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Camerimage Presents Different Faces of the Documentary Genre

Zhao Liang's 'Behemoth' competes at the cinematography festival

BYDGOSZCZ, Poland — The 12 documentaries competing at Camerimage film festival, culled from nearly 1,000 submissions, represent work that spans a far wider scope than just gritty social-issue pics.

These days, director/DPs such as Kirsten Johnson (“Cameraperson”), Zhao Liang (“Behemoth”), Andrew Michael Ellis (“Fight Hate with Love”) and Dryden Goodwin (“Unseen: The Lives of Looking”) are delivering stunning visuals alongside factual explorations of weighty subjects.

The fest seeks out “something visually compelling yet at the same time with a strong, interesting story,” says Mateusz Graj, who curates the docu section.

Indeed, this year’s entries all feature remarkable, compelling imagery, a feature that’s increasingly important in a genre where less-than-stunning cinematography has traditionally been forgiven.

Docus now must often meet all the standards, say many fest programmers, in addition to a range of moods, visual and storytelling styles. Accordingly, this year’s Camerimage entries include “many gems and quite a spectrum, from quiet, contemplative and philosophical essays to humorous portrayals,” says Graj.

Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” which drew heat at Sundance, exploring her filming process, family relationships, and subjects in challenging situations throughout Eastern Europe, Africa and the Asia, also typifies a deeply personal approach common to more and more docus.

Zhao’s “Behemoth,” meanwhile, is a highly stylized quest through Mongolia, chronicling the impact of rapacious coal mining as it disrupts traditional herding lands.

Ellis’ “Fight Hate with Love,” takes on the cycle of drugs and prison for young, black men while Goodwin’s “Unseen: The Lives of Looking” uncovers complex relationships with sight, using a poetic, multi-layered approach.

Other films competing this year, such as Polish-German pic “ZUD,” directed by Marta Minorowicz and shot by Paweł Chorzepa, unspool captivating images of environments, in this case horsemanship on the plains of Asia. “The Ivory Game,” directed by Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson and lensed by Richard Ladkani, is a descent into the rich and troubling world of ivory trafficking in Africa and China, exec produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.

Discovering such docus requires year-round scouting at festivals, via industry intelligence, and going through the rising mountain of submissions, says Graj.

The process has led to lively debates about the shifting nature of docus, he adds, noting that Camerimage has responded to the growth of films that feature both docu and fictional elements by creating a new prize.

Gone is the special mention Golden Frog that has gone to a docu that did not take home the main prize. In its place, the docu jury has been asked to honor one film as a “semi-fiction film,” defined by fest director Marek Zydowicz as anything from “hybrid productions that are dominated by reconstructions and vivid imagery reproducing various psychological or sociological processes” to docu-fiction, in which scripted actors portray real events.

As genres blur and technical complexity continues to evolve, such docus are increasingly likely to occupy big-screen venues — a factor not overlooked by Camerimage’s audiences — and juries of veteran cinematographers.

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