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How Does a Documentary Get Made?

In ‘Cameraperson,’ cinematographer Kirsten Johnson explores the illusion of nonfiction filmmaking


It was only a few weeks ago — it somehow feels longer — that a 5-year-old Syrian boy named Omran Daqneesh was caught in an airstrike in the city of Aleppo, alongside his family. He and 12 other children were pulled from the rubble, treated by aid workers and, in the midst of it all, photographed by journalists, people who’ve seen and documented this all before. I haven’t seen or pursued photos of the other children, at least one of whom died, and don’t want to. But I won’t forget Omran, whose bloodied, dust-covered face, silent with shock, went viral in mid-August. Just as I won’t forget the shocking image of the drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, facedown in Turkish sand, the price of his family’s failed crossing to Greece. (Most of his family died with him.) That photo went viral, too, almost exactly a year ago, and has hovered over world politics ever since, an avatar of the price of war.

Who takes these pictures? I mean: what kind of person? It seems strange and unsettling to feel, as Omran’s photographer Mahmoud Raslan says in a Times video online, that this “is just one of many” such cases in Syria. Been there, seen that: It isn’t exceptional. “As a journalist in Aleppo,” Raslan says, “I see thousands of situations like this every day.” The enraged but dispassionate documenter. What is it like to be this person, whose own traumas are subsidiary to the need to pick up the camera, take the picture, and inform the world?

That’s not quite the question at the heart of Kirsten Johnson’s new documentary, Cameraperson, which debuted at Sundance and is in theaters later this week. But it’s the question her film answers most poignantly. Who is this person? Johnson has worked as the cinematographer or secondary cameraperson for documentaries like Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning Citizenfour and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 — movies more or less distant from the violence they’re about. But in her 25 years in the profession, she’s also been witness to that violence up close, in a career that’s spanned the mass rapes of Muslim women in Bosnia, the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr. by white supremacists, abuses at Guantanamo Bay, the child abuse scandal at Penn State, and much more, here and elsewhere, recent and distant. She’s filmed other things, too — thankfully — personal and not. A frustrated young boxer trying to make it in Brooklyn, for example, and her own children, vibrant twins nourishing their curiosity about the world. Her résumé is tremendous.

Cameraperson weaves together moments and images from all of the above, and then some, into something rhythmic and unpredictable, shuttling back and forth between dissociated times and places. The sum of it all is a window into the experiences of Johnson herself, the woman who was there, camera in hand, trying to get the right light, adjusting the frame. Doing her job, in other words, and attending to the banal practicalities of filmmaking no matter the conditions. It could be running to catch a sheepherder at work, for a little local detail, or getting a well-lit shot of a postpartum nurse who’s trying to coax a silent newborn into life. These are the practical details that, as consumers of documentaries, we tend to take for granted. Cameraperson makes a movie out of them.

“I ask you to see it as my memoir,” Johnson says, in a title card that appears at the start of her film. “These are images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.” Marked me and leave me wondering still: if this is a memoir, it’s so because it dredges up ideas about Johnson herself, and not only the people and places on whom she’s trained her eye over the years. She mixes it all up without explicit reference to the cinematic origins of the footage: ultimately, she’s the origin of the footage. There are hints, though, if you know her movies. That’s the philosopher Jacques Derrida, of the documentary Derrida, making a joke about philosophy after Johnson almost trips in the street. That’s Michael Moore in front of the Capitol building, giving sympathy to a soldier about to refuse to return to Iraq. And those shots of Guantanamo, with its nondescript brown buildings housing every hue of extra-legal punishment, are plausible B-roll for Citizenfour.

She told Filmmaker Magazine that when she decided to make the documentary a few years ago, she contacted the directors she’d worked with throughout her career and asked them for the footage she shot for them; she filmed it, but it was never hers. She combined what they’d saved with footage she shot for herself over the years, weaving it together such that insignificant gestures and movements, like people walking, sometimes get matched from place to place and moment to moment in waves of uncanny serendipity.

