In 1989, filmmaker Christine Choy was hired to shoot interview footage of dissidents during the Tiananmen Square protests, but she never got a chance to show anyone involved in the footage. More than thirty years later, Choy is embarking on a transcontinental journey to show leaders of the movement these images, and fledgling filmmakers Ben Klein and Violet Columbus and cinematographer Connor Smith were on hand to capture the trip. Below, Smith explains how to find the right shooting style for the film, and what it’s like to capture another filmmaker with his camera.
Director: How and why did you become the director of photography for your film? What factors and attributes led you to be hired for this position?
Black-smith: I met Ben and Violet at NYU. We started shooting this film after graduating in 2016. Filming was intermittent at first and ramped up as we progressed, so an important aspect was the flexibility to embark on a long-term project without a defined deadline. I think the main objective of the first shoots was to get to know Christine. We started by filming a series of dinner parties at Christine’s apartment. She was having a guest and we were shooting in a verity style. It took some time to find the style of camera for our film. Christine is so dynamic and talkative; it can be difficult to keep the camera active and interesting for several hours of conversation. Once we started reviewing the footage, we realized we loved when the camera was hand-held and actively reacting to Christine. There is in particular an interview at Sundance, taken from a show of hands, from a low angle and on a wide-angle lens. We had just gone out for a short smoke break with Christine, so I was unprepared for an interview. I was freezing cold the whole time, worrying about the sound of the wind. But once we reviewed the footage, we quickly realized this was the best interview we’ve ever shot, and the raw, unrehearsed style of this interview informed my shooting on the rest of the film.
Director: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you achieve them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and the treatment of its characters?
Black-smith: We were attached to the truth about this film. We emphasized walk-and-talks, impromptu interviews and multiple formats. Christine has worked on 16mm film for most of her career, so we knew we wanted to reference that by filming 16mm and digital simultaneously. I often took the same shots in 16mm and digital so that we could use 16mm as a camera in the edit. Another aspect of our method was to film a huge amount of footage. Christine often told me: “You shoot too much. Compared to the 16mm films that Christine has shot, our shooting ratio is out of the ordinary. But when you’re shooting that much footage, at some point the subject just has to forget about you and act like they would if the camera wasn’t there.
Director: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether it was from other films, or visual art, photography or something else?
Black-smith: Well first, Christine Choy had a major influence on cinematography. Christine did not hesitate to criticize my work during the shooting. This created a fun dialogue between the camera and Christine. And it became part of the film with Christine often speaking directly to the camera and pointing out a “good shot”.
Also, I have always found the Dogme 95 movement very influential. The “rules” (although written for narrative filmmaking) provide very useful principles for documentary filmmaking. For me, that translates to avoiding overproduction, going with the flow, and capturing a real moment as it happens, which sometimes means forgoing a lens change or lighting adjustment at the profit from capturing what is happening right now! I’m not a purist at all, but it gave me a strong underlying philosophy. The documentaries of Allan King and Ondi Timoner were also influential.
Director: What were the biggest challenges in producing these goals?
Black-smith: The biggest challenge to truth is getting the hang of it. If I miss a shot, I’m very hesitant to ask to redo it “for the camera”. I don’t remember doing that in any scene in this movie. If you stop adjusting the camera, the subject becomes self-conscious and begins to adjust their behavior to benefit the camera. There are shots that lose focus or shake in ways I wish they didn’t. But the images are real and not repeated and that matters more.
And of course, one of the other big challenges of this film was that I didn’t speak Mandarin. Often, we filmed conversations that I did not understand. This makes truth filming particularly difficult, but I learned to pick up contextual cues from Christine who would sometimes turn generously towards the camera and translate. Some of those Christine moments actually made the final cut. But really, I never knew what we captured until I saw the translated footage.
Director: What camera did you shoot with? Why did you choose the camera you made? What glasses did you use?
Black-smith: We’ve shot with a number of different cameras over the many years we’ve made this film. But for our final and main interview with Christine, we shot in 16mm with the Arriflex 16SR2. It was Christine’s camera that she bought over 30 years ago when she was shooting movies with Third World Newsreel. And it’s literally the same camera with the same lenses that Christine’s 1989 footage of the Tiananmen Exiles was shot. It’s an absolutely stunning camera that we think would complete the circle for our film. We took the camera out of Christine’s closet for the shoot and I spent a few weeks cleaning up the old foam that had deteriorated and was sticking everywhere. It’s really worth it.
Director: What was the most difficult scene to achieve and why? And how did you do?
Black-smith: When Wu’er Kaixi and Christine find themselves in Taiwan after 30 years. I actually started recording to capture a B-roll shot as we waited for Wu’er Kaixi to arrive. He happened to walk into my frame and I captured the first time they’d seen each other in nearly 30 years. I filmed without cutting for several hours as they walked through the National Taiwan University campus. They were really catching up and the camera was following.
Movie Title: The exiled
Camera: Arriflex 16SR2, Canon C300, Sony F5, Blackmagic Ursa Mini, Canon Autozoom 814
Lenses: Zeiss Primes, Fujinon 18-5mm zoom
Lighting: 650W Arri Fresnels, 1K Fresnels
Processing: Metropolis Post
Color grading: Irving Harvey – DaVinci Resolve