In one scene in Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, we see a USB stick being thrown into a concrete mixer. Shot while making Citizenfour with director Laura Poitras, we watch as it is laid into the concrete floor and buried. We don’t know if the contents of at least part of the drive were released by Edward Snowden. We can only imagine that some of those images, data, and reports have disappeared. This shot and the worries it evokes echo throughout Johnson’s remarkable film.
The title card that precedes the opening image of the film is signed by Johnson and asks the viewer to accept the work as her memoir. The film that follows is composed of fragments of footage that she shot while working behind the camera on a number of prominent documentaries – in Bosnia, Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen and USA – as well as personal footage of her family. Presented as a collage, navigating through continents in no obvious order, we are left to grasp at the stitches that bring the fragments together. Pain and violence form the film’s backbone and, above all, that endured by women in both times of war and peace. But Johnson does not try to hierarchise this suffering.
In Bosnia, Johnson’s camera navigates the sexual violence that Bosniak women suffered during the war of the early ‘90s. The account of a victim of a Serbian paramilitary’s systematic rape of Muslim women in Foča recalls an earlier scene: a woman discussing her need for an abortion in the American South. In both scenes, Johnson’s camera focuses on the women’s hands. Their movements and clenches convey their pain to the camera; the effect recalls the gestural shots favoured by Robert Bresson. The scenes exemplify the ubiquity of women’s trauma, bringing together the contemporary and the historical, the local and international. This pain is further illustrated in her exploration of motherhood. In Nigeria, the camera follows the birth of twins, one of whom is likely to die due to a shortage of medical equipment in the local area. We connect these Nigerian twins with Johnson’s own twin daughter and son, who appear frequently in the film. In one pertinent scene, Johnson’s children curiously look over a dead bird, the director’s camera acknowledging the precarious nature of life.
On another occasion, we return to Foča and follow a herdsman on a windswept hillside, the endless rustle of the dry grass drowning out everything else. The scene then cuts to the USA, a ranch in Wyoming, the wind blowing even stronger, the rustle louder. Here the film introduces us to Johnson’s mother, a sufferer of Alzheimer’s. We come to think of two diametrically opposed, but equally painful, conditions of memory: the inability to forget, as in the Bosniak population of Foča, and the inability to remember, as in Johnson’s mother.
As her mother struggles to remember even the most intimate aspects of life – the nature of her marriage, the details of her children – we consider intergenerational memory. How did her mother’s increasing inability to remember alter Johnson’s relationship to her memories? Did it infuse into the life Johnson leads, especially the side of it she shares with her children? In other scenes, the effects of intergenerational memory, and indeed trauma, are explored in Johnson’s patchwork. In a scene from Sudan, we see two Darfurian women chopping at at a dead, dried tree. They are unable to enter the forest for fear of their lives and must instead eke out a life on sandy, infertile lands. Later, we see the children of the persecuted Bosniaks enthusiastically chipping away at a stump with a large axe: a stich exposed. Cameraperson shows us that the structures of persecution, suffering and violence do not erode so quickly: the memories of the pain endured under these structures prevail. They move down generational lines, orientating outlooks and action, influencing the future in unimaginable ways.
Yet these memories do not just spread through familial lineages: their movements are far more chaotic. In one scene, Johnson films a particle physicist discussing quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that describes how particles that are formed at the same time cannot be physically described independently even when separated by lightyears of distance. Instead, they must be understood as a whole, their interaction never forgotten. Johnson’s memoir presents us with the cinematic embodiment of this phenomenon. She is unable to describe herself without echoes of her interactions from around the world, no matter how large or small they may be. Indeed, she places herself within a more generalised understanding of life, that of the injustice felt by women worldwide, one that vibrates through race and class. And yet Johnson illustrates the limits of such a portrayal. At various points, we see Johnson attempting to film her mother’s urn. She moves the ashes restlessly, unable to obtain the shot she hoped for. In much the same way, a life reduced and compartmentalised, as in Cameraperson, will never be adequately representative.
What motivated Kirsten Johnson in making Cameraperson? A few scenes hint at the answer. Her mother’s Alzheimer’s is an unavoidable influence on Johnson’s attempt to document her life. As she watches her mother struggle to hold onto her life’s narrative, does Johnson worry she will also not be able to pass the memories that the film documents onto her children? The film is the antithesis of the memory card we see buried; it waits to be put together in the future.
There is also, perhaps, a restorative quality to Cameraperson. Two documenters of the war crimes in Bosnia explain their need to channel and express the pain and violence they have observed, hoping it will relieve the weight of these ghosts. The memories may not be theirs, but they still retain them. In another scene, we see a fellow filmmaker wade through the debris left behind by her mother after her suicide. Her mother had obsessively collected and hoarded objects, creating a physical, external imprint of her life. It is a burden too great for the daughter. In anger she throws the banal debris around the room, breaking into an exhausted smile. In the commotion, a pile of snow slides off the roof of her mother’s house, a weight lifted.
Despite her signature at the beginning, the signalling of Johnston as author, the success of Cameraperson lies in its lack of didacticism. Our search through the scenes for interconnections and narratives allows us to actively craft the film. To follow the thinking of Roland Barthes, the film is an exemplary piece of writerly art – we are not the consumer of its structure, narrative and feeling, but the producer of it in totality. From this highly subjective position, we find ourselves considering the impact of our own memories, experiences and allegiances on our viewing, allowing us to deconstruct our crafting of Cameraperson. Its loose, enigmatic structure allows us to read ourselves reading the film.
How much of my reading into memory and loss is a result of my own anxieties? How do I consider my gendered analysis of Cameraperson? After all, Johnson’s title points towards a notion of de-gendering. Indeed, I have omitted from my analysis the scenes with recently blinded Afghan boy, the imprisoned Yemeni men and even Johnson’s father. Am I too anchored to reading Cameraperson through the lens of women’s suffering? Is my feminist reading the result of my expectation that Johnson, as a woman, should be making feminist cinema? But Johnson’s title must be understood against the backdrop of an industry that is quick to label and segregate cinema on lines of class, gender, race and sexuality. Instead, the title wishes to give the film and the viewer the space to explore the interactions and experiences that have painted Johnson, and, significantly, those which have painted the viewer themselves. As such, Johnson’s Cameraperson is nothing less than a masterpiece of documentary cinema, one that welcomes the complexities and contradictions of subjectivity.
Cameraperson (2016), dir. Kirsten Johnson | David Lee Astley is a freelance writer based in London. You can read his blog at davidleeastley.wordpress.com