From North Circular, directed by Luke McManus.

American Cinematographer Award Announced at 2023 Salem Film Fest

North Circular, directed by Luke McManus and shot by a skilled team of cinematographers, takes prize for its stunning array of black-and-white images.

ASC Staff

Competing documentaries at the 2023 Salem Film Fest presented a wide variety of subjects and styles, and the four nominees for the annual American Cinematographer Award may have been the strongest group since the honor’s inception nearly a decade ago.

The AC Award recognizes visual excellence in nonfiction filmmaking during the festival, held this year from March 23-April 2 in Salem, Massachusetts. This year’s winner, North Circular, offered stunning black-and-white imagery in its examination of an inner-city area within Dublin, Ireland.

AC Editor-in-Chief Stephen Pizzello, a Salem native who judges this award category for the Fest, noted, “In assessing all of these creative visual undertakings, I ultimately selected the documentary whose images lingered the most vividly after a few days of contemplation: North Circular, which presents a consistent cavalcade of shots and compositions that boast an aesthetically impressive ‘wow’ factor.

“Congratulations to all of these documentarians, whom I’d like to thank for a series of very memorable viewing experiences.”

Below, Pizzello offers his assessment of each nominated doc:

Kash Kash: Without Feathers We Can’t Live signals its cinematographer’s intelligent approach with a striking opening shot of pigeons being placed in a sack — from an unusual perspective that places the viewer at the bottom of the bag. Set in Beirut, Lebanon, this documentary provides a modern-day look at an old tradition known as “the King’s Profession.” As legend has it, a pair of rulers decided to settle a conflict and avoid more bloodshed by pitting their flocks of birds in combat. That game, now called Kash Hamam, involves players attempting to lure other players’ pigeons into their own rooftop bird lofts. The game only involves male pigeons, specifically marked to distinguish their flock. If a player succeeds, the reward is ‘Kash.’

“Director Lean Najjar and cinematographer Jonas Schneider create a strong sense of place in documenting this pursuit, which is too serious and involving to be called a mere hobby. Their documentary profiles several pigeon-loving players whose passion for this undertaking is evident throughout.

“The fascinating exploration of this unusual game is strengthened by trenchant commentary on the political and social crisis in Beirut, drawing parallels between the game and the plight of its players. Throughout the doc, Naijar employs a variety of techniques — including lens flares, selective focus, mixed lighting and an artful use of background bokeh — to enhance the ambience of its settings; scenes of political unrest are also handled artfully and skillfully.

“In sum, Kash Kash does what a good documentary promises by immersing viewers in the subject matter, providing intelligent context, and promoting empathy and understanding. It was justly rewarded with the top prize for feature documentaries at the 2022 Camerimage cinematography festival in Poland.

Lagunaria, directed and shot by Giovanni Pellegrini, takes viewers on an elegant and scenic tour of Venice, Italy, a legendary city that is a work of art in itself. Pellegrini shows us all facets of the famous place, often in floating, ethereal shots that capture the city’s languid rhythm. His use of the widescreen format maximizes his outstanding compositional approaches to architecture, and shots featuring watery reflections give the documentary a dreamlike, timeless feel. An exceptional use of color flourishes prevails throughout, and the doc’s night shots convey the quiet, sometimes eerie mystery one experiences on a tour of Venice.

“The landscapes of the mind are the focus of Cabin Music, a portrait of an unconventional pianist — James Carson, who also directed the documentary — that conveys his creative process in a parade of dazzling images that place viewers in his subconscious. Translating musical inspirations into images is no easy feat, but this documentary’s team of cinematographers (Carson, Brian Leisring and Aaron Munson) manages the challenge with a free-flowing stream of abstract images paired with handsomely crafted shots of the musician, his instrument, and his surroundings as he travels restlessly around the world seeking inspiration. Gorgeous widescreen landscapes and contemplative shots of nature are juxtapositioned with shots of frenetic urban activity, producing a Zenlike meditation on the elusive nature of musical creativity. The abundance of otherworldly images is expertly edited, lending a sense of musicality to the visual rhythms. In sum, Cabin Music is a poetic journey through the mind of its creator, and a supremely immersive visual experience.

“The winning documentary, North Circular, directed by Luke McManus and shot by a clearly skilled team of cinematographers (McManus, Evan Barry, Jamie Goldrick, Patrick Jordan and Richard Kendrick, with additional camerawork by Alex Sapienza and Thomas Beug), presents a stunning array of black-and-white images framed in the boxlike 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The documentary’s title refers to a road that curves through Dublin’s inner city, where its residents give voice to their struggles through interviews and musical interludes that celebrate a strong Irish tradition of personal expression through song.

“Bold framing of the doc’s settings result in striking compositions throughout this documentary. Shots of natural settings and urban landscapes are presented in graphically compelling frames that create an aura of melancholic reflection as subjects discuss the hardscrabble realities of life in this particular section of Dublin. The images have a truly cinematic quality that occasionally recall black-and-white ‘kitchen sink’ films of the 1960s, or even film noir. Tougher images are balanced with others that have a lighter, lyrical quality, providing viewers with the full sense of the area’s ambience.

“All four nominees demonstrated the value of a cinematographer’s eye in bolstering compelling subject matter with strong imagery that provides observant subtext and beauty,” Pizzello concluded. “Picking a winner was very difficult, so I’d like to note that all of the filmmakers in this group deserve to be applauded for their efforts.”

A feature story on North Circular will appear in an upcoming issue of AC.

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