While the feature film ASIA was not able to have its World Premiere at Tribeca as originally planned, it earned rave reviews with Variety praising cinematographer Daniella Nowitz (AFI Class of 2014) for her camerawork which made the film “quietly moving, bringing dignity and compassionate humanism.” Tribeca took notice as well, awarding Nowitz Best Cinematography in an International Narrative Feature Film. The film follows two Russian immigrants living in Israel – a woman and her teenage daughter (UNORTHODOX’s Shira Haas) who happens to be differently abled – and candidly explores the challenges of the mother-daughter relationship.
Originally a travel and editorial photographer for publications like National Geographic and The Guardian, Nowitz trained to become a cinematographer at the AFI Conservatory. Her award-winning films have been featured at Sundance, Tribeca, AFI FEST and other major festivals. AFI spoke with her about her time at the Conservatory, shooting internationally and her experiencing making ASIA.
AFI: Congratulations on receiving the Best Cinematography Award at Tribeca!
Daniella: Thank you, it was such a pleasant surprise, especially after we thought the festival had been canceled due to COVID-19. I received the news a week after giving birth to my daughter, so it felt fitting to have my work recognized in a film about motherhood!
AFI: ASIA was originally scheduled to have its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival before the COVID-19 shutdown – the film instead premiered online, although awards were still announced to honor filmmakers’ work. Can you talk about what that recognition has meant to you as a culmination of the work you all did together?
Daniella: It saddens me that ASIA was not experienced in the theater with other viewers and on a big screen. At the same time, I think this premiere is very fitting for the character of the film. It is the story of two women trying to make the best out of the worst circumstances and clinging to small moments of happiness in a sea of sadness. I think it is a true testament to the film that it was able to reach people even when faced with the challenges of not an ideal premiere.
AFI: Director Ruthy Pribar was awarded the Nora Ephron Award at Tribeca for her work on ASIA. What was your creative partnership like with Pribar? Can you talk a little bit about how you prepared for the shoot?
Daniella: I was introduced to Ruthy a few years back on a trip to Tel Aviv and we immediately hit it off. At the time she was writing the short film THE CAREGIVER and suggested I come over from LA to shoot it. She had already been to Cannes Cinefondation with the ASIA script, and I remember being very intrigued by the story.
THE CAREGIVER was an opportunity for us to develop a common cinematic language. Ruthy’s characters are people who fight to experience moments of joy and wonder, even while being in a lot of pain. This is reflected in our visual style, which strives to be realistic, dark and somber but still full of magic and beauty.
For Ruthy, locations were everything. ASIA takes place in Jerusalem, a city which conjures iconic imagery in most peoples’ minds. We shot far from the holy sites in a working-class immigrant tenement neighborhood. The authenticity of this part of the city was paramount to Ruthy so we would spend hours wandering around these neighborhoods and knocking on doors, finding little corners that would make for a rich and textured backdrop for the scenes. These scouts allowed us to begin blocking the action and creating a shot list. They also allowed us to find the unique beauty of Asia’s world in locations that some might perceive as ordinary or mundane.
AFI: You have shot narrative features and television in four continents, and you speak five languages. For ASIA, the dialogue was in Hebrew and Russian with English subtitles. Can you talk about what those experiences have been like – working with international crews in various environments in different languages – and how that has shaped your process?
Daniella: As a kid and a young adult I traveled quite a bit with my father who worked as a National Geographic photographer. I learned a lot on these trips, not only about photography, but also about people, problem solving and street smarts. Although I had always dreamed of becoming a filmmaker, I began my career by following in my father’s footsteps as a travel and editorial photographer. Although this must be one of the most fun jobs in the world, something was missing for me creatively. I was not interested in depicting the beautiful facade of a place as much as its inner truth, even if seemingly less beautiful. So I applied to AFI and learned that what I had really been searching for is story!
What’s so inspiring about the AFI experience is not only that it gives you all the tools to become a filmmaker, but it also teaches you how to become the type of filmmaker best suited to your individual skill set. So much of my 2014 class is successful today, and each in their own unique way. My career path was built around the desire to keep traveling and experiencing new things.
My first feature LIVE CARGO, directed by fellow AFI alum Logan Sandler, was shot on the Bahamian island of Bimini during hurricane season. This production taught me the importance of minimalism and versatility when shooting on location. Many of our scenes took place in places with difficult access: beaches, boats, underwater. The island had one narrow road crossing it, most of it unpaved. There was no way to transport the gear by truck so my grip, Tyler Winegar, devised a method of daisy chaining laundry baskets with equipment to the back of golf carts. This forced me to be minimalistic with lighting, especially since storms were frequent and we needed to be able to wrap quickly and get inside before conditions became unsafe.
Learning to work with a small footprint informed many of my decisions on the Filipino film WATCHLIST which I shot a few years later with director Ben Rekhi. This political thriller about the Duterte Drug Wars was shot in the Manila slums, in neighborhoods most hit with drug killings. Since conditions were not always safe, it was important to be able to leave a location quickly. This shoot additionally taught me the importance of spontaneity even in narrative filmmaking. Our locations changed so quickly that we’d often shoot a scene in a place we were seeing for the first time. My gaffer and I would laugh about how the standard night exterior lighting package was two light bulbs and an LED panel.
I love international work because not only does it teach you to be minimalistic, spontaneous and inventive, it also so deeply enriches your understanding of the world and of the human psyche. These are all important skills for a filmmaker and are useful even on more contained productions.
AFI: How would you describe your visual style? In what ways has your background as a photographer influenced your filmmaking?
Daniella: I believe that every cinematographer must adjust their visual style to the script. Although we can influence and inform style, it is not solely ours to set and is based upon the story and the vision of the director. I love the process of experimenting and finding the style with the director. There is nothing more joyous to me than shooting a film that looks nothing like my previous work.
AFI: In your experience, what do you think is the key to a good collaboration between a cinematographer and a director?
Daniella: I think it’s important to click with the director creatively but also to be open to learning new things from each other. For me a great creative relationship with the director is when, during shot-listing, they go back and rewrite certain aspects of scenes. The shot listing process allows directors to “watch” their film, often for the first time. If while trying to hone in on the visuals you ask the right questions and paint interesting images, directors can discover so many new things about their script.
AFI: What projects to do you have on the horizon?
Daniella: After ASIA, I stayed in Israel for two more projects which will be coming out soon. The feature film APRIL 7, 1980 is a political thriller directed by Nadav Schirman who also made the Sundance award-winning THE GREEN PRINCE. It’s the story of child hostages being held by Lebanese infiltrators in Israel a couple of years before the outbreak of the first Lebanon War. I also have an episodic drama coming out called NORMAL created by Asaf Korman who directed the Cannes Fortnight film NEXT TO HER. The show is about a manic Ritalin addict whose father (also an addict), checks him into his favorite mental health institution. I am excited about both these projects because they have a great energy and are very different than ASIA stylistically. While ASIA is static and controlled, these shoots were a wild sort of handheld experience influenced by the work of Paul Greengrass, the Safdie brothers and Lars von Trier.