Cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s out.
We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
In Cameraperson (2016), Kirsten Johnson has made a buoyant film about the weight of the world.
She lays out her process in a paragraph presented up front. What we’re about to see, she explains, has been patched together from material she has shot as a cinematographer for films directed by other people, in the course of a career spanning twenty-five years. “I ask you to see it as my memoir,” Johnson insists.
A memoir, yes, but one that is scant on autobiographical facts. You have to turn elsewhere to learn that Johnson studied painting and literature in the late 1980s at Brown University, where she had a political awakening, stirred by the anti-apartheid movement roiling the campus. Upon graduation, making an uncommon move, she transplanted herself to Senegal and interned there on a film written by the great Ousmane Sembène. In 1991, she was the first American to enroll at La Fémis, the French national film school, where she entered the camera department and discovered a vocation. She landed early cinematography jobs in France and Brazil.
Evolving from this global trajectory, Cameraperson is a nonchronological collage of raw and repurposed footage: forty-four distinct episodes (by my count) made up of sounds and images gathered for (but generally not appearing in) twenty-four separate projects. Most of the episodes are bridged by breaks of black frames, during which anticipatory sounds prepare for oncoming images. Locations are identified by title cards, and eleven people are given names and job descriptions, ranging from “Jacques Derrida / French philosopher”—a quick cameo, as the famous man impishly holds forth on a Manhattan street—to “Aisha Bukar / nurse, midwife,” a more substantial, recurring presence, granting us access to a natal unit in a Nigerian hospital, where the film arrives at one of its most harrowing sequences. We get scraps from high-profile documentaries—Laura Poitras’s The Oath and Citizenfour, on which Johnson served as a principal shooter, and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, for which she received an “additional camera operator” credit—but most of the movies cannibalized here are not especially well-known, and Johnson accomplishes her most probing portraiture by focusing on people encountered as strangers. Her inclusion, at regular intervals, of her own home-video footage confirms an impression of inspired and intimate rummaging. (This is a memoir that blurs the line between professional and private experience.) Ultimately, like a lavish quilt, or a bird’s nest, the film subsumes its source material on the way to becoming a complete and organic new thing.
More often than not, Johnson’s work takes her to places stamped by violence, death, and destruction, sites of collective grief and dread. Even if the worst of the mayhem has occurred in the past, she’s there to absorb and collect the residue, talking to survivors, bearing witness. Johnson supplies a few grace notes, musical interludes, flashes of scenic splendor, but for a film made by a cinematographer, there are bracingly few images that are merely pretty or picturesque. People are plainly what Johnson cares about most, and in this film she candidly prizes and examines her ability to use her camera to get close to whoever is in the frame. “Gettin’ close to everybody,” she murmurs, disarmingly, to an initially wary man in a Brooklyn boxing gym. The man smiles and relaxes, as if Johnson has cast a spell. She coaxes equivalent looks of complicity and acceptance from a boy in Kabul whose left eye has been blinded in a bomb blast; from an elegantly wizened Muslim woman in Bosnia and Herzegovina who, with a tight, tart smile, denies that the Serbs’ campaign of mass rape ever affected her family; and from her own mother, diminished by Alzheimer’s, regarding Johnson—and Johnson’s camera—with a mix of tenderness and fright.
The film has been crafted with self-reflexive knowingness. Shots that feature fumbling and reframing are integrated the way a confident painter builds a picture around bare canvas, loose brushwork, spattered drips. And there’s a steady pressing of a central nerve, a nagging question implicit in the most searching documentaries as well as the most trivial: At what point does the camera’s scrutiny become exploitative, invasive, voyeuristic, damaging? The question hovers throughout the film, despite Johnson’s evident gift for putting people at ease, respecting the pressure and pain of true confession. In sequence after sequence, she invites and captures intimacy, even or especially when her subjects don’t want their faces shown. (In these cases, Johnson’s camera follows their uneasy hands, and we see Scorsese’s axiom at work; what’s not in the frame adds eloquence to what is.)
