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Salem Film Fest


Posted March 10th, 2014 by brianlepire in Award, Films, News, Featured, Event

Letter from Stephen Pizzello, Executive Editor of American Cinematographer

This year’s contenders for the 2014 SFF American Cinematographer Award for Best Cinematography greatly impressed me. All are extremely well shot, and their images powerfully convey the people, places and narratives documented by the filmmakers. Strong cinematography always supports a story’s themes and can provide very effective subtext via keenly observed details, and the Class of 2014 truly meets the criteria for “excellence in motion imaging.”

I watched all six films, watched them again, and then allowed myself some time for reflection to see which entry’s images would have the most staying power. Of course, I also tried to consider which cinematographer had done the most to support a project’s goals, both visually and from a storytelling perspective.

I found BENDING STEEL touching and inspirational in its focus on an aspiring strongman’s pursuit of both physical and psychological triumph; POWERLESS provided a fascinating look at the conflict between electricity thieves and the female chief of the electricity supply company in Kanpur, India; RICH HILL presented an intimate and emotionally resonant look at the lives of three boys living with their struggling families in a dirt-poor Midwestern town; WATERMARK employed stunning aerial footage and “God’s eye” views to show the impact of water on humankind; URANIUM DRIVE-IN used vivid color imagery to punctuate its chronicle of a Colorado community’s passionate debate over a proposed uranium mill; and METAMORPHOSEN made impressive use of high-contrast black-and-white cinematography in its tour of an area in the south Ural region of Russia that ranks as one of the most radioactively contaminated spots on earth.

There were moments during nearly every film when I felt I might be watching the eventual winner, but after stepping back to consider which images had made the strongest impact, my memory kept conjuring up the eerie, evocative landscapes of METAMORPHOSEN. The cinematography in this film is truly outstanding. Filled with striking compositions, its exteriors bring to mind the photography of Ansel Adams, and its interiors and close-up portraiture have a painterly quality. Director and cinematographer Sebastian Mez conducts a master class in image control, making handsome use of natural light while imbuing each tableau with fine contrast and tonal range.

The region depicted in METAMORPHOSEN was repeatedly irradiated by accidents at the Mayak nuclear facility, beginning in 1957 with the Kyshtym disaster, one of the worst nuclear accidents in history. Remarkably, this mysterious and little-known area is still populated, despite the fact that its residents are continually exposed to life-threatening radiation levels.

The main challenge Mez faced was how to portray the effects of an invisible threat, but he manages to convey his central theme very effectively through the ghostly beauty of the region’s landscapes, which hauntingly emphasize the tragic dimensions of the disaster’s ecological and existential fallout. METAMORPHOSEN was the first contender I watched, but it retained its power in my memory and managed to fend off some very strong competition to earn the top spot. I feel it’s a very deserving winner, and I encourage you to meditate on its message while contemplating the quiet power of its compositions.

The award-winning METAMORPHOSEN shows Monday, March 10 at 5:30 pm in CinemaSalem‘s Main Theater.


Stephen Pizzello

Executive Editor

American Cinematographer