Kirsten Johnson is one of cinema’s unsung heroes. The titular camera operator on films like Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Armor of Light, and most notably the cinematographer behind various films of Laura Poitras, such as Citizenfour, the live chronicling of Edward Snowden’s NSA leak, and The Oath, about Abu Jandal, Guantanamo detainee and driver to Osama Bin Laden. Her twenty-five years behind the camera have taken her across the globe, where she’s documented every facet of life imaginable, from its tiny miracles to its devastating horrors. Cameraperson is a collection of the things she’s seen, or rather, the things seen by her camera across dozens of films, all of which are on display. It’s meticulously crafted (perhaps one of the best edited films this year), and it’s also a key text on voyeurism and violence in 21st century journalism.
To say that it’s unique doesn’t nearly do it justice.
From the rush of a Steadicam shot following a steaming Brooklyn boxer after his narrow loss, to the eerie stillness of women’s faces framed just out of picture, be they teens forced to carry children to term in Alabama or older women recalling mass rape during the Bosnian genocide as their hands fidget nervously, Jonson’s camera feels as intimate and personal as any you can imagine, but the film makes one thing clear up front. As much as we, the audience, have the luxury of viewing these stories through the filter of the silver screen, the likes of Johnson are right there, up close and personal, watching them unfold. She sees the faces we don’t, and she has to carry these stories with her.
As a young Afghani boy recalls his brother’s death at the hands of a rocket strike, his left eye focused on the camera and our eyes focused on his damaged right one, we get to see something that never made it to the film it was shot for. Despite not speaking the language, Johnson breaks down at the boy’s story, just beyond the frame. The film itself opens with this relationship between audience and documentarian, as Johnson gasps at the accidental capture of lightning, followed by a comically-timed sneeze. The storyteller is ever-present in this global tale, its very DNA comprising that which is shaved off the edges in other documentaries, and the effect is simply mesmerizing.
The film skips back and forth in time and across continents, from a maternity ward in Nigeria to Johnson’s own apartment in New York City and everywhere in between, acting as both a biography of its subjects and an autobiography of the woman who filmed them. There’s joy to be found even amidst its darker moments – it is, in a sense, an encapsulation of all life’s experiences – but it nestles in a necessary debate on the ethics of the documentary.
A Syrian philosopher, Johnson’s friend, lambasts the media’s portrayal of violence and death, rendering his people a shocking afterthought about which nothing can be done despite any and all outrage. Johnson herself is responsible for bringing ghastly images to our front door (a newborn gasps for breath as an underfunded hospital runs out of oxygen in a particularly hard-hitting scene), but she’s not unaware of the dynamic between the privilege she’s afforded behind the camera as a white American woman, and the people whose stories she uses to make art. Her side of the debate isn’t so much pro-morbidity as it is having an understanding of what that morbidity entails, regardless of whether or not it’s “necessary.” Her mea culpa is made up of her own home videos; her children, her father and, most notably, her ailing mother, whose progressing Alzheimer’s she documents with every conversation. That is to say, she’s not unfamiliar with the realities of her subjects, or the role she plays in relaying their most intimate moments.
Johnson’s eye is inherently voyeuristic, but Cameraperson extrapolates the emotional damage that this persistent voyeurism can have – a vital examination our media-saturated landscape, where “the news” is a constant stream from all directions. The camera extends beyond the story itself, as Johnson’s Bosnian translators (fellow activists and storytellers) detail the weight they carry as they bear the burdens of others, but amidst these tales of unspeakable pain come hidden moments of beauty. The horrors on display are mixed in with the tiniest of victories; smiles piercing through the abject misery that would’ve likely formed the reasons for turning on the camera in the first place. The odd joke. The happy memory. The tears turning in to laughter as something unexpected happens in the otherwise sterile interview environment.
Johnson’s life has been in service of capturing life itself, both living it in person as well as revisiting it through a controlled window. This line often blurs when talking about “experience” as a concept in the 21st century – rows of recording cellphones are now a permanent fixture of live music performances – but Johnson’s wise camera and its career-long culmination are a testament to what lies beneath the layers of these disparate stories, whether they’re told face to face through translators, or via subtitles on a screen. Life. Death. Love. Pain. These are human experiences, and they bind us across boundaries.