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Valentina Caniglia: “I don’t want to victimize myself. I know I can do it!”

Is it tough being a female cinematographer in a business that is traditionally occupied by men? Yes, it is, confirms Italian cinematographer Valentina Caniglia, who has worked in the US since 2001. But she does not want to complain too much about it or come across as a victim just because she happens to be a woman. Caniglia is focused on breaking the glass ceiling the best she can. To get to that point, she is focused on empowering herself. The goal is to make big studio movies and help other women in the business.

Valentina Caniglia made her first film in 2008, West Bank. The film, Pomegranates and Myrrh, was directed by Najwa Najjad and had its US premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. The work went on to win the audience award at the Tribeca Doha Film Festival and the Golden Dagger for Best Cinematography at the Muscat Film Festival.

She has, since those days, worked on several projects such as the TV series The Captain and the short film Without Grace. More recently, she made Adieu, Lacan , which had its US premiere on Apple TV+, and Amazon Video. It won the Global Film Festival Award for Best Cinematography.  However, she still has not achieved her goal: to break through to the big Hollywood studios.

A few days ago we met with Valentina Caniglia at the International Women’s Month Five-Star Daytime Salon, at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills. She was attending a panel with accomplished directors Mary Lou Belli, Lisa Marta Cunningham, and Lisa Frances. The symposium was moderated by Gil Robertson, from the African American Film Critics Association (AAFCA).

You were part of the International Women’s Month Five-Star Daytime Salon at the SLS Hotel Beverly Hills. Why was it important for you to participate in this event?

First of all I wanted to be present for Mary Lou Belli, to celebrate her. She is the reason I moved to LA and she is a great inspiration to me. Personally, I felt I gained a lot of hope and joy because I saw so many women in the same room who were elevating and supporting each other. It was really focused on how we can help each other make a change and how successful women can help other women become successful. I have done this in my work as a cinematographer. I have helped open the door for other women in the business. It was very emotional to see that there were like-minded women in the room. At some point in my career I experienced that the worst experiences were with women, and I just don’t want to be like that. I want to be supportive.

Why is it important to have events like this?

It is important because we see ourselves through other women, and to know that you are not alone in your struggles. Many women go through a lot of obstacles. Even when you are successful you can face obstacles. These kinds of events remind us that all of us experience difficulties. It is difficult for all women. As an immigrant woman, I find it very difficult to break through. It could be because I have an accent or for whatever reason, but I don’t want to victimize myself. I think we are strong and we can make it. When we have the will, we can do it. For instance, I went to Palestine to shoot a film with bombs over my head and I came out alive.

If you should mention just one important thing you took away from it, what would that be?

The women directors who were there said that they were willing to hire women DPs and a lot of directors asked for my business card. I also learned that there are agents who really want to fight for you. I recognized the advantages of having an agent.

There is a lot of talk about women having a harder time breaking the glass ceiling. How do you experience this? Is it true?

It is true. But I do think that we will break this ceiling if we really want to. So, I focus on empowering myself.


You have worked with accomplished directors like Spike Lee, and you’ve been the cinematographer for several episodes of TV series and movies. Which project made you feel that you had made it and which experiences stand out for you?

There are a few projects that stand out. The TV series The Captain is one. Spike Lee was the executive producer and the director was Randy Wilkins. That was very satisfactory. I loved it because I started to know a world that I didn’t know before. I stepped in with a new perspective to light and move the camera in a different way. I have done some projects with the director Deborah Kampmeier. That was amazing. I was the cinematographer for the film Tape, with her, starring Isabelle Fuhrman. I did Without Grace, starring Ann Dowd. That was a great exchange process, for me to collaborate with her. My first movie, Pomegranates and Myrrh, was filmed in the West Bank. That was a woman director, too. I owe a lot to Najwa Najjar because she had the guts to hire me, a woman cinematographer, in 2008. I was able to film with a S16mm camera (blown up to 35mm) in the West Bank, with the last 30 film rolls of Kodak Vision 200T 7274 – which were, then, discontinued. 

You are very accomplished. What are the main challenges for you at this point in your career?

The main challenge is to convince the studios to hire women cinematographers. I was a finalist during the hiring process. I want to be able to say that I have done it, so I can work on more big-budget films. I know I can do it! I am ready for it!  Also, it is hard to take a break from the showrunners on TV. As I learned from the panel with Lisa, Marta, and Mary Lou, they don’t have the power here. Directors don’t necessarily get to choose their DP. They are more like visitors on the show.

What would you like to achieve in your career? How would you like your career to look in ten years?

I would like to shoot big studio Hollywood films, bigger TV shows, and commercials on a higher level. First of all, I would like to challenge myself in order to show other women that it is possible. And I would like to create a situation where I can help other women. I want to pass my knowledge on to other women and I want to help open doors. So, I would love to focus on networking and supporting other women. I also want to remind people that we can do many different genres; women are capable of doing many different things. We should not be placed in a certain box.

From your point of view, what is the most important role of the cinematographer?

It is the person who translates the words of the script into visuals. The cinematographer is someone who collaborates closely with the directors to get their vision through, and support it. You also work as a visual therapist for the directors because you walk on a journey together with them. You try to visualize, interpret, and externalize the emotions of the characters. This allows the cinematographer to get close to the director and understand his, her or their vision better. It is about telling a story together as a team, staying within the process of storytelling. It is important to know that you give them choices, suggestions, and open doors for creativity. Then, they can have the final word and decide what to do. It is a really beautiful experience.