Paint­ing with Panav­i­sion

Santa Fe Film Fes­ti­val rec­og­nizes cin­e­matog­ra­pher Ellen Kuras

Pasatiempo - - Onstage This Week -

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

The Be­trayal

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