July: Cameraperson

“I Ask You to See it as My Memoir”

Patrik Sjöberg (Karlstad University)

At the beginning of Cameraperson, the viewer is given some instructions, or rather suggestions, on how to view the film. One sentence of this brief insert reads: “I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir.” Here, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson not only indicates how close she views the relationship between work and identity, but also that a memoir can be constructed from materials that are lacking many or even all the biographical cues we normally associate with a memoir. We do see and hear Johnson in the film: we see her only once in footage together with her mother, but we hear her talking offscreen as she is shooting, and more importantly, perhaps, we hear her sneeze and breathe on several occasions. However, her biographical, bodily self, is inscribed into the film less through these obvious markers, I find, than in the little camera movements, adjustments of focus, and the re-composing of the frame we see in several cases. The absence of any obvious chronology or thematic structure highlights these moments too, making us acutely aware, not only that footage is being shot, but by whom. The result is powerful, personal, and distinctly political.

Cameraperson screengrab

I think Conor Bateman is right, however, in accentuating the role of the editor, Nels Bangerter, in Johnson’s film. The memoir-effect of the film, seems not to rest solely on instances found in the individual shots, filmed in different locations and at different points in time and for films with very different topics, as much as it is brought out and highlighted in the carefully arranged montage. In his video essay, Cameraperson to Person, Bateman analyzes in some detail the structure of the 28 tracks found in the film, looking for clues and patterns to how this film communicates a cameraperson’s selfhood through her work. The tentative logic of the montage seems to rest only partially on coherence of places and their attached subjects. Often the shots are arranged in such a way as to draw attention to details that become very dynamic: rooms, gestures, landscapes, and faces. The world presented in the film is both coherent, through the present embodied subjectivity of the cameraperson, and incoherent, as the various sequences are not edited together in such a way as to resemble an obvious conclusion.

Cameraperson also makes me think of Leo Hurwitz’s Dialogue With a Woman Departed (1972-1980). Hurwitz’s film is monumental: four hours long, eight years in the making, and an act of memorialization of his wife and documentary film collaborator, Peggy Lawson. The differences between the works are many, of course, but like Johnson, Hurwitz chooses not to erect a linear biography. Rather, he returns to the films he and his late wife made together, and, through a carefully arranged montage of footage from their films, conjures up an essayistic posthumous love letter to her that at the same time presents their shared view of the world, their political activism, and their shared cinematic labor. By incorporating fragments of films they made together, Hurwitz is showing us what might have been her point of view. It is as if he, too, asks us to see the footage as memoir, and that our work is also our personal archive, a camera perspective also a personal statement.

That said, there are aspects of Cameraperson that, to me, seem to be guided by priorities other than memoir. I’m thinking about the montage sequences that seem constructed mostly according to shared visual components, such as groups of people walking, filmed while following them from behind, or the rare but distinct musical inserts. If we accept the assertions made by, for example, Hito Steyerl and Volker Pantenburg, (and I think we should), that the essay film is in danger of becoming a cliché of self-reflexive, free form, personal cinema, I believe that there are a few considerably less dynamic moments in Cameraperson, like the ones mentioned above, that fall into this category. Here, I find the montage lacking the sensitivity and attentiveness that works so well in the rest of the film by holding the attention of the spectator, and instead falls into, if not the predictable, then the illustrative. Mais cést pas grave. The film still maintains the intimacy of the singular event, Johnson’s presence in the room or landscape and behind the camera, without letting us forget the bigger political picture and historical conditions under which the material was being made. This is no small feat, and we won’t be done talking about this film for a long time.

“The Embodied Lens”

Vera Brunner-Sung (Ohio State University)

In its intimate contemplation of life experienced through the lens, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is in fine recent company—Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie and Jem Cohen’s Counting (both 2015) come to mind. But where Akerman and Cohen have always helmed their own projects, Johnson has spent the bulk of her career as a cinematographer and camera operator-for-hire. To construct a film as she and her editors have done, out of material generated for others, is an altogether different undertaking.

On a fundamental level, Cameraperson is an act of reclamation, of the recovery of Johnson’s labor. It is provocative as a reflection on the nature and consequences of this highly specialized work: that of the literal “seer” who is tasked with channeling reality into images. One of the film’s pleasures is our first-person experience of Johnson’s skill. We note, for instance, her fine calibration of composition. Yet camerawork is more than technique. Like great actors, great camera operators must have keen instincts and know how to follow them; Vertov’s mechanical eye has always been an extension of the kinok-pilot, who must be extraordinarily present in each moment. Cameraperson emphasizes the embodiment of this labor; the intense and traumatic nature of much of Johnson’s subject matter—political injustice, rape, murder, genocide—lends her project a distinct urgency. Already in the title Johnson positions her self, not merely the device of the camera, as the central processing mechanism.

