Sean Porter Cinematographer

Sweet Crude

An except from the film.

“Production values are remarkable, especially the aformentioned cinematography and music.” – Variety

Audience Choice Award Cinema Politica Awards 2011
Lena Sharpe Award for Persistence of Vision Seattle International Film Festival 2009
Special Jury Prize DMZ Docs: Korean International Documentary Film Festival 2009
Best Documentary Bahamas International Film Festival 2009
Best Feature Newburyport Documentary Film Festival 2009
Best Documentary Strasbourg International Film Festival 2009
Audience Choice Feature Film Tallgrass Film Festival 2009
Best Documentary Ellensburg Film Festival 2009
Grand Jury Prize Best Documentary Feature Director, Red Rock Film Festival 2009
Programmer’s Award Best Documentary Pan African Film & Arts Festival 2010
Best Female Images in a Movie Women Film Critics Circle Awards 2009
2nd Prize Best Feature Documentary Rhode Island International Film Festival 2009
Nominee 2009 Progie Film Awards Best Progressive Documentary
Nominee 2009 Maverick Movie Awards Best Picture, Best Chronicle, Best Original Score

Official Website
Variety Review

More about the work...

“Sweet Crude, a documentary currently in post-production, tells the story of Nigeria’s Niger Delta—a story that has never been captured on film. Here, in the most populous country in Africa, at the mouth of the Niger River, billions of dollars of crude reside under the feet of a desperate people. This is a region where vast oil revenues and abject poverty stand in stark contrast. Where families face enormous challenges amidst environmental devastation. Where the issues are vastly complicated, the answers slow in coming.

This is the story of people struggling to eat in a land with no more fish. To live with the constant threat of war. To navigate the complexities of meaningful solutions to the most serious of circumstances. To simply survive, perhaps even thrive, if non-violent political solutions can emerge in a hurry. Whether they can succeed is our concern—the stories unfolding in the Niger Delta affect us all.”

– taken from the Sweet Crude website

This experience would take much more room to discuss than would comfortably fit on this page, so instead I’m taking an excerpt from the diary I kept while in Africa talking about the look of the picture:

The look of the film was geared originally to reflect its “cross-section” narrative approach. We knew as filmmakers we would not go in and have the capacity to tell an objective story, even if we wanted to. Rather the idea was to tell as much as we could and contextualize with what we were given during our time over there. I choose intentionally to avoid a large amount of media influence about the area its people in order to ensure an open mind upon entry, devoid of all influence except my instincts and the conversations I had had with Sandy. Our angle was not to shoot news coverage either. I referenced early cinema [ideas] such as the “phantom train” where movies took the audience to a new space, where the images and the sounds had merit without some common grounding point beyond imagination. I wanted to take people to Africa, in a way – and in a way the local or national coverage neglected to. I wanted to be close to these people and their reality – and often that lead to literally a very close proximity between the camera and the subject. However, even when that was not the case, I was always on a long lens – as if a traveler in space constantly picking out details.

This derived style fit generously with the few pre-departure notes I had for the look and feel; I wanted the film to be real but not reality. I wanted it to be more poetic and about the words and the letters, and not so much the essays. In many ways this film carried a deep metaphysical meaning for me in that ultimately we were telling a story about a body of earth which fostered the first bodies of people. From an impressionistic perspective this film is about the textures of anatomy. These brown bodies walk on brown land and drink brown water – brown from the blood of the earth which both sustains and kills us at the same time. Both a blessing of a resource yet the utter destruction of these bodies and their earth. You can’t tell that story in wide shots. So I moved in. I didn’t use light to light but rather to evoke texture. Sun glinting off of these black bodies in focal lengths sucking the weather-beaten skin’s cracks and crevices. People’s bodies and faces as dredged as the canals they paddle in. Hands and feet, inexplicable of age but impeccably aged. If the film was a cross section of a tree – it wouldn’t be a wide shot showing how many rings there were, but rather macro-close-ups of how each ring feels, in moments and gestures, with only references to where they exist in relationship to other rings, bark, etc. Human vision has been noted to have a focal length of approximately 47mm, sans only field of view, however people don’t see the world that way. It’s based on conscious – focus where I might be paying attention to the almost – fisheye outskirts of my widest perception or instead maybe paying attention to the furthest minute detail hundreds of yards away. In this situation a human’s eye based on attention could be hundreds of millimeters in focal length. I wanted the look to have that sort of attention. I wanted it to be deliberate and focused. Most of the film was shot at the longest lens of the DVX100 – approximately 180mm [translated] in 35mm optics. This, of course, didn’t always mean that every shot was a close up; it did mean that every shot intended to pick out details and asked the audience to pay attention.

There were some predictable and unpredictable results with this approach; obviously the long lens flattened out depth perception and decreases depth of field. This worked on a couple of levels. For one, faces and skin and bodies were important visually, and long lenses tend to be better suited for portraiture work, in that they don’t distort features like the wide lenses do. Scale was also very important to the film – pictorially juxtaposing people and their environments. Although a long-lens shot showing a piece of a body and an oil rig a mile away doesn’t get you very much geographical information, to my eye it gets you more appropriate scale on [the basis of] association. Flattening out distance leaves less room for perspective distortion and the mind’s perception of the image can usually fill in the blanks with only a few hints: ie distance can often be ‘felt’ not by seeing the physical ground between objects, but by making judgments based on contrast due to atmosphere. Effects on the picture that weren’t originally intended but fit right in were the intense layering that results from the lens choices. Wide shots typically blend middleground, background, and foreground elements more than long lenses where focus separates as well as contrast. This layering effect was welcome on the narrative front as the story itself is rich with layers and complexities – often which need some sort of ‘scale’ or perspective for context associated with it. For example we might speak to several people who are very upset about the level of poverty in the region; stacked in the foreground or background either an expensive gold watch or a decrepit hut may be the layers which give us a deeper level of attention.
Another result of this shooting style, while closely related, added its own level of complexity; sometimes I’d be far away from the details I’d be trying to draw attention to, and during the process often the frame became a hunt through various layers. Huts, kids, boards, animals and other elements would crowd or stand between me and the subject and suddenly I was trying to peer through one layers to get to the next. This offered a certain level of ‘connectivity’ to the frame: meaning rather than just seeing a gas flare in the distance, I was seeing the connection between a fisherwoman and the gas flare. Not just for visual interest, but again for scale, [and] complexity. This ‘obstruction’ of sorts also increased urgency and confinement – while we were in Warri and Lagos many shots were taken through small crevices in the automobile. Appropriate certainly as we often were very much so ‘trapped’ in our transport but as also in its voyeuristic nature. Photographing military checkpoints certainly couldn’t have been accomplished without literally obstructing the camera from view – naturally reflected in the crowded and obscured frames.

Such complex and crowded frames can’t help but beg for context, while the many voices heard during our interviews were constructed to do just that, visually we needed hints beyond these macro-shot studies. My hand-held, full zoom relented only when I needed to breathe. Nature and the environment was that fresh air (ironically not that fresh). Several landscapes were shot in traditional manners but for specific reasons. No foreground elements, no crowded frames, just the landscape. I really wanted to remove the audience for a few moments. And few scenes could really stop you in your tracks like locked-off distance shots of the flare at night: the never setting sun. For how much kinetic energy exists in the Delta, I really wanted to just freeze for a moment.