In Conversation with Director of Photography, ZOE DIRSE

In the lead up to celebrating the sixth edition of the DOC Institute Honours, we profiled the 2018 recipients selected by DOC members and a jury of industry professionals. This week, we are featuring an interview with the recipient of the 2018 DOC Luminary Award, Zoe Dirse. 

DOC INSTITUTE (DI): Considering that you have had such an expansive career, I was very curious about what keeps you going. Have you seen anything recently that inspired you or made you think, “right, this is why I do what I do?

ZOE DIRSE (ZD): I can say with true honesty that I’ve been watching some television series that are really quite amazing. In terms of being a cinematographer, I’ve enjoyed Big Little Lies – the first season was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée from Quebec and shot by Yves Bélanger, a terrific director of photography from Montreal. Most of the crew were all French Canadian, and I was watching it thinking, this doesn’t even feel like a series. It feels like a whole feature film. It’s so well crafted and so well put together.

That was really lovely to watch and feel really proud to see people that I knew and worked with. I’m very active right now with the Canadian Society of Cinematographers–I’m on the Board of Directors–and it was my mission when I first became a full member to get more women and directors of photography from Quebec. And it makes me happy to see that it’s happened! There are some terrific women that are now full members that I knew and worked with when they were starting out.

DI: It’s great that you’ve been able to see this shift yourself. How else have you seen the industry change throughout the years? 

ZD: Well, when I started out there were hardly any women in the industry and I thought, well, what’s wrong with this picture? I was in my 20s and I had finished my degrees at U of T in psychology and education and had studied second wave feminism. There were a few professors who were very influential for me; especially Kay Armatage who I had the privilege of working with on some of her early, early stuff just as a volunteer. And I realized that I would love to be a cinematographer! I loved taking photos and I thought it was such a lovely creative process because I was so enamored with cinema. But then I started looking around and realized, wait a minute, they’re all guys! But I wasn’t turned off by it, it just felt odd. It just didn’t make any sense.

In my teaching career too I noticed that a lot of the students would want to be either directors or cinematographers and it was interesting to see that most of the students that wanted to be cinematographers were male. That’s still fairly the case. But I think what’s key is role-modeling–that they see that there are women that do it, have done it, and can talk from experience to the students about that reality.

DI: You’ve spoken a bit about the collaborative nature of working in film and meeting the right people along the way. What was the value of working in community throughout the course of your career?

ZD: Documentary is my passion and I’ve always had an interest in documentary even in the very early stages of my life when I was working as a teacher in an alternative high school. I would show a lot of documentaries, go to the library, rent a projector and show them NFB films! I was dreaming and thinking, oh I would love to be a part of that process! But the collaborative sense of the community didn’t come until I got to the film board in the early 1980s. The documentaries coming out of that time were so powerful internationally.

When we travelled around the world, people would know about our films and we realized what an impact we were making. For me the Film Board really instilled the sense of collaboration and working as a team so that everybody had a voice. There were times I was on my way to the lab and would get pulled in to watch a rough-cut and see different versions of a film that I had worked on, or someone else had worked on, and I could give my opinion and they could listen or not listen. But that sense of collaboration was there; sometimes it just came down to being safe too. When you’re walking backwards in a hallway with a camera on your shoulder, you’ve got to have someone watching your back so you don’t fall over!

DI: Something that we often hear about is the difficulty that emerging filmmakers have breaking into the industry. But as someone who has worked in the industry for so long, one thing I’m curious is about is what were the challenges you faced as you started making more films, whether with the Film Board or after that period?

ZD: Well I think ageism in the industry, especially for women, is a definite prejudice. People start to think that you’re not up to it. But you can’t beat experience, and that’s something that I would tell my students all the time. I’d say, “You’re making your first film, and you’ve written a script. Go out and hire that DOP who’s 70 years old and hasn’t shot anything in two or three years. And I’ll bet you they’ll do it for a deal and you’ll get a fantastic looking film!” They look at me and say “Really?” and I say, “Don’t always hire your best friends. They may not do the best job for you. Especially when you’re starting up because you’re in a learning curve yourself”.

It’s also a psychological barrier that you as an older cinematographer have to overcome. You have to get over that yourself, maybe by doing more fitness training and physical training so that you can keep up with the rest of them. The job is very physically and mentally demanding and we need to be more cognizant of that, and especially in documentary you never know the circumstances that you might come across. I can’t remember the last time I climbed my last volcano! You have to find your niche so that you can keep going and keep working.

A few weeks ago I was helping out a few friends and we had to film a female director on a big NBC set here in Toronto. They were working with former students, but the students didn’t have the skills to react to sudden changes and make them work. So in this particular case,  we were running late in getting into the room to set up the lights. The director wanted me to light from one side, and then the producer came running in to say, “no no no, the editor wants you to light from the other side”. And then the director came back in and said, “no no no, I need you to light from this side because of my lazy eye!” So everything had to happen within seconds, without batting an eye. I said to my assistant at the time, “I hope I wasn’t too tough on you because of the time” and she said, “It was amazing to watch you work because it would’ve taken me two hours to set that up, but you did it in minutes!”

So there is that advantage that comes with experience: being able to do in minutes what it would take someone else hours to do.


The Rogers DOC Luminary Award is given to an individual who embodies the creative spirit of the Canadian documentary tradition and displays generosity by supporting the next generation of doc-makers through mentorship, working behind the scenes to ensure that the genre remains strong for generations to come.

Both members and non-members are eligible to be nominated, but only current DOC members can submit nominations. Nominations must be submitted before Friday, September 13, 2019. To submit your nomination for the DOC Institute Honours click here.