Joan Churchill will receive the first Lifetime Achievement Award for Cinematography from the International Documentary Association in December. She also recently became the first pure documentary shooter inducted into the American Society of Cinematographers during the 86-year history of the organization. She has some 50 cinematography credits, including Bearing Witness, Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer, Biggie and Tupac, Searching for Jimi Hendrix, Kurt and Courtney, The Story of Mothers & Daughters, Asylum, Lily Tomlin, The Last Campaign, and Soldier Girls.
F&V: Does filmmaking run in your family?
My father, Church, produced and distributed educational films for
schools. When my brother Jim and I were kids, we were actors in many of
them. One might say I got my start in the mailroom of Churchill Films.
F&V:Did you go to UCLA with the intention of becoming a filmmaker?
No, I was an English major. But one summer I took a class in
filmmaking. It was at the advent of cinema verità©, which was just
becoming possible because of technological innovations. I had an
epiphany-imagine doing this and making a living as well! It sure beat
teaching English.
F&V: What did you do after college?
Although I was shooting as a student, it wasn’t anything I thought I
could do professionally, because in those days there weren’t any
camerawomen to speak of. So I worked as an editor. Then my film school
friends started asking me to shoot their films. At a certain point I
decided to give up editing and see if I could make it as a shooter.
There was a rough period when I didn’t know if I would succeed, but I
got lucky when Peter Watkins hired me to shoot Punishment Park,
a narrative film shot in documentary style. The film was about the
escalating domestic turmoil as the Vietnam War dragged on. It was
controversial largely because audiences didn’t realize it was fiction.
That was the turning point for me. I then made a film about Jimi
Hendrix performing at Berkeley, which led to working on Gimme Shelter. That resulted in an opportunity to shoot on the seminal verità© PBS series An American Family.
F&V: How did you happen to go to England in 1974?
Colin Young had been the dean of theater arts at UCLA when I was a student. When he started the National Film School in England, he asked me to come to England and teach for a month. I ended up living in the U.K. for 10 years and working with Nick Broomfield. We got a grant from the British Film Institute to do a film, Juvenile Liaison, about the police in northern England dealing very harshly with young school children who had been involved in some minor mischief. The police leaned on the BFI to suppress it, and it was never shown publicly except for a screening at the London Film Festival. After that experience, we decided to go to the States and, with grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, we made a series of feature-length documentaries. The Pentagon allowed us in to film Soldier Girls, which follows a platoon of women through the agonies of basic training after the army was forced to take them in because of the new Equal Opportunity Laws. [That film won the 1982 British Academy of Film and Television Flaherty Award.] Recently, we did Aileen: Life and Death of a Serial Killer. And I’ve just come back from South Africa where Nick was doing an update of a film he made about an Afrikaner leader who has just gotten out of prison. It’ll be a film about what’s happened to the country
since the "change," as they call it.
F&V: How do you feel about today’s marketplace for documentaries?
It’s a really interesting time. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have
opened it up theatrically by proving documentaries can make money. The
equipment revolution is expanding and providing possibilities and
access in a way no one ever thought possible. There are abundant cable
channels interested in documentaries, and all sorts of new media (DVDs,
cyberspace) which are exciting new outlets.
F&V: Have you felt the urge to make your mark as a narrative filmmaker?
I’ve never for one minute been interested in making narrative films. I
don’t have the temperament. I love shooting in unstructured
environments, where you have no control. You learn how to listen and
follow what’s happening with a subjective camera that actively
participates in the story so the audience can experience it much as you
do, by a process of discovery. For me that process is the most
fascinating thing imaginable, and it’s very much like a narrative film.