In one of the vignettes from Kirsten Johnson’s docu-memoir Cameraperson, a war crimes site investigator and a translator in Foča, Bosnia discuss the nightmares brought on by the nature of their work. The investigator tells the story of driving a woman to her former home where her family was killed years before. Along the way there, the woman’s face went completely dark. The investigator asked what was wrong, and the woman told him she couldn’t breathe: “I’m coming to a place where I survived what few survived.” They were passing the site where she was raped during the Bosnian War. Smoking a cigarette, the investigator is shaken up recounting this experience — it still remains visceral and upsetting. The translator empathizes with his anguish: “Our jobs are hard on us because we somehow process these stories, and we put them inside ourselves. So how do we deal with the trauma, our post-traumatic stress, we who collect these stories and share them with the world? How can we find a way to free ourselves from that?”
The documentary cameraperson is also a receiver of harrowing testimony, exposed to sites of radical evil, a sponge for peak emotional intensity and witness to ephemeral flashes of natural beauty. Unlike the investigator, Johnson is not looking to exorcise or liberate herself from the trauma of documentary seeing — that haunting, bifurcated experience of filmic mediation (what did I film with my camera?) and human connection (what did I experience as a person?) but rather use it to delve into the nature of documentary work, the manner in which it is conducted, and in some ways ask what it means — when every smartphone owner is a cameraperson — to pick up a camera and point it at someone.
“…these are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.” As the film begins, Johnson provides a brief text preface — an invitation to be marked and wonder, too, as a viewer. Made up of brief episodes spanning 25 years of Johnson’s career as a documentary cinematographer, Cameraperson is her first film as a director. With the consent of the filmmakers with whom she collaborated over the years, the outtakes derive from notable films she shot, ranging from Laura Poitras’ Snowden to Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 to Amy Ziering/Kirby Dick’s Derrida*. While avoiding her own voiceover and meta-commentary on the source films, it is by no means an instructional manual for aspiring filmmakers. On one level, Cameraperson is an inquiry into the ethical etiquette of filmmaking. That may sound navel-gazing and academic to the uninitiated, but it is fundamental to coming to grips with a medium that often makes truth-claims for its means and its ends, standing apart from ideology, personal agenda or political ends, however noble. While much of documentary filmmaking is further embracing elements of mainstream storytelling (setup, dramatic confrontation, resolution or call-to-action) as documentary becomes assimilated into popular entertainment, Cameraperson embraces the elliptic, the irresolute and the multivalent. In fact, stripped of a stable context and from the larger narratives of social justice and progressive politics, Cameraperson offers that what’s left out — discarded footage and poetic fragments — as a strategy to provide opportunities for contemplation and revelation.
In every image, we must ask who speaks. While self-reflexive documentaries have been a trend of late, there still exists a persistent collective fiction (sometimes reinforced by filmmakers themselves) that documentary is somehow objective and beyond interpretative intentions. From the start, Cameraperson disabuses of the innocence of documentary storytelling. While filming a sheepherder and his flock in Bosnia, Johnson gets low on the ground with her camera and rips weeds out of the way to get the frame she desires. In the subsequent fragment in Virginia, she gasps at a lightning strike across a darkening sky. Then suddenly, Johnson sneezes, and the camera shakes. A visual joke that signals there is a person behind the camera. And throughout Cameraperson Johnson is running, searching, fretting, framing, discovering, laughing, selecting, reassuring, distracting, even directing. The cameraperson is a restless hunter. An active, yet invisible presence. Negotiating with the restraints of reality. It is reminder that what happens behind the camera matters.
In a parallel text to Cameraperson, Susan Sontag wrote about images of atrocity and the traumas of conflict in relation to the image in Regarding The Pain of Others. Sontag also spent time in Sarajevo during the war where she put on a production of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot in a candlelit theatre. Cameraperson frequently returns to episodes in Sarajevo and Foca, once known as the “black hole of Bosnia”. In one of Johnson’s harrowing fragments, a survivor (her face kept out of frame) describes her experience in Partizan sports hall, where women were raped, tortured and sexually enslaved because of their ethnicity. At the same time, it has become fashionable to argue that we live in a time when the “Real is dead.” Modern life takes place in the spectacle of our screens. Post-truth is another spin-off of this phenomenon. While in some fundamental and frightening ways perception has triumphed over reality, it is also a convenient way to shield ourselves from suffering and passively endorse the spectacle sport of violence. Cameraperson seems to be wrestling with the purpose of designating a hell and securing meaning from it. Sontag makes powerful case, “Let the atrocious images haunt us. Even if they are only tokens, and cannot possibly encompass most of the reality to which they refer, they still perform a vital function. The images say: This is what human beings are capable of doing — may volunteer to do, enthusiastically, self-righteously. Don’t forget.” Memory can be a deeply ethical act.
When Johnson returns to Bosnia to meet a Muslim family she filmed five years earlier and show them footage of their stories, she admits that she had told a friend it was about blueberries and the beautiful countryside. The friend was shocked to discover it was about ethnic cleansing. The family is not offended. Instead, they invite Johnson to return with her daughters to see how peasants live and show them where their mother had been. While memory is important to memorialize the departed and remind ourselves of the sadistic capability of human beings, too much remembering can also be a trigger for violence. Forgetting and making peace are necessary for the possibility of a new future.
One of our most cherished Western myths is that life is a grand story with redemption and the hope of salvation. Cameraperson is a rejoinder — instead, life can be thought of as a series of poetic fragments, a mosaic through time, and it is whatever you love enough to keep, and we should be grateful that Johnson kept these outtakes to share with us.
*Bertha DocHouse has posted a list of all the films featured in Cameraperson.