Extreme Documentaries
In the Line of Fire for the Truth

By Debra Kaufman

Documentarians after the truth – whether it’s deep in the ocean, on top of Mt. Everest or in the battles of war — put their lives on the line. Never has that been more clear than in 2003, when cinematographer James Miller lost his life shooting a documentary with reporter Saira Shah under the banner of their company, Frostbite Films. Death in Gaza, about Palestinian children growing up under the gaze of Israeli sniper towers in the flashpoint of Rafah, will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2004.

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Steven Rosenbaum’s Journalists: Killed In The Line Of Duty took the film crew to areas where journalists had previously lost their lives.
Death In Gaza documents Palestinian children living under snipers.
In More Detail

The two-man crew for Journalists: Killed in the Line of Duty used a Sony PD 150, with the field producer carrying the boom pole. The run-and-gun production’s mobility was driven by the danger faced by some of the interviewees. The crew also brought a small 3 point Omni Lowel lighting kit, generally used as stylistic choice for the sit-down expert‚ interviews.

In More Detail

For Riding Giants, Sonny Miller used three Super 16mm high-speed Milliken cameras, designed for the military. To capture the waves, he usually shot between 100 and 200 fps and never below 75 fps. When the big waves were breaking, Miller pre-loaded all the cameras, which allowed him to shoot for longer periods of time without reloading. .

Journalists who lose their lives in the course of covering stories is the focus of Journalists: Killed in the Line of Duty, a film directed and produced by Steven Rosenbaum, founder/CEO of Camera Planet. After getting involved with The Committee to Protect Journalists, Rosenbaum was stunned by the number of journalists who die every year – without any public outcry. The film covers several iconographic stories of journalists killed in 2002, beginning with The Wall Street Journal’s Daniel Pearl and ending with the loss of NBC correspondent David Bloom, who died while covering the Iraq war, and Ukrainian Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk, who was killed when a U.S. tank shelled his Baghdad hotel. In the 15 month period between Pearl’s and Protsyuk’s death, 46 journalists lost their lives. Field cinematographer Jack Youngelson traveled around the world to cover stories that had already prompted the killing of one journalist. “It was a harrowing shoot,” admits Rosenbaum. “Jack said he’d never been more scared.”

Riding Giants
Risks are also inherent in documentaries that court extreme physical challenges. Riding Giants, a film directed by Stacy Peralta about big-wave, tow-in surfing, utilizes the daredevil skills of big-wave cinematographers Don King and Sonny Miller. The film’s co-producer (with Aggi Orsi and Stacy Peralta) Jane Kachmer notes that this kind of film requires being prepared for any eventuality. “You’re dealing with the weather, and these variables can’t be controlled,” she says. “You need conditions where the wind isn’t unmanageable so you can get your shot.”

Both King and Miller have shot for feature films such as Blue Crush and the opening sequence of Die Another Day and say that, compared to the big crews and controlled conditions of a feature film, documentaries are “completely guerrilla filmmaking.” For Riding Giants, King shot on the water from a jet ski while Miller covered the action from a helicopter. Miller uses three Super 16 high-speed Milliken cameras, designed for the military and usually shot between 100 to 200 fps.

A journalist interviews American hostages Thomas Howes (right), Marc Gonsalves, and Keith Stansell in Held Hostage.
To prepare, Miller pre-loaded a backpack full of cameras so he could shoot for longer periods of time without reloading. “There was no time to label the rolls, just keep shooting,” he says. “We’d dangle over 35-foot waves, dip down to the surfers, tell them a big wave was coming and then roar away.” Following the action on the edge of the big waves from a jet ski is its own risk. “Heading out on the waves in a jet ski is like being in a single-engine small plane,” says Miller. “You have to verify, verify, verify that it’s a mechanical device in great shape.” Occasionally, Miller and King had to jump off the jet ski to keep it from tipping over and, wearing a form-fitting personal flotation device, dive under waves. But Miller notes that, in addition to letting them get up-close and personal with the surfers, jet skis also are “like a liquid dolly,” allowing smooth coverage.

“Compared to a Hollywood movie, it is extreme,” admits Miller. “But if it comes naturally, you don’t regard it as extreme. This isn’t an individual sport — it’s a team effort, and we’re all there to back each other up.”

Source: Film & Video

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