When writer-director Steve McQueen started to prepare Small Axe,his medium-defying five-film exploration of West Indian life in the U.K., his regular collaborator Sean Bobbitt, who has shot all his feature films, was unavailable. So McQueen tapped the up-and-coming Antiguan cinematographer Shabier Kirchner, named one of Variety’s “10 Cinematographers to Watch” in 2018. For a project that inhabits Caribbean culture in the diaspora, it seems only appropriate that a collaborator born and raised in the West Indies captured McQueen’s stories and characters on film (and digital), and the result is a remarkable, sprawling cinematic achievement.
For each installment, McQueen and Kirchner selected different cameras, formats and lighting packages to best capture each story. For the epic courtroom drama Mangrove, 35mm film imbues a sense of gravitas and history in each grain, and in Red, White and Blue, close-ups shot on 35mm convey the inner turmoil inherent in star John Boyega’s performance. Skater and sailor Kirchner operated the Alexa Mini to put audiences right into the center of the sweaty, swoony dance party that is Lovers Rock, while the more narratively experimental Alex Wheatle was shot on the Sony VENICE digital camera. The final film in the series, and perhaps McQueen’s most personal story, Education, was shot on 16mm film.
The largely self-taught Kirchner, both a director and cinematographer, is in the vanguard of an emergent Caribbean cinema. He’s highly aware of his role in uplifting West Indian film, telling Filmmaker Magazine, “This isn’t cinema, this is ancestral. In a time when our histories are fading, I want to be able to keep making choices that preserve that in any way possible.” May Small Axe be only one of the first of many projects that contribute to that crucial history.
— Katie Walsh