Exclusive Interview With Accomplished Filmmaker Stan Barua
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Jamati: Hello Stan, I want to thank you for doing this interview for Jamati. Can you just let the people know where you’re from and what your occupation is?
Hello Laura. Thank you very much for your interest and Jamati’s contact!I am Kenyan by nationality. However, I’m not easily put in a box as my mother is originally from Poland and I have lived outside Kenya on and off for years. I am a cinematographer.
Jamati: Run down a list of your film credits for people that may not know.
My work as director of photography so far hasn’t included big-screen household titles – the majority of my work has been for the small screen and has been a mixture of short drama, television series and commercials, docudrama, and documentaries. Depending on whether you are in Africa, Europe or North America you may have seen Baba’s House, Drag, Rain, Shades of Poland, Unlocking the Past, Western Eyes, Forgotten Places, The Baisikol, Psychic Investigators, Forensic Factor, Raisin’ Kane, or My Daddy was a Cavalryman.
Jamati: At what age did you decide to pursue cinematography? What drew you to this profession?
I became serious about pursuing cinematography into my last years of high school in Nairobi. Until then I had been undecided between medicine, following both my parents, and the arts. I liked expressing myself with images.
Jamati: You’ve worked a lot with your brother, Jakub, on various film projects. You guys have been referred to as the Barua Brothers. How is it working with your brother that closely?
Both Jakub and I are passionate about our work. We are close in age and have shared experiences and aspirations. As filmmaking is a collaborative effort, it is invaluable to work with those who share your passion, your motivation, who support you, and with whom you can often communicate in short-hand.
Jamati: Do you two ever disagree on the direction of a film? How do you two resolve that?
I intimidate him… Just kidding! Our personalities are rather different, I think, but we’ve never had to resort to violence.
Jamati: You were trained at the prestigious Polish National Film, Television and Theatre Academy at Lodz. Some of the famous alumni include Roman Polanski and Andrzej Wajda. How was that experience?
The Polish Film School was a tremendous experience on many levels. I was overjoyed to win admission to a place that had already become quite legendary! The cinematography and directing MA programs there, in particular, are second to none. The professors and instructors were very accomplished both as working professionals and artists as well as teachers. The technical support available to us was quite outstanding, with 35mm film equipment being the standard for student production. The student body at the time was quite compact, very competitive and drawn from all over Europe, and there were students from North America, Latin America, North Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. From Sub-Saharan Africa, JAM Karanja from Kenya was in his last years studying directing. Pawel Edelman was finishing his cinematography studies. The Polish Film School in Lodz between 1985 and 1990 was an interesting place in a country undergoing some historic changes.
Jamati: Did you ever feel like an outsider being an East African filmmaker in Poland? What were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome as a young filmmaker at that time?
I dislike simplistic labels and did not label myself “outsider” or “East African”. I had lived in Poland prior to that. I was already thoroughly familiar with Polish culture and history, fluent in the language, and so on. Like most European countries, Poland was still a very homogenous country in terms of ethnicity so the moment I stepped onto the street, many assumed me to be “other” and a “foreigner”. In school this meant that some assumed me to be “representative” of Kenya and Africa. Outside school, I was often prey to the considerable racial hostility and ignorance continental Europe had to offer. So, as an 18- 22yr-old aspiring filmmaker I was also getting tough lessons in identity, belonging, politics and self-expression – lessons, which are relevant to any filmmaker, anywhere.
Jamati: Who were some of your mentors and influences?
My early influences are many and varied, many quite sub-conscious since filmmaking is such a cumulative art. Influences include my parents, my grandparents and extended family, my teen friends, the late Sao Gamba – Kenya’s pioneer African cinematographer-director also an alumni of the Polish Film School and a family friend. I was influenced as much by the black-and-white 1960s and 1970s European films I’d watched at small venues in Nairobi as by the films more widely available, by books, by family storytelling. Polish screens opened my eyes to different images and styles that made an impression on me. My mentors on Targowa Street in Lodz included people active in the “Polish School” of cinema – Witold Sobocinski, Jerzy Wojcik, Jacek Korcelli, and theoreticians like Maria Kornatowska.
Jamati: Who are some of your favorite filmmakers and why?
