In the United States, necessity is the mother of invention. In Latin America, it is the mother of great cinematographers.
From microbudgeted indie fare to large-scale Hollywood entertainment, lensers from south of the border are pulling focus with such finesse that their work has earned the region a reputation as a mecca for creative genius. These talented d.p.s seem to have a canny ability to rise above a provincial social mandate, film school bias, archaic union rules and limited financial resources.
The proof is in the flan. This year’s Golden Globes nominations for foreign-language film include two Latin American projects, Mexico’s “The Crime of Father Amaro” and Brazil’s “City of God.” And cinematographers such as Rodrigo Prieto (“Amores perros”), Emmanuel Lubezki (“Like Water for Chocolate”) and Guillermo Navarro (“Desperado”) are among filmdom’s most in-demand talents.
Having achieved success and recognition, they now look at the skills developed as a result of the early challenges of filmmaking in their native countries as the very things that make them so highly regarded.
“In American productions you have to plan everything very precisely so that the proper tool is at hand,” says Prieto, who shot no fewer than three films vying for Oscars this year (Julie Taymor’s “Frida,” Curtis Hanson’s “8 Mile” and Spike Lee’s “25th Hour”). “In Mexico, crews find ways to do anything you need with whatever is at hand, improvising with rope, wood, metal, tape, any rig you can imagine. (Americans) have safer working conditions but it can also be frustrating to the creative process.”
Cesar Charlone received the cinematography award for his work on “City of God” at the Havana Film Festival. A native of Uruguay, he also found that limited resources made him a better lenser. “Besides the richness and variety of our cultures, growing up having to deal with very little technical resources makes one very good at improvisation,” he says.
For Prieto, the ability to adapt and make do is what translated into the stark urgency of “8 Mile’s” visuals. He shot the entire film by hand. “He shot the movie like it was a freestyle rap battle — razor sharp, unpredictable and relentlessly true,” says director Hanson. “Rodrigo’s unique eye and fluid camera were essential in accomplishing this.”
If Latin American filmmakers are adept at improvising, it is no doubt because they have been calling on that skill for some time. Lubezki, who shot Alfonso Cuaron’s “Y tu mama tambien” and whose next project is “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” had to lie in order to get into the Mexican Institute of Cinema.
“They only wanted to hear that I loved Russian films and obscure Polish films,” he recalls of the admissions process. “The administrators absolutely did not want to know that I love Scorsese or Spielberg. All of us entering film school knew this was the drill — you had to lie about who you really loved if you wanted to get in.”
Lubezki, who also got into the ring with Michael Mann on “Ali,” was Oscar nommed for helping realize Tim Burton’s gothic vision in “Sleepy Hollow” and for his work on 1995’s “A Little Princess,” helmed by childhood friend, frequent collaborator and film school mentor Cuaron.
Lubezki and Cuaron credit the rebelliousness and determination of their generation for today’s rebirth of Latin American cinema. “Mexico’s attitude toward filmmaking and life in general used to be very provincial and claustrophobic,” says Cuaron. “You were expected to be a quiet little mouse. The new way is very bold and provocative. The attitude now is ‘I’m not only Mexican, I’m universal! My experiences are universal, and that alone makes them absolutely worthy.’ ”
Good filmmaking, it seems, is not so much about the availability of the proper equipment as it is vision and emotion.
“Every great cinematographer that I have ever known has two qualities,” says d.p. Steven Poster, who’s also prexy of the American Society of Cinematographers. “They listen, and then they work from the heart. And it does not matter what language they speak or what their ethnicity might be, what sex they are or where they went to school.”
Though not from Latin America but still Latin, director Pedro Almodovar adds to that theory. “For us, passion is life’s only engine,” says the Spaniard. “It justifies it. It gives sense to it. Even if passion possesses you as a whole and turns you into almost an irrational being.”
For Almodovar, the success of his Mexican colleagues is not so much about cachet as it is that today, “there is less prejudice.”
Guillermo Granillo, the cinematographer responsible for “Father Amaro,” is hopeful that Almodovar’s observation is true. It should be this way, he says, because “cinema has no boundaries.”