When shooting documentaries, you have to be like a jazz musician, says Aleksander Duraj

14. 6. 2017

Author: Kristýna Genttnerová, Marta Obršálová

The project KineDok is not only an alternative distribution platform but also a connection between the film fans and makers of creative documentary. This time, we asked for an interview the director of photography and the assistant director of a music-driven documentary about a deaf gypsy girl The Queen of Silence, Aleksander Duraj.  Why is fiction easier from his point of view? How he managed to seize all the dance scenes with unruly children? Or how was he able to communicate with a deaf main character? Read on!

You studied cinematography, but also photography at school. Does it influence your cinematographic style in any specific way, do you look at subjects and social actors in a "different" way?

​My roots are in the secondary art school where I started painting, drawing, taking photos and study art history. I spent a lot of time in the darkroom with black and white process and always had a camera with me. I was lucky because I met wonderful people at school. I had good teachers and with the group of colleagues we were very interested in photography. By the way - today my friend Bogumil Godfrejow and Tomasz Glowacki are into the industry too. Photography is very important in DOP education. From craft point of view you have to automatize a lot of things e.g.: composition, lighting, exposition... understanding what the frame really is. Documentary photography requires a perfect intuition of the Cartier-Bresson's decisive moment, using an artificial light in that way that it's very hard to see it and creating the mood of scene at the same time with all parameters needed to the right exposure. Documentary means also face to face contact with real people and their real lives. To understand it in the wider perspective I decided to study sociology as a background knowledge. During this period I get more into cultural anthropology rather than in sociology. And it's great when you want to do documentaries! It's much easier for me to understand all social context and cultural preconditions. So these both things strongly influenced me.
I cannot say anything about my cinematography style because I don't notice it. I always try to adjust camera storytelling, camera movements and visual style adequate to the history I tell.

You did a photo "album" about Roma people and topic and you did a film about illegal Roma settlement. How do you choose the themes you want to shoot? Do you have any topics that you are interested in more?

​As the subject of my photography I choose topics which are interesting and relevant to me. I go in two ways: the aesthetic and the narrative. All of us have some social sensibility. It is just the question about opportunism. I try to live according to my knowledge and sensitivity. We are all different but equal.
When I was working on dzielo-dzialka photography series ("Art of the allotment") for more than 2 years I was also a member of research project group and the designer of the whole exhibition. Dzielo-dzialka the art of the allotment is a research project conducted between 2009 - 2011 by Ethnographical Museum in Cracow and focuses on the allotment gardens. These photos where bought to the museum permanent collection in Cracow and also by Kyoto Museum of The Photographic Arts in Japan in young portfolio section. I always try to get as much knowledge as it's possible to portrait people and situations I’m interested in. When I was shooting Albert Cinema I was living in the shelter for homeless people.

Do you specialize in documentaries or do you want to shoot fiction films too? Do you see any difference between shooting documentary and fiction?

I would like to shoot feature films, but it's pretty hard to get in. Especially when you do not live in the major industry cities. Maybe one day... I shot non full length feature films and from this experience I see a big difference between documentary and fiction. It's a long story, but the biggest difference is that in documentaries you have to be like a jazz musician: you know the theme, you know the notes, but the most important is improvisation. It's essential to be able make a fast decisions and have a good understanding of your final work as DOP. With fiction everything is much easier.

Regarding The Queen of Silence - the camera work is very well thought out and organized and at the same time feels intuitive and spontaneous. I imagine you had to do a lot of choreography with the children and with the director. How was it working on seizing the dance moves and working with children?

As I mentioned above in documentaries improvisation is very important, but it doesn't mean that you don't have a plan! Before we started shooting this movie I spent a lot of time with choreographer Maciek Florek to design the shots. Unfortunately most of them where cut from the movie. The goal was to tell the additional story in the dance scenes only with the choreography and motion pictures. Finally director change it at the cut stage. So in the movie you can see only a part of this work.
Working with kids being raised up in so spontaneous society was very hard from DOP's point of view. It was impossible to have repetitiveness so a lot of shots where spoils and it took a lot of time to shot it. I had to make a lot of compromises too. It was the worst when you realized that all this beautiful design shots are impossible to shoot. Kids were running everywhere! Nobody could control it at the set. But the same spontaneous energy recompense us with very positive feedback and flow. These kids are great!

What was the main reason or when did you first know, that you want to shoot this documentary film with a lot of fiction or stylized scenes? You said you had met with the choreographer before the shooting started, so you knew that the film will contain fiction scenes from the beginning?

The main reason why this movie was shot was to bring attention to the situation of Romanian Gypsy people in Poland. Especially to the situation of children. As you could see it is a difficult social situation. I always wanted to make documentaries with a strong visual impact. And postmodern formula of mixing different kinds of narration is in my opinion the most suitable for telling real stories when it's adequate to the main idea of the movie. In this case mix of strong documentary and musical like narration was obvious at the beginning of work. The fiction scenes were planed from the beginning.

Did you use any special camera or cranes and other technical tools to film this film?

Almost all of the movie was shot with DSLR camera ​with an unusual light balance to correct it at the colour grading stage preceded with my DOP research. The choreography scenes require the use of different kind of camera and lenses and also steadicam and cranes. There was a drone on the set too. I also use slow-motion.
With documentary scenes the goal was to find a very close way of telling the story of a protagonist. There are many tricks I used to show the world from the kid's eye level. Literary and metaphorically. But the most important to me was to have an emotional, close contact with Denisa. Try to imagine how to communicate with Denisa? The only way is through emotional, empathetic common experience. I spent a lot of time with her and around the illegal gypsy settlement before I started working. Next step was to implement the camera so I started to take photos with the DSLR camera. It gave me possibility to shoot sometimes a video and make her comfortable with the camera shape for our future work. In this case a camera looking like a normal photo camera was a conscious choice.

Are you still in contact with the people from the settlement? Were they evicted or did they manage to hold on? And what about Denisa - is she still in Romania?

I had some contact but these culture group is in the endless movement so most of them are now somewhere in Europe.​ For more information about Denisa you need ask the director - Agnieszka. As far as I know she came back to Romania.

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