By Katie Chambers
NYWIFT member Karen Rodriguez is naturally drawn to projects that align with her values, which made her latest cinematography outing, Deciding Vote, a perfect fit! The film just premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Festival in the Documentary Shorts category, and follows a landmark moment in New York state politics 50 years ago, when assemblyman George Michaels cast a single vote on New York’s abortion bill that changed the course of American history but destroyed his political career in the process.
Rodriguez is an Ithaca-based filmmaker and cinematographer. She is the owner of Wind-Up Pictures and is the director of photography of the feature documentary Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing. She designed livestreams for productions at The Cherry Theatre in Ithaca, including And What Happens If I Don’t by Iva Brda, The Wetsuitman by Freek Mariën, and E-Motion by Saviana Stănescu and Daniel Gwirtzman.
A 2017 Fulbright Scholar, Rodriguez holds an MFA in Film and Video Production from the University of Iowa Graduate College.
She spoke to us about her work on Deciding Vote and what types of projects inspire her creativity.
Congratulations on your premiere! What does inclusion in the Tribeca Festival mean to you?
Tribeca is one of the top festivals that everyone pins their hopes on getting into, so it’s fabulous for the film to get that recognition from the festival!
Tell us about Deciding Vote. How did you get involved in the project?
Deciding Vote is a film about New York State Representative George Michael, who in 1971 cast the vote in the NY legislature to legalize abortion in the state – two years before Roe v. Wade legalized it at the federal level. He represented a conservative, Catholic district upstate and the vote ended his political career.
Directors Jeremy Workman and Rob Lyons contacted me when they were looking for a cinematographer to film in Syracuse and Auburn. Frankly, it was a call out of the blue! Rob had found my website and got in touch. They told me about the shoot and I jumped on the project with them. They make great films, so I was happy to collaborate with them.
What was your favorite moment working on the film? And the biggest challenge?
I loved meeting and interviewing Rep. Michaels’ daughter-in-law, Sarah, who had a part in convincing him to vote the way he did. She is fierce and so funny!
My part of the film was shooting and lighting the scenes in Auburn and Syracuse with George Michaels’ family members. The shoot was really well organized by Jeremy and Rob so it wasn’t hugely challenging.
We had the normal challenges of shooting with a small crew – moving quickly, wearing too many hats, and lawnmowers out the window. (Since it was COVID, we had to keep the windows open.)
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
Make the difficult choice, not the politically expedient one. One person can make a difference.
You’ve worked in many genres – from drama, to sci-fi, to comedy, documentary, and more. How does your approach as a cinematographer change from genre to genre?
My approach to a film in any genre is to understand the story and to create a visual strategy that supports the underlying themes. I always want to discuss subtext with a director to see how lighting, composition, and camera movement can support those themes.
And if you’re working in a particular genre there are conventions, precedents, and analogs that you may want to reference (or avoid). It’s important to understand the genre so you can make deliberate choices about how or whether to deploy those conventions.
I’m always interested in a close analysis of the story to develop a visual approach that stems from the themes of that particular story.
I noticed you also worked on another documentary recently tied to women’s issues in government and politics, Women & the Vote. Do you find yourself drawn to social justice stories? What kinds of projects excite you?
I feel best when my work can support social justice. Women & the Vote was filmed on election day in 2020 as upstate voters reflect on New York’s suffrage history, which as you may know is a rich part of the state’s progressive history.
I am a freelancer, which allows me the freedom to choose projects that are aligned with my political values when the opportunity arises. I also take work that is less exciting because I do need to earn money and the politically aligned work doesn’t come around as often as I’d like!
The kind of projects that excite me are films where I’m learning something new in terms of subject matter or in the technical aspects of production. I’m interested in pushing aesthetic boundaries when given the chance.
One of the projects I got involved with during COVID was to collaborate with a local theatre company to live stream their performances. The Cherry Arts is a formally inventive and radically local Ithaca-based theatre company. As the director of the theatre says, it’s like making an independent film live every night in front of a live audience!
What’s next for you?
I just finished shooting a new project with my partner, John Scott, called Modern Fables for Complicated Times which is a visual album on loneliness and alienation and how making music (art) in community helps one alleviate those things. Because the shorts are fables, the main characters are human-animal hybrids played by actors in masks. It has fantastical scenes composited green screen footage of the characters in jet packs with NASA imagery and choreographed dance sequences. It’s going to be wild!
I’m also editing a short I shot last year called The Ref about a trans woman who is returning to reffing hockey after her transition.
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