Much like the Belgian reporter, cinematographer Michael Boland has dodged peril and travelled the world to get a scoop
Michael Boland (BA 1976 St. Mike’s) is an accomplished cinematographer, but after reading his new book, Through the Lens of My Eye: Adventures of a Documentary Cameraman, I think of him as a modern-day Tintin. Much like the reporter from the Belgian comic books, he has hopped from country to country, encountering intriguing characters and dodging peril in order to capture a story. Boland has roamed far-flung regions of the globe, from northern Niger to the Indonesian island of Sumba, making documentaries about previously inaccessible areas.
Heavily illustrated with 163 pictures and 10 maps, the book details Boland’s “greatest hits,” offering snapshots of the sometimes dangerous world of documentary filmmaking. He recounts his experiences recording gorillas in the Congo’s N’Doki rainforest, navigating wartorn Afghanistan and boating along the eastern coast of Greenland during the tail end of a hurricane.
“It took 12 years to write and 36 years to live,” he says.
A Gemini Award-winning and Emmy-nominated cinematographer, Boland’s career in film began as happenstance. Since childhood, he dreamed of becoming a professional hockey player. At U of T, he competed on the Varsity Blues hockey team – which won the Canadian Interuniversity Sport Championship in the ’68-’69 and ’69-’70 seasons. Attending university part time, he played for various NHL farm teams in the United States, including the Philadelphia Firebirds. In 1975, he played two games with the Philadelphia Flyers alongside his hockey hero, Bobby Clark.
Soon after, Boland jumped at the chance to volunteer his expertise as a hockey coach in Australia, and took a job as a camera assistant at a Melbourne TV station to pay the bills. “I was nervous as hell because I didn’t want to make a mistake,” he says. “It was my first big chance. I was hooked from the first time I filmed. I love it.”
He returned to Canada in the late ’80s to continue freelancing. Over the years, he has worked with every major North American network. Some of his best-known projects are Ken Dryden’s Home Game, a socioeconomic examination of hockey, and the TV series Millennium: Tribal Wisdom and the Modern World. Most recently, he filmed Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne’s profile for the Liberal Leadership Convention in January.
Boland never aspired to write a book, but always felt the pull toward storytelling. Having amassed around 15 diaries from his travels, he started piecing his memories together. “To tell stories is to be human,” he says. “The process is the same in film as it is with words: It’s all about emotionality, character relations and story arc. It’s no different than sitting in front of an editing machine and putting film sequences together.”
One of his most vivid recollections is his 1991 trip up Peru’s Madre de Dios River in search of the Mashco-Piro, one of the last uncontacted tribes. Joined by anthropologists and an international crew of 15, Boland and the film team made their way through the upper-mountain jungle. Although they caught glimpses of three tribeswomen, who waved at them to come closer, they had made an agreement with the Peruvian government not to make direct contact (to avoid the potential spread of Western diseases); instead, they focused on filming from their boats. “It was just so idyllic and magical, venturing into the Peruvian rainforest,” says Boland. “All of the new images and smells, all of the emotion.”
In December, Boland released his self-published ebook on Amazon. “Sometimes it was more of a labour of hate than a labour of love,” he says of the process. “It was like birthing a boat – is it going to sink if I throw it out there? I’ve had some spectacular feedback from my peers, and that’s reassurance that this boat is going to float.”