review by ken donnelly
Filmgoers will struggle to find a documentary as honest and overwhelming as Kirsten Johnson's intricately compiled memoir Cameraperson. It is a collection of unused footage from over a dozen documentaries shot by Johnson over a career spanning more than 25 years. The film jumps rapidly between a diverse range of scenarios, from a boxing match in Brooklyn to dancing in Uganda to an abortion clinic in Missouri, with literally dozens in between. The result is a film which oozes reality and humanity, and highlights the immense responsibility of documentaries to reflect the experiences of the people at the heart of wider political contexts. Moreover, it is a film about revisiting tragedy, and the effect past atrocities have on specific localities.
The spine of the film comes in footage from Johnson's time covering a muslim family who have returned to live near the Bosnian town of Foca, following the atrocities of the 1990s. An early shot of the town centres in on large striking graffiti which simply reads "Don't Forget Srebrenica", the site of mass rape and genocide of Bosnian muslims. In many ways this single brief shot frames a large part of what the memoir is trying to get at. Its message is in English and therefore intended for the western world. It demands greater awareness and understanding of the extent of suffering in non-Western nations, and the role of Western democracies in perpetuating this suffering.
Cameraperson provides a telling insight into the ethics of documenting reality. It asks the difficult questions, such as is there a point at which the camera should be turned off, especially when dealing with such subjects as genocide? Or is it essential that documentarians don’t hold back? Johnson ponders these questions, but seems to rely on what one interviewee describes as “the golden rule - dignity”. In every cut, Johnson emphasises the importance of representing those on screen as truthfully and fairly as possible. The context of the individual lives is never taken for granted.
The film shows a great awareness of the effect of the camera on those being filmed. Whether the camera is capturing reality or reality is irreparably altered by the camera is up for discussion. However, Johnson has an immense talent of capturing scenes of intense feeling and resonance. Her footage portrays humans at their most vulnerable, more often than not trying to come to terms with deep personal trauma.
An emotional highlight of the film comes in the scenes of the direct aftermath of a baby’s birth in a maternity hospital in Nigeria. The delicate newborn seen fighting for survival is just part of the daily routine of the midwife who the camera is following. The resulting images are challenging, beautiful, and endlessly powerful.
The heavy awareness of the person behind the camera only compounds the reality and urgency of what is seen on screen. This awareness creates the effect of seeing the images and events as though they are unfolding in front of your own eyes. The viewer experiences with Johnson the thrill of capturing something worthwhile, but also the frustration of not being given the opportunity to film. This frustration is exemplified in the limited shots of Guantanamo Bay and similarly in the desperation for shots of a highly protected terrorist prison in Yemen.
The films strengths lie in its powerful juxtapositions. Personal interviews with those affected by war in Bosnia and Afghanistan, are intercut with images of Guantanamo Bay and Washington DC. Footage of Johnson’s own children are coupled with an interview with an Afghan boy who has lost family in the war. There is an unavoidable sense of a rejection of a world which is unnecessarily governed by fear and intolerance.
The sheer volume of cuts and juxtapositions is at times difficult to cope with. In assessing the film it is easy to forget particular powerful scenes which have been drowned out by a plethora of other moving scenes. It is a film that attempts to reconcile with a wide range of themes; from the ethics of filmmaking, to the connection of the camera with its holder and the outside world, to coping with intense trauma, to portraying the vulnerable, to searching for humanity in all quarters and many more. In this regard, Cameraperson becomes rather overwhelming.
However, when judged as a memoir, which is how it is presented, Cameraperson is a testament to Johnson’s raw ability and her commitment to documenting the world. It is a picture which unifies the themes and issues of a career’s worth of films. It is self aware, it is personal, it is universal, it is harrowing, it is difficult, and at times it is deeply moving.