Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson provides an extraordinary experience for viewers—those already familiar with her body of work and those new to it alike. Johnson is a documentary cinematographer best known to most for her work on Fahrenheit 9/11 (dir. Michael Moore, 2004), Pray the Devil Back to Hell (dir. Gini Reticker, 2008), and the Oscar-winning Citizenfour (dir. Laura Poitras, 2014). Those who have seen these films will know to expect bracing, sometimes unsettling, sometimes even devastating images, but they might not be as aware of Johnson’s eye for scenes of almost unbearable beauty and joy. The images Johnson assembles in Cameraperson reveal the full range of her remarkable gifts, in all their weight and force and radiance.
In a prologue, Johnson asks her audience to view her film as her memoir, and it is easy to do so because of the way she sets the very personal (e.g., footage of her mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, or of her twin toddlers, who fiddle with her lenses while she films) next to the globally political (e.g., an interview with an injured youth in Kabul, or exterior shots of the prison at Guantanamo Bay). Given that the political world has formed such a large part of her long professional life, the film’s political scenes feel almost personal as the film goes on. As different as the various images are, Johnson either finds the common thread that connects them or lets us be momentarily stunned by the vastness of the gulf between them. Either way, the film lives and breathes in its juxtapositions, which are intelligent and forceful. As Seattle Screen Scene guest reviewer Ryan Swen aptly observes, Cameraperson is “an optimistic film that never shies away from the truth.”
Major themes of bearing witness, of testifying, and of the power inherent in the camera run throughout the film. Johnson shoots an interview with a survivor of terrible war crimes in Bosnia, helping to tell the woman’s story even as Johnson protects her privacy by showing only the survivor’s hands as she wrings them, fidgets, and smokes. This Johnson does again with a young woman seeking an abortion in a medical clinic in Huntsville, Alabama. The young woman tells a heart-rending story of desperation, loss, aspiration, and hope, and we feel her anxiety as she compulsively works her hands, interlacing her fingers, tugging at loose threads at the edge of a hole in her jeans. The hands are revealing, adding their own language to the stories the women tell.
Even as Johnson unflinchingly represents suffering, violations of human rights, and grievous loss, she gives us equally striking reminders of joy. In her footage of a Muslim family recently returned to Bosnia after having been driven out by ethnic cleansing, we see the family settling back into ordinariness—children playing (dangerously!) with an ax, an elder gazing into the distance. One radiant shot of a tiny sunlit toddler, shot from below through dried thistle with a brilliant sky and perfect rolling hills behind him, left me awed. Similarly, the film’s closing street scene in Liberia is quietly celebratory, full of color, activity, and human warmth.
In Cameraperson, we’re often privileged to hear elements of sound that are edited away in the finished versions of films. We get to hear Johnson’s questions of interview subjects, her astonished gasp as a jagged fork of lightning fills the left side of her shot, her interactions with other members of the film crews, her breathing as she scrambles across a field. But sight is always at the fore. In one of the first scenes in the film, as she shoots wildflowers growing through a barbed-wire fence, we hear a colleague whispering to her, “Can you see? Can you see?” She can. And it’s our great fortune that we can also see, through her work, a world of astonishing variety, intimacy, and power.
Special screening at SIFF Uptown on Wednesday, September 28. A Skyped Q & A with Kirsten Johnson will follow. Opens wide on September 30.