Cinematographer stresses alliances in Discover the Academy presentation

When someone refers to Martin Scorsese as “Marty,” you know you’re in the company of a mogul. Ellen Kuras, Oscar-nominated and Emmy award-winning director, freely calls her friend Mr. Scorsese “Marty,” and has earned the right to do so.

As part of the “Discover the Academy” presentation Tuesday night in the Bright Family Screening Room, Kuras covered a variety of subjects—from her cinematographic work on Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Ted Demme’s Blow to her moving, Oscar-nominated documentary, The Betrayal, about the chaos following the secret American air-war in Laos.

Her work ethic, and the artistry that follows, has catapulted her to an elite level of Hollywood professionalism. In life, as in her cinematography, Kuras spoke of her desire to find truth.

“I just shoot what’s in my mind’s eye and the world around me. I don’t copy what other people do. It’s very much an intuitive thing with me,” she told the Beacon.

To top the evening off, guests of the event were able to hold an Oscar trophy provided by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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The importance of sustained friendships and lifelong alliances in the industry represented a consistent theme in Kuras’ presentation. Affirming what Emerson students strive to do, she stressed the importance of developing strong relationships, and mentioned the number of business partnerships in Hollywood she fostered in college.

Gesturing to the large body of Emerson College students before her, she advised that in such an all-consuming and dedicated industry, good friendships can power one through creative inertia.

“Great relationships get you through periods of doubt. These are the people you turn to,” she told the audience.  

For overwhelmed film students, Kuras offered a promising anecdote. Her 2008 documentary The Betrayal, which was nominated for an Oscar, grew out of a passion and proximity to the subjects of her film, Laotian immigrant neighbors. An interest in their story became a thesis project at New York University.

“I really believed in the story I needed to tell, about universal values and what happens to people in war,” Kuras learned to speak Lao to better understand the subjects of her film.  Taking 23 years to finish, The Betrayal spanned much of her professional career.

“In a sense it was my albatross. I couldn’t rest until I finished it. I had to change my way of thinking not as something that I should do, but something that I wanted to do,” she said in an interview.

Political issues and embargoes were partly responsible for the elongated process, but over the years, she found her passion project allowed her to explore the world of filmmaking.

“I ended up using the film as a way for me to explore visual metaphor, and how to tell a story,” she said. “So, for me, it was always a way of reconnecting with myself almost like this open diary that I had, of filmmaking, of cinematography, of a place for me to be able to go to experiment on different ideas.”