As a self-portrait, Cameraperson is intriguingly elliptical, oblique. Early on, we see Johnson’s striding shadow, her camera rising from her shoulder like a jagged branch, an extension of her body, but in the course of the film she appears full-on only briefly, near the end. She doesn’t spell out a credo, or spill any outright confessions of her own. (In an overconfiding age, this may account for a good deal of the film’s power.) But Johnson’s overheard voice—a quick, open, guileless voice, quintessentially American—is there from the start, behind the lens, giggling and almost giddy. When her camera catches lightning slicing down from a wash of blue-gray Missouri clouds, she gasps, then stays steady and silent enough to take in the emptiness—a crash of thunder, its echo, a defiantly serene bird—then Johnson sneezes, twice, jostling the frame, undercutting any self-important claim to authority as the film’s title comes up.
Soon after, in Sarajevo, speaking offhandedly to an unseen collaborator, the cameraperson sketches her MO, talking like a teenager: “I always try to have some kind of relationship with people, like I’ll look them in the eye like ‘You see me shooting you, don’t you?’”
She shows us her twin toddlers in her Manhattan home (without giving a glimpse of a significant other) and spends time with her parents, inevitable augurs of mortality. Johnson’s father, on a casual walk, cheerfully displays a dead bird to the grandkids, while images of Johnson’s mother give way to shots of a container holding her ashes. (For the latter, Johnson keeps rearranging objects in the frame, adjusting the composition, as if trying to come to terms with the unadjustable limit of her mother’s life.)
In interviews, Johnson has expressed guilt and self-reproach about photographing her afflicted mother against her wishes. Yet, as she must know, some of her film’s most poignant moments emerge from this betrayal. How could Johnson resist recording her mother’s stunned face, trying to hold on to an identity slipping away before her eyes? Circling back to Scorsese, we can recognize that Johnson is confronting a larger fact: human presences are always fragile, fleeting, on their way to being out of the frame.
You can entangle across time. You can entangle into the future, into the past. You can entangle through space. That’s what quantum entanglement means. It means that there’s another underlying layer of nature that we haven’t discovered yet.
—Dr. Eric W. Davis, in Cameraperson
At some point in the editing process, Johnson seems to have taken her cue from the astrophysicist quoted above, riffing on the notion that we’re all entangled; time and space can’t always be taken literally; recorded reality can be reorganized to comply with memory and imagination. By this logic, less scientific than intuitive, people and places in Johnson’s memoir become entangled in occasional shared chapters, tethered by free-associational edits. The harsh wind in Wyoming, flashing through tall grass on the Johnson family ranch, makes Johnson’s mother stagger, wince, and seem to dwindle into a Giacometti figurine. With the grace of a cut, the same wind sweeps through a yellow hillside in Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the rural village where a Muslim family has returned to their farm while contending with memories of genocide and war.
Similar associative links and leaps flicker throughout the film, but, halfway in, there’s a sequence that’s starkly explicit in its insistence on interconnectedness. Johnson serves up a series of landscapes where historic atrocities have occurred, now mute and tranquil crime scenes, mundane places conjoined by invisible carnage and, for the most part, a shared look of dreary ordinariness. The sequence includes sites of mass execution, torture, and rape, plus forensic shots of the drab interior of a pickup truck identified as the vehicle that dragged James Byrd Jr. to his death in the otherwise unremarkable town of Jasper, Texas. In this stretch, Johnson expresses a sustained note of anguish, like a war correspondent admitting to a case of secondhand PTSD, but she’s stoic about it, and, as her film offers a range of locations and perspectives, she’s irrepressibly alert to the bigger picture—a picture that includes antic dancing in Uganda, a woman embracing a fierce and humiliated young boxer after a lost match in Brooklyn, the flow of life around a roadside market in Liberia. It’s fair to say the “wonderful” God hailed by nine-year-old Kirsten in a preserved handwritten poem—“Your love never ends! / And my love to you will never end!”—has been displaced, in the grown cameraperson’s mind and eye, by a pantheistic understanding of the world, a sense of immanence and mystery that competes with evidence of unrelenting bad news. And so Johnson counterbalances bitter and abject scenes with proofs of compassion, consolation, even joy. And it’s no fluke that many of the film’s brighter moments involve children.
Down with bourgeois fairy-tale scenarios . . . Long live life as it is!
