“It’s about the emotion, the performance, the rhythm and the space between the words”: Rosa Ruth Boesten on her SXSW debut document Master of Light

master of light (Photo: Jürgen Lisse)

A breathtaking cinematic non-fiction book by Rosa Ruth Boesten master of light follows classic painter George Anthony Morton, a fan of Rembrandt, as he conjures up exquisite portraits of his own family members in the style of the Old Masters. Morton, who never had formal training, nevertheless managed to land a place at the New York branch of the Florence Academy of Art, eventually studying in Europe and winning prizes abroad. Which would be a remarkable achievement for any American, let alone a Kansas City black man who spent a decade behind bars for drug trafficking.

But equally remarkable is how Boesten creates her own striking portrait of the artist, using such highly stylized camera work and sound design that a viewer (me) wonders if master of light is actually a doc. Patiently and unobtrusively, Boesten guides the unconventional painter from his small studio to the vast (and impossibly white) Rijksmuseum, and from quiet visits to an (African-American male) therapist to the chaotic streets of Kansas City. There, Morton spends time with his relatives-turned-models and makes painful attempts to connect emotionally with his troubled mother (when he doesn’t bail her out of jail).

Ahead of the film’s SXSW debut on May 12. filmmakers reached out to the Amsterdam-based director, who has been collaborating with various artists since she first set her sights on her grandmother as a textile artist, to find out all about the Globetrotter production as well as working with Roger Ross Williams and his One Story Up . And of course painting with light.

Filmmakers: So how did you meet George and, especially considering his trust issues, convince him to take part in the film?

Boests: A good friend of mine from film school met George in New York, where he was studying at the time. I’d been doing short documentaries about artists for a while, so she felt I should hear his story and see his artwork.

I was impressed by his talent and his life story. After she connected us, I caught up with George a few months later when he was traveling around Europe to visit all the major art museums. I showed him some of my work and shared my approach to filmmaking. He was happy to share details of his life and was interested in my connections with the Dutch art world, as Rembrandt was his favorite painter at the time.

We have shared a lot of artistic research and embarked on an interesting quest for the depiction of black people in Dutch and Flemish art of the 16th and 17th centuries. George wanted to find his own place in this classic art tradition that he felt so inspired by but at the same time excluded. This search created a bond and a level of trust. But I also think that the process of filmmaking inspired him as a painter, and at the same time, for example, the way he looked at metaphysical concepts inspired me as a filmmaker. We really took the time to build a level of trust and understanding.

Filmmakers: How did you get involved with One Story Up? (I suspect Roger Ross Williams, who lives part-time in Amsterdam, may have been a factor.)

Boests: That was definitely a factor! I knew Roger had made a film about the American prison system (American prison) and attended a demonstration in Amsterdam. I approached him afterwards and then sent a teaser I made from my first footage. He loved that teaser and we met up a while later. I had been trying to get this project off the ground for a while and when he told me he wanted to produce the film I was really excited. Roger introduced George and I to many amazing people.

Filmmakers: How did working with George actually work? What limits have been set? Did he share control of the final cut?

Boests: Especially in the early stages we had a lot of conversations about his life and what would be important for him to be in this film. George opened his whole world to me and shared the many ways in which his life experiences, his art and his identity are connected to the systemic racism in this country.

The vision for this film was developed in a very collaborative way, but I also knew that we had to have a certain distance so that we could film and of course I could follow it. We had to find the right balance. He wasn’t part of the editing process. I needed that freedom as a filmmaker to find the film in all of our footage. I find it difficult to keep enough distance from one’s own story during the editing phase. He saw the first rough cut and shared his thoughts with me and Ephraim Kirkwood, our editor.

Filmmakers: The production required traveling across multiple cities, filming at the Rijksmuseum, filming family members in unstable situations — not to mention dealing with the pandemic. So what were some of the biggest logistical (or personal) challenges you faced?

Boests: The borders between the US and the Netherlands were closed when the pandemic first hit, so I relocated from Amsterdam to Atlanta for nine months to continue filming key parts of George’s journey. It forced me to work alone without a crew, which was challenging but also allowed me to be more flexible and capture very intimate moments. In general, I like working with small crews. Even after the Covid situation eased, it was often just me and Jürgen Lisse, our cameraman, especially when we were shooting the scenes with George’s family.

Filmmakers: At one point I actually paused the screener I was looking at just to check that it wasn’t narrative work. (Which, as a cinematic non-fiction devotee, absolutely excites me.) The cinematography and sound design are so stylized. Did you actually direct specific scenes or just use fictional film techniques?

Boests: I went to film school and am interested in making films in a cinematic way, whether they are documentaries or feature films. It’s about the emotion, the performance, the rhythm and the space between the words. Jürgen Lisse and I have spoken many times about the cinematic approach of this film. We wanted to make a film that is instinctive and rooted in reality, but with artistic and poetic moments. None of the Verité scenes were staged. It took a lot of patience, but we ended up capturing the right moments pretty organically.

there became some shots we set up in advance. For example when George enters the Rijksmuseum. I wanted to capture the moment when George first walks through this gallery of paintings that were all painted by white people in a tradition that excluded black people, although there were definitely black people in classical art.

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