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“Cameraperson” Screening Dives Less Into Camera, More Into Person

As the credits began to roll at the Block museum Friday night, the audience was silent. Not the courteous kind of silent that generally comes following a film, but a different kind of silence. Silence reflecting the shared experience of 100 people. Silence from thought and emotion. Silence that was deafening.

Kirsten Johnson, filmmaker and cinematographer, visited Northwestern University on May 5th as the School of Communication’s 2017 Hoffman Professor. Her most recent film, Cameraperson, is a striking memoir of her time working across dozens of documentary films. It raises questions centered on trauma, life, death, and the ethicality of camerawork.

“Film is about conversation and relationship,” said the enthusiastic, energetic Johnson, “and you all being here remakes the film.”

A veteran of documentary, Johnson knows how to captivate an audience from the first second. Throughout the film, the use of stunning imagery and dynamic sound overlay onto the film’s bigger themes. It’s apparent from minute one that this is a documentary — and festival award winner many times over — unlike any other.

The structure of the film is in itself unique and, at first glance, chaotic. Culled from footage of Johnson’s past projects, it presents itself as a tennis match from emotion to emotion. Stylistically scattered, and at times seemingly random, in time it becomes apparent that so many of Johnson’s choices are in fact very deliberate. Each scene presented a strategic mix between personality and a complete lack thereof. This creates a sense of zooming in on either side of the documentary camera. As the scenes roll on, this dichotomy remains the through line: filtered but unfiltered, authentic but staged, still and unrelenting. It’s a two-hour snapshot of humanity in all its rawness.  

After the screening, Johnson held a talkback as a place to bring these conversations in film from theoretical to literal. The moderator, associate professor and director of the MFA in Documentary Media program Debra Tolchinsky, opened by asking how Johnson would describe the film.

“Every time I watch the film, someone finds a news way of describing it,” Johnson, walking and talking among the audience members, said, “and I think that I can’t pinpoint one way to describe it while doing service to the fact that everyone describes it differently.”

The conversation then moved to what inspired the making of this film, and Johnson put it frankly: “this film happened to me. It was made in questioning and vulnerability, and staying true to what my question were, [that] was the hardest part about it.”

“The film at its core is about loss” she said. “Loss of people, loss of ideas, loss of shots from earlier films. We see a lot of scenes that started in the film simply because I needed to see them again – simply because I forgot them. When you film hundreds of hours of footage the memories get blurry.”

Picked among the last films for Sundance 2016, Johnson used Cameraperson to encourage the young filmmakers in the room. “If you care about the message and the content, the opportunity just might come,” she said.

The major technical point Johnson made was that you can use the tools of filmmaking – montages, music, etc., — without overusing them and causing the content to suffer.

The audience featured a 10-year-old, the youngest viewer Johnson said she’d seen at a screening. When asked what she thought of the film, the child said, “I liked it…but I didn’t like the sad parts.” Johnson simply laughed and said that folks of all ages share the opinion.

Johnson closed on a thankful note of her brilliant year with the film.

“The reception has been wonderful, but I am far from done with the film. I would love for everyone in the film to see it.”

If they do, they’ll surely be in awe of what Johnson called her “balance of trauma and movement.”

– John Hounihan