Astronomy Doc Wins AC Magazine Award at Salem Film Fest 2018

All six of this year’s contenders for the American Cinematographer Magazine Award for Best Cinematography distinguish themselves as absorbing and well-shot projects.

The competition at the recent Salem Film Fest (March 22-29) again featured the American Cinematographer Magazine Award for Best Cinematography, judged by editor-in-chief and publisher Stephen Pizzello.

Here are Pizzello’s notes on the six nominees and winner:

Becoming Who I Was tells the story of Padma Angdu, a 9-year-old boy from northern India who is believed by some to be a “Rinpoche” — the reincarnation of a Tibetan monk. In seeking official recognition from a monastery, Padma studies with his elderly teacher, Urgain Rigsin, who also serves as the boy’s guide on a very personal journey to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of his neighbors and countrymen. Their subsequent, two-month trek to reach a specific monastery in Tibet — which has been declared off-limits by China — takes on an epic dimension as the two struggle on foot over freezing, snowy terrain in an attempt to reach full enlightenment.

Along the way, director Moon Changyong and cinematographer Jin Jeon lend this voyage a dreamlike feel through their framing of atmospheric landscapes and urban environments, making optimum use of natural light and expressively applied time-lapse photography. It’s a scenically photographed documentary that manages to transcend mere “travelogue” to present a truly spiritual and emotionally resonant rite of passage. 

(You can see the trailer here.)

Siberian Love is a beautifully shot chronicle from director Olga Delane, a Berlin-based filmmaker who travels back to her small hometown in Siberia to explore traditional views on love, marriage and family life. As Delane’s family urges her to conform, settle down and have a family, the camera places the viewer squarely in Olga’s perspective, enabling one to experience the familial pressure more intimately. This documentary’s handsomely photographed landscapes and portraiture (shot by Delane and Nikolai von Graevenitz) immerses the audience in a culture with some firm — but hardly universal — beliefs about a woman’s role in society.

With Old Marine Boy, documentarian Mo-young Jin profiles a North Korean defector who supports his family by working as a “compression diver” after they escape to South Korea. The perils of this risky and physically rigorous occupation are explored through excellent underwater cinematography and very candid encounters with the diver, his family and their closest friends.

Minding the Gap, directed and shot by Bing Liu, profiles three skateboarders whose turbulent family upbringings and hardscrabble circumstances continue to impact their lives. Liu’s kinetic camera moves and creative use of lenses amplify the freedom his subjects feel when they’re on their boards, providing a freewheeling contrast to their daily tribulations.

Between Land and Sea, directed and shot by Ross Whitaker (whose work is supplemented with dynamic aerial and aquatic camerawork by Kevin L. Smith) takes viewers on a tour of the surfing community in Lahinch, located on Ireland’s west coast. The area’s idyllic ambience is conveyed in ravishing tableau compositions of picture-postcard landscapes, with the thrill of surfing shown through exhilarating footage captured on and under the water.


To my eye, however, the most astounding images can be found in Cielo, a gorgeous “philosophical documentary” that explores the skies and heavens above the Andes mountains and the Atacama desert in northern Chile. Directed by Alison McAlpine and shot by Benjamín Echazarreta, this contemplative and richly visualized astronomy doc combines incredible landscapes with celestial perspectives that encourage the audience to ponder its place amid the grand shrine of the cosmos.

Adjectives like “breathtaking” and “stunning” are often overused to the point of cliché, but they certainly describe the poetic visuals in Cielo. The masterful use of time-lapse photography, a painterly application of natural light and an extraordinary sense of composition produce memorable imagery that is truly mesmerizing and well deserving of this year’s cinematography prize.

Cielo producer Sean Farnel is presented with the American Cinematographer Award for Best Cinematography by Salem Film Fest co-founder and co-festival director Joe Cultrera, as program director Jeff Schmidt and astrophotographer Babak Tafreshi look on. Photo by Shelley Sackett.

Details on the AC Magazine Award for Best Cinematography presented at the 2017 Salem Film Fest can be found here.

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