Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson begins with a voice on the sound track—a disembodied whisper of delight and discovery—as an image of wildflowers pops up, their heads bobbing in close-up beside a farmhouse’s barbed-wire fence. (The location, a title card informs you, is Bosnia.) A flock of sheep comes trotting up, driven along the hilly road by a shepherd on a white horse, and Johnson, still unseen behind her camera, impulsively runs after him, laughing and panting. Then, almost without transition, you see the panorama of a rural highway in Missouri. The road is deserted and silent, the horizon low, the clouds a vast twilight wash of purple and indigo. Suddenly, a distant bolt of lightning splits the left side of the frame, top to bottom, and from behind the camera comes the sound of Johnson’s gasp. After that, the stillness resumes for a moment, until you hear another sound—a sneeze—and the picture shakes.
With that, Cameraperson becomes one of those rare films that snap you wide awake as soon as you begin to watch, and listen. It’s this combination of eyes and ears that puts you on the alert: the act of contemplating things shown in absolute facticity but unexplained juxtaposition, and the feeling of being touched by the contingency of ambient sound, which would be scrubbed from most films but here is left intact, to give you a sense that the sneezer is immediately present. You seem to share her spot behind the camera; and so, joined imaginatively with Johnson, you don’t just take in the view but, like her, direct your eyes toward it.
Johnson has been intently paying attention for many years, having collaborated as a cinematographer with documentarians like Laura Poitras, Michael Moore, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, and Gini Reticker (who serves as executive producer on this film). Cameraperson is Johnson’s memoir of her life spent in the field, which means it’s a whirlwind tour of five continents. It’s also a deeply thoughtful essay about the ethics and purposes of filming people, especially those who have less money and power than the ones who are watching; and it’s an intimate self-portrait, in which an artist who ordinarily concentrates on connecting (however temporarily) with the subjects she documents now turns around to establish a bond with the audience.
And yet there’s a trick. The memoir has no chronological order; the essay leaves the author’s thoughts unspoken; and the self-portrait keeps the artist out of the frame until the end, when passing glimpses of Johnson appear in a couple of mirrors. With reticent ingenuity, she has composed Cameraperson as a collage, working with editor Nels Bangerter and coeditor Amanda Laws to piece the film together from material she’s recorded over the past 25 years. You, too, become a partner in this work of assemblage, as you trace recurring characters and situations and supply unstated thematic links—an activity that adds thinking to the functions of watching and listening, and keeps you caffeinated.
A review cannot do this thinking for you. (If it could, it would rob you of a wonderful experience.) But here, for the record, is a partial inventory of the subjects that Cameraperson touches upon: the rape, massacre, and forced exile of Muslims during the civil war in Bosnia, and the perseverance of Muslim peasants; the efforts of investigators to document war crimes in Bosnia, and of prosecutors to present evidence in the murder of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, by native-born terrorists; the repercussions of 9/11, as intimated by prison architecture in Sanaa and at Guantánamo Bay, or experienced by a half-blind young man in Kabul, or recorded on Edward Snowden’s thumb drive, which you see being buried in concrete at an undisclosed location.
Johnson’s source material also addresses forms of religious practice, as witnessed in a mosque in Herat, Afghanistan; at a spirit dance in a tent in Nakisenyi, Uganda; and at a public performance in Colorado Springs, presented by white-draped girls who twirl, circle, and bow around a wooden cross. You see and listen to the struggles of a midwife in an underequipped clinic in Kano, Nigeria; of a young woman seeking an abortion at one of the few medical offices in Alabama that provide the service; and of women in a refugee camp in Darfur, who can get fuel to cook their children’s meals only by chopping down the remaining trees in an otherwise unshielded desert. You visit the lushly wooded landscape where Johnson grew up in Washington State; meet her twin children, at home in Brooklyn and on a visit to their grandfather in Washington; and see the sheep ranch in Wyoming where Johnson’s mother lived out her last years with Alzheimer’s disease.
Perhaps it’s not cheating to say that this inventory, by itself, suggests that an interest in wildflowers and sheep comes naturally to Johnson, whether she finds them in the western United States or Bosnia. Other connections emerge more obliquely, through hints