People talk about the problems in the world. Politicians make policies that either aid or harm those in peril. Artists tell the stories of these individuals in a way that can allow all of us to personalize and connect with those facing life’s extreme difficulties. Chris Lew is just one such artist who used his skill and talent as a cinematographer in the film “Shahzad.” The entire world seems aware of the crisis of immigrants and refugees; it’s a global circumstance. The BravoFact short film “Shahzad” tells the story in a very real and intense manner. The filmmakers went to great extents to portray the story of two immigrants who move to Canada in hopes of living a better life. It’s a story that is difficult at times to watch but important to do so if we are to have empathy for our fellow man. While Lew has served as DP on a number of varied productions from films to music videos, he counts “Shahzad” as one of the most important and rewarding experiences of his illustrious career. Without heart, talent fails to resonate with any gravitas in any artistic endeavour; “Shahzad” rings out like a loud drum, full of emotion and soul in its conviction. To say that “Shahzad” is full of surprizes is a gross understatement. A gripping film which keeps you on the edge and full of astonishment, “Shahzad” is modern storytelling within a realistic framework.
Director/writer Haya Waseem and Chris have had a close relationship in and out of work for a number of years now. As passionate filmmakers, they often discuss potential projects. When Waseem wanted to make a film commenting on the disassociation one can feel on a societal and personal level, it was a given that Lew understood her perspective and would be the ideal cinematographer to help manifest the tone and look to communicate the film’s message. With Producer Prionnsias James Murphy overseeing the project, director and cinematographer were able to focus on the storytelling. Murphy comments, “The film’s subject is as relevant to today’s society more than ever. Chris’s immense skills as the cinematographer allowed this story to breathe an authentic life into the frames that captured it throughout the course of the filming. His incredible understanding of form and function, both character and character arc, as well as the protagonist’s relationship to the surrounding world is what made Chris the perfect individual to work with throughout this film. His expert use of lighting and camera placement captured a character throughout scenes of uncertainty and conflicted identities. Even if you have a great story, you must create heartfelt and intriguing imagery to portray it. Chris Lew is without a doubt an expert in this field.”
Audiophiles have been espousing the merits of vinyl in the past decade and have actually steered a portion of the recording industry back to this century old method. They are adamant that the sonic benefits are massive. In a similar way, Lew persuaded the production of “Shahzad” to use actual film rather than digital to capture the imagery for this story. This was not due to any disdain for digital but rather that he felt the quality of 35mm Fuji Film stock was ideally suited to match the story. He explains, “We wanted to shoot on film for a couple reasons. For one, all of the narrative work which Haya and I have done has been shot on film. It’s special to us and we believe in the format enough to fight for it. We also felt the look was appropriate to this story. There are software and effects to help mimic the look but it never looks exactly the same. No matter what you apply to the digital file in post, the sensor isn’t capturing the same color, producing the same grain that’s reacting to the light, and maintaining the same dynamic range that film has. The reason for our decision was artistic but it’s worth noting that there is a misconception that film is radically more expensive than digital…when in fact it isn’t. Because there aren’t as many film projects anymore, equipment is cheaper to rent as a lot of it isn’t being used. On top of that, labs are willing to cut deals because they want to encourage filmmakers to shoot on film. If you’re concise and know what you need on set, film can be the same cost or even cheaper than digital. I acquired the film through a UK company called frame24. They had a batch of 35mm Fuji film that we purchased and had shipped to Toronto.”
The inspiration for this was a product of Chris’s research for the film. In his work pouring over old photographs from the 70’s shot in Pakistan, the colors of the images conveyed a strong emotion. The photos were shot on Kodak using their Kodachrome stock. This Kodachrome stock was full of contrast with grainy and blue tones that really stood out. The images made Lew feel the texture and dust of Pakistan. Kodak has since refined their stock to be some of the cleanest film imaginable but Chris found that Fuji was very similar and even added a “dirtier” look that he admired.
The film revolves around the boy Shahzad and the culture shock he goes through and the internal turmoil that it creates for him. Without giving away the major twist of the film, Shahzad begins to find his personal home life as confusing as his social life in this new city and school. Lew’s affinity for handheld camera work allowed him to communicate the boy’s emotional and mental state. As always, empathy enabled Chris to create touching and provocative imagery. He describes, “He’s a shy boy who’s been placed in a new world so he’s both nervous and curious. Knowing this and reflecting on my own experiences being that age and going to a new school, I translated those feelings into the movement of the camera. This then resulted in choosing to shoot the early school scene and dinner scenes static and the later scenes at the school handheld. When I was younger I was the quiet boy in class. I was always nervous at the beginning of every school year and wasn’t very good at socializing. However, I also knew how great it was when you did manage to connect with people who would eventually become your friends.”
Conflict is part of life and a big part of what Shahzad is dealing with in this film. It’s an aspect which is present in all of our lives no matter what our age or position in the world. Lew admits that there was pressure put on himself and Waseem to shoot in digital because of its prevalence in the industry. Just as the character in the film, the filmmaking duo stuck to what they knew was right for their vision because some things in life are worth giving your best.