Winner of the American Cinematographer Magazine Award Announced
July 11, 2020
Each year we partner with Stephen Pizzello, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of American Cinematographer to present the award for best cinematography at Salem Film Fest. Below is his review of the nominees and the announcement of the winner of the award.
All of the documentaries competing for this year’s American Cinematographer Award offered impactful imagery and insightful visual storytelling, but one stood out for its photographic merits.
SOMEWHERE WITH NO BRIDGES, an hour-long entry directed by Charles Frank with cinematography Jeff Melanson, captures an abundance of local flavor in presenting memories of Richie Madeiras, a beloved fisherman who disappeared off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard 20 years ago. To create a portrait of Madeiras, Frank and Melanson roamed the island, capturing its flavor, before deciding to interview the missing man’s family and friends. The result of their efforts is a very emotional and evocative document that truly captures the essence of Madeiras, the setting, and the island community that adored him.
MOSSVILLE: WHEN GREAT TREES FALL, which takes its title from a poem by Maya Angelou, also places viewers in a very specific setting — a Louisiana town devastated by the environmental poisoning caused by 14 plants built by the chemical company South African Synthetic Oil Limited (SASOL). In profiling both the town and its centuries-old Black community, director/cinematographer Alex Glustrom focus on Stacey Ryan, the last resident in a desolate town that was once home to 8,000 people. The documentary’s unflinching tour of the area exposes not only the toxicity of the chemical plants, but of racism itself.
THE WIND. A DOCUMENTARY THRILLER reveals the harsh effects of Halny, a powerful windstorm that blows through the valleys of the Tatra Mountains, which form a border between Poland and Slovakia. Striking shots of wind-blasted landscapes record the wind’s destructive effects on the region, but the documentary’s portraits of the area’s inhabitants reveal its psychological perils as well. Directed by Michal Bielawski and handsomely photographed in rugged locations by cinematographer Bartłomiej Solik, THE WIND underscores humankind’s vulnerability in the face of nature.
If I were to hand an honorable mention to one of this year’s entries, I would present it to OUR TIME MACHINE the heartfelt and life-affirming account of a Chinese conceptual artist’s deep reverence for his father, a former director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theater whose memories have been gradually erased by Alzheimer’s disease. As the older man loses his memory, the son attempts to mount an ambitious stage production — a sci-fi play with mechanical puppetry — that will serve as a “time machine” which allows the father to revisit various moments from his life. As presented by directors Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang and cinematographers Sun and Shuang Liang, this touching family chronicle draws parallels between the preparation and mounting of the stage show and the family’s own narrative. Along the way, viewers are also treated to artful interludes of shadow puppetry and animation, comments on the artistic suppression that occurred during China’s Cultural Revolution, and cinematically crafted storytelling.
However, since the American Cinematographer Award is weighted heavily toward visual style, this year’s prize must go to the gorgeously shot HAVANA, FROM ON HIGH, directed and photographed by Pedro Ruiz. Taking his camera to the rooftops of Central Havana, Ruiz offer’s a bird’s-eye view of the city while profiling impoverished residents who have been forced to construct makeshift homes on those roofs amid the city’s chronic housing shortage. Immersing the viewer in these hardscrabble circumstances, the filmmaker demonstrates a painterly sense of composition and portraiture in beautifully shot exterior and interiors, making tremendous use of natural light and shadow. The documentary’s vibrant and lyrical imagery is complemented by the insightful and occasionally poetic observations of the residents themselves, who provide testimony to their own resilience — helping to make HAVANA, FROM ON HIGH a very worthy and deserving winner of this year’s prize.
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher