Cameraperson collages footage from the twenty-five-year career of cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson, in order to elicit empathy, outrage, and debate from its audience about the purpose and role of the documentarian. There is so much to think about and discuss in Cameraperson, so much that challenges traditional viewing and questions techniques in filmmaking, that, by its close, it is clear it is one of the most poetic and pensive documentaries of recent memory. But the value of Cameraperson is achieved subtly — there is no voice-over from Johnson or reenacted scenes, only juxtaposed clips meaningful in the ways they topically and thematically overlap and diverge. That is not to say Cameraperson is aimless — in fact, it is just the opposite — but appreciating the documentary requires understanding the rationale behind its creation as well as viewers’ full attention.
In 2009 — before the concept for Cameraperson was conceived — Johnson had embarked on the shooting for a documentary about the lives of two Afghan teenagers called “A Blind Eye.” But, after three years into the filmmaking process, one of the teenagers retracted their permission to be included in the documentary. The breadth of the project was expanded in order to include footage from the whole of Johnson’s cinematographic career. (In this sense, too, either purposely or inadvertently, the original title, “A Blind Eye,” was widened to incorporate the entire role of the documentarian.) The project was re-edited and re-cut, and it reemerged as what the production team nicknamed the “trauma cut,” which featured multitudes of shocking imagery from war-torn countries in which Johnson had filmed. But, upon reflection, she decided the cut was unrepresentative of her complete professional and personal experience as a cameraperson. At last, in June of 2015, she teamed-up with editor Nels Bangerter to re-imagine the project again in order to include more private and subtler footage, such as shots of her mother struggling with Alzheimer’s disease and clips from the filming of Fahrenheit 9/11.
The creation process of Cameraperson is important and fascinating because it reflects the disconnect of the ordinary moviegoer. Viewers consume a polished, visual product and are unable to fully understand and humanize the diverse body of individuals — including the cinematographer — who collaborate in order to complete a movie (because, by definition, the movie’s creation process is outside the viewer’s realm of experience). Cameraperson’s initial “trauma cut” approach was just as mechanical — it omitted the subjective experience and memories from the person behind the camera, which are inevitably intertwined with the act of filming.
That logic is where Cameraperson meets the viewer. From that point, the documentary plumbs the complexities of its own craft, contemplating, “What are the ethics of being an observer, especially an observer who does not or cannot act in order to stop horrors that they film?” After all, the journalist has been famously likened to a murderer — is the documentarian any better?
The documentary begins with Johnson searching for the best shot for filming a shepherd in rural Bosnia. From there, a seemingly unrelated array of clips highlighting the spectator-perspective of the cameraperson are shown — a boxer in Brooklyn punching, yelling, and kicking walls in back-rooms because he barely lost a match; a midwife in Nigeria dealing with a particularly difficult delivery of a baby; an anonymous subject in an Alabama abortion clinic whose story is told using only the sound of their voice and footage of their hands; Jacques Derrida, famous for developing the philosophy of deconstruction, crossing a Manhattan street while describing to the camera-crew “the image of the philosopher who falls in the well while looking at the stars”; the toddler of a family in Foča, Bosnia — years after ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War — playing with a hatchet lodged in a stump while no adults, except the cameraperson, are watching; the Penn State crowd singing “The Penn State Alma Mater” at the first football game after the breaking of the child sex scandal involving assistant football coach, Jerry Sandusky; Johnson trying to film the central jail for Al-Qaeda prisoners in Yemen without inciting police suspicion (“I’ll tell them it’s cinema, it’s a movie,” reassures the driver’s off-camera voice).
But, of course, that seemingly unrelated array of clips, albeit topically different, are thematically unified. They situate the viewer in the cameraperson’s role, highlighting the limitations and ethical complications connected to the spectator-perspective necessary to play the cameraperson’s role well. For example, a series of shots are self-consciously captioned as being sites of horrific violence and tragedies, including the World Trade Center (site of the 2001 terrorist attacks), Guantanamo Bay (site of torture and abuse of prisoners), Tahrir Square (site of violence and death of protesters during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution), Wounded Knee (site of the 1980 massacre of Sioux Indians by U.S. troops), and Hotel Africa (site of executions during the Liberian Civil War). The shots are all uniquely depicted as haunted and vacant, a kind of metaphor for collective, historical memory and mourning — as well as the documentarian’s inability to stop or change what happened, despite capturing the best shots for displaying in the aftermath.
In contrast, there are shots topically centered only around Johnson’s personal life, specifically her mother and children. The shots have the effect of humanizing the cameraperson, showing the sacrifices necessary for the job (Johnson has to travel abroad for certain stretches of time, leaving her twin children at-home) as well as the effects of memory and time on loved ones and its relation to documentation. For example, Johnson’s mother, Catherine Joy Johnson, is introduced with a windswept shot in Headquarters Sheep Ranch, Wyoming three years after enduring Alzheimer’s disease. This is later juxtaposed against footage of Johnson’s twins in scenes at her childhood home in Beaux Arts, Washington where the container of her mother’s ashes are shown with the sound of children’s television-programming playing in the background. Shown later is a dead bird the twins find in the yard. They tell their grandfather, who suggests that they bury it or place it by a tree or plant for natural fertilization, but, instead, everyone ends up being distracted by the arrival of the newspaper. So many questions about the nature of reporting/documenting as well as life, death, remembrance, and forgetting are suggested by the shots’ juxtaposition, such as, “What will be the purpose of Cameraperson’s footage once Johnson loses her memory — how is documentation’s meaning diminished and how is it preserved over time, across generations?”
In addition, there is sequenced footage which connects the self and the other, visually shrinking geographical and cultural distance with symbolism — a page of Johnson’s childhood writing from September 16, 1975 that bears a Biblical quote connected with a scene of Muslim worship at a mosque and young girls wearing white dresses in Colorado Springs dancing around a decorated, Christian cross to the sound of worship music (overheard lyrics sing, “From page to page you remain the same”).
Of course, all these topical threads connect the whole of Cameraperson via questions regarding the documentarian. Clear examples are scenes that directly discuss what the camera should show or hide, like members of a dissident Syrian film collective in Bronx, New York disagreeing about whether a filmmaker should fully depict carnage and atrocities in order to most accurately represent tragedy, or to imply or limit the amount of shocking content shown in order to represent tragedy while also respecting The Golden Rule. (The collective’s debate is not resolved, but the choices made in the creation of Cameraperson imply Johnson’s perspective — at least, for the making of this particular documentary.) There is discussion of the way Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder suppresses memory, and a shot of a woman, who had interviewed thousands of rape victims, asking aloud about what one is supposed to do after hearing so many traumatic stories. Finally, there is Johnson herself — implicitly introduced as the person behind the title-screen’s professionalized shot of a lightning storm, and fully revealed when, in an ending scene with her mother, she turns the camera on herself, revealing the human face behind the machine’s lens — a reminder about the shared and imperfect humanity that frustrates and enhances filmmaking, movie-going, and life.
Sorry if you don’t agree. Please keep your discourse civil in the comments.
Check out the website for Cameraperson here.
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