Lensing Laos: Malcolm Murray and Michael Meyer prepare a shot in a village north of Luang Prabang for Camera, Camera.

Laotian Tourists Focus Murray's Camera

Michael Fox March 2, 2010

When Laos revised its visa structure to allow visitors to stay for more than one week, Westerners with digital cameras surged over the border. Sensing that the pervasive pocket technology affected their travel experience, Malcolm Murray embarked on an unusual documentary that sees the country through tourists’ eyes. “I wanted to talk to people about what kind of picture they were taking, and look through the lens of amateur travel photography,” he says. “Using a macro lens, we shot the screen of people’s cameras. We have a mic on them, and they feel anonymous because we don’t see their face. But we see their photographs, in a sense. People opened up really quickly and revealed things they didn’t even mean to reveal.”

Murray and New York cohorts Michael Meyer and Josh Haner just finished mixing the one-hour film, and have started sending it to fall festivals. Camera, Camera is not in the mold of documentaries made for public television (or rather, American public television)–for example, there are no lower-thirds or other identifications after a lone initial designation that the country is Laos–and just how far it will go is very much an open question.

“You come into scenes through people’s digital cameras,” Murray explains. “We have scenes at regular speed and slo-mo at 48 or 60 frames a second, which are meant to be between still photography and real life. We slowed things down so that the world felt more like a photograph. And I tried to avoid showing the sky. I wanted you to feel almost as though you were walking around inside a digital camera.”

Murray was aiming for a claustrophobic feeling, with relatively few wide shots, which is the opposite of the typical travelogue’s aspirations. “Some people have never seen a film like this and they love it, and other people miss having things explained,” Murray confides. “I don’t judge either camp. I always wanted to make this kind of film, so I had to get it off my chest.” You can take a gander at the trailer at

Very much part of the new breed of filmmakers who learned on their own as kids and bypassed film school, the New Mexico native can attest that the digital revolution long ago exploded beyond the media centers to reach every corner and desktop in the country.

“I grew up skateboarding,” he says. “I was one of the first skateboarders in New Mexico who learned how to edit. I was a pretty popular guy, because skateboarders love to film themselves.”

In 2006, Murray received a Watson Fellowship that sent him filming around the world. “I came back, sold my car and bought a camera and said, ‘I want to live somewhere where I don’t need a car and can make a living as a filmmaker.’ My choices were San Francisco or New York, and I decided to start off in San Francisco.”

At the Swerve festival in Los Angeles the following year, where he had a film in the running for best short, Murray met some people from the San Francisco production company Mechanism. They started calling him for cinematography jobs, which he eagerly accepted. “I’d never even been on a real set before, and I was shooting,” Murray recalls. “I, of course, didn’t tell that to them.”

Shooting commercials and industrials allowed Murray to learn skills and techniques that he wouldn’t have tried or developed on his own projects. It also gave him a nice income. Most memorably, he met Frances Nkara (Downpour Resurfacing) operating a boom on a commercial shoot–only the second filmmaker he’d met in his life, he says–and took inspiration from her success. And all the while, he was incubating the idea for a film on Laos that had struck him on his Watson travels.

“Piece by piece, job by job, every time I made some money, I’d buy some equipment,” Murray says. “I finally had a nice rig. My plan was to always go back within two years and give making a film a shot. It was just a question of how long it was going to take financially. ‘When am I going to be able to afford to go there and be secure when I come back and have some time to edit?’ I wouldn’t have to freak out the second I got back, ‘How am I going to pay my rent?’ As someone who had never made a film before, it seemed to make more sense to work and save money than try and get grants. I was competing with people like Frederick Wiseman, which is tough.”

When Murray was in the position he wanted to be, and took off for Laos, he caught a surprising break. “It was the perfect time to make a film, because the economy crashed and there was very little work. We were originally worried about missing jobs, but there were none to be had.” While his peers were treading water and trying to stay afloat, Murray was moving ahead. He chuckles. “Moving somewhere, at least,” he replies.

The trio divided up the equipment before they crossed the Thai border into Laos, to give the appearance of tourists if any of them were stopped. “It was nerve-wracking because the gear wasn’t insured against government seizure,” the filmmaker notes. On the way out, they did the same thing with the drives that contained their footage. Murray shot about 100 hours altogether, considerably less than other docs, in his estimation.

When he turned to the States, Murray picked up again with Mechanism, with most of the jobs originating in the New York office. “I was going back and forth between New York and San Francisco and bringing drives with me and editing when I could,” Murray reports. The whole process was fairly nomadic, both the production and postproduction.”

Murray has gradually made the transition to being based in New York, with occasional jobs brining him back to the Bay Area. Whenever and wherever Camera, Camera makes its San Francisco bow, Murray will be on hand.

Notes from the Underground
Riad Sattouf’s The French Kissers (Les Beaux Gosses), which opened SFFS’s French Cinema Now series last fall, received the Cesar for best first film. A Prophet dominated the awards, winning best film, director, screenplay, cinematography, editing, production design and lead and supporting actor. Jacques Audiard’s epic prison drama opens this Friday, March 5, around the Bay Area. The Roxie will be closed March 8 through April 1 for renovations, with a grand re-opening slated for April 2. Root for the home team this Sunday night, when Rick Goldsmith and Judith Ehrlich’s The Most Dangerous Man In America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers vies for the Documentary Feature Oscar. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s onscreen as we speak.

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