American Cinematographer


January 1999

The Art of Filming Dangerously
By Kathleen Fairweather

McKiernan, who documented the siege at Wounded Knee, has covered the Contra/Sandanista war in Nicaragua, the civil war in El Salvador, and counter-insurgency in Guatemala, is now working on a film focusing on the plight of the Turkish Kurds, entitled Trouble in Paradise: The Untold Story of 2 Million Refugees.

McKiernan, who also co-produced the documentary special The Spirit of Crazy Horse, which aired recently on PBS' Frontline, explains, "There is an illusion of safety when the camera is in front of your face.  Although it is not a shield from the danger or the reality of the situation you are filming, it creates a kind of distance.  I'm very good at calculating the risks, but sometimes I must calculate them under extreme duress.

"I constantly ask myself, 'How good am I before I make mental errors?' I believe I know when to quit; however, I am usually sleep-deprived and running on empty while I am making those decisions.  I have learned, though, that it is okay not to always go after the gold.  I have learned to sometimes settle for the silver and be happy with that shot.  There is a moment in every cameraman's life when you know you've done enough.  Knowing when to quit is everything, but at the same time, it is also a very hard decision to make."

McKiernan acknowledges the dangers of staying too long in a volatile situation.  "Your presence always changes things," he notes.  "It is impossible to be there as just a fly on the wall.  You can completely change the tone and the outcome of an event just by being there with a camera."

On more than one occasion, locals in various places have offered to stir things up by verbally harrassing villagers and throwing rocks at them.  "Do we make things worse or better?" McKiernan wonders, adding with a sigh, "Sometimes they see us as snitches, when we simply point our cameras at the truth.  Still, the personal fulfillment and rewards are great - even in the most dire of circumstances."





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