Cameraperson has been showered with sympathetic and insightful reviews, and hailed as a film without precedent. It doesn’t diminish Johnson’s work—its integrity, freshness, and force—to recognize that antecedents do exist. Dziga Vertov, the pioneering Soviet director of newsreels and kaleidoscopic documentary features, would not be spinning in his grave to consider his legacy extended and fulfilled in Johnson’s audacious and self-aware doc/essay/travelogue/memoir. Indeed, Cameraperson would make a provocative double bill with Vertov’s equally unclassifiable Man with a Movie Camera (1929), a dazzling chronicle of urban life channeled dusk to dawn through the lens of an itinerant cameraman, a tale told without intertitles or narration. (Vertov’s spectacular “day” was in fact filmed in four cities over a period of three years.) Man with a Movie Camera’s propulsive editing and hyper-aestheticized photography don’t jibe with Johnson’s levelheaded approach, but her anchoring ambition is aligned with Vertov’s: to record and elevate common experience, to uphold film as a reflection of reality rather than an escape from it, and, further, to create movies that open idealistically outward, providing a means for people to see their lives valued, honored, and in effect returned to them, even as they become part of a larger collective story.
In Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983), we can find another singular, self-defining, soaring hybrid “documentary” experiment, a collage of fragmentary episodes candidly jigsawed together from a cinematographer’s accumulated outtakes. Marker uses magisterial narration to explicate his images, to question them, to expand their reach, constructing a philosophical inquiry into the nature of seeing, memory, time, consciousness; but strip away the voice-over and you can still take in Marker’s generous regard for the people he encounters, respect for their vulnerability, their otherness, their unique place within a vast human family.
All the same, Vertov and Marker, assigning their authentic, unstaged images to fictional cameramen, avoid the level of personal risk embraced by Johnson, who unabashedly (if incompletely) reveals her history, her unmistakable self, as the source of every frame. By the time we catch sight of her in Cameraperson, we can be forgiven for presuming to know her. She aims the camera at herself, standing beside her unsteady mother, sharing the older woman’s worried smile, and her eyes look haunted. The image emerges within a flashback, an editorial surprise, and it suggests that Johnson would agree with a primary Marker aphorism: “Being a photographer means not only to look but to sustain the gaze of others.” The gaze of others, we can see, carries a corresponding weight.
I said to the wanting-creature inside me: What is this river you want to cross?
Voyeurism is related to cinema as lust is related to love. You can separate them—you can try to separate them—but to what end? The urge to look, to see and share private experience—whether displays of intimacy, acts of violence, the urgent facts of another person’s pain—is seldom pure and simple. How do we, filmmakers and film viewers, transcend voyeurism? How can a filmmaker’s craft and conscience elevate images from voyeurism to revelation?
Cameraperson reaches a kind of climax back in Foča, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the place Johnson visits most within the braided strands of the film’s structure. She documents her return five years after her initial journey, with music from the resulting 2011 film, an episode of the PBS series Women, War & Peace, brimming over into Cameraperson, the movie we’re watching while the gathered family watches themselves on a laptop screen. Johnson, of course, records this rapt audience, their charged attention, then the rich homemade meal that follows, coffee, a cigarette. The Möbius-strip circuit of giving and taking and giving back—the process of seeing, sharing, and accepting—brings Cameraperson to an ideal summit of reconciliation, peace, hope for the future. “We hope someday she can come back with her son and daughter,” a woman tells Johnson’s translator, “to see how peasants live.” Exactly the response Vertov was hectically hungering for.
One of the film’s most arresting and resonant images, for this viewer, occurs earlier in Foča, when an unnamed Muslim woman lifts a bowl high above her head, confidently spilling berries into another bowl held below her waist. The free-falling fruit makes an ecstatic blur, and the next cut shows the berries as they’ve landed and settled, as if artfully prearranged: a ready-made bouquet of whorled color—red, black, white, yellow—an instant metaphor for plenitude and renewal, raw experience transformed into poetry.
“Wow,” says the woman behind the camera. “It’s like magic.”
Michael Almereyda’s documentary films include This So-Called Disaster, William Eggleston in the Real World, Paradise, and the forthcoming Escapes.