A stunning work of cinematic nonfiction, Rosa Ruth Boesten’s Master of Light follows the classical painter George Anthony Morton, a fan of Rembrandt who conjures exquisite portraits of his own family members in the style of the Old Masters. Never formally trained, Morton nonetheless managed to land a spot at the New York branch of The Florence Academy of Art, eventually going on to study in Europe and win awards abroad. Which would be a remarkable feat for any American, let alone a Black man from Kansas City who spent a decade behind bars for dealing drugs.
But likewise remarkable is how Boesten crafts her own evocative portrait of the artist, employing such heavily stylized camerawork and sound design as to leave a viewer (me) wondering whether Master of Light is in fact a doc. Patiently and non-invasively Boesten trails the unconventional painter from his small studio to the vast (and incredibly white) Rijksmuseum, and from calm visits with an (African-American male) therapist to the chaotic streets of Kansas City. It’s there Morton spends quality time with his relatives-turned-models and makes painful attempts to emotionally connect with his difficult mother de ella (when he’s not bailing her out of jail).
Prior to the film’s SXSW debut on March 12, filmmaker reached out to the Amsterdam-based director — who’s been collaborating with various artists since first turning her lens on her textile artist grandma — to learn all about the globetrotting production, as well as working with Roger Ross Williams and his One Story Up. And, of course, painting with light.
Filmmaker: So how did you first meet George, and, especially considering his trust issues, convince him to participate in the film?
Boesten: A good friend of mine from the Film Academy met George in New York, where he was studying at the time. I had been making short documentaries about artists for awhile, so she felt I should hear his story about him and see his artwork about him.
I was amazed by his talent and his life story. Once she connected us I met with George a couple of months later when he was traveling through Europe to visit all the major art museums. I showed him some of my work by him and shared with him my approach to filmmaking. He was excited to share details of his life and was interested in the connections I had in the Dutch art world, as Rembrandt at that time was his favorite painter.
We shared a lot of artistic research and went on an interesting quest in search of representation of Black people in Dutch and Flemish art from the 16th and 17th century. George wanted to find his own place in him in this classical art tradition that he felt so inspired but at the same time excluded by. That quest created a bond and level of trust. But I also think the process of filmmaking inspired him as a painter, and, simultaneously, the way he looked at metaphysical concepts, for example, inspired me as a filmmaker. We really took the time to establish a level of trust and understanding.
Filmmaker: How did you connect with One Story Up? (I’m guessing that Roger Ross Williams living in Amsterdam part-time might have been a factor.)
Boesten: That has been a factor for sure! I knew Roger had made a film about the American prison system (american jail) and was present for a screening in Amsterdam. I approached him afterwards and then sent a teaser I had made from my initial footage. I have loved this teaser and we met a little while later. I had been trying to get this project off the ground for some time, so when he told me he wanted to produce the film I was truly ecstatic. Roger introduced George and me to many amazing people.
Filmmaker: How did the collaboration with George actually work? What boundaries were set? Did he share control over the final cut?
Boesten: Especially in the early stages, we had many conversations about his life and what would be important for him to include in this film. George opened up his whole world to me, and shared the many ways in which his life experiences, his art and his identity are tied to the systemic racism in this country.
The vision for this film was built very collaboratively, but I also knew we had to have some distance in order for us to film and for me to follow him naturally. 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 within all our footage. I think it’s hard to have enough distance from your own story in the editing phase. He did see the first rough cut and shared his views of him with me and Ephraim Kirkwood, our editor.
Filmmaker: The production required globetrotting through several cities, shooting inside the Rijksmuseum, filming family members in unstable situations — not to mention navigating the pandemic. So what were some of the biggest logistical (or personal) challenges you faced?
Boesten: The borders between the US and the Netherlands were closing when the pandemic first hit, so I moved from Amsterdam to Atlanta for nine months to be able to continue filming important parts of George’s journey. It forced me to work by myself without a crew, which was a challenge but also allowed me to be more flexible and capture very intimate moments. In general, I like to work with small crews. Even after the Covid situation eased, it was often just me and Jurgen Lisse, our cinematographer, especially when we filmed the scenes with George’s family.
Filmmaker: At one point I actually paused the screener I was watching just to double-check this wasn’t a narrative work. (Which, as a cinematic nonfiction devotee, absolutely thrills me.) The cinematography and sound design are so highly stylized. Did you actually stage specific scenes, or were you just applying film techniques typical of fiction?
Boesten: I went to film school, and I’m interested in making films in a cinematic way whether it’s documentary or fiction. It’s about the emotion, the performance, the rhythm and the space in between the words. Jurgen Lisse and I discussed the cinematic approach for this film many times. We wanted to make a film that was visceral and rooted in reality, but had artistic and poetic moments. None of the verite scenes were staged. It required a lot of patience, but ultimately we captured the right moments pretty organically.
there were some shots that we set up ahead of time. For example, when George walks into the Rijksmuseum. I wanted to capture that moment when George first walks through that gallery of paintings that had all been painted by white people in a tradition that has excluded Black people, even while there definitely was Black presence in classical art.