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Documentarians: Jason Longo '94

Globe Trotter

Cinematographer and editor Jason Longo ’94 is in great demand for his steady camera hand and eye for diverse stories.

In remote northeast Iceland, Jason Longo ’94 had his thermal jacket stolen while filming Iceland Tunnels (2004), about engineers enduring harsh conditions to construct a massive hydroelectric project. He layered up and carried on. In Taiwan, he walked through the smoldering wreckage of a plane crash for Cleared for Landing (2001). In southern France, he traversed precarious walkways suspended thousands of feet into the air to film the building of the world’s tallest bridge, for The Millau Viaduct (2004).

And all of these happened after he documented the effects of the Chernobyl nuclear spill.

Jason Longo and his handheld camera follow reenacters for Patriots Day.

Longo, hardly a nine-to-fiver, is rarely home in his downtown Boston apartment. As a cinematographer and editor who has filmed more than two dozen documentaries for PBS, the Discovery Channel (which aired the above films), National Geographic, and NBC, he racks up thousands of frequent flier miles criss-crossing the world. That’s why, he says with a blush and a shrug, at 33 he doesn’t have his own family yet.

His first job out of IC, with Ithaca-area filmmaker and former Park School lecturer Slawomir Grünberg, started with a bang: After the Chinese government turned down their request for a visa to Tibet, the two crossed by foot, laden with heavy filmmaking equipment, into the region from Nepal over a steep mountain pass—posing as tourists. Chinese guards gave their bags a perfunctory kick and waved them through.

Longo spent five years learning the trade with Grünberg, at his Log In Productions, in Spencer, near Ithaca. A collaboration between Log In and IC associate professor of televisions and radio Ben Crane on School Prayer: A Community at War (PBS, P.O.V., 1999), on which Longo served as editor and sound recordist, gave an early boost to his career. The documentary, about a Mississippi woman who sued her local school district for allowing school prayer, and won, received a national Emmy Award.

Posing as a tourist in Tibet (note the T-shirt).

“Jason was never afraid to go into risky situations,” says Grünberg, who also took Longo to villages in Belarus that suffered the effects of the 1986 nuclear accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Grünberg says Longo’s skills are diverse, from sound to camera work to editing, which means he gets hired for different tasks by many producers and can do a variety of tasks for a given production.

After Longo left Grünberg to go out on his own—a move which both refer to as a natural split between apprentice and mentor—he moved to Boston. His family is there, but, he adds, “I needed to be near a major airport. Ithaca just wasn’t feasible anymore.” Moreover, the city’s PBS affiliate, WGBH, produces programming for which he frequently films—Frontline, Frontline/World, American Experience, and Nova. And as an educational hothouse, Boston enables him access to universities for which he makes privately-funded films.

Since that 1999 move, Boston film producer Marian Marzynski has hired Longo for a variety of PBS programs, including Rich in Russia (Frontline/World, 2003), an exploration of the gap between Russia’s rich and poor, and, most recently, A Jew among the Germans (Frontline, 2005), about Marzynski’s personal journey as a Holocaust survivor to Berlin for the unveiling of the city’s new Holocaust memorial.

Longo “is one of the top 10 [documentary] cameramen in the country, from what I see,” says Marzynski. Longo’s special skill, says his second mentor, is smooth hand-held camerawork: “Only a few cameramen in the world shoot so smoothly with them that you don’t realize” that a hand-held was used. For example, in Patriots Day (PBS, American Experience, 2004), a Marzynski production that  followed Revolutionary War enthusiasts preparing for their annual reenactment of the Battle of Lexington and Concord, Longo walks backwards in step with the “British” soldiers on their way to Lexington while capturing their detailed facial expressions and commentary.

Marzynski says Longo is a pro at getting good footage in “documentary conditions”—on a dime, as an event is occurring, with no opportunity for Hollywood-style rehearsals and retakes. And he makes non-actors feel at ease with him and his camera, enabling natural storytelling.

Today, producers like Marzynski with planned, funded TV films come to Longo. This eliminates financial strains common to most documentary makers who generate ideas, spend endless hours writing grants, and wait for someone with cash to take a liking to a trailer they’ve laboriously put together.

From African music in Belize to Miami Beach retirees, Longo’s films are diverse in subject matter. He’s currently working on a six-part Discovery Channel series about major engineering projects across the globe, and spent five weeks this winter in Africa filming a story on ecotourism.

Filming an engineering project in Iceland.

So what are his criteria for making a film? A good story with intriguing, colorful characters, he says, and he prefers “to tell the story through pictures, with as little narrative and editing as possible.” Narrative and heavy-handed editing can potentially “editorialize” or “sensationalize,” he says, something that often occurs on cable TV channels, which face financial pressure to build audience and keep viewers through the commercials.

But his first foray into production could be his most political film. With Cornell alumna Jane Greenberg, he is filming Standards of Decency: The Howard Neal Story, about a mentally retarded man on death row for murder in Mississippi. When the duo began filming in 2002, they set out to show the controversy surrounding the case. Neal has appealed his execution on the basis of his low IQ; his hearing is set for this spring. Meanwhile, the state supreme court is ruling on another case that will set the state’s policy for executing the mentally retarded and thus likely set the precedent for Neal’s fate. As Longo and Greenberg gathered details about the case, they stumbled over clues that showed it is “possible that he is innocent,” says Longo. “It became investigative reporting.”

Yet his career would never have happened if it hadn’t been for a critical change of heart at IC.  He entered as a freshman intent on making fictional feature films, but quickly realized, as he puts it, “that everyone [who makes dramas] is trying to mimic Hollywood. But documentaries are judged by different standards: on the merits of your ideas and your message. For a student, documentary making is a natural choice because you can have real success at it.”

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