Kirsten Johnson has spent half her life travelling around the world, visiting and filming in some of its most turbulent countries. She has been to places and spoken to people affected by war, genocide, rape and torture. But she has also seen Nigerian midwives saving the lives of new-borns and has been warmly welcomed into the homes of Bosnian farmers. She has borne witness to the spectrum of human cruelty and kindness and through it all, in all the footage she has recorded over a quarter of a century, there is one common focus: people.
Cameraperson is Johnson’s intense, deeply personal reflection on her career as a cinematographer. Over the course of twenty-five years she has worked on a diverse range of subjects, from made-for-television documentaries like Two Towns of Jasper (2002), which explores the brutal murder of James Byrd Jr by white supremacists, to high-profile, politically-charged feature documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Citizenfour (2014).
Footage (mostly outtakes) from these films and many more is collected into a meditative, narratively sparse series of encounters which provide a unique insight into the act of making a documentary film. We see, through Kirsten Johnson’s eyes, the moral, political and emotional challenges that she has faced to capture such astounding footage, and the toll it can take on the film-maker herself.
The film opens with a short statement of intent from Johnson, which ends with the line, ‘These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.’ It is not surprising that these images have had such a profound effect. Who would not be moved by the descriptions of James Byrd Jr’s death, the way he was chained to a pickup truck by his ankles and dragged for over a mile, the way his elbows were ground ‘way past’ the bone as he used his arms to try to keep his head and face away from the asphalt?
Cameraperson is so profound partly because of what it doesn’t show. The prosecutor of that murder case describes the awful injuries James Byrd Jr suffered; in his hands, he holds a gruesome portfolio of photographs of that poor man’s mutilated body. We never see the thirteen photos, but the force of that booklet repeatedly draws the camera back towards its black and gold covers. Here, and throughout the film, Johnson confronts the trauma of violence and the legacy it leaves behind, but without inflicting the horror of it on her audience.
An early cut of the film, before it flowered into its final form, was composed purely of the harshest imagery. Appropriately, Johnson and crew refer to it as the ‘trauma’ cut, a harrowing thought considering that even when softened by the more optimistic footage, Cameraperson is frequently shocking.
Throughout the film, proximity is carefully measured. On the one hand, Johnson is eager to drive her camera close to the faces of her subjects – or their hands, which can be just as expressive – while she encourages a response from them. It can seem intrusive, but her connection to them is genuine. She wants these people to tell their own stories, in their words.
On the other hand, the atrocities described in Cameraperson are left in the past. Their effects are still being felt, but at a distance, certainly in the way the film-makers experience them. Johnson can rest her camera on the empty swimming pool which served as a Taliban execution site, but she cannot retrieve the images of violence from the history of that place.
So, it is through the people that this distance must be closed, through the scars they bear and the memories some of them share, however reluctantly. Kirsten Johnson is intensely aware of this, so when she connects to a person she is filming, it is not simply out of courtesy or to make them feel at ease, it is to draw upon a history that cannot be found through images alone.
Primarily, Cameraperson is a way for Johnson to reconnect with her own past. It is a travelogue as wonderfully eclectic as Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) and a touching conversation with her mother à la Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2015). But the most eloquent summary of what this film might mean to Johnson is provided by one of her subjects.
Keith Forsyth was one of a group of eight people who broke into an FBI office in 1971 to steal numerous documents. Forsyth was the lockpicker who managed to gain entry to that office and many years later he was interviewed for 1971 (2014), a film by Johanna Hamilton that documents the events surrounding the burglary.
During his interview for that film he gives a demonstration of his lock-picking skills. The film crew (Kirsten Johnson included) are taken aback by his emotion as he fiddles with a column of dummy locks. Afterwards, he explains simply that by reconstructing moments of such intensity, ‘you remember all the feelings that went along with that time.’
Cameraperson is, for Kirsten Johnson, the means of unlocking such memories, of dredging up the feeling that came with recording all those images. Forsyth’s interview may seem innocuous, superficial even, when compared to the gravity of the footage that Johnson has recorded elsewhere in the world, but its placement in the film gives it a meaning that would otherwise be lost.
For this interview is bookended by one of the most difficult-to-watch scenes of Cameraperson, in which Johnson spectates as a midwife treats an unresponsive new-born baby. We can sense the crew holding their breath as they encourage the baby to take its first. It is deeply affecting, even when watching it unfold on camera; it is hard to fully understand what Johnson must have felt witnessing it first-hand.
Cameraperson is antithetical to the concept of documentary as it is commonly understood. Its mission is not to inform, or to explicate. It is not an appeal to reason, but an appeal to instinct. The personality of its creator is woven into its every aspect and it is as fragmented as a barely remembered dream. It shows reality for what it is: beautiful and ugly all at once, filled with cruelty and kindness, a sublime contradiction that will leave you wondering.
Country: United States
Language: English, Bosnian, Arabic, Dari, Hausa, Fur
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Cinematographer: Kirsten Johnson
Writers: Doris Baizley, Lisa Freedman (consulting writers)
Runtime: 102 minutes