- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2016


Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson has, quite simply, reinvented cinema. Her docu-narrative film, “Cameraperson,” is both the year’s best film and its most revolutionary. Ms. Johnson, a New York-based cinematographer for other documentarians, has fashioned a work from the scraps of other films she has worked on over a quarter-century, mixed in with her own home videos of her children and her ailing mother — stricken with Alzheimer’s and fading fast — into a whole that is not just greater than the sum of its parts, but a revolution in what movies can be.

“It emerged out of me truly pursuing what were profound questions and hauntings and ethical dilemmas that I feel on a most deep level,” Ms. Johnson told me during a recent phone conversation. “When you’re with people for the strongest moments of their lives, and you are there with a camera, you really have to deal with it in the moment.”

Ms. Johnson’s lens travels the globe. Bosnia. Darfur. Nigeria. Afghanistan. Alabama. Washington, D.C. It is appropriate she has named her film “Cameraperson” to indicate that an observer not only sees but, as Heisenberg so famously declared, changes the situation. Some of Ms. Johnson’s subjects behave — some of them badly — as if she were not there, while others, such as a young Afghani boy, she speaks to directly, coaching from him a tentative smile.

Ms. Johnson at first set out to make a film about Afghanistan and its ongoing troubles, but after three years of labor, one of her interview subjects suddenly withdrew permission to use footage of her — leading to a bit of an existential quandary for Ms. Johnson’s still-gestating project. She refers to this period as the “first phase.”

“I started telling stories about other places I had been, and that then led me to reach out to other directors” to get her hands on some unused footage from their films, she said. Those filmmakers included Michael Moore (“Farhenheit 9/11”), Laura Poitras (“Citenzfour”) and Ted Braun (“Darfur Now”), who consented to their B-roll being used for this noble experiment.

One of the “stories” she follows is of a Nigerian midwife, who continues delivering babies under the most rudimentary conditions and with barely any of the necessary equipment. Another strand shows an elderly Bosnian woman who cheerily contends that the Serbian campaign of rape during the former Yugoslavia’s ugly civil war was not happening.

“I really think, in certain circumstances, denial is an affirmation of life,” Ms. Johnson said. “The greatest humor, the greatest invention among humans, comes often from people who really know suffering. Or really know being made invisible.”

“Cameraperson“‘s most haunting, most personal motif has Ms. Johnson filming her own mother on the family’s Wyoming ranch. The matron’s mind is being ravaged by Alzheimer’s, and with each return to Wyoming, the person we have only begun to know is disappearing. The pain for the viewer can be but a cut compared to the agony that Ms. Johnson — or anyone — suffered while watching a person she loved her whole life dying a thousand deaths while still alive.

“I certainly became very obsessed with memory and its function and what it’s for,” Ms. Johnson said. “My mother didn’t want to be filmed by me, so I was sort of sneaking that footage of her on the ranch. I filmed never imagining I would show it to anyone.”

Rather, Ms. Johnson’s footage was a way to somehow capture her mother’s essence on film as her personality gradually “disappeared.”

“I couldn’t bear not having a trace of her,” she said. “This is my greatest trauma in some ways. And it’s also what we all have to experience that we all don’t want to experience.

“It’s kind of an [auger] of ‘what’s going to happen to me?’ when you see it happen in this generational way.”

Ms. Johnson hoped desperately the elderly Bosnian woman featured in “Cameraperson” would be able to see the final film, but she passed just 41 days before it screened in Sarajevo. (“I was so mad at the universe,” Ms. Johnson said.) However, the woman’s son and daughter-in-law attended the showing.

“Afterwards they told me they have no photos of her,” Ms. Johnson recalled, adding the film allowed the mother to “reappear” to them.

“It doesn’t bring her back, but you know what that is to have someone you love somehow reappear and not be lost forever.”

It is here that Ms. Johnson speaks a truth about the power of film to not only transport us to places and times both distant or imaginary, but to, in some ephemeral way, keep the departed with us.

“They live inside of us, but to have them live in an image is a different thing,” she said.

The closest analogue in the film world to what Ms. Johnson has made are the films of Ron Fricke, which travel the world showing us wonders both natural and man-made. But whereas Mr. Fricke’s films, which are stunning masterworks, are about the experience of vicarious sojourns to exotic lands and cultures — and the commonalities of life on this planet that link us all — “Cameraperson” is truly, in the end, about humanity and cinema, and how interconnected the two have inevitably become in the 21st century.

And because smartphones can make anyone a filmmaker, Ms. Johnson believes the conflict is now stronger than ever between whether to record our waking lives or to simply live them.

“Do I take a picture of this moment? I’m with my dying parent, do I take a photograph of it? Do I look at this image that I’m afraid will scar me forever. How can I not look?”

Many of Ms. Johnson’s backers told her that “only people who make films are going to be interested in this film.” Perhaps at the outset of its run at the festival circuit that might have seemed true, what with the accolades it received at Sundance, but much like her tool, her completed film too is making a travelogue of the globe.

“I really believe that at this moment in history, almost everyone on the planet has a lot of exposure to visual language, and has a lot of exposure to this strange state of civilization where you can know what’s happening in Syria at the same time you can know what’s happening in Japan and at the same time you can know what’s happening in Los Angeles,” Ms. Johnson said. “That’s new in human history. And we’re all experiencing it simultaneously.”

The final shot of “Cameraperson,” which I would not dream of revealing, was done so, the auteur said, as a way of showing that “there is no ending” in this story we call life.

“There’s a way in which obviously it felt like the end of the movie, the ending of my mother, and yet that’s so reductive, and it so doesn’t speak to the way in which I’ve found my mother and the love I have for her,” Ms. Johnson said.

Making films, she said, is “searching and finding people who surprise you. Just when you feel loss, all of sudden some gorgeous, thrilling person comes along and helps you remember what it is to be in love. Or some child comes along and makes you feel angry again about the poverty and violence in the world. Some man hustling to make a living makes you remember to respect how hard people try.

“Somehow I feel all of that is contained in that” final shot.

The reaction of audiences has touched “Cameraperson“‘s creator almost as much as its subjects have. Two 16-year-olds somehow got into a screening in San Francisco, lending credence to “Cameraperson” being a film for everyone. In New York, a man in the audience told her that he had been living with AIDS since 1987 and, after seeing her film, believed he now understood a way to tell his own story.

I told Ms. Johnson of my own ventures into producing short documentaries. “The Town That Disappeared Overnight,” about a town in the county where I grew up in New Jersey being flooded in the name of progress, got us some festival recognition, but clearly not enough for me to quit my day job. My partners and I are now putting the finishing touches on “A Hope for Hartly,” about a Delaware town that may cease to exist and be subsumed into the county.

“The fact you do watch so many films, that you share this experience, means so much,” Ms. Johnson told me when I offered my praise as both a critic and a fellow filmmaker. “I think there are those of us who do this who take in hundreds and hundreds of stories, and we know what that does to us, and in other ways, we don’t yet understand it and we grapple with it.

“I sort of recognize you as a comrade in that ‘at-scale’ relationship to things.”

My interpretation of “Cameraperson,” she said, adds to the “plurality” of the experience of cinema and the questions that it raises — both for me as a filmgoer and as a person.

“I also very much own that it is me and it is my life, and I’m a singular person,” Ms. Johnson said of her film, “and my perspective comes from who I am.”

“Cameraperson” is now playing at the District’s E Street Cinema.

Eric Althoff’s review of the film can be read here



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