Sara Mishara's cinematography is so arresting that she's competing against herself at the CSAs
One of Canadian cinema's greatest assets is finally getting the credit she deserves for her stunning work
When Sara Mishara was in her first year at Concordia University, a chance encounter in the hallway led to one of the most significant artistic collaborations of her career.
Having fallen in love with photography at an early age, Mishara enrolled in Concordia's Film Production program after doing a crash course in filmmaking at a university in Prague when she was 19. It was early on in the school year when she turned the corner to see a young man screening rushes on Super16 mm film in an empty classroom.
"I walked in and said, 'Wow, these are really beautiful, who shot these?'" recounts Mishara, calling from Montreal between prep days on her new feature film.
"It was Maxime Giroux. He was screening footage from his first short film. We introduced ourselves to each other, and later on, after we screened our films together in the auditorium, he said: 'Hey, I'd love it if you could be my cinematographer.' I didn't even know what a cinematographer was at that point. The first short film we did together was really complicated — two long takes, shot on a dolly, where we had to put a 400-foot magazine on a Bolex camera. And since then, I've basically shot every film he's ever done."
If you're not familiar with Sara Mishara's incredible body of work, you need to get acquainted. She's the 42-year-old woman with 29 IMDB credits to her name — which excludes her prolific work in music videos and commercials — whose work recalls the dramatic, lived-in chiaroscuro compositions of the late Gordon Willis. Though her first feature film credit dates back to 2007, lately she's been on an incredible roll, creating staggeringly beautiful images for some of Quebec's most interesting filmmakers. This week at the Canadian Screen Awards, two of Mishara's films are up for Best Cinematography.
I must profess that I'm something of a Mishara fangirl or stan. I first fell in love after watching Stefané Lafleur's dreamy, surreal 2014 comedy Tu dors Nicole, which was shot in black and white in the suburbs of Quebec. With its handsome languid walk-and-talks and wide shots full of zany personality, the film felt like the glorious love child of Frances Ha and every great movie from the French New Wave. Seeing this film led me to a deep dive of all things Mishara, as I became astounded by her penchant for delicate, fragile lighting (see: Maxime Giroux's Felix and Meira) and striking painterly compositions (see also: 2018's road trip dramedy Boundaries, starring Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer). She's simply one of the most fascinating cinematic artists in Canada right now. And clearly, the Canadian Academy agrees.
Mishara's first nominated film is Allure, from the first-time filmmakers The Sanchez Brothers. It's an unnerving psychological thriller, shot on a large format Alexa (commonly used in the new Star Wars films and first employed in the The Revenant) that captures a troubling romance between stars Evan Rachel Wood and Julia Sarah Stone. The use of sensual neon lighting and a searching, roving camera creates the film's damming sense of isolation and great erotic tension.
An even more impressive effort can be found in Maxime Giroux's The Great Darkened Days — also up for a bevy of awards, including Best Picture, Best Lead Actor and Best Director. It's modernist pop art in motion as she uses available light and found locations in Ely, Nevada to create a mythic tale of a Charlie Chaplin impersonator played by Martin Dubreuil, trying to escape a dystopian war. Shot on a budget of less than $300,000 dollars, the film is a staggering triumph, despite nearly killing the two buddies from film school.
"When you're with someone you know well and you know exactly what their taste and skill set is, it feels like you can really take risks," says Mishara. "But it felt like everything really was on [mine and Maxime's] shoulders — which is a good kind of pressure, but it's also physically exhausting."
"I had a camera and a couple lights I was setting up myself; Maxime set up the dolly track with our producer. Every day I was hauling the camera cases and carrying stuff up hills. Afterwards, we both felt like it would be fun to make a movie exactly like this, but with more money and more time — kind of what it must've been like to shoot a Terrence Malick movie."
In my own little film community, I've always been the exception — hired by men, surrounded by men...I was always like, 'This door is shut — but it's what I want to do, so I'm just gonna find a way.'- Sara Mishara
While Quebec's native financing system SODEC has recently implemented a 50/50 gender parity law, breaking into the industry wasn't easy for a young, ambitious Mishara. After graduating from Concordia, she found it difficult to gain on set experience as a woman, so she decided to strike it out on her own. First, she got a Masters of Cinematography at the American Film Institute, where she learned everything she could about the technical aspects of her trade. Then, like a young Rocky, she hit the gym.
"There's a culture that's inherent to the way we structure film sets that's very military and very masculine," says Mishara. "It's about long hours, it's about not being comfortable, it's about pushing yourself to the extreme. I always really felt like I had to embody more of a masculine personality at work — one that was kind of unbreakable, fearless, with no emotion."
"Even today, I feel like we talk a lot more about how things are 'changing' than how things are actually changing. When I was first starting out, sexism was such an ingrained part of film culture that it wasn't questioned; it was just inherent. It was something so expected I was just always one step ahead. That's why I went to LA, which gave me a real technical knowledge, so if people ever questioned me, I was super well-informed. I worked out a lot, so I could hold a camera longer than any other guy."
"In my own little film community, I've always been the exception — hired by men, surrounded by men. I'm finally gonna work with the first ever all-female camera crew on my next film and it's never happened to me before. I'm very happy for the younger female cinematographers who are just starting out that the door feels a bit more open. Because I was always like, 'This door is shut — but it's what I want to do, so I'm just gonna find a way.'"