With Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson Interrogates Documentary Itself
“These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.” That's how Kirsten Johnson prefaces Cameraperson, made up of footage she has collected over 25 years of working as a camera operator, cinematographer, and director on dozens of different documentaries — films like Laura Poitras’ The Oath (2010) and Citizenfour (2014), Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick’s Derrida (2002), and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004). Leave me wondering still: Those words evoke a sense of mystery, of incompleteness, which is exactly the right frame of mind in which to watch Johnson’s own mesmerizing film.
The director has set herself a near-impossible task: to craft a cinematic memoir through snippets of other people’s stories and lives. While often lovely, a lot of this material looks like discards: an empty patch of road, a field of flowers, a camera quaking while the operator adjusts the tripod. Other times, we get something more involved: a midwife in a Nigerian clinic attempting to keep fragile newborn twins alive. A Golden Gloves boxer in Brooklyn preparing for a fight. Two Balkan activists talking about their own PTSD, the byproduct of hearing so many survivors’ testimonials.
Johnson guides us into her footage in subtle ways. She opens on images and sounds that help foreground the very idea of looking. A director asks her “Do you see?” as they film a rural landscape in Bosnia. Someone (presumably Johnson herself) gasps in delight as lightning flashes across an empty road in Missouri. An angle shifts, a lens is wiped, and we are in the mind of the person behind the viewfinder. (Sometimes, we even hear her breathing.) Cameraperson draws our attention not just to what we’re seeing, but how we’re seeing it. It encourages us to wonder how a camera operator navigates personal space in tense, intimate, emotionally fraught situations. How far or how close should cameras press in toward people recalling the worst things that ever happened to them? Should a camera even be there? And at what point — if ever — should a documentarian intervene in a subject's life?
All this could have easily become a cacophony of disconnected sights and sounds, but Cameraperson unfolds with beauty and purpose — mixing the fluidity of a dream with the acuity of an essay. Johnson teases out themes and finds echoes across the years. One passage is just a series of shots of different people in all sorts of different places and contexts moving and running, the camera following close behind them. Elsewhere, the district attorney prosecuting the three Texas men who dragged and killed James Byrd Jr. in 1998 discusses the importance of seeing the harrowing photographic evidence in the case. He’s then followed by footage shot in a car in Sana’a, Yemen, outside an Al-Qaeda detention facility, as Johnson, her director and their driver try to deal with the soldiers and cops posted outside — and discuss the perceived difference between “movies” and “journalism.” We are constantly reminded of the importance of bearing visual witness and of the limitations of doing so.
Some of Johnson’s subjects reappear throughout. Among these are a Muslim family in Bosnia, a wounded Afghan teenager recalling the grisly death of his brother, and that aforementioned, unnervingly calm Nigerian midwife. We also see the director’s twin children and her own aging mother, who’s struggling with Alzheimer’s. Late in the film, we see the mother’s ashes; then, in a single cut, we’re back to footage of her when she was alive, looking right into her daughter’s lens. To Cocteau’s famous observation that cinema was “death at work,” Johnson seems to retort that it's also life at work.
One of the most powerful moments comes as we watch a young pregnant woman in a health clinic beating herself up for getting pregnant again. Suddenly, the voice of a director interrupts her to say that she must never, ever think of herself as a bad person; it’s “the only rule I’m going to give you,” the voice says. The exchange reveals how sometimes documentary filmmakers do involve themselves in what’s happening before the lens — that this invisible, supposedly uncrossable line between artist and subject is crossed repeatedly, and often left on the cutting-room floor.
But there’s something else going on during this scene, and the way Johnson has constructed Cameraperson has trained us to notice it: The whole conversation plays out entirely over a close-up of the young pregnant mother’s hands — grasping, fidgeting, trembling. Sometimes, we just see one hand; that’s when we know that the other is somewhere above the frame, wiping away tears. This is the real magic of Johnson’s film: She draws our attention to the dynamics of the image without ever losing sight of these people and their stories. If anything, by removing the broader narrative context around such moments, she preserves and enhances their dignity — and in so doing, reclaims the vital connection between aesthetics and humanity.
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