Painting with Panavision
Santa Fe Film Festival recognizes cinematographer Ellen Kuras
A young couple lies on a frozen lake, cracks in the ice reflecting the fragile nature of their relationship. A beloved musician performs onstage at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, with a warm, autumnal backdrop highlighting his introspective, nostalgic songs. A basketball phenom plays his estranged father in a night game of one-on-one, on a court lit up as if they are the only two people in the world.
These iconic and diverse images— from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Neil Young: Heart of Gold, and He Got Game, respectively— were all crafted by cinematographer Ellen Kuras, who receives the Santa Fe Film Festival’s Kodak Cinematographer’s Tribute award in a ceremony at 7 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at the National Dance Institute of New Mexico’s Dance Barns, 1140 Alto Street. (Kuras also takes part in a discussion about her work at 10 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, at Hotel Santa Fe, 1501 Paseo de Peralta.) Kuras spoke to Pasatiempo by phone in the days leading up to the Thanksgiving weekend.
“I was actually interested in becoming a sculptor when I was a kid,” she said. “But I didn’t pursue that immediately, because living the life of an artist wasn’t really in the cards for me in terms of what my parents wanted me to do. I was basically a scholar for a while. I was a very good student. I was also a major athlete. It was only later that I allowed myself to go into the more creative aspects of work.”
It was at Brown University, where she was studying social anthropology and semiotics, that she first explored her creative side. She took classes in photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and went on to study in France for a year, where a passion for film evolved from an interest in photojournalism and photography as propaganda. But the seeds for her work as a filmmaker were planted much earlier than that.
“I saw a film many years ago called Billy Jack [Tom Laughlin’s 1971 movie about a heroic Cherokee Vietnam vet], and I always had this kind of empathy for the Native Americans when I was growing up, from my father, who was a very moral, good philosophical person. And I saw this film, and it opened up my eyes in a completely different way. Here was this film that was telling the story from the point of view of the Indian, on the side of the Indians. I realized that film has this incredible power to show people a situation and to draw them in, in a way that could educate them or cause them to question and to seek further knowledge about certain topics.”
She worked at a museum in Providence and discovered her calling when she tied her interests in photography with her interests in social anthropology and the immigrant experience by making a film about Laotians in Rochester, New York, in 1984. “It wasn’t until then that I started shooting for myself. Because when I first started making that film and I had a few
other people shoot for me, I realized that the images were very beautiful and very well executed, but there was something lacking. And that was that they didn’t really mean anything. They didn’t have a story to tell. And that began my career of searching for meaning and making meaning.”
This project led Kuras to The Betrayal, a documentary about a family of Laotians who fled to America to escape persecution from their government— persecution that was brought about by their having helped the U.S. operate in Laos during the Vietnam War. The family found a new struggle in the rundown Brooklyn neighborhood where they settled. The film, co-directed by Kuras and Thavisouk Phrasavath, was a long time in the making and was nominated for a 2009 Academy Award for Best Documentary.
While working on this labor of love, Kuras has received her share of accolades. She is the only person to win the Sundance Film Festival’s Best Dramatic Cinematography Award three times (including for work on one of her big career breakthroughs, 1992’s Swoon). She has become a favored cinematographer of Spike Lee and Michel Gondry and has captured concert footage of Lou Reed, the Rolling Stones, and Dave Chapelle. She’s a rare woman to be widely recognized for her work behind the cameras in Hollywood. And now, of course, she has an award from the Santa Fe Film Festival to add to her collection.
Over the course of working on such a variety of movies over the years— from Lee’s documentary 4 Little Girls to the Harold Ramis comedy Analyze That— what sort of fingerprints has she left on these projects? “I think there is a search of meaning and a sense of metaphor,” she said. “And I feel that more than anything in my own film [ The Betrayal]. I really wanted the images to be able to stand on their own. I wanted the images to tell their own story as well and to be a part of the subtext. And I think that’s probably something that runs through all of my work, no matter what I do, whether I do features or documentaries or music films. I always feel like it has to have heart and resonance and have some deeper meaning.”
Ellen Kuras, recipient of the Santa Fe Film Festival’s Kodak Cinematographer’s Tribute award