'In the Starlight': A Film About Photography, Adventure, and Family

"In The Starlight" begins with Mathieu Lelay showing the beauty and values of the film as we experience the sights of the cosmos through the travels and photography of Paul Zizka. The all-encompassing night sky surrounds the film’s creator and subject making the silent case for humanity’s awe of the night sky with a universal message that we all share this very small part of a vast galaxy across a grand and timeless expanse. 

"I think no one is left unmoved by the night sky,” the narrator states as "In The Starlight" opens on Zizka walking through the night with his camera bag and looking to the universe above. We are a witness to the silent interactions within the first few minutes of the film to how something as prevalent and ubiquitous as the night sky is so full of wonder and splendor that far too many people ignore. The value of the natural world and connecting to nature is part of the recurring theme of the film. The dichotomy of how we balance the need to connect with the world and universe around us while also maintaining our responsibilities to our families and personal relationships is at the core and heart of the story. 

The underlying value of the film is the authenticity to that theme, and was a foremost concern when Le Lay and Zizka initially spoke of the collaboration. Zizka’s feelings on creating a film resonated with Le Lay’s film making style and their discussions began with creating a genuine documentary that gave an accurate portrayal of Zizka’s pursuits and didn’t have a “hero” feel to the story.

In Zizka’s own words, "My hope was that the film would be more about a relationship than about a person. A relationship between priorities that I feel a lot of people would potentially relate to. Priorities like a need for adventure, a desire to live a creative life, a love for family, making time for friends, and in my case, pursuing a passion for the night sky. I’ve long felt like much of our society is very much disconnected with the natural world, and with creativity. I hope the film can encourage some to go out under the stars, away from the daily clutter, and create." As we follow the journey of Zizka through the film, I feel that Le Lay has kept that promise to his subject while providing an understanding that so many other photographers can relate to.

The film itself took several dear friends of Zizka and Le Lay to pull off and these relationships feature distinctly during the film where Jesse Milner, a former backcountry ranger and accomplished rock climbing guide, and Emma Freeman, a skilled mountaineer helped lead Zizka to some incredible heights in Mount Robson Provincial Park. Le Lay relied on some additional filming in Banff National Park, Alberta and British Columbia, Canada from Benjamin Dowie, an Australian director and cinematographer who owns Beanpole Production. Dowie was a second camera operator during these scenes. With the group together, the film works its way to the heights of Whitehorn Mountain in the Canadian Rockies with the trio overlooking Kinney Lake and the glacial run off from the peaks. It’s a harrowing climb to witness and hard not to imagine yourself alongside them stepping over loose shale and eventually the top of the Whitehorn Mountain as you see the stretch of the Canadian Rockies surrounding you. The view is still dwarfed by Mount Robson, the tallest mountain in the Canadian Rockies, and only adds to the astonishing view which encapsulates the story of adventuring for the love of beautiful places while being among friends that feel the same way.

The story is truly an international undertaking with filming moving on to the Namib desert in Namibia’s Skeleton Coast area. The coasts vast sand dunes being inundated with ocean waves and currents with strewn sea ship wreckage like that of the Eduard Bohlen now surrounded by sand dunes. The documentary’s filming was scheduled in between and around Zizka’s photography workshops and took nearly a year to complete principle shooting. The commitment to the project for both Le Lay and Zizka was a labor that both acknowledged yet are thankful for because of their continued friendship and mutual respect. While chatting with Le Lay, it was apparent that he and Zizka have become friends who still have regular conversations. The time spent working together has fostered a great working relationship that could be the fuel for future collaborations and adventures. 

Beyond Namibia we have the chance to experience Greenland through the lens of Le Lay and the viewpoint of Zizka. The adventure of traveling to Greenland's Tasermiut Fjord and firsthand view of working in an incredibly remote area that has bountiful logistical challenges shows how much work Zizka goes through to capture the images in his portfolio. From hiking 30 kilometers across glaciers to using a tripod to hammer a tent stake into the ice, to walking along and jumping over glacial crevasses, Zizka is seen as a competent and resourceful adventurer that exceeds what many photographers would do to get the shot. With that ethic, Zizka has taken us around the world to experience the beautiful and natural landscapes under starry cosmic skies and consistently shows what determination and planning can do for a photographer that simply needs to create.

"In The Starlight" is co-produced by Mathieu Le Lay Productions, Camera Lucida, and Ushuaïa TV, but it’s origins are truly with Le Lay wanting to tell Zizka’s story as only someone who is right by his side could. CPB Films has picked up "In The Starlight" for international distribution in French as well as English, and the documentary is reaching a truly world audience with previous official international festival selections including: The Adventure Film Series of Whistler in British Columbia in Canada, Godollo International Nature Film Festival in Hungary, and Fresh Air Festival by Les Others in Paris, France. Additional upcoming official international festival selections include International Festival of Outdoor Films in Czech Republic, Medzinárodný Festival Horských Filmov Poprad in Slovakia, and Festival du Film de Montagne et d’Exploration in France. With such a wide audience already, I’m sure the film will keep traveling as more people have the chance to experience the night sky through Zizka’s work and Le Lay’s filming. Finally, with any film, sound design is always paramount and Laurent Mollard created the audio mix of the film, with Franck Zaragoza composing original soundtracks.

I asked Zizka what the future has in store for him between work and his family. He responded, "We welcomed our second daughter into the world 10 days ago, so no doubt family will continue to be the priority in my life. Having said that, I intend to keep carving out time for exploration and creativity. My next stint abroad is an exploratory trip to Mongolia in June. Then I look forward to a summer of family, climbing and night skies at home in the Canadian Rockies. The fall and winter will be a whirlwind with workshops in the Northwest Territories, Scotland, Namibia and Antarctica. It’s hard being away but it’s also a joy to be a part of people’s journey back to the wilderness and creativity."

After watching "In The Starlight" I have a better understanding of how Zizka’s experiences and values coincide with being a father, a husband, and a photographer. The drive to create beautiful imagery that encapsulates the wilds of the world under a universal cosmic tapestry is only strengthened by the support from his family and friends through his astounding adventures and visually storytelling. The stories in Zizka’s images show how we truly all are connected with the each other on this beautiful cosmic rock. How by simply looking up at the stars we see again with a child's wonder at how small we are in a large and near limitless universe. It's this feeling and essence that the film is trying to explain and, I feel, does capture for its audience.

If you’d like to know where there will be additional international screenings of "In The Starlight" you can go to the film's website.

Will you be looking forward to seeing "In The Starlight" or are you heading to a festival that is (or should be) screening the film?

JT Blenker's picture

JT Blenker, Cr. Photog., CPP is a Photographic Craftsman and Certified Professional Photographer who also teaches workshops throughout the USA focusing on landscape, nightscape, and portraiture. He is the Director of Communications at the Dallas PPA and is continuing his education currently in the pursuit of a Master Photographer degree.

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I saw this movie two months ago. Photographer Paul Zizka and director Mathieu Lelay of exception, a very beautiful story of the friendly and talented photographer all this filmed in sumptuous landscapes. A must see if you are passionate about adventure and landscape photography

I advise you the same director THE QUEST OF INSPIRATION with the photographer Alexandre Deschaumes http://www.mathieulelay.com/films/alexandre-deschaumes-quete-inspiration/

Looks like an incredible movie! I love Pauls photos and the director does a beautiful job of displaying the artists work! I thoroughly enjoyed THE QUEST OF INSPIRATION :)

That Quiver tree must be somewhere in Namibia!! My home country, wow! Yep there it says Namibia!