The art of cinematography is sometimes elusive to codify. After all, the goal of most filmmakers is to let their individual contributions be subsumed into the whole. A bad film with nice looking pictures does little to elevate it, just as a muddy-as-hell shaky cam monstrosity with an impactful story can trump any technical shortcomings. The greatest films, of course, manage to do both, to have photography that perfectly matches with the other elements of story, performance and montage to create a stunning whole.
Few artists in the history of the medium have done more to create this synergy than Roger Deakins. A man of sublime taste in the projects he chooses and impeccable craft in the visions he provides, the 12-time Oscar-nominated director of photography has granted audiences images as indelible as any in film history. From his longstanding work with the Coen brothers through to his most recent work with Denis Villeneuve, Deakins has pushed the boundaries of both analogue and digital photography in ways both pioneering and poetic. He’s a giant in his field, one who got his start, as many of the best have done, in the world of documentary (mostly with shorts, but also one of the first features he shot is Curtis Clark’s Blue Suede Shoes).
I spoke to Deakins during the Cannes Film Festival, where his latest collaboration, Sicario, premiered. As kindly and conversational and enthusiastic as one could hope from one of your heroes, he provided us with a diverse, fascinating list of nonfiction films that have meant the most to him.
The Battle of Culloden (Peter Watkins, 1964) and The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1965)
“These two films are as fresh and innovative today as they were in the mid-’60s, but it is the power of their arguments that make them so important as social documents.”
The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophüls, 1969)
“Without question the most objective analysis of a subject that I have seen in the documentary format. Even more powerful for its somewhat cold analysis of its subject.”
Night and Fog (Alain Resnais, 1955)
“A documentary that is a dark poem, which conjures up a world we can only imagine.”
Chronicle of a Summer (Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin, 1961)
“Another lovely poem which probably influenced Godfrey Reggio and Koyaanisqatsi.”
Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
“Documentary as animation? Terrible in its simplicity.”
The War Room (D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, 1993)
“Our democracy would only benefit from more films like this!”
Titicut Follies (Frederick Wiseman, 1967), Hospital (Frederick Wiseman, 1970) and Missile (Frederick Wiseman, 1988)
“The master of observation. If there was only one documentary filmmaker for me it would be Wiseman. Hospital is one of the most penetrating studies of what it means to be human that I have seen.”
Primary (Rober Drew, 1960)
“Another revealing look at our flawed political process.”
The Song of Ceylon (Basil Wright, 1934)
“Part anthropology and part poem! I put Song of Ceylon in there as Basil Wright was a tutor at the National Film School whilst I was there (I seem to remember the first screening he held was got Once Upon a Time in the West or The Wild Bunch!). The film is old but a major influence on many film makers.”
Bonus: “Night Mail (1936), by Basil [Wright] with Harry Watt, should be on the list as well. Tokyo Olympiad (1965) by Kon Ichigawa should be here! Perhaps Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934) too, although that is more of a work of fiction. Life was never like that on the Isle of Aran!”