Ellen Kuras is one of the best-known directors of photography in American independent film of the past 20 years. She has won the Sundance Film Festival's cinematography prize three times. To list just a few of her credits, she shot Spike Lee's 4 Little Girls, Bamboozled, He Got Game and Summer of Sam, Michel Gondry's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and his new film, Be Kind Rewind, Jonathan Demme's Neil Young: Heart of Gold and Mary Harron's I Shot Andy Warhol.
Before she ever picked up a camera, she started working as a director on her first film about a Laotian family's experiences in the United States. That was 23 years ago and now that film, Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), a gorgeous metaphoric meditation on immigrant displacement and loss, has its premiere at this year's Sundance festival.
Kuras's long-term project represents an extreme but distinct trend in documentary filmmaking toward films that take years. Festival director Geoffrey Gilmore noted at the beginning of the festival that fewer films were coming from the "professional class" of documentary makers and more from people with a personal investigation they were determined to share with the world.
Among the examples are fashion photographer Steve Sebring's Patti Smith: Dream of Life, which took a dozen years, as the director befriended the rock star and poet from the mid-nineties, in the early years of her widowhood to the present. Katrina Browne, a social worker, took nine years to research her family's history as slave traders before completing Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. One of the three Canadian entries in the official documentary competition, The Women of Brukman, by Montreal director Isaac Isitan, follows the women workers who took over a clothing factory after Argentina's economic collapse in 2001 and documents their legal and political battles for the past half-dozen years.