic Son, as if director Andrew Walton wanted to reflect the experience of the Gwich’in lifestyle in his film. Excellent cinematography by Jonathan Furmanski and Jeff Stonehouse reveals the northern landscape as spare and harshly beautiful, and Walton allows the story to unfold at a natural pace. He shows the two men slowly journeying toward an understanding which is implied more than stated, and presents it without interpolations by talking heads or voiceovers: what you see are the two Stanleys going about their daily lives and occasionally commenting on them in matter-of-fact terms.  

The elephant in the living room is global warming, which is barely mentioned in Arctic Son. At one point Stanley Sr. notes that the temperature in Old Crow has begun to reach 80 degrees in the summer time. That’s no idle comment, because it can bring about a change in the ecosystem which could destroy the subsistence hunting and fishing culture which is the basis of the Gwich’in traditional lifestyle. It is further threatened by the proximity of Old Crow to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska: the continuing debate about drilling for oil in the Refuge is not just an academic discussion for the Gwich’in since it would threaten the caribou herds which form an important part of their livelihood.  

DVD extras include a family-friendly version which bleeps out the stronger profanity, a 10-minute interview with director Andrew Walton, four additional scenes (one also in a family-friendly version), and a gallery of Stanley Jr’s artwork which, true to his description, is weird, but also shows his potential as an artist. The director’s interview includes background information about the film, including its origins: Walton met Stanley Sr. while researching a film about oil drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and was impressed by his intelligence and the depth of his knowledge of traditional Gwich’in culture. Stanley Sr, in turn, wanted to record traditional Gwich’in skills on film before they disappeared.  

Arctic Son was broadcast as part of the PBS series P.O.V. and is distributed by docurama. Further information is available through their web site, email  ( or by calling 1-800-314-8822. 


Arctic Son

docurama films

Directed by Andrew Walton

Color, 2006, 75 Minutes


By Sarah Boslaugh
December 4, 2008

In his 2007 documentary For the Bible Tells Me So, Daniel Karslake examines some of the different ways Christians and Jews interpret the Bible’s statements on homosexuality. The film has two principal components: one follows the stories of five Christian families which include a gay or lesbian member, while the other presents interpretations of Bible passages relating to homosexuality and other sexual practices from a variety of individuals. Karslake includes statements from anti-gay Christian ministers and spokesmen such as Jimmy Swaggart and James Dobson of Focus on the Family, as well as from Biblical scholars and theologians who explain what they believe the Bible says about homosexual behavior and how those statements apply to the modern world.  

For the Bible does not attempt to be an even-handed examination of the question of what the Bible says about homosexuality, but it does make a reasoned presentation of the arguments against literal interpretation of certain Biblical passages which have been used to justify condemnation of homosexual behavior. For instance, the well-known verse Leviticus 20:13 is often cited as evidence that Judaism and Christianity prohibit male homosexuality: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” 

Well, that’s perfectly clear, isn’t it? Maybe not, if you are one of the Biblical scholars interviewed in this film, who interpet the passage in context and with particular attention to the specific words used in the original Hebrew text. The Rev. Steven Kindle of Clergy United points out that similar passages in Leviticus say it is an abomination to eat rabbit or shrimp. Rabbi Brian Zachary Mayer notes that Leviticus also says you shouldn’t wear linen and wool together, or plant two crops in the same field. Their point is obvious: when was the last time you saw a Christian minister get all worked up about people who like to eat shrimp or wear clothing made of two different fabrics, let alone assert that those who engage in such practices will burn forever in hellfire?  

The Rev. Dr. Laurence Keene explains that the Hebrew word translated as “abomination” in this passage refers to a ritual wrong, not a moral wrong, in the same sense that eating pork for a Jew is not innately immoral (like murder) but a violation of a ritual requirement. Similar, he explains the famous passage about Onan spilling his seed upon the ground (Genesis 38:8-10) refers to Onan’s violation of a cultural norm: given the Jews’ interest in being fruitful and multiplying, Onan was supposed to impregnate his sister-in-law since his deceased brother was no longer around to do it.  

As is often the case with Biblical interpretation, with this issue it seems that the less you know, the more likely it is to believe that you both know it all and that you know what it all means. For the Bible seems largely to have been created for the purpose of countering this tendency by presenting information and reasoned opinions about how the Bible regards homosexuality, albeit primarily from one side of the discussion. While it won’t win any points for style it serves very nicely as an educational tool and aid to discussion, and is supported by an impressive array of materials downloadable from the film’s web site ( including two study guides.   

Given that homosexuality is a topic which often polarizes people, it’s unfortunate that For the Bible doesn’t include discussion among theologians who hold opposing points of view. It’s not really fair to pit an archival clip of Jerry Falwell making homophobic remarks against reasoned statements from numerous scholars and theologians who believe that Falwell’s interpretation is wrong. I’m certainly not in Falwell’s camp myself, but is that point of view wholly without support from contemporary scholars? Perhaps, but I find it hard to believe that all religious faculty at American universities, for instance, are all in agreement on this point.  

