Screenshot from
Screenshot from 'Mr Martyr'

Conversations and analysis with filmmaker Salomon Lighthelm

Salomon Lighthelm is a South African director currently residing in New York with his family. Lighthelm started his career in music and sound design after recording his own tracks during his youth spent in Johannesburg. His family moved to Dubai and subsequently Sydney, where Salomon was pulled in by the culture and music that he experienced. With ease he took up writing and scoring films that progressed into Kickstarter funded films such as Anomaly, inspiring many other young filmmakers to practice crowd funding. In my interview with the director we discuss his background, style and views on his own work.

Salomon’s approach to cinematic storytelling is characterized by the human stories that fall at its core. Never having studied film in an official capacity, Salomon describes his practice as one where he learns by doing.

Reflecting on Anomaly, the Kickstarter funded project that grew from two minutes to a 37-minute short film, Salomon had the following to say, “It all happened without much forethought quite honestly. My friend Dan Difelice and I wanted to explore the short film format and realized that our idea might be able to live beyond 2 minutes. Initially we only wanted to create a short art film, but then realized that maybe the idea had legs on it, and we could turn it into a 7 minutes film. That became 12 minutes, then 15 minutes, and eventually we had a 27 page script, which turned into a 37 minute short film.”Anomaly takes on the space race of the 1960s as its subject matter being inspired by traditional Christmas Nativity; the film explores events of two thousand years ago through a modern day lens. The story follows relationships intertwining around an unprecedented astronomical event, while a couple deals with life’s realities during a time of inexplicable significance.

Screenshot from ‘Anomaly’

Salomon still takes a shot at working with sound and music in his film pieces and expresses that he enjoys getting his hands dirty, especially in director’s cuts. Stating that he previously used to think more in terms of sound when considering his projects, Salomon’s focus has since shifted.

“Recently I find myself being drawn to interesting characters, more so than visual or sonic ideas. I think my process has evolved from cutting projects around a piece of music, to cutting them based on the beauty of the images, and now I’m trying to focus on developing projects around performance and characters. But the process will come full-circle, there’s no wrong or right way…every artist evolves differently, and has a different emphasis that might shift with time.”

Indicating that he has a particular fondness of colourful imagery containing high contrasts, Salomon strives to make his work feel cinematic and timeless. Showing a particular interest in fashion from a lighting and styling viewpoint, he expresses that that is where he plans to venture next with music videos.

In many of Salomon’s film pieces he makes use of silhouetting, partial lighting, flare and the use of coloured lighting.“I believe in the power of mystery and allowing the audience to do a bit of the thinking and digging work to find the answers for themselves. Using light to partially expose my characters, and subtracting light to create silhouettes are things I do to make the audience more ‘active’, to have them lean in. I do like using coloured light, where appropriate, though I do think in general coloured light is completely overused. I don’t swing colours in post so most of those effects are achieved by using lights that can shift tones via the touch of a dial, or alternatively throwing gels in front of the lights.”

Another signature of Salomon’s is his use of recurring imagery that he attributes to his belief that humans are transcendent creatures, all in a search for meaning, “The imagery that I like to use is hopefully both human and divine – its Michelangelo – the Sistine Chapel – Adam reaching for God.”

Salomon’s body of work contains juxtapositions of natural and city landscapes. When asked about its significance he had the following to say: “It comes back to my interest in contrast, tensions and juxtapositions in general. I like violence and intimacy, light and dark, urban and landscape and everything in between. I like edits that push and pull – that have loud moments and insanely quiet ones. Life is like that, and maybe that’s why it’s significant to me.”

Screenshot from ‘Mr Martyr’

With the human story at the heart of his narratives, Salomon states that he is not drawn to stories that do not contain a basis of reality. Enjoying stories that are real and extreme, he wishes to create a scope of work spanning from violent, to irreverent and subversive to sensitive and vulnerable; “..more than that I want do it within the same film – Jacques Audiard is a master at that. I don’t want everything to be so trendy and cool, that it is void of any soul – I love work that has a heartbeat”.

Salomon has a talent for telling stories of people from various demographics removed from his own, this can be seen in works such as Mr Martyr and Rocket Wars. Rocket Wars’ narrative is that of a war to keep peace in the small village of Vrontados in Chios. The parishioners of two Greek Orthodox churches engage in a battle on Holy Saturday, firing over 100,000 homemade rockets at one another once the sun has gone down. Mr Martyr has a completely different narrative tone and follows the story of a young boxer who is surrounded by gang violence.

Explaining that his ability to tell these stories may be due to the fact that he has grown up in different places all his life, he calls no where home and everywhere home. “I’m an outsider everywhere I goand I used to despise that fact, because I always thought it would limit my ability to tell storiesHowever I have learnt that the outsider’s perspective is not only valid but is also important. To be able to come into a situation and see it objectively and from a non-biased point of view is an asset.”

Salomon’s body of work demonstrates a unique ability to take on virtually any human narrative with ease. His style of cinematic narrative is one that has grown with him over many years of moving from place to place. His approach to story telling is unmatched.

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