Julia Swain’s documentary “Lady Cameraman,” about to be shown at the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival, celebrates female cinematographers – including Rachel Morrison (pictured), Reed Morano, Mandy Walker and Natasha Braier – and their success stories, including Morrison’s work on blockbuster “Black Panther.”
“ ‘Black Panther’ smashed the ceiling in terms of women hopefully being able to shoot much bigger films in the future,” Swain tells Variety. “Now, a woman has shot a Marvel movie and that’s something that can happen again – same thing with seeing Rachel getting nominated for an Oscar [as the first female cinematographer ever for ‘Mudbound’]. When it comes to commercials or television, they don’t let you shoot something unless you have already shot it, which is an interesting Catch-22 situation. It speaks to the general attitude that hopefully will change, because women have this immense determination to go and figure out how to do things. They can be trusted with money.”
Shot by Swain and Teodora Totoiu, “Lady Cameraman” challenges some industry stereotypes, including claims that the physical demands of the work make it harder for women to succeed.
“It’s a physical job, at least at the beginning – when you are operating your own stuff, you are hustling really hard. But it’s a bit of an excuse to be honest,” she says. “If you have a good crew and a well-balanced camera, it’s really not an issue. As Rebecca Rhine [national executive director of the International Cinematographers Guild] says in the film, it’s a myth that women don’t want to do physical jobs.”
Swain, who recently wrapped yet another feature as a cinematographer, Nell Teare’s “Sonny,” was determined to tell the story ever since she noticed that among all the acclaimed DPs teaching at her school, only one was a woman: Walker, who lensed “Australia” and Disney’s live-action version of “Mulan.”
“That made me wonder about the history of women in cinematography. I wanted to dig deeper because I didn’t know it myself!,” she says. “There is still this unconscious bias that people have and it doesn’t mean they are monsters. Because there are fewer women in cinematography, unfortunately sometimes what we do can reflect on us as a group. At the same time, I really think we are getting more chances.”
Arguing there is a real community forming, with female cinematographers pushing each other to have diverse crews and sharing resources, as well as more and more women getting proper representation, Swain is adamant they can really have it all – also when it comes to their personal lives.
“This is one of the things I am learning from this movie – vulnerability really connects us. There is this weird stigma about mixing work and family. Yes, you want to be professional, but you can have both. Being able to show that family aspect, show how beautiful it is to be a mom and a DP is really empowering,” she says. “Our career is based on momentum, we try to climb up the ladder and there is this fear of missing out on an important opportunity. But we can have both and it’s something these women are proving.”
Admitting that she has faced some reluctance in the past, also from other crew members, in “Lady Cameraman” Swain wants to point out that times they are a-changin’. Mostly for the better.
“I don’t think it’s the same world that Brianne Murphy came up in. If someone said something as crazy as ‘you will get into this union over my dead body,’ it would be a huge problem. We have the visibility to draw attention to it and call it out,” she says, referring to Murphy’s experience once she decided to join her local union branch. Widely regarded as a pioneer figure, she went on to become the first woman to join the American Society of Cinematographers.
“This story isn’t told in the film, but Brianne would call herself ‘Brian’ to get some jobs. She would change her voice on the phone and then show up to set, as at that point they couldn’t get rid of her anymore,” says Swain. “When people walk away from this film, I hope that everyone can name dozens of female cinematographers. And feel more comfortable about our future in film, knowing that we have done it in the past and that we are doing it now.”