“Many Moments Are Raw and Shot on Intuition”: DP Iris Ng on Twice Colonized
Twice Colonized, the documentary from filmmaker Lin Alluna, focuses on the life and activism of Aaju Peter, a Greenlandic Inuit who advocates for the human rights of Arctic Indigenous people like herself. As a lawyer, she fights for accountability from Danish and Canadian colonizing forces, all while inspiring Westerners as a whole to confront their own colonial attitudes. As she’s preparing for an Indigenous forum at the European Union, she goes on a journey of personal healing and sudden loss when her youngest son tragically passes away.
DP Iris Ng discusses how she came aboard the project, the third cinematographer to work on the years-spanning film.
See all responses to our annual Sundance cinematographer interviews here.
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?
Ng: When I was approached by EyeSteelFilm who co-produced Twice Colonized with Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s company Red Marrow and Emile Hertling Péronard’s company Ánorâk Film, I was very honored by the invitation, because I have long been an admirer of them. One film, in particular, Angry Inuk by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril, was a film that resonated with me and really affected my perspective of the complicated dynamics around seal hunting and colonial perspectives when it comes to the sustainability of Inuit culture.
I connected with director Lin Alluna’s method of working collaboratively with the film’s main character, Aaju Peter. They shot the film together over several years, and I was the last of the three cinematographers to work with them on Twice Colonized, which meant I had to find a way to connect the different styles of scenes and footage.
Lin had a very decisive vision for the film’s reliance on verité filming and the incorporation of Super 8 to metaphorically illustrate scenes from Aaju’s past. I have a portfolio with both of these attributes, which allowed us to connect and develop a common vision for the film. Further to that, I am very interested in directing my creative energy toward projects that highlight critical and underrepresented stories. This film’s challenging subject matter with its experimental elements felt especially enticing as well.
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?
Ng: We were three cinematographers (David Bauer, Glauco Bermudez and myself) plus Lin who filmed over the seven years that Lin and Aaju worked on Twice Colonized. We each added our own personal touch to the film and lifted the visual side together. E.g. It was David who first suggested shooting new scenes on super 8 to add the layer of magical realism Lin was looking for, but it was Glauco and I who ended up shooting them more than two years after.
Aaju is a brilliant storyteller and has such a strong, poetic language, so when she described her experience as a child being taken to Denmark as “being white-washed,” Lin got the idea to visualize it by shooting a performance on Super 8. For this metaphoric dream space of the film, there was a much more visually scripted and interpretive approach than the rest of the film. Only here did we choose to dramatize imagery based on Aaju’s recollections/accounts as an Inuk woman being “white washed” by Danish colonization.
I feel that when working with and filming communities of which I am not a member, it’s especially important to be sensitive to the dynamics both unfolding in front of the lens and between all parties on set making the film. In this case, it was Aaju, the family, the landscape she encountered, Lin, and I. Lin wanted a very patient camera, holding frames for an exceptionally long time on each shot which aligned well with my desire to focus on channeling as directly as possible what was happening between Aaju and the surrounding elements. During the verité scenes, I didn’t want the camera to do any interpreting, but rather allow events to unfold with visual space so we could always take in Aaju’s emotional state of mind.
It’s important for Aaju to be telling her own story, so it was important for us and the camera to be especially receptive to her needs and what she was communicating to us. It meant complete flexibility, as Lin was always in an ongoing dialogue with Aaju about what and when to shoot. I aimed to have an objective gaze, in the way that the camera would be ‘quiet’ in its movements and give Aaju space in wider shots, while still embodying a subjective gaze guided by her energy.
Filmmaker: What were the biggest challenges posed by production to those goals?
Ng: In some ways Aaju’s relatively cathartic journey through the film is catalyzed by her physical journey, which was inordinately challenging for the fact that there was a tremendous amount of physical travel. In 2021 Lin and Aaju had been traveling and shooting continuously for three months, when I came to Greenland to shoot the last part of the film with them.
In part Aaju was coming back to Greenland to face her past as research for her autobiography, and it was a very sensitive time for her after an already long shoot. Over the course of two weeks we traversed via prop planes, ferries, fishing boats, and helicopters around more than eight towns along the Greenlandic coast to retrace Aaju’s footsteps growing up. It was a real adventure in the travel sense, but in respect for Aaju and her brother Jacob’s emotional journey, Lin wanted to keep the crew intimate, which meant Lin and I were alone with the challenges of moving all our gear and personal items.
Capturing the moments where Aaju and Jacob were boarding or stepping off a vessel were vital to the story, therefore logistically there always had to be a plan of how to move our gear with us. Having to keep this in mind while concentrating on being in sync with Aaju’s energy and mood in the moment, added to the difficulties of filming in the already cramped spaces while they were in motion. Production-wise, it would have been great to be a larger crew, but due to the challenging emotional journey Aaju had invited us to film with her, it was the best way to interfere as little as possible, while filming what we were set out to do.
Filmmaker: What camera did you shoot on? Why did you choose the camera that you did? What lenses did you use?
Ng: Since the scenes I shot in Greenland were mostly verité with spontaneous conversations between Aaju and her brother, I felt very comfortable with my go-to for this type of scenes, which is the Sony FS7II or FX9. Lin had already done a lot of filming on her own with Aaju as well as cinematographers David Bauer and Glauco Bermudez before I came on board. Luckily Lin and the other cinematographers were also filming on these cameras so my method fit in well. I choose this camera for its form factor and my ability to change shooting modes with it while producing a great image. I always feel that it works well as an extension of my shoulder when I use it and have relied on it for many projects. We all shot with Canon Zooms mostly the 24-70mm f/2.8 L II which is great for being mobile with a small crew and being covered for most focal lengths.
For the Super 8 segment, I used my Canon 1014XL-S which is my go-to for anything I need to film in that format. The shutter speed options and zoom range give me the aesthetic I look for when evoking moments in the past or to create the feeling of a different type of mental space such as the scenes we filmed in Nuuk, Greenland.
Filmmaker: Describe your approach to lighting.
Ng: Lin had a dogma of only using natural light and practicals to allow the spontaneity Aaju prefers and not take up physical space from the participants, so we mostly just controlled light with window treatments and added to it with existing practicals, which lends it a very authentic and moody feel. Many moments are raw and shot on intuition, because the priority was the content of the moment and emotional needs of the participants.
For the exteriors, the sun is so low in Greenland in the fall that we almost always had beautifully golden low-sun-lit landscapes, or moody overcast to work with. They were nice conditions to get used to.
Filmmaker: Finally, describe the finishing of the film. How much of your look was “baked in” versus realized in the DI?
Ng: I almost never choose to bake in a look before getting to the color grade, and given this film’s multiple cinematographers and cameras, it made the most sense to keep the film LUT-less until the color grade. At this stage there was a lot of opportunity to delve into the film’s narrative arcs and reflect the pattern of submersion and emergence from grief through the color treatment. There were many versions before the final color was settled upon to channel Aaju’s dynamic emotional journey.
Film Title: Twice Colonized
Camera: Sony FS7II, Sony FX9, Canon 1014 XL-S Super 8, Sony FS5, Sony XDCAM
Lenses: Canon Stills Zooms (24-70mm f/2.8 L II)
Processing: Niagara Custom Lab and Frame Discreet, Toronto
Color Grading: Kong Gulerod, Copenhagen and Cineground, Montreal