Cinematographer TinNgai Chan on the Harrowing Nature of Desert Angel
Filmmaker Vincent DuLuca of Big Pup Film http://bigpupfilm.com/about/, has established his voice in both narrative and documentary films. Ranging from his work on feature films like the Sundance Film Festival Award Winning Three Backyards, starring Edie Falco, Embeth Davidtz, and Elias Koteas, to Drinking From The Well, DuLuca has leaned towards a focus on the “regular” people of the world and their extraordinary stories. Continuing his more than a decade as a documentary filmmaker shooting throughout the world in Africa, the Americas, and the Middle East, DuLuca’s latest offering is Desert Angel. To present this tale of an immigrant hero required the absence of comfortable surroundings and footage obtained by an equally adventurous, and talented cinematographer. Enter TinNgai Chan. Having worked with the DP previously, Vincent was a fan of his framing but was uncertain of Chan’s willingness to immerse herself in this arduous environment. Rebuking the notion, TinNgai professes, “I love shooting narrative but shooting a documentary like this one gives me a sense that I can help people and that’s a great feeling. Suddenly this is not just a job. It gives me a deeper understanding of what cinema can be in that it makes people connect and help one another. We would go in filming for days and weeks with these people who I might not encounter if I weren’t shooting the film and we ended up being friends. That’s tremendously powerful. This was a chance for me to have a peak to these universal emotions of people from very different background, which is very valuable to me as both an artist and a person.”
Rafael Larraenza has spent a quarter of a century saving lost immigrants along the US-Mexico border. His story is too epic to be believable as a fictional film. Having illegally crossed the border into the U.S. some forty years ago and establishing himself as a naturalized and contributing middle class American, Larrenza’s fate led him back to the unforgiving border-crossing lands with the goal of aiding those whom have become lost in them. Now an elderly man whose difficulties includes a double hip replacement, Rafael refuses to stop his mission to help those who would surely die without his assistance. Without telling his story with a personal vantage, it might be easy for pundits to label him an outlaw. Desert Angel gives a first-person account of the true self-sacrificial hero Mr. Larrenza is.
Vincent DuLuca understands the epic trait of this story and hired TinNgai for the cinematic DNA that he brings to his work. Much of the footage obtained is captured “on the move” and expeditiously. Surprisingly, Chan cites Andrei Tarkovsky and his ability to depict time and emotion in a magical/realistic way as an inspiration for her approach on this documentary film. This utilizes improvised practical special-effects and highly creative elements to achieve a unique visual language for the film. From the levitation of household items to a wall of retro TV’s displaying a sequence of home videos and family clips from the immigrant subjects of the film, the way in which information is delivered by the filmmakers of this documentary is intimate, personal, and imbued with a sense of perceiving what is “our” reality versus “their” reality.
TinNgai confirms that the desert is a location which lends itself well to the suspension of reality. One hundred and twenty degree temperatures, the constant fear of losing life-sustaining water rations, and the looming possibility that you might arrive too late to save someone; this can easily alter one’s sense of normalcy. Chan imparts, “The terrain is most certainly challenging to move in, let alone to film in. Our production took great pains to ensure as much safety as possible but I I found it necessary to experience at least a part of the toughness and the danger of the geography because that experience eventually informs me as to what kind of visual I am looking for and what emotion I am trying to capture. It’s really the empathy that makes the possibility of a successful shot or sequence. We’re not just making a movie; we’re trying to really understand the people.” Desert Angel is scheduled for release in late 2021.