It is somewhat paradoxical, perhaps, that these qualities would be impossible to communicate to an audience without audio—specifically, that of the video camera’s default scratch track that composes most of the film’s soundtrack. These fragments of conversation and breath are, along with the occasional trembling or twitch of the frame, typically erased from a finished film precisely for their betrayal of their maker’s presence. Johnson uses them to underscore the physicality and emotional intensity of her work. We hear her panting and laughter as she chases a reverse shot of a shepherd in Bosnia; the off-screen voices that strategize an elaborate choreography to capture footage of a prison in Sana’a. And then the interviews where she can’t help herself, cutting in: “We’ve all had unintended pregnancies,” she reassures a tearful young woman in Alabama who seeks an abortion; “You’re making me cry even though I don’t understand the language,” she tells a teenager in Kabul, who has just described finding his brother’s mangled corpse following a rocket attack.

This deceptively simple use of sound enables us not only to sense Johnson’s presence, but to feel her affect. It makes the invisible palpable, positioning her as an active receiver of all that her camera records. “I always try to have some kind of relationship with people,” she whispers to a colleague over b-roll in Sarajevo. “I’ll look them in the eye like, ‘You see me shooting you, don’t you?’” It seems that a notion of touch, of contact however tenuous or intuited, is fundamental to Johnson’s ethics.

One sequence in particular, underscored by a rare use of non-diegetic music, emphasizes Johnson’s idea of her work as generating a transcendent bond between her and her subjects: her return years later to the Bosnian village of the shepherd. Here, along with material for a film on mass rape survivors, she recorded the day-to-day life of a Muslim family. Huddled around a table, the family members smile as their images are played back; Johnson confesses how the pleasure of her time with them caused her to forget about the horrors of the war she was there to document. “We are happy she remembered and she came back,” the mother tells the translator, “and that she recorded what we watched.”

Cameraperson pays further tribute to ineffable ties through its ruminations on the beauty, pain, and mystery of the long-distance connection: the infant in a Nigerian hospital who may not survive its twin; the physicist enthusing over a theory that posits a sensory link between separated particles across time and space. And there is the crash of snow loosed from the roof of a house where a woman rages over the suicide of her mother, an energetic transfer, perhaps, between material dimensions.

How genuine is the bond between observer and observed? The film’s formal efforts aside, their relationship is inherently unequal—the subject must disclose far more than she—and, aside from the thoughtful words of the woman in the village, it’s not clear how much Johnson’s deep sentiment is reciprocated. At the clinic in Alabama, the face of the young woman is cropped out of the frame to protect her identity. The kid in Kabul glances up, smiles, seems to shrug; is he embarrassed by her emotion?

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. In assembling Cameraperson, Johnson seeks the contours of a self, shaped by mediated encounters with many others. As demonstrated by footage of her own mother, afflicted by Alzheimer’s and struggling to recognize photographs from her past, identity has the potential to emerge in the material of the image. Johnson’s work defines her, in more ways than one. How intimate, how vulnerable, how hopeful of a self-portrait.

One thought on “July: Cameraperson

  1. While I was watching it, Cameraperson struck me as a less structured and less self-conscious “Sans Soliel.” Perhaps Johnson, unlike the narrator’s correspondent in Sans Soliel, hasn’t been around the world fourteen times yet and is still interested in something other than the mundane, There is a sense throughout of her working toward, arranging and sometimes sabotaging direct cinema money shots. This is why I would also be curious to know how many of these shots and sequences made it into the finished films (certainly, they would have used the bit about Derrida crossing the road to get to the other side). Otherwise what we have is a collection of home movies, bloopers, outtakes, establishing shot duplicates and a few sequences worthy of a demo reel (e.g. the sick newborn, following the angry boxer).

    All of this is to say that the film exemplifies where we are today with the documentary ethos. Boxes are ticked. It’s all archival footage edited, as Patrick notes, by someone other than she who shot it. It is all out of context – in the sense that it was supposed to be about Johnson rather than the subject of the documentary she was making. It was an essay film in which the director doesn’t speak. And ultimately it goes for the grand prize of contemporary doc, a convincing proof that “it is what it is” and nothing more.

    (Apropos of nothing, has anyone else noticed that in the OED’s definition of the word “shot” as it pertains to photographic practices, the usage seems to be derived from navigation, a “meridional altitude taken?” In other words, to take a shot, beginning with “snapshots” carries the sense of fixing a position that is inherent in taking (or fixing) an image. To shoot photographically is to orient both the shooter and the viewer.)

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