Some of my favourite cinematographers include: Roger Deakins, whose work I’ve followed since he shot The Kitchen Toto in Kenya, Vittorio Storaro, Conrad Hall, Janusz Kaminski, Philippe Rousselot and Rodrigo Prieto. It isn’t easy to say why. Their expression with light, colour, camera placement and movement resonates deeply with me. Directors I admire include: Roman Polanski, Andrei Tarkowski, Raoul Peck, and Ridley Scott. I look at their integrity as much as the mastery of their craft. There is a considerable lyrical strait in me, which finds resonance in the work of these filmmakers. I believe the artistic contribution of a cinematographer is, in the end, about engaging conscience. The use of light and shadow, colour and contrast, camera placement and movement, composition, measure and rhythm, are not so much that you see, but so that you feel. As such, why you should feel is arguably the crucial matter. These filmmakers’ work not only makes me feel, but often reminds me why that is such an important part of being human.
Jamati: The film Forgotten Places, which touches on the misuse of water and the effects of that, is recognized as the first 35mm film made in Kiswahili and has garnered you and Jakub awards in directing and cinematography. Explain the feeling that you get when your work is recognized in such a way.
Yes, Forgotten Places is arguably the first documentary film in 35mm done for the big screen in the Swahili language. The film isn’t about water, really. Jakub remains interested in themes that place our contemporary preoccupations within an expanded perspective of time. Time is after all one of the most universal of human experiences. So, it is a poetic film, which draws on the universal legend of the flood. For Jakub, as for me, time and memory are subjects that resonate with poetry. What we are now is built on the memory of what we once were. Forgotten Places was a tribute to our heritage, a tale about a battle between memory and forgetfulness. The film was produced, by a Polish studio, which is unusual – yet it shouldn’t be. Universal topics, including those from Africa, do get shunted because of perceived regionalism. It was therefore nice to be awarded, and even more so for a film of this nature.
Jamati: Explain the process of putting a film together and the role that the cinematographer/director of photography plays in that.
For me, the essential contribution of a cinematographer is to use the tools at his or her disposal to make the viewer feel whatever the script and director wants the viewer to feel. When the director of photography is brought onto a project early enough, he or she is able to contribute better to the choices available to make that happen. The viewers’ reaction to what is on the screen – joy, dread, awe, fear, disbelief, complete attention – are achieved by a mix-and-match exercise using the elements available to achieve what constitutes for the viewer the quintessential sense of beauty, truth, desire, etc. The cinematographer interprets what the script and the director call for and chooses the appropriate technical and personnel elements to make this real. Be they static or kinetic, in monochromatic shades or brilliantly coloured, distant or close, the screen’s characters and heroes live in a world, which is simultaneously real and surreal. Meaningful cinematography conveys truth even within the highly manipulated images, which apply the latest special effects and test the most sophisticated digital tools available.
Jamati: When choosing a project what are some of the things you take into consideration before signing on?
I take into account, first of all, the story and its message. Then I consider the integrity of the producer, the director and other collaborators. Next I look at the potential tools available to execute the project. And then my agent says “Do it, Stan…”.
Jamati: You shot a documentary entitled Raisin’ Kane: A Raptumentary. What was that film about?
This film followed a Canadian Hip Hop group “Citizen Kane” in order not only to show the individuals’ personal and artistic progression, but also to look at the greater place of Hip Hop in Canada and North America.
Jamati: We talked about how powerful images can be. Talk about that a little bit more.
The motivation behind cinematography and its intended onscreen impact describes the author of the images as much as the viewers. The screen is where both the filmmaker’s and his or her audience’s worldviews are laid bare. Here is where such primary ideas as beauty, love, courage and justice are confronted, exposed or masked. For some, the making of images is a stage to show that humans are destined for strife; for others, to show that more unites us than segregates us. Here, on the screen, are, you could say, dialogues and monologues on honour, generosity, youth, ageing—on life. All this happens on a canvas of illusion—illusion of movement, illusion of concreteness, illusion of reality. Despite illusion, truth becomes real.
Jamati: What do you feel the overall film industry’s portrayal of Africans in film has been? Do you think much has changed?