Johnson speckles the movie with occasional montages like this, flying across the full range of her subjects and finding their common rhythms. The centerpiece of the movie is a montage touring many separate histories of devastation — the fields at Wounded Knee, the truck that dragged James Byrd Jr. to his death, Nyamata church, Partizan Sports Hall. The world of the movie begins to feel connected, and it is: it’s connected through her, but more importantly, it’s connected through illusion. This is filmmaking. And what holds it all together are fabricated associations between time and image at the heart of every movie, between the filmmaker’s ideas and our feelings as we soak them up.

That doesn’t entirely answer the question, however. What kind of person does it take to see all of this and not go crazy? You sense that Johnson gets this question often from people who’ve seen the film (or her résumé). It helps that Johnson has made a few films about other things, but that’s no real comfort. Such is the weight of all that’s here: you begin to wonder about, and worry for, the person who filmed it all. That’s the first sign the movie is up to something that is still relatively unusual in contemporary documentaries: we’re being pushed to actively think about the woman behind the camera.

Johnson recently told IndieWire that there’s not really much time to mourn or overthink things. “You do something incredibly intense, like filming with babies in Nigeria, and you leave the next day for Myanmar, and then you’re in the world of young nuns,” she said. “At a certain point, it’s like I can only be the present. I can’t remember what happened to me the week before. Is this what camerawork does to me?”

Cameraperson reckons with something much murkier than the pure present. In the movie, a translator in Bosnia says, “Our jobs are hard on us because we somehow process these stories and we put them inside ourselves.” Johnson’s movie speaks fully to that sense of processing — it’s composed of discarded scraps, after all, of the things cut out of other films. Usually a nonfiction film gives us the fruit of all the labor we don’t see: what it takes to light and stage a scene on the fly, what it takes to get a source to trust and confide in the filmmaker and his or her camera. A great documentary somehow makes that labor palpable, even if only implicitly, but most do not. There’s an argument being made here. What we see in Cameraperson are the moments that made their respective documentaries possible, whether by helping Johnson establish a sense of local specificity and place in the moment, or by easing interviewees toward revelations the documentarians could later use.

These moments had no apparent place in the stories Johnson’s directors have wanted to tell. Maybe they should have. I thought of this recently while watching Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s hit documentary Weiner, a movie I mostly liked. I remember wanting more of what that movie only made implicit: a truer sense of the relationship between the documentarians and their subject, Anthony Weiner, and of the trust Weiner seemed to have for the camera that his soon-to-be ex-wife Huma Abedin notably lacked. At one point, you hear Kriegman finishing one of Weiner’s sentences from off-camera. At another, Weiner sees an oncoming flock of press across the street and says something like, “Get out of the way of the shot, Josh.” Now there’s an idea: Weiner trying to control the shot, an easy but appropriate metaphor for trying (and failing) to wield power over his own image — not merely via the press, but via the documentary itself. That’s the real story, a meta-narrative about Weiner’s relationship to every camera, not just those he uses to Snapchat dick pics or make a dick of himself on television. Why isn’t that a part of the documentary’s story?

Cameraperson is also valuable, I think, as a necessary addendum to commendably serious but stultifying projects Johnson has worked on, specifically Citizenfour. Johnson gives us the ellipses between the important nuggets of information those other projects, functioning as journalism, reduce themselves to. Documentaries like Citizenfour deal in fact; Cameraperson deals in impressions. Better yet, it risks reminding us that even nonfiction filmmaking is filmmaking — that even nonfiction is the filmmaker’s illusion.

That’s a risk most popular documentaries do not take. But the best ones do, embracing the spontaneity of the moment as they do it. And in that tradition, Cameraperson is at its best when it captures instances of unexpected life. That’s what’s happening in a long scene with a young woman in an Alabama abortion clinic, talking herself through the loneliness of her shame when a voice from off-camera — Johnson’s? — says, “We’ve all had unintended pregnancies.” It’s what happens the moment Johnson’s mother Catherine, three years into life with Alzheimer’s, looks at the camera without recognition and says, “Whoops, you caught me.” It’s what’s happening when lightning suddenly strikes in Nodaway County, Missouri, morphing this scenic B-roll into something terrible and beautiful, and Johnson says, “Wow.” If her movie achieves nothing else, it will inspire that shock — and encourage us to keep looking for it elsewhere.