2017 Film Essays

Why We Make Films: On Kirsten Johnson’s ‘Cameraperson’

Why do we make films? Why are we obsessed with pointing a camera at the world and dissecting it? Do we feel this helps us understand it better? Why do we revel in watching others stories, even if they are so far from our existence or understanding of the world as we see it?

Though Kirsten Johnson’s debut feature Cameraperson probably didn’t set out to answer these questions, it almost certainly has managed to. Johnson, a veteran documentary cinematographer, collected rushes from various films to create Cameraperson as a partial memoir to her career. What easily could have been a series of separate vignettes, with no crossover in meaning or context, is actually a phenomenal ode to the necessity of documentary filmmaking.

The strength of Cameraperson comes from its commitment to documentation, reproduction (sequences and subjects recur throughout the film several times) and the constant exploration of what is seen vs. what is not seen. The public becomes personal — in this way, the audience becomes an integral part of the cinematic experience. Watching the film ensures that the documentation and reproduction cycle is completed; the purpose of documenting has been fulfilled.

Cameraperson begins when the camera traditionally “cuts”; the footage viewers are never privy to in a more traditional documentary — the unpolished rushes, accidental shots and editorial discussions. Formerly “unseen” footage becomes public knowledge, which alters the way in which we view it. Audiences understand that some footage was not supposed to be in the final film, and is therefore seen as perhaps more authentic than staged interviews.

Using these sequences, Cameraperson constantly re-evaluates ethics and morality in terms of documentary filmmaking. The off-camera discussions often center around how to handle the subjects or the situation. One of the strongest scenes takes place in a Nigerian hospital as Johnson trains her camera on a newborn baby who is struggling to breathe. It’s hard to watch, upsetting and uncomfortable. It’s not a scene that would make the final cut of a documentary, probably due to the extremely upsetting nature. Off camera, Johnson and the director are frantic. Do they watch this child die? How can they help? They ask the nurse. The nurse is pragmatic — this happens all the time. They need a machine that they don’t have. They can’t do anything. So, Johnson continues to film. She continues to do her job.

It is a moment of realisation about journalistic filmmaking. Johnson, and the director, can only document the experience. They may feel helpless by standing by (and the rest of the world may judge them for it), but how can they bring these stories to people if they put down their camera? Documenting lives and reproducing images allows people from other ends of the globe to engage and identify with each other. The cameraperson is one of the most important factors in that equation.

It is those key ideas — documentation and reproduction — that frames Cameraperson. How can we remember our stories if we do not document them for others to learn from? With this in mind, Johnson turns the camera to her own life, and her own family. Her mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, becomes the focus. She slips in and out the camera, going about her daily life, talking to Johnson, talking to herself. Merging her own life with the lives of countless others that she has trained her camera on over the years, Johnson ratifies the objective sphere of filmmaking with her own personal sphere. Being a camera person may be a job, but here it is a way of documenting her mother’s personal journey, and by default — Johnson’s own personal journey, too.

By documenting her mother’s Alzheimer’s, Johnson also explores her own possible motivations for picking up a camera in the first place. Given the hereditary nature of the disease, Johnson may be documenting and preserving her own life on camera. Could Cameraperson be a personal antidote to a debilitating illness? The film can be seen as a way of ensuring that all the things Johnson has seen and done will ultimately be unforgettable, both personally and professionally.

The act of recording one’s own personal life is a complicated. Did Johnson ever intend for her mother’s image to be broadcast in cinemas? It is unlikely that her mother knew that her words would end up framing the narrative within a feature film. The recordings of Johnson’s mother are so vital to both the film and to Johnson because they perfectly explore the idea of private vs. public within documentaries. Johnson makes the private public and manages to tap into part of the documentation process that audiences have never seen before.

What is seen/not seen is a recurring motif throughout Cameraperson. In a particularly harrowing segment taken from The Two Towns of Jasper, Johnson deliberately chooses not to let her audience see the images of the late James Byrd Jr. However, viewers see a chain — which dragged Byrd to his death — being taken out of an evidence box, stretched out and wound back up again. Though Cameraperson relies on the “unseen” footage, Johnson is careful about what is depicted. Reminiscent of the Timothy Treadwell audio recording in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man, Johnson understands that it is far more effective for viewers to imagine the photographs than to actually see them.

The film initially opens with a series of sequences that are seemingly unrelated: a farmer herding his cattle in Bosnia, a boxer in Brooklyn, midwives in Kano, Nigeria. Off camera, viewers hear discussions about setting up the shot as the camera is rolling. The sequences are somehow are interconnected, and if viewers stay with the film, they will know why. Cameraperson makes the audience work to understand the final cut as a whole. It’s an immersive dot-to-dot, and while the context becomes clear, viewers may become more invested in the recurring narratives on-screen.

It is unnerving just how invested one can become within only minutes. Johnson jumps through locations and time, never linear and never explaining. Sometimes characters reappear, if only for a few minutes. In a Texas abortion clinic, only the hands of a patient are shown — she didn’t want to recognized, and Johnson’s camera allows viewers to engage with the story. Johnson’s unintrusive, observational camera slides seamlessly into the lives of others. There is no sense of exploitation or perversion, just human interaction.

Cameraperson is about genuine human connections, about the elements that connect us all, regardless of culture, geography, race or language. It documents universal feelings of grief, pain and suffering, but also curiosity. Cameraperson allows us to see not only what we give to people when we tell their stories, but also what those subjects give back to us, and to the people behind the camera.

Becky Kukla (@kuklamoo) spends her days working in TV and writing about cinema and feminism. Based in London, she also likes drinking gin, re-watching ‘The X Files’ and writing about on-screen representation at femphile.com. She’s also a regular contributor at Bitch Flicks and Film Inquiry.