Hugo Blick Discusses Challenges Of, His Hopes For "Black Earth Rising"
Hugo Blick
Shares insights into cinematography, production design, and choice of animation for key sequences in Netflix series
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Hugo Blick is a jack of many trades as reflected in his Emmy history. Back in 2015, he earned three nominations for The Honourable Woman starring Maggie Gyllenhaal in a Golden Globe-winning performance as a proponent for reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. For The Honourable Woman, Blick received Emmy nods for Outstanding Limited Series as producer and for Outstanding Directing as well as Writing.

Now Blick’s multi-disciplinary orientation has him again in the Emmy conversation as creator/writer/director/producer of Black Earth Rising (Netflix), an eight-part series which introduces us to the fictional yet very real character of Kate (portrayed by Michaela Coel), a 30-ish woman who was rescued when she was a little girl from the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Her savior was human rights lawyer Eve Ashby (Harriet Walter) who adopted and raised Kate in London. Complications arise in adult life as Eve and her boss (John Goodman), while prosecuting those guilty of atrocities in Central Africa, seek to bring a Tutsi general to justice who helped end the genocide but went on to allegedly commit war crimes in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Kate objects to her mother prosecuting a general who had a hand in saving Tutsis like herself from being slaughtered.

Meanwhile, a second case also causes tumult--all the while as Kate continues to cope with the repercussions of her childhood trauma.

For Black Earth Rising, Blick said the biggest challenge involved departing from his working norm. “This project shares the DNA of investigative journalism. Normally I know the last word, the last sentence of a story before I embark on it as a writer. On this occasion, I didn’t. The further I went, the further I had to go in my investigation--investigation of international war prosecution, other prosecutions of African politicians, East African domestic policy, the issues surrounding the Central African Congo. I had to pull on a thread instead of predicting or knowing what would be there.”

Cinematography, production design, animation
Blick sought out a mix of artisans to help him depict the Black Earth Rising story, ranging from past to first-time collaborators, respective examples including production designer Chris Roope and cinematographer Hubert Taczanowski. Roope designed The Honourable Woman. Blick related that he has “great trust” in Roope who “understands the truth of what we are exploring.” Blick cited Roope’s “empathetic” nature, affirming that he doesn’t require micromanaging. Blick said he has the confidence in Roope to leave him alone to do what he does best.  Blick noted that when he walks on set, frequently it will be the first time he sees Roope’s work. 

As for Taczanowski. Blick said he was drawn to the DP’s body of work and felt simpatico with him when discussing Black Earth Rising. “I was interested in using natural light,” recalled Blick. “He was incredibly sympathetic to that soft light rather than interventionist lighting. Again, I could see he was on his way. I rarely said a word to him from that point on. As a director, my interest is in the psychology of the scene, the conflicts and exchange of psychological energy between characters. I trusted him (Taczanowski) to capture that.”

Asked why he opted for animation to depict scenes of genocide, Blick explained, “It’s like looking at the sun. You can’t do it. I couldn’t do it by staring at it directly. I felt somehow that by being indirect, we could explore something that felt essential to the story--and still deeply feel it, evocative and implicit rather than explicit.”

Blick noted that the Rwandan genocide now marks its 25-year anniversary and that in some respects remains an overlooked story. It first surfaced at a juncture when the O.J. Simpson car chase took center stage--with public awareness of that far greater than the humanitarian crisis in a distant land. Blick hopes that Black Earth Rising will help in its own way to raise awareness of a story that is “as much one for the ages as it is one for the now. I’m not sure the issues are going away anytime soon. There’s been a lack of sophisticated engagement with what happened.”

The Netflix platform, he continued, may help to engage more people. “You want to tell a story that feels resolved and complete if you’re an optimist--that the world is a better place having watched something,” related Blick. “I couldn’t say that for certain about this.” But, affirmed Blick, if the story of Black Earth Rising can connect people to what transpired and the issues involved in some way, then it will have been worthwhile.

This is the eighth installment in a 16-part series that explores the field of Emmy contenders, and then nominees spanning such disciplines as directing, cinematography, producing, editing, music, production design and visual effects. The series will then be followed up by coverage of the Creative Arts Emmy winners on September 14 and 15, and the Primetime Emmy Awards ceremony on September 22.

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