321: Erik Daarstad

Archival Spaces 321

In Memoriam: Erik Daarstad

Uploaded 12 May 2023

Terry Sanders and Erik Daarstad

I first met the cinematographer, Erik Daarstad, when my daughter Gianna Mei Li was a member of the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus. It was the Summer of 2008 and she was joining the chorus on their tour of mainland China, an event documented in Freida Lee Mock’s Sing, China! (2009). Freida and Erik arrived early in the morning to film us driving to LAX, where they joined the chorus to catch the plane to Hong Kong. We saw Erik again at work, when four weeks later we joined the Chorus for their final concert in Hong Kong after they had given concerts in numerous cities in China. We then traveled to Shanghai for an extended trip of our own through China that included a visit to my daughter’s former orphanage in Tongling, about 150 miles west on the Yangtze River. At the time we had no idea that Gianna, who was extensively interviewed during the tour along with several other kids, would become central to the film’s narrative, given her unique story as a Chinese-American adoptee, returning to China for the first time.

Sing China! (2009, Freida Lee Mock)
Sing China! (2009, Freida Lee Mock) with Gianna Mei Li Horak

However, I already was familiar with Erik Daarstad’s cinematography because The Exiles (1961), which was restored at UCLA Film & Television Archive by Ross Lippman at the moment I became the Archive’s Director, premiered at the Berlinale in February 2008; it was released by Milestone in  Summer 2008. That previously forgotten docu-fiction feature by Kent McKenzie visualized Native Americans living in the Bunker Hill area of Los Angeles and has since been recognized as an initiator of American neo-realist cinema. It was only Erik’s second film. Essentially plotless, the film and Daarstad’s camera observe the often sad, sometimes directionless, occasionally desperate fates of young Native Americans uprooted from their homes and traditions in the Southwest, left at sea in a hostile and alien urban environment. Furthermore, Daarstad’s camera documents the Bunker Hill of dilapidated mansions and tenements that have long ago been urban renewed out of existence in favor of impersonal office buildings. Even the bar where the men congregated on South Main Street finally closed during the pandemic.

The Exiles (1961, Kent McKenzie)

Erik was born on June 27, 1935, in a small mining town in the mountains of southern Norway. As a five-year-old, Erik experienced the occupation of the country by the Nazis, his father dying in a Nazi bombing raid. According to an obituary in the Bonner Country Bee, the paper of record in Sandpoint, Idaho, where Erik had lived since 1976 with an eleven-year interlude in Seattle (1986-1997), Erik discovered movies as a 6-7-year-old in the local community hall. Taking an interest in photography in high school, Daarstad moved to Los Angele in 1953 to enroll at the University of Southern California’s film school. His first credit as cinematographer was on Hell Squad (1958), an independently produced World War II yarn, directed by Burt Topper and distributed by AIP; cinematographer John Morrill worked on the film, too, and was also credited on The Exiles, serving as a consultant on the UCLA restoration, before passing away in 2015. After The Exiles, Daarstad found work in documentaries and television movies, working with Mel Stuart, William Friedkin, and a couple of times with Kent McKenzie.

Why MJan Creates (1968, Saul Bass)
Bass on Titles (1978)

In 1969 he won an Academy Award with Saul Bass for Best Documentary Short for Why Man Creates (1968). An essay film on the nature of creativity that never answers its central question, the film was a collage of both staged and documentary sequences that are both playful and serious, encouraging audiences to think rather than consume.  Why Man Creates was subsequently screened in elementary and high schools throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Many adults who were schoolchildren during this time have extremely fond memories of Bass’s film. Erik would later also shoot Bass on Titles (1978).

Fighting for Life (2008, Terry Sanders)
G-Dog (2012, FreidaLeee Mock)

In the 1970s and 80s, Daarstad worked mainly in television, including Richard Schickel’s The Men Who Made Movies (1973) and National Geographic Specials (1970-1991). Erik shot his first film for Terry Sanders in 1973, Four Stones for Kanemitsu, becoming close friends with Terry and his wife, Freida Lee Mock. Erik would end his career in the 2010s, shooting two more films for Terry, and four for Freida Mock. Freida sent me this note about Erik: “Erik had a poet’s heart and eye, able to capture the beauty and humanity of the character and stories he filmed as a gifted legendary cinematographer.  We are lucky that Erik chose to stay in America after leaving Norway as an 18-year-old to study film at USC.  The Daarstad touch was distinct with his steady hand-held camera work that conveyed unforgettable images of choristers singing at the Great Wall (the SING! Films), of the charismatic Fr. Greg Boyle’s embrace of homies and society’s marginalized (G-DOG) and the quiet bravery of Anita Hill – 100s of films about the famous and unknown that are his legacy.  I always felt Erik had a third eye for he saw everything and expressed the essence of life in his beautiful work.  But he is most remembered as one of those kind, thoughtful, great humans who one is lucky to call a friend and colleague.”

Erik Daarstad died on 13 March 2023 in  Sandpoint, Idaho.

Anita: Speaking Truth to Power (2013, Freida Lee Mock)

Published by Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is former Director of UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, Critical Studies, former Director, Archives & Collections, Universal Studios; Director, Munich Filmmuseum; Senior Curator, George Eastman House; Professor, University of Rochester; Hochschule für Film und Fernsehen, Munich; University of Salzburg. PhD. Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität, Münster, Germany. M.S. Boston University. Publications include: The L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2015), Saul Bass: Anatomy of Film Design (2014), Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995), The Dream Merchants: Making and Selling Films in Hollywood's Golden Age (1989). Over 250 articles and reviews in English, German, French, Italian, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Swedish, Japanese, Hebrew publications. He is the recipient of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Essay Award (2007), and the SCMS Best Edited Collection Award (2017).

3 thoughts on “321: Erik Daarstad

  1. Lieber Chris,

    wieder ein toller Beitrag, in dem sich Zeitgeschichte und Deine persönliche Geschichte zeigen, und sogar nun mit Filmgeschichte verwickelt. Jetzt möchte an natürlich SING! mal sehen – ist der Film irgendwo online?

    Herzliche Grüße aus Berlin

    Martin Koerber Hauptstr. 4K 10317 Berlin Telefon: 030 – 681 13 97 Mobil: 0179 – 764 63 81 Email: makoerber@web.de



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