Coming Out of the Shadows: Camerawomen in the Spotlight
default, Still from ‘The Neon Demon’, directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, cinematography by Natasha Braier, 2016, photo: Gutek Film, neon_demon_nicolas_promo_mat.jpg
Film cinematography remains the fiefdom of masculine domination. Thankfully, each year sees more and more women getting their foot in the industry’s heavy door. How are things progressing in Poland?
It was 2016, and it had just turned out that no African American actor had been nominated for Best Actor. The media was consequently dominated by the discussion on racism in Hollywood. This discussion was much-needed, as in the 89-year-long history of the Academy Awards, no black director had ever been shortlisted. Somewhere on the margin of said debate, a spin-off topic was raised: what about women cinematographers?
The mills of Hollywood grind slowly, while industry’s movers and shakers don’t seem to understand that in the 21st century, the gender gap is as much of a scandal as it is a shameful anachronism. There has been some success, though.
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Thanks to the courage of famous actresses, it’s been possible to break the conspiracy of silence about the wage gap. In 2009, Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to win the Academy Award for best director. The year 2017 saw the #MeToo movement take on sexual harassment and assault in the industry.
This notwithstanding, certain areas of film continue keep their doors shut to women.
Behind the aperture
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Still from ‘Australia’, directed by Baz Luhrmann, cinematography by Mandy Walker, 2008, photo: Kino Świat
This is first and foremost the case for women cinematographers. Suffice it to say that a woman has never been nominated for a Best Cinematography Academy Award. It’s not the only data confirming women’s status as pariahs in the industry. They made up only 3% of the cinematographers behind Hollywood’s top 250 films.
It may be argued that this is a mere coincidence or that there just aren’t cinematographers who are talented enough among women. But none of it would be true. The American film industry is in fact overflowing with talented women cinematographers: take Maryse Alberti, known for her work on The Wrestler by Darren Aronofsky, Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes or Happiness by Todd Solondz. There’s also Ellen Kuras, who’s behind the splendid Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, directed by Michel Gondry. What about Mandy Walker (Australia by Baz Luhrmann) or Natasha Braier, who gave us a spectacular cinematography for The Neon Demon by Refn?
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Although the Academy chooses to ignore women cinematographers, the industry itself is limping towards change. As proof, in February, the prestigious American Cinematographer ran a list of 10 up-and-coming cinematographers. It features five men (including one Pole, Kuba Kijowski) and five women, whose voices were most distinctively heard in cinema these last years.
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Poster of ‘The Wrestler’, directed by Darren Aronofsky, cinematography by Maryse Alberti, 2008, photo: SPInka
The change has been felt in in the Polish film industry as well. Keep in mind that it has always been a more misogynic milieu than Hollywood, however. This was perhaps best epitomised by the words of Jolanta Dylewska, who is one of Poland’s best in the field today:
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Before I got into the [Łódź] Film School, I had never followed the man-woman division. I’d rather think of people as either yielding something more or those indifferent to me. It was at the Film School that I realised that the world is divided into two genders, and it is, of course, better to be a man. Till this day, I don’t feel like a fully fledged member of the industry. I feel rather estranged. [...] Whether at the Gdynia, Toruń or Camerimage festivals, it’s been very much felt that for the industry, I’m nothing else but... a freak of nature.
From ‘Kino’ nr 12/1994, trans. MS
Dylewska may have said this 20 years ago, but she’s definitely not the only woman cinematographer to have suffered from gender ostracism.
When Magdalena Górka, another recognised artist, got into the Łódź Film School, she was one of two women admitted (today, this men-to-women ratio has considerably improved). She quickly became an easy target for sexist jokes on the part of the teaching staff.
Professor Mieczysław Jahoda, the cinematographer for Aleksander Ford’s Teutonic Knights, had a habit of collecting new students’ photos. It was precious little otherwise with Górka’s. After the photo was taken, and before the class had started, however, she had shaved her blond hair. During the first session, Jahoda reportedly said: ‘Why would you do this? We only admitted you to be our pet’.
It was also another eminent professor, Witold Sobociński, who would jokingly advise Górka to drop out, learn how to make borscht and get married.
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The Polish School of Cinematography
Luckily, neither of these talented women laid down their weapons: Dylewska continued to fight for recognition in the industry, whilst Górka never dropped out. As a result, the former has come to be one of the most appreciated cinéastes in Poland; the latter, instead of cooking borscht, has made it in Hollywood.
Other Polish women cinematographers followed in their footsteps. Monika Lenczewska left for Los Angeles to participate in some the most interesting international projects run around the globe – from Ethiopia, through Greece and Iceland before coming back to Los Angeles. A year ago, she was featured on Variety’s list of ‘Must-Watch Cinematographers’. Today, she’s the ultimate star of Poland’s cinematography industry.
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She’s not the only one, though. Ita Zbroniec-Zajt is the first woman to have been awarded the Swedish prize for best cinematography. Every film by Weronika Bilska, too, confirms that she’s endowed with extraordinary intuition and can simply sense the cinematic space.
Promoting his freshest film, Strange Heaven, at the Gdynia Festival, the director Dariusz Gajewski justified choosing a woman cinematographer by saying that the film needed a ‘womanly perspective’. Seen today, the comment has an absurd touch to it. For Polish women cinematographers prove that cinematography has no gender. Attention to detail, skilful still composition or staging are ascribed neither to women nor men.
Women behind the camera challenge the stereotype. Technological advancement has forever buried the worn-out argument that women aren’t strong enough to carry the heavy gear cinematographers use. This means they will only continue to gain ground.
Just take a look at works by Monika Lenczewska, Jolanta Dylewska, Maryse Alberti, or Natasha Braier, and you’ll see the greatness of their talents – as well as how each of them shines with her enormous individuality.
Originally written in Polish; translated by MS, May 2018
Sources: author’s own sources, ‘American Cinematographer’ 2/2017, IndieWire
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