The art of the visual metaphor

Ellen Kuras
Ellen Kuras is much in demand as a director of photography for major feature films. She's also an Oscar-nominated documentary director. She says though, it all got started with her interest in anthropology.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

When it comes to defining Ellen Kuras, it's simplest just to call her a filmmaker.

The bulk of her work is as director of photography for many of the great film directors of our time. She also makes commercials.

Last year, her film "The Betrayal" received a nomination for best documentary Oscar.

Kuras will speak about her work Saturday night at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. She says the different facets of what she does are very much intertwined.

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Ellen Kuras went to college to study Egyptology and anthropology. To hear her tell it, the path to becoming a cinematographer was a natural progression.

"Basically I realized I was interested in people and history, and how people relate to each other and culture. And it was that that led me to an interest in documentary filmmaking," Kuras said. "I have a very strong sense of the political. And I thought, I want to make films that move people, I want people to be educated about the nature of the world, or about stories about people."

Kuras started work on a film about a family of Laotian refugees living in New York. Like the Hmong, they fled Laos after helping the U.S. military in the so-called secret war in their country.

Kuras directed the film about their struggles in America. She knew it was a great story. Yet as she reviewed the material her crew shot, she became uneasy. The footage was technically great, but she felt something was missing.

"I realized that it was meaning. I wanted the images to tell their own story," Kuras said. "I was looking for a way to link people in the image, so that they could tell the story."

"I want to make films that move people."

So she picked up the camera and began to shoot the story herself.

The film is a tale of courage and confusion. At one point, the Laotian family told her that as they drove into Brooklyn they began to panic. They knew so little about the United States that when they saw African-Americans on the street, they thought they had landed on the wrong continent.

That might have been that, except word began getting out that Ellen Kuras had an incredible eye. She began getting high-profile jobs as director of photography on big-name movies, such as "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "Blow," and a slew of Spike Lee films.

It was heady stuff, but Kuras says her search for visual metaphors continued.

She's become accustomed to working with larger crews of technicians, and meeting the demands of a director. But she still relies on the lessons she learned in her run-and-gun days of documentary work, everything from camera placement to how to follow an actor in a scene.

"It's all about storytelling," she sayid "If I'm here on a wide-angle lens and a camera comes up to me, up in close-up, do I rack focus to them, or do I let them go out of the frame? All of those decisions inform how the look and tone and the feel ultimately will play upon the viewer."

As a director of photography she's acquired an incredible array of technical skills, to choose just the right camera, lens, and film stick. She's even had to learn weather forecasting, because that can have a huge impact on shooting outdoors. It's stressful, and she says for a while she didn't get a lot of sleep.

Another reason for her sleeplessness was the fact that she'd never finished the film about the Laotian refugees. For years, between projects, she would go back to New York and shoot more material as the family desperately struggled to stick together. Finally, after 23 years she completed "The Betrayal."

"I think I have the prize for the longest number of years," said Kuras. "I usually encourage people who come to me, who say, 'I've been working on this project for 10 years.' I say 'You just have to keep the faith.' I think I pose as a really good example of that. You can finish it, you know."

The time was well spent, capturing on film the family as it grew and changed. The critically acclaimed movie got a best documentary Oscar nomination.

Kuras is still working a great deal, but she says now that "The Betrayal" is done, she has more time to look around and to talk about her work.

She speaks at the Walker Art Center Saturday night, along with showing clips from her films. She says U.S. film schools produce great technicians, but Kuras says it's her mission to get those skills put to the task of great storytelling.

"What is missing is the interaction with the world, and the interaction with literature and reading books, and being inspired and being able to take that into their own, and being able to think about that, and put that out in a different form."

When asked how she'll be doing that this weekend, she says she's going to be soaking in the art at the Walker, and looking for stories to tell.