“On the First Film We Had Been Arrested, so We Knew This Danger Was Real”: DP Henrik Bohn Ipsen on President
Camilla Nielsson’s President tells the tumultuous story of Zimbabwe’s 2018 general election, the first since the country attained independence that Robert Mugabe was not a candidate. It is in many ways a follow-up to Nielsson’s 2014 film Democrats. DP Henrik Bohn Ipsen discusses the film’s difficult and ephemeral subject matter, and the synergy between his camerawork and Nielsson’s direction.
Filmmaker: How and why did you wind up being the cinematographer of your film? What were the factors and attributes that led to your being hired for this job?
Ipsen: I had worked with director Camilla Nielsson on her previous film Democrats, where we spent three years filming on and off in Zimbabwe, plus I have shot other films in Zimbabwe and lived there for a while, years back.
During the filming of Democrats, we got to know a lot of people in Zimbabwe’s political world and we learned how to navigate in this often complex environment. So, when Camilla needed a cinematographer for this film, I think she felt that we should continue our collaboration since the people we would be filming with in Zimbabwe already knew us and trusted us as a team.
We are a two-person band—Camilla handles the boom. This is also a huge advantage when access is a big issue. During Democrats we learned to work that way, very much in synch. We agree on what is important and we work almost without words—it like a dance. I know what Camilla wants and she knows what I am doing, and if she thinks I am off, she can always direct me with the boom or hit me with the boom if I am very far off…. This makes it possible for us to be present and film in places where we have to be unobtrusive and allow the participants to do what they need to do without any interruptions.
Filmmaker: What were your artistic goals on this film, and how did you realize them? How did you want your cinematography to enhance the film’s storytelling and treatment of its characters?
Ipsen: President is a documentary, a film. It is very much a “now” film. We have to be in the moment and see events unfold, also when it happens in the most unexpected ways. So, we need to be right there when it happens. I want the camera to be present and alive and breathing with the characters.
Both Camilla and I very much trust and follow our intuition. I listen a lot and I try to focus not only on the action, but also on what is being said and on the psychology of the characters. In the chaos I try to find small moments with reactions from the characters on what happens to them.
I am very particular with the camera’s distance to a character and how the characters move in accordance with one another and the frame size, and to find a framing within a story, which adds to the larger story.
So, my main role as a cinematographer is to be totally aware of what is happening and what is about to happen, with one eye on the main characters and one eye on Camilla. And because Camilla is booming all sound, then there is a strong focus on what is being said, and we try have a flow that is guided both by the picture and the sound. We also try to challenge the more stereotypical pictures we often seen from Africa.
Filmmaker: Were there any specific influences on your cinematography, whether they be other films, or visual art, of photography, or something else?
Ipsen: We are from Denmark in Europe, but our work tradition is actually very close to the American tradition of direct cinema. Camilla is influenced by the American documentarist Frederick Wiseman, so I looked at his work, of course. I graduated in cinematography from the National Danish Film School, which at the time was primarily focused on fiction cinematography and storytelling. I carry this training with me, but our documentarist methodology is very much inspired by direct cinema. I have always loved and found inspiration in reportage still photography. I remember thinking of Russian posters filming the crowd at Nelson Chamisa rallies for President.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Ipsen: In the filming of President access was difficult and critical. Our characters have a lot at stake. They are trying to bring democracy to a dictatorship, which also means that they and we are operating in an environment where we all have to think a lot about what we say, how we move, where we stay etc. This story covers an important part of Zimbabwe’s history, so the story had to be filmed now. We also knew that we might be under some scrutiny since the previous film Democrats was banned at first, and it took a court case fought over two years by the director to get the ban lifted. So, when we started on President we knew we would be watched closely by the regime. We therefore decided to use our visibility as a strategy, but also be extremely careful when choosing where to show up and when.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on?
Ipsen: The SonyFS7 Mark II.
Filmmaker: Why did you choose the camera that you did?
Ipsen: I have worked a lot with this camera. I like it a lot. it is lightweight and I have customized it for handheld to my liking. The 4K/ S-og is good in high contrast African light conditions and low light situations. I like to have a viewfinder. It is the part of the joy being a DP to look in a viewfinder and connect to what you are filming. Looking at a screen doesn’t give you the same attention and buzz, I feel.
The Sony wireless sound and 4 XLR channels work very well too. All in all the Sony FS7 mark II suits our two-person crew very well.
Filmmaker: What lenses did you use?
Ipsen: Sony FS7’s ratio is Super35, but with a speed booster almost full frame. Normal zoom lenses for the Super35 are only five times zoom. And if you have 10 times zooms they are normally very big and heavy. So, I decided to use zoom lenses. I decided to switch between a Canon EF 24-105mm and an old canon 28-300mm. This was because I knew I would not always be able to get close enough to a scene or character or close enough to get a close up or detail. Also, I knew it could be difficult to change lens middle of a scene; it might ruin the whole scene if I needed to do that. When characters and events are very unpredictable you need to be able to act very fast. The 28-300 has some disadvantages. It loses light zooming and it does not have low aperture. I also used a two times extender. But in a movie like this I need to be able to wide out and zoom in in an instant. Because if you don’t catch the right moment, then it is gone. It will never come back.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Ipsen: The whole film is shot in available light. When working in Zimbabwe I was very careful with the exposure. I didn’t want to lose the skies and I didn’t lose the faces.
As a documentary DP you often have to use the light sources available in the locations. You can maybe move an available lamp or bulb at the location or block a window. Often I find that I don’t add light but deduct light to catch the mood of a specific location. In interior daylight situations I often deliberately block some light out or turn some mixed lights off, but often there is not even time for that, and we just have to shoot in the conditions that are there already. During interior night scenes we have to shoot with whatever light there is available.
Filmmaker: What was the most difficult scene to realize and why? And how did you do it?
Ipsen: The biggest challenge when filming President was that we never knew much about the plans of our characters in advance, because they needed often to operate in secret. We were known in Zimbabwe, and we were very visible. And if we did one wrong step we could get thrown out of the country or, even worse, create problems for our participants. On the first film we had been arrested, so we knew that this danger was real.
The hardest period was the election day and the immediate aftermath, especially the first of August when the army was let loose on a demonstration. Six people were killed and many were injured. This was a terrible day for everyone in Zimbabwe, especially in the capital Harare. We are extremely grateful for all the camera people and journalists who shared their material from that day with us so we could show what really happened in the film. The government had promised a peaceful election in Zimbabwe. We wanted to show that this was very far from peaceful.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Ipsen: I want to keep the colors and mood from the location. I want to keep the colorfulness and the exposure. If you try to give a film “a look” it can sometimes date the film, because it soon feels like it relates to a certain time period or trend. My hope is that President will stand as a document about Zimbabwe—that it will be seen in the future in Zimbabwe as well as across the world.
Film Title: President
Camera: Sony Fs7 Mark 2
Lenses: Canon zoom ef 24-105mm, and Canon ef 28-300mm
Color Grading: DaVinci and Nucoda Filmmaster