It has been very checkered and in the past it was often ignorant, negative or both. Well, on-screen image is tied to off-screen reality. Cinema attempts to convey the impression that the material dealt with is as complete or self-consistent as it appears in the camera’s viewfinder. But one of the attributes of the bodily art that cinema is, is that it possesses a point of view. The language of film may be presented as a complex language, but it is also very simple—just like the language of the body. No culture lives in isolation and no culture stays unchanged. Shooting films only reflects a human imprint. Shallow, irrelevant stories immaturely translated onto our screens by the uneducated and the mis-educated will excite nobody. Negativity serves nobody – unless it is a cry to filmmakers to refuse to be coerced into acting as a billboard, an ad, a banner for images without substance, without roots, taking up time and space, but devoid of any reciprocal marks of truth. Maybe the difficulty is contained precisely within the challenge to represent truth and falsehood—this in a profession built on illusion.
Jamati: You’re currently based in Canada. Why is that? How is the Canadian film industry different from the Kenyan film industry?
Canada held a promise for me of an opportunity to practice my profession fully – particularly as far as fiction films are concerned, and in a country perceived to be welcoming and fair to newcomers from around the world. Kenya was only forming its film industry and had mostly served as a stage for occasional American and European feature films or more frequent documentaries for similar markets. Kenya’s own independent production 9 years ago was struggling for funding, lacking any outlet for exhibition, and suffering oppressive censorship. Or else it was producing a few nature films and serving as location management for visiting crews. State-funded production was mostly television news and programming of a propagandist or developmental nature. Local broadcasters had neither policy nor interest in working with or showing independent Kenyan programming.
Jamati: How do you view the East African (Kenyan) film industry today and where do you see it heading?
Kenya does have the potential to have a thriving film industry. This potential has been stifled time and again. The once promising and well-equipped film and television school in Nairobi, at the KIMC, once trained students from many parts of Africa! But few graduating Kenyans had a chance for satisfactory employment or alternative avenues to work as filmmakers. Europe, North America and Australia are all taking steps to bolster their film production and distribution: co-production treaties, agreements on shared facilities’ construction and use, selective import quotas, direct taxation on tickets, interest-free loans for producers, 100 percent tax write-offs on projects budgeted below stipulated amounts. I could go on! Similar commitment is still unknown in East Africa. Intensity of monetary investment is, I dare say, secondary to a clear and supportive film policy. Filmmakers and cinematographers can and will ‘fend’ for themselves given the freedom to express themselves sincerely. Good stories sell well; true stories sell beyond borders.
Jamati: You are branching out and writing a book about the elements of cinematography. What are some other areas you would like to branch off into?
The thoughts in my yet unpublished non-fiction book express my personal exploration and understanding of my occupation as a cinematographer. I write more about what underpins the aesthetic tools that filmmakers use to express light and darkness, awe and fear than the technology of it all. The voice of any cinematographer navigates the philosophies, values and fears of his kin first. Mine reflects and even exaggerates my own dual heritage in order to look for the answers I seek about cinematography’s cumulative nature. I am now based in Canada but hope that my thoughts find a reception as much in North America as in Europe, and even more so in Africa. No, I don’t plan to change jobs!
Jamati: What advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers, particularly African filmmakers out there?
Gosh, a summary!
One: The noblest cinematography, one that leaves the deepest impression, is one that speaks with a universal voice, about universal truth.
Two: Culture—not economic wealth or bare technological prowess—is the supreme tool wielded by all of us. The forms and ideals contained in African art offer a renewed and fascinating challenge to cinematography in general, and African cinematography in particular. Africa has an opportunity to offer a fresh look at the many issues put on the screens today.
Three: The conflicts, which rivet us and our likeness to “the screen near you”, reflect our wanting to come to terms with much that is ambiguous and mysterious about human being. Embrace a culture of solidarity. Generosity has, perhaps, never needed to be a more underlying cultural theme than it does today.
Jamati: Let the readers know what you’re currently working on and where people can view your work.
I have been working on a slew of non-fiction productions. A documentary film I shot with director Monika Delmos titled “Everybody’s Children” will first broadcast on Canadian CBC. Another documentary, on which I collaborated with 2 other cinematographers directed by Min Sook Lee “Tiger Spirit” is scheduled to premier at several international film festivals. Episodes of the docudramas “Psychic Investigators” and “Forensic Factor” show on A&E in the States and W and SunTV in Canada. I am simultaneously shooting “Love Interrupted”, a feature documentary directed by Giselle Portenier.
Jamati: Thank you so much Stan. It has been an absolute pleasure and I wish you much success in all your endeavors.
Thank you very much, Laura – the pleasure is mine.