September 9, 2017

How 'The Handmaid's Tale' Uses Shallow Focus to Show Oppression

"As a slave in an authoritarian state...your only agency is mental."

In recent years, shallow depth of field has become cliché. Seen almost as a shorthand for the "film look," it's used constantly by beginners to give an almost instantaneous boost to their production values despite the many potential flaws in composition, lighting, and overall quality of their filmmaking. However, shallow focus shouldn't be written off as a cheap device to make images look more cinematic—instead, look at the many gifted directors and cinematographers who utilize this technique to tell more dynamic stories through their visuals.

In this video essay, Evan Puschak of Nerdwriter does just that by highlighting the brilliant way director Reed Morano and DP Colin Watkinson use shallow focus to effectively communicate the devastating oppression and totalitarian theonomy in Hulu's hit TV show The Handmaid's Tale.

Though shallow focus has its obvious visual merits, Morano and Watkinson use it more for its narrative potential. Puschak notes three ways in which they do this:

  • To create the point of view of an oppressed individual under the totalitarian control of Gilead's government.
  • To reveal the handmaidens' limited knowledge and understanding of the world they live in.
  • To make a connection between the age of Gilead and the time before its existence, both of which seem to suffer from "limited perspective."

Where some filmmakers use shallow depth of field solely to aesthetically obscure the foreground and background, Morano and Watkinson use it to obscure the perspective of the viewer, because the perspective of the characters, namely Offred, is obscured. We are thrust into the experience of the handmaidens—an experience that is confusing, disorienting, and provides little if any explanation of why we're in the position we're in.

"As a slave in an authoritarian state where your physical being is effectively controlled by someone else, your only agency is mental. The mind is where you have to retreat to escape, to plan, and to remember. It's only a thin plain of focus, but it's yours."

The Handmaid's Tale shows us what purposeful shallow focus can do for a story. It not only has great power to produce emotional responses other than mere appreciation of a silky smooth bokeh, but it also reveals how far a little creative visual poetry can take your narrative.      

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