Visions of beauty Baltimore filmmaker's eye trained on satisfying art

April 18, 1991|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Evening Sun Staff

BALTIMORE filmmaker Allen Moore tells stories of landscapes shadowed by factories, of fields where battles have raged, of islands where the boulders, water and sky speak as eloquently about life as the islanders.

His latest documentary ''Black Water,'' co-produced with anthropologist Charlotte Cerf, will be shown at 9:15 tonight at the Baltimore Museum of Art as part of the Film Forum's International Film Festival. It records life in Sao Braz, a Brazilian fishing village where traditional livelihoods are threatened by water pollution caused by a paper mill.

Moore has become renowned in filmmaking circles for the way he portrays the intimate relationship of a culture to its environment, a vision he calls primarily poetic.

''The way I frame a shot is telling people about what I see, not what is,'' he says. ''I never say my films are cinema verite, which is a term used in the '60s and '70s to describe documentaries that supposedly were telling the truth. Well, there really is no such thing. This is my personal point of view of a place or a culture.''

The 39-year-old Baltimore native began studying film as an undergraduate at Harvard. Since his first student film in 1973, his documentary work has won numerous awards including grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim Foundation and the Maryland and Massachusetts state arts councils. ''The Shepherds of Berneray,'' his 1981 portrait of a Gaelic-speaking community in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland, is distributed by the Museum of Modern Art's circulating film library.

His cinematography is best known to Americans through such public television series as ''The Civil War'' and ''The Wilderness Idea.''

''When we're working with Allen, our problem is always deciding which shot is the most beautiful. We consider him a genius,'' says Florentine Films producer Larry Hott, who hired Moore for his series about the American wilderness.

''I don't think I've ever worked with a cameraman who worked so hard to get something perfect. . . . I can thoroughly trust him to get the mood, to get the aesthetics.''

Moore receives similar praise from Ken Burns, producer of the nine-part PBS series on the "Civil War." The opening scene of Manassas, an image that haunts the series as much as its plaintive theme, is typical of Moore's work, Burns says.

Allen Moore grew up in Ruxton -- his father, Ray, is a retired dentist -- and graduated from Gilman School before going on to Harvard. He entered the film world through still photography, specifically through the old Leica which belonged to his mother Alleyn. The revelation about his ability came with his first photographs at Gilman, which he remembers showing to classmate Bob Cole, a photographer whose work he admired.

''He started telling me how great my pictures were, that it must be something intuitive,'' Moore recalls. ''But soon I knew that what I was enjoying so much about this was the actual act of seeing -- not the fact that people were telling me I had a good

eye. I became totally addicted to going out and making images. Before I ever picked up a movie camera, I went out and shot hundreds and hundreds of rolls of black and white film.''

Although Moore entered college as a pre-med student, he received his degree in visual arts and worked as a filmmaking teaching assistant after graduation so that he could improve his skills. He retained his association with the university's Film Study Center until 1985. ''Black Water'' is the first film he has produced outside the center.

Based upon two years of anthropological research by Charlotte Cerf, the film combines scenes of fishing and daily village activities with voice-over commentaries by villagers about their lives and how they've changed since the mill began polluting their water.

"The film does not satisfy the need to know what kind of pollution there is or how it's affecting people's health. It's not about why these people aren't protesting, or about what the government's doing about it," Moore says.

''He makes images of nature and people that are connected in a way that immediately separate his films from the normal PBS kind of fodder,'' says freelance cinematographer Richard Chisolm, a Baltimorean who has worked on numerous public television specials. ''In PBS mainstream filmmaking, you either have a bunch of penguins or you have a bunch of stone carvers. Almost all of Allen's films have an integration that's beautiful.''

This doesn't mean, however, that they are making Moore rich. Despite critical acclaim, the films he's produced have yet to appear on PBS, one of few commercial outlets for independent documentary filmmakers.

''We don't even expect to make a profit with 'Black Water,'" Moore says. ''My philosophy about my own work -- which is probably masochistic -- is that if I can raise enough money to pay off the lab and pay my own expenses, then I will continue to make my own films. I will sell my talents as a cameraman and director and earn a fair wage from them.''

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