The Transformative Power of Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson

By  · Published on March 29th, 2016


“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” the great Roger Ebert once said. “It lets you understand a little bit more about different hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”

Regardless of how you approach it – as “entertainment”, “art”, “education” or a little bit of all – film has transformative powers that cannot be articulated in clearer, simpler terms than in Ebert’s above words. We live in times when it’s increasingly more difficult to consider the inherent good in the world; when even our beloved superheroes are fighting each other across multiplexes. It’s perhaps a naïve point to make; but at times of fear of terror, when despair and suffering in various parts of the world unfolds before our eyes in real time via social media, the kind of bonding Ebert talks about – that forms a deep connection between the subject and the viewer – becomes more essential than ever before.

I saw Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson on the closing night of New Directors, New Films festival – a co-presentation of MoMA and The Film Society of Lincoln Center – while grappling with my own consciousness stuck between the numbness of “shit happens” and the swelling weight of countless unspeakable evil acts erupting around the world. It was a viewing experience like no other that not only brought Ebert’s aforementioned approach to film into sharp focus, but also expanded upon its effortless wisdom. Cameraperson is a documentary of sorts. Or more accurately, it’s a compilation of seemingly random bits of various documentaries that Kirsten Johnson, the renowned cinematographer with a glorious resume that spans over more than two decades, shot. Going in, the only connecting tissue between the snippets we’re aware of is their individual effect on Johnson. We know that whatever she chose to include in the finished film meant a great deal to her. And for a very short while, Cameraperson feels accidental, like a haphazardly assembled scrapbook. But soon enough, it forms an undeniable, cumulatively powerful narrative around the shared experiences of humans in distant geographies, most of whom have been subjected to appalling injustices or crippled in a vicious circle of extreme hardship and disadvantage. It has a projective power few other films possess. It demonstrates, one short clip at a time, the visceral uniformity of humanity: it shows us that humans sometimes manage to survive by holding on to something inherently good. As Johnson observes and films her subjects through her lens, Cameraperson builds upon her presence behind the camera, while revealing layers of her character. And slowly but surely, her eyes become our eyes and the lens through which we see the world matures. As Film Society’s Marian Masone, who moderated her final ND/NF Q&A prior to her retirement put, Cameraperson “brings out everything that film does. We talk about reworking things and the emotion and the non-emotion of things and in the end, you see it again and it all comes back to you.”

Throughout her career, Johnson’s filmed subjects and stories both in the US and in several countries and conflict zones around the globe, including Bosnia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Egypt, for acclaimed, politically-concerned documentaries like Fahrenheit 9/11, Darfur Now, Throw Down Your Heart, Citizenfour, The Invisible War and Women, War & Peace. The collective assembly of the clips pulled from these and many other films informs the themes of Cameraperson through repetition. (Kudos to its editor Nels Bangerter, who worked collaboratively with the key Cameraperson team, in finding the movie with coherence.) In all cases, women get hit the hardest. Systems crush the poor. Senseless hatred kills and wounds many. But somehow, victims manage to hold on to what makes them human.

“The thing that I do see very quickly is systems,” said Kirsten Johnson during the film’s post-screening Q&A, when asked about how her worldview evolved upon her experiences as a cinematographer. “Nels’ work in this film gave me back connections that I hadn’t seen before. I’m a person who is very preoccupied with questions of injustice around race and it’s so interesting to look at this film and see how much of it is about women’s experience at many different stages of life,” she observed. “One of the things that we wanted to create in the film is this idea of accumulation. At a certain point, it’s accumulation of having been in so many places where it’s just like: the poor people are getting screwed again and so badly.”

The accumulation Johnson refers to also brings up questions (or curiosities) about the ethics and purpose of documentary filmmaking. While we witness a Nigerian baby fight for his life due to lack of oxygen or Bosnian kids dangerously play with an axe, we sense that Johnson struggles to determine what the extent of her personal involvement should be. At times, she plugs herself (and consequently, us) into the action, breaking down artistic barriers with a humanistic purpose. In one instance, she even returns to Bosnia to revisit a group of her filmed subjects. “You’re sharing this feeling of loss, of having to leave people all the time, which I think is also part of the accumulation,” she explained, noting that she got an opportunity to go to Sarajevo for a workshop, through which she revisited a group of women (many of them, rape victims) she previously filmed. “They were so happy to see me. They were really excited to hear that I had children because I hadn’t had children when I had gone the first time,” Johnson recalled. “At a certain point, I needed to tell the family how it is that I have my children. Some of you in the room know that I co-parent my children with Ira Sachs and Boris Torres, who are a married couple. We live next door to each other. I had no idea what they were going to say. She said the men who are the fathers of your children are very brave people and she is very proud of them for figuring out a way to have children. I said you know what brave is and she said I know what brave is. If you choose to interact with people in an honest way, life is a beautiful thing,” she added.

From her kids to her now-deceased mother who’s fought Alzheimer’s, her family makes Cameraperson an even more personal experience for Johnson. Their presence opens an additional window into the intimate details of her family life and character. The scenes with her mother – not dissimilar in feeling and scope to Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie – make up for some of the film’s most profound segments. These place the missing pieces of a puzzle in all the right spots and give us a more complete portrait of the artist, whose extraordinary memory lane we get to walk on for approximately two hours. “My mother before she had Alzheimer’s never wanted to be filmed by me,” Johnson said in reference to those fragments. “In that first scene where you see me filming her at the ranch, I really was sneaking that footage, pretending I’m doing a home movie. It really felt like a betrayal. Then the last footage where she comes back to life was just me out of desperation, knowing that she was going to die soon. It was really important to include both my mom and my children in this because I believe we are all camera people now. We all have phones in our pockets and we’re all making decisions, like: do I play with my child in this moment or do I film them? We’re all facing the ethical ramifications of this.”

As a cumulative artifact, Cameraperson is simply extraordinary, and operates as a remarkably effective “empathy machine”. It wraps complex concepts like time and memory in a timeless and fluid package; gifting one a third eye with new angle into the universal human experience. How unfortunate that it’s currently without a distribution home. This is the movie our world needs today. Urgently.

Freelance writer and film critic based in New York. Bylines at Film Journal, Time Out NY, Movie Mezzanine, Indiewire, and others.