Director: Kirsten Johnson
Running Time: 1:42
Release Date: 9/9/16 (limited); 10/20/16 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | October 20, 2016
The women, adorned in sheer and flowing capes, dance in balletic moves around a cross. The music plays. "From age to age, You remain the same," the lyrics go.
The shot, which looks at the dancers from a wide enough angle to see them all rotate as a group around the cross in the center, is looking within a small room in Colorado Springs. It comes immediately after another scene that is set, on the other side of the globe, in a mosque in Afghanistan.
A worshiper kneels before a shrine. Someone has two children, who aren't dancing but are a bit fidgety, with him. One man is slowly moving along the structure with his hands extended and touching it. In the corner, attached to the wall, is an oscillating fan, and the scene ends with a shot of the fan in close-up. Its movements back and forth bring us to those girls in their dance attire. Both groups are praising a deity that, according to tradition, remains the same, even though the language the girls in Colorado and the people in Afghanistan use to name it is different.
Director Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson is built around such juxtapositions—of movements, of compositions, of light, of backdrops, of subjects. It must be constructed as such, because it is a story told primarily in unconnected images.
In the opening text, Johnson describes her film as a memoir. At first, one might scoff at the notion. After all, the footage is assembled from what amount to outtakes from the documentaries of other filmmakers.
Johnson has had a 15-year career as a cinematographer on non-fiction film projects. She has worked across the world—from Jasper, Texas, where three men were on trial for the brutal and racially motivated murder of a man, to Bosnia, where she spent time with a family returning to their hometown after the ethnic cleansing of Muslims under a Serbian nationalist agenda. There's also a montage of places across the globe where executions and other atrocities took place. Horrors such as these remain the same, too. The "You" might be one thing in the lyrics. In the context of the film, it stands in for anything—war, suffering, prejudice, as well as family, love, and hope.
The memoir element of the film is not a straightforward personal narrative. Johnson appears in only one shot in the film, and her family appears only on occasion—her twins, her father, and, of most importance to the film, her mother. They are vital but only, in a way, as a respite from the stories she hears in these places across the world.
In one edit, the film moves from Sarajevo, showing the places where systematic mass rapes were committed against Muslim women, to Brooklyn. The shots of the borough are simply of familiar places—trains, people walking, an alley filled with bicycles. The montage is not significant on its own, but in the context of where we just were, it is a momentary break from horror and a moment to reflect—on how lucky or privileged the people who call this place home, like Johnson, are by comparison.
The film is not primarily the story of Johnson's life, although it is that in a way, too, depending on what extent one considers a life's work as part of a life story. These are Johnson's experiences, as seen through the lenses and viewfinders of cameras—the problematic birth of twins in Nigeria that leads to a harrowing scene of a preternaturally calm midwife trying to resuscitate the second baby. Here are the people she has met, whose stories have had some impact on her—an anonymous young woman who has decided to terminate a pregnancy, as well as a boy in Kabul who lost the sight in one eye and a brother to a rocket attack. This is how she approaches the ethics of her profession, with an activist debating how images of death bring with them a sense of finality and defeat and voyeurism, and how that relates to the crime scene photos in the trial in Texas.
This is how she copes with what she has seen and heard, with home movies of her father watching TV with her children, but even that familial serenity cannot last. The home movies are introduced with a shot of a dead bird on the ground, with her family home in background. It slowly brings us to the crux of it. In the scenes with her mother, who was diagnosed with and later died from Alzheimer's disease, this is the story of how pain and suffering know no borders.
It's a narrative of an artist's philosophy—her personal worldview on the subjects of life, death, conflict, and faith. It's an artifact reflecting Johnson's belief in the interconnectivity of the human experience—how we can understand certain concepts in a general way but never fully comprehend the unique experiences of individual people.
There's a lengthy scene in which Johnson records a fellow filmmaker, who is making a documentary about living through the aftermath of her mother's suicide. At the time, Johnson can relate. After all, she has a mother. In this film, Johnson has included the scene, of the other filmmaker going through her mother's things and raging by throwing them across the room, with a more personal understanding of her friend's pain. Even then, Johnson makes sure to include the detail that makes the friend's suffering different from her own. Soon after, Johnson shows us a boxer, raging after a defeat in the ring, seeking out his mother so that he can be calmed, like a melancholic ellipsis on the filmmakers' own stories of loss.
The film is clearly, achingly personal, yet the wealth of material and its construction, darting to-and-fro between sights and ideas, give Cameraperson a universal outlook. I have taken certain things from it, but you might take something completely different. What we, the audience, see may be completely different from what Johnson intended. That's fine. It is defiantly her film, her testament, and her way of looking at the world.
Copyright © 2016 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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