Kirsten Johnson reflects on and reveals life as a documentary filmmaker in ‘Cameraperson’

Documentary director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson assembles parts of the footage from her years of work into a masterpiece feature Cameraperson. The compilation includes multiple storylines from across the world and captures the lives of many in front of the lens, but also the psychology of those behind the camera. KIZJ: (4/5)

Review by FF2 Contributing Editor Katusha Jin

Birds chirp in the background, and Kirsten Johnson introduces her film with text on screen. This is her memoir of 25 years of work as a cinematographer. We’re in Foča, Bosnia; a wobbly camera and an off-camera voice reveal the wildflowers in the shot. A house comes into frame, followed by a close up of one dark window, and then a shepherd herding sheep from the back of a horse is seen. “The sheep don’t know what to think,” says the off-camera voice. A hand appears from behind the camera to pull out a few blades of grass—the shot looks better now.

Next, it’s Nodaway County, Missouri, and a car drives by on the highway. The cinematographer coughs and sneezes, and the camera shakes. And then we’re taken to Brooklyn, New York, where James Wilkins is a boxer preparing for a match. He rolls on the ground and stretches, and his coach gives him some last pieces of advice before the camera follows him into the cheering crowds surrounding the fighting ring. Just as abruptly as with the previous changes in location, we are transported to Kano, Nigeria. Babies cry, and Aisha Bukar, a midwife, wraps a newborn in a patterned blanket. The baby stares into the camera. 

We’re back in Bosnia, but the city is Sarajevo this time. A discussion of what’s in the shot is heard—the good, the bad, what works and what doesn’t. The conversation changes direction and becomes about whether a cinematographer needs to ask for permission to shoot people in public. Johnson explains that she always tries to have some relationship with the people, even something like eye contact and acknowledgment. Cameraperson continues to bounce through the many narratives from Johnson’s years of work and tasks the audience with threading together her exploration of not only the work in each filmed shot but also the thought that goes into being behind the camera.

In Cameraperson, each footage segment was taken from an existing film and repurposed for this video diary. She chooses to leave in the dialogues and the tweakings of the shots that are usually removed because this was her way of showing people more of the complex process of creating a film. In a masterclass with Hong Kong Documentary Initiative, Johnson describes cinematography as being in a position where you must decide things in the moment. You are always responding to the situation—making a choice in the present about what to include in a shot, and then about the future when thinking about how it would cut together. “You are inhabiting these two spaces simultaneously, and hopefully, you don’t make a fatal mistake.”

She draws on a quote from Arther Miller that an artist’s job is “to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.” As filmmakers, we are trained to create technically perfect pictures. We want good sound, ideal lighting, and balanced colors. Instead, Cameraperson lets the audience take the lead in piecing together untouched and imperfect bits of film into a story of its own. 

Johnson questions why filmmakers create films at all and believes that “we’re trying to understand deep things.” For the first five years of her life, she filmed without listening in on the scene. But cinema consists of many layers—there’s sound, visuals, and context—and each layer could be telling a different story.  Although her focus is on the visuals as a cinematographer, she believes one cannot neglect the audio when trying to understand the story unravelling in front of her—“put on headphones, because listening is how you see,” explains Johnson.

As we go deeper into the film, the topic of documentary ethics becomes increasingly prominent. Documentary filmmakers’ jobs differ from that of narrative filmmakers because they’re often faced with morally compromising choices. In order to capture a moment for a film, there are times when the person behind the camera will objectify the subject during the shot. With Cameraperson, Johnson wanted the viewers to see the different malleable lines between what’s ethical and what isn’t in her decision-making processes. It’s never as simple as many would think.

Cameraperson is an ode to all those behind the lens who capture the emotional, the traumatizing, the beautiful, and the unforgettable. As a director and cinematographer, Johnson manages to share with the world the curiosity that leads filmmakers to create a film. In her masterclass and the Hong Kong Documentary Initiative, Johnson said: “Somehow we are recording the unknown and maybe in the future, it will come together in a way we don’t expect. This is my sort of leap of faith when I film.”

© Katusha Jin (10/02/2020) FF2 Media

Feature Photo: Kirsten Johnson in Cameraperson (2016)

Middle Photo: Aisha Bukar, a midwife in Kano, Nigeria

Bottom Photo: A still of a child in Cameraperson (2016)

Photo Credits: The Criterion Collection (2017) (USA)

Q: Does Cameraperson pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test? 

Yes—women are interviewed, and they converse with Kirsten Johnson who is behind the camera.

Tags: Cameraperson, FF2 Media, Katusha Jin, Kirsten Johnson, TCM, Turner Classic Movies, Women Make Film, WomenMakeFilm

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As part of the FF2 Media team, Katusha Jin interviews filmmakers, write features and reviews, and coaches other associates. She grew up in the UK and studied briefly in Russia and China before moving to New York for college. Graduating magna cum laude from New York University, Katusha majored in Film and Television at Tisch School of the Arts with minors in Business and Philosophy. She has worked as a producer, director, writer, and composer for various award-winning projects including short films, branded content, independent features, and music videos.
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