It’s been my observation that people’s opinions on sexual matters are often formed not by moral reasoning but by what psychologist Steven Pinker calls “moral rationalization:” that they react to a situation or issue emotionally, then seek to find a moral basis to justify their reaction. If that is the case, then the arguments and interpretations presented in For the Bible will be useful in providing debating points to people who already agree with its point of view, but are unlikely to do much to change the mind of anyone who disagrees. And by so obviously favoring one point of view this film leaves itself wide open to charges of bias, giving those who hold other views an easy route by which to condemn and ignore it.  

A different view of how literalist interpretation of the Bible can affect people is provided by the profiles of five Christian families which include a gay or lesbian individual. Although this ground has been covered before, Karslake did find an interesting range of families who have different reactions to their children’s sexual orientation. Most famous are the Gephardt family (as in Dick Gephardt, long-time U.S. Representative from Missouri and unsuccessful Democratic candidate for president), and the Robinson Family (as in Gene Robinson, the first gay man to be consecrated as an Episcopal bishop). But there’s at least as much to be learned from the journeys of the African-American Poteat family, the Reitan family (who were arrested as they tried to deliver a letter to Jim Dobson at the Focus on the Family headquarters), and Mary Lou Wallner, who initially condemned her daughter Anna’s sexual preference but became a gay rights activist after Anna committed suicide (motivated, her mother believes, by the rejection she experienced because of church teachings about sexuality).  


For the Bible Tells Me So

Jeremy Walker + Associates/First Run Features

Directed by Daniel Karslake

Color, 2007, 97 Minutes

For the Bible Tells Me So is distributed by Icarus Films. Further information is available through their web site or by calling 718-488-8900.


By Sarah Boslaugh
October 16, 2008

Seldom has a film been more aptly titled than Saving Marriage, a new documentary by Mike Roth and John Henning which traces the political course of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts from November 2003 through June 2007. The film presents a diversity of voices, both for and against same-sex marriage, and makes one point crystal clear: people on both sides of this issue believe they are, in fact, saving marriage.  

No wonder tempers run high. On the one hand the film includes people such as Mitt Romney (governor of Massachusetts, 2003-2007) who states his belief that “marriage is a special institution between a man and a woman” and Kris Mineau of the Massachusetts Family Institute, who says he believes that “Same sex marriage degrades the value of my marriage. It says to me that my uniqueness as a man, as a father and as a husband is irrelevant.” For both men, traditional marriage is part of their identity as well as a fundamental institution which they feel is crucial to American civil society. 

On the other hand, Saving Marriage interviews many gay and lesbian people who feel they are denied both the legal protections and the cultural significance of marriage, for no reason other than prejudice against their sexual preference. The cultural significance is not to be minimized: as activist Amy Hunt puts it, you grow up seeing your relatives and friends get married and it’s the most important day of their life, and then you realize that “you can’t have the most important day in your life” because the law doesn’t recognize your relationship with your partner. Neither are the legal protections: one gay man interviewed for the film relates a terrifying experience in which his child (co-parented with his male partner) was seriously ill and when he tried to learn more about the child’s condition a nurse seemed mainly interested in interrogating him about his relationship to the child (which did not fit into any legally-recognized category).  

Saving Marriage presents its story chronologically, alternating between the progress of same-sex marriage through the courts and legislature and personal stories of how members of the gay and lesbian community were changed by the court’s decision. The story begins on November 18, 2003, when the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that excluding same-sex couples from the right to marry was unconstitutional. Governor Mitt Romney ordered that marriage licenses be issued to same-sex couples beginning May 17, 2004, and gay and lesbian couples all over the state began shopping for rings and planning their vows. Lest anyone doubt the eagerness of gay and lesbian couples to marry, on the night of May 16, many couples lined up at Boston City Hall so they could apply for a marriage license immediately after midnight. Roth and Henning are there with their cameras, documenting the happy couples applying for their marriage licenses, and some of the subsequent marriages as well. 

However, those opposing gay marriage also launched into action “about one nanosecond” after the Supreme Court decision, according to one of the lesbian activists interviewed in Saving Marriage. The opposition was successful in communicating their displeasure to the state legislature, which in March 2004 voted to allow the public the right to vote on a constitutional amendment which would override the Supreme Court decision and ban same-sex marriage in Massachusetts. This effort was often couched in phrases such as “let the people decide” although, as one of the gay activists points out, matters of civil rights are not customarily left up to a popular decision. What if some of “the people” wanted to ban people of different races from marrying: would that be an appropriate matter to place on a general election ballot? And if it passed, would such marriages be banned? 

Nothing is simple in American politics, and one of the best features of Saving Marriage is the way it maintains focus and a sense of chronology while also relating the complexities of the legal status of same-sex marriage: it was not just won once, but won, threatened, saved, threatened, and saved again. Conveying this complexity is crucial because few things are as exasperating to an outsider as the American political system, which at times seems to have been devised by Rube Goldberg for the purpose of discouraging the uninitiated from even trying to understand the process. And in the gay and lesbian community, politics hasn’t always been considered the coolest way to spend your time: as gay activist Josh Friedes puts it, as a gay man he expected to spend his time “looking for Mr. Right instead of fighting for the right to marry Mr. Right.”   Read the rest of this entry »