Camerimage: A Film Festival Where Cinematographers Are the Stars


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A workshop at the Camerimage festival in Poland.

Credit
Kate Zamana

Once a year, a small city in Poland 300 kilometers northwest of the capital acquires an unexpected distinction in the world of cinema. For one week, the streets of Bydgoszcz have perhaps the highest per capita concentration of cinematographers anywhere in the world. As many past attendees have put it: if they’re not shooting a film in mid-November, they’re probably in Bydgoszcz.

The subject of this pilgrimage is Camerimage, an international film festival that focuses not on directors or stars, but on cinematographers. The 23rd edition opened last Saturday and closes this Saturday after the annual infusion of films, which attract about 70,000 people. The throngs, mostly from out of town, consist of film professionals, students, the general public, vendors seeking the attentions of the hundreds of cinematographers, technicians and other filmmakers.

Camerimage has attracted those at the top of their field, including the Coen brothers, David Lynch (who lent his support to an aborted attempt to build a new center for the festival), Bernardo Bertolucci, and classical masters of cinematography like Conrad Hall (“In Cold Blood”) and Sven Nykvist (“Persona”). The festival’s contingent of big names this year includes the multiple Academy Award winners Vittorio Storaro (“Apocalypse Now”) and Chris Menges (“The Killing Fields”) among those receiving special honors.

The festival has been likened to a class reunion, or (more playfully) a “pagan ritual festival,” in the words of the cinematographer Tom Stern, who works frequently with Clint Eastwood. People come to talk shop, hang out and learn about new gear straight from the source. Despite its placement in the fall season of attention-getting prestige cinema, festivalgoers are less focused on jockeying for exposure than on honing their craft (and having a good time).

“I don’t feel like there’s any other festival like it,” Ed Lachman, the cinematographer of “Carol,” said in an interview from Bydgoszcz. “We all find out we have the same problems and the same needs and we get to share what our love for filmmaking is and how we create our images.” (“Carol,” directed by Todd Haynes, was screened here on Friday, the same day it opened in the United States; it opens next week in Britain and throughout the winter in other parts of the world.)

The cinematographers, who also include newcomers and lesser-known names, hail from the major guilds across the world: the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC), the Federation of European Cinematographers (IMAGO), the British Society of Cinematographers (BSC), and others.

The high concentration of working cinematographers also makes Bydgoszcz an essential stop for companies selling cameras and other tools of the trade. That also goes for cinema’s best-known professional group.

This year, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has been trying to spread the word about a new standardized digital platform (ACES) it hopes will be adopted for filmmaking and preservation. The current edition of the far-flung Polish festival was chosen as an essential destination thanks to its elite constituency.

“Camerimage is ‘the’ place as far as film festivals go to talk about that,” said Andy Maltz, managing director of the Academy’s Science and Technology Council. “Not to say the other ones are not good, but this one is unique.” The Academy’s presentation of the digital platform on Friday marked the biggest official presence it has had there.

Like many festivals, Camerimage has a main competition of films, but premieres and red carpets are not the priority, and selections are judged, per the dutiful mission statement, “according to their visual, aesthetic and technical values.”

The 15-title lineup this year ranges from “Brooklyn” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” to the innovative Hungarian Holocaust drama “Son of Saul,” the rural Icelandic tale “Rams,” and the indie favorite “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” “Bridge of Spies,” shot by the Polish-born Janusz Kaminski (Steven Spielberg’s frequent collaborator), and “The Danish Girl,” shot by Danny Cohen, led off the festival’s 300-plus screenings.

Other parts of the lineup, such as a music-video competition and a new showcase of TV drama pilots, testify to the general emphasis on image-making over a purist view of cinema. The popular panels and workshops have a master-class bent, addressing the use of the ARRI equipment, techniques in drone photography and a panel by the “Inside Out” team on the tricky cinematography of animated features (“Behind the Virtual Camera”).

In a sign of the festival’s focus, listings bill the cinematographer of a movie above its director. Yet the collaborative nature of filmmaking is recognized through awards given to production designer and costume designer (this year, Sandy Powell, who has won Oscars for “Shakespeare in Love,” “The Aviator” and “The Young Victoria”), and special honors like the one given to the editor Walter Murch.

Camerimage was founded in 1993 in Torun, Poland — the hometown of its director, Marek Zydowicz. Lodz, home to the country’s national film school (alumni include Roman Polanski and Krzysztof Kieslowski), hosted next, until 2010. A dispute with the city over planning for a new center designed by Frank Gehry (and supported by Mr. Lynch) led to the move to Bydgoszcz. Attendance has grown from 2,000 in early days to more than 70,000, and it has maintained a steady profile among professionals.

“Every year we host a large number of Hollywood industry guests,” Mr. Zydowicz, who still directs the festival, wrote in an email. “Of course, the festival has its finite capacity, but we intend to grow in subsequent years, and provide more opportunities for the industry guests to join us.”

Besides the good company of fellow pros, cinematographers also rub shoulders with the makers of equipment, which is constantly evolving, especially with advances and refinements in digital filmmaking.

“You get into discussions with the vendors — what is working very well, what is wrong,” Theo Van de Sande, a Dutch cinematographer who has worked in the Netherlands and Hollywood, said in a phone interview from Bydgoszcz. The result is a mutually beneficial dialogue between cinematographers and companies.

In the past five years, the festival’s reach has extended beyond Poland to Los Angeles with the Camerimage Winners Show, a special screening in February of honorees from the festival.

Even as Camerimage cultivates its industry profile, the appeal for the many cinematographers who are its reason for existing remains quite simple. For Mr. Lachman, who was attending the festival just before starting color correction on his next film (“Wiener-Dog,” Todd Solondz’s follow-up to “Welcome to the Dollhouse”), camaraderie and crowd appreciation go a long way.

“The fun part is we get to come out from behind the camera, and somehow we are in the spotlight,” he said. “We feel like we’re the rock stars.”



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