The tremendously beautiful opening images of Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson were shot in the small Bosnian town of Foča. The scene is rural, picturesque and evocative of an ancient way of life, like so many of the artfully made documentary films that pepper festival programs. Johnson frames a gorgeous shot, looking up from the side of the path at an old man as he drives his sheep down the road. Then, just to make sure it’s perfect, she yanks some tall grass out of the way of the lens.
It’s hard to imagine a more precise way to begin this filmic memoir, which Johnson has assembled from an astonishing array of places. Having worked on everything from domestic projects like Happy Valley and The Invisible War to far flung endeavors like Darfur Now and Pray the Devil Back to Hell and the globally influential Citizenfour, her filmography is a cross-section of the politically conscious, internationally focused nonfiction cinema of the past decade. Cameraperson is a repurposing of footage taken from these many projects, along with some of Johnson’s own personal videos.
On the surface, the result offers unique insights into the details of documentary filmmaking. There are plenty of moments like the initial grass-grabbing in Foča. Johnson allows the audience to listen in on discussions about lighting and b-roll, including a particularly entertaining vignette in which she collects shots of minarets in Sarajevo. Things are a bit more intense in Guantanamo and Sana’a, Yemen, where the suspicions and regulations of the authorities can make things extremely difficult. There is always the feeling of “being there,” a self-reflexive adaptation of Richard Leacock’s mantra that shifts its attention to the (mostly) unseen woman behind the camera.
Yet this is no simple masterclass in how to be a great documentary cinematographer. The sum of these images, collected from tense and dangerous locations across the world, is a bravely inquisitive reflection on the intellectual and emotional toll of the job. This is first put to words by no less illustrious a figure than Jacques Derrida, who Johnson followed across a street in New York City while working on the 2002 biographical documentary Derrida. The moment begins with some pablum from the philosopher’s companion about how Americans are so used to being filmed, the sort of thing that gets a laugh but not much further reflection. Then Johnson trips on the concrete median, her focus more on her lens than her feet. Derrida muses that, as a cameraperson, she sees everything but what’s right in front of her.
This limitation, that even after perceiving and recording under the sun she can’t control the ground beneath her, opens up the film to a critical self-awareness. No camera person is in full control of any situation, particularly when hunting for the electricity of history as it happens. “Vérité” documentaries often shoot for the illusion of the “fly on the wall,” despite the very impossibility of such a thing. Many moments in Cameraperson violate this kind of illusion, whether it be Ugandan dancers making direct eye contact with the camera or a mother’s warning to her raging son, fresh from losing a boxing match: “Don’t get mad. There are a lot of people watching. Control yourself.” Given that so much of this footage can be considered “outtakes” from other documentaries, it’s hard not to wonder whether this awareness of audience is why these shots didn’t make it into the final cuts.
As for other images, the breathtakingly troubling echoes of violence that stick in the mind and tear up the heart, those cause a different kind of conundrum. There is a stunning sequence midway through Cameraperson in which Johnson compiles shots of locations across the world where violence has taken place. Most of them are empty of people and nearly silent, but for the wind and their own ambient sounds. There’s a swimming pool in Afghanistan where the Taliban conducted executions, a building used for torture in Guantanamo, the car where James Byrd Jr. was murdered, sites in Bosnia that saw horrific sexual violence against women.
It happens all at once, like a cinematic memorial service for all those whose graves were witnessed by Johnson’s lens over the course of her career. It’s a pure form of collective mourning, an opportunity for all of us to take note of those lives that, due to political circumstance, were not mourned properly in the immediate aftermath of death. It also has a deeply personal character, a flood of images that one can imagine rising in Johnson’s mind.
Yet this is only a midway revelation, a stop along the road. It is later on that Cameraperson travels up to The Bronx, where Charif Kiwan of the Abounaddara film collective discusses the use of violent images. “If you see a dead man on the street, you cover his face, right? Why do we have to look at injured and dead people in the media?” When a member of the audience invokes the image of the Syrian child’s corpse that washed up on a Turkish beach as an opportunity to galvanize support for refugees, Kiwan doubles down. “When you focus on death, you say it’s done. It’s finished. There’s nothing to do except voyeurism. We have to find a way to represent death while respecting the golden rule: dignity.”
Johnson’s role, in a sense, is to absorb the landscapes of destruction and select from them images that both communicate their tragedy and preserve the dignity of those involved. The above question is one of public consumption and it is crucial to Cameraperson’s accomplishment. The sequence of collective mourning is a model of both beauty and respect, its silence an appropriate way to memorialize without sensationalism or the self-aggrandizing sadness of an awards show In Memoriam segment. Its breadth inches towards universality and even abstraction, which can appear almost therapeutic. Yet its placement in the film underscores how impermanent it is. The burdens of the camera person continue, and the difficulties of managing such weighty memories requires more prosaic treatment.
It’s also easy to lose track of oneself. Johnson, in her searching for evidence of violence against women in Bosnia, works with a driver and an interpreter who have devoted their lives to investigating and chronicling the stories of war and genocide. What they’ve learned from their time helping people find the graves of their relatives, among things that likely cannot be put into words, is the danger of losing touch with one’s own trauma. This life, of bearing witness to violence, is exhausting.
Yet in Cameraperson Johnson does introduce her own pain, though it appears somewhat differently than the international crises around her. She includes footage taken of her mother in her last years, stricken by Alzheimer’s. The scenes are remarkably quiet, touching but also immensely painful. The theme of loss between mother and daughter extends to other sequences as well, from an intense scene in a Nigerian maternity ward to an outburst of troubled memory on the part of a friend back in the U.S. making a film on her own mother’s suicide. Perhaps, at least for a camera person, drawing connections between professional witnessing and personal trauma can serve as a release.
There are visual leitmotifs as well. Johnson has a particular affinity for the vastness of the sky, an element that connects her mother’s Wyoming ranch to those initial views of the sky above Foča. And in the end, it is inevitable that Johnson returns to Bosnia. The family who she befriended in this small town is the lynchpin of the entire work, caught between the obligations of the distant camera lens and the heartstrings of the person behind it.
The Balkans are also where the 21st century incarnation of these philosophical struggles began, in a sense. The Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s were the first hot spot of international concern to dominate the news media, the 24-hour news networks that have now begun to invest in documentary cinema with their fixation on “impact.” The question of whether the high-resolution depiction of horrors has any real benefit has not been fully answered, yet it has now been asked for two decades — about as long as Johnson has been working.
At the end of the day, she has no concrete resolution. The act of posing questions and working them out through filmmaking is more important. The accomplishment of Cameraperson, which has in its DNA everything from the self-reflexive politics of Joshua Oppenheimer to the self-reflexive psychology of Chantal Akerman, is that it shows the constancy of these issues. Every time Johnson picks up a camera, there is an almost chemical reaction, a negotiation between vision and subject that yields only more questions. This is what nonfiction cinema should be, a living dialog that complicates the position of the camera person in invigorating, sometimes emotionally taxing ways. This mediation, for lack of a better term, is art.
This review was originally published on February 2, 2016, following its Sundance debut.