February 23, 2017


Matter Of Life A Death

Forgive me if I misquote one of our great philosophers of the 20th century, and former manager of Liverpool Football Club, the great Bill Shankly, who once said, in his syrupy Glaswegian accent, "Some people think that cinema is matter of life and death, I'm am very disappointed with that attitude. I assure you it's much more serious than that.”

Well, OK, so that's not absolutely correct. But I share his feelings, and in this time of falsehoods and fear, let's just call it an "alternative fact".

Of course, he was famously talking about his first passion – football. And I'm talking about mine – cinematography. Because for me cinema is deadly serious, and never more so than at this time of self-inflicted chaos. Chaos that says to me is it's time to get serious, and that culture and cinema had better stand up and be counted. Falsehoods, fear and greed spread when free thinking stops, and the vacuum it creates is filled by the powerful and their shareholders. Philosophy, art, and freedom of expression are getting tossed aside and, as I've said before, now is not the time for cinema to disappear into fantasy. No, it's time that culture and cinema stand up and reveal some truths.

Like so many kids, who discover sport, music or art as their route in life, I too was inspired and moved to do something better and, probably like you, that thing was cinematography. It illuminated my life. It was cinematography that showed me how to view the world. To capture a truth about our existence and our struggles in this world. At its best, cinematography captures the human condition and though as cinematographers we each see film in different ways, we still share a common vision and common method. It's not only that we put our passion into each and every frame, and every project, but also that we always put the camera at the heart of the story. Because cinematography is serious. It's not just merely a collection of beautiful images. No it's much, much more than that. It’s more than life and death.

So what do we see coming out of the Hollywood machine? What has been its response, to this time of "post truth"?

Unsurprisingly the major studios have shied away from reality and packed their cinemas with fantasy. In fact, of the top twenty, big-earning movies of 2016, nineteen are fantasy films, all of which have set box office records, producing ever bigger profits for the major studios. Which is, of course, good business. But what this says to me is that nothing is about to change in the near future. Our stages in and around London and further afield are busy with fantasy. We know what to expect ­– more of the same.

“So what?,” you say. “What does it matter? Obviously, this is what audiences want and anyway, it’s creating jobs. So it's not a matter of life and death.” 

No, for me it's more serious than that. It's serious because audiences deserve better. We have less and less choice when it comes to the cinema experience and that means that the breadth and depth of cinema are being marginalised. Great directors, actors and cinematographers all find themselves bound up in this race for profit and truth lies bleeding.

It's no wonder that philosophy has been left on the bench, that truth has been sidelined. Realism isn't a style that's in or out of fashion. It represents our relation to the world. When an audience is entranced by movies of fantasy and illusion, where images are computer generated and dystopian worlds collide with each other they make chaos normal. Then it's time for a little clarity, a touch of honesty, less greed and more truth.

OK, I admit life isn't all about gritty realism, but neither should it be all about the opposite of realism. There ought to be a balance. Ideas shouldn't shadow one another. Lack of choice is a dangerous thing.

I also admit that cinema is not "a matter of life and death", nor does it change the world. But it can and should change people's understanding of the world.

Bill Shankly wasn't a great filmgoer, but he knew about life and I happen to agree with him. When he spoke about his passions, he also said, "I believe in everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. That's the way I see football, that's the way I see life.”

Bill Shankly took a crappy, second-rate football team and went on to win the European cup, three league championships and two FA Cup finals. Now that's inspirational. Long live cinema.

Barry Ackroyd BSC


British Society OF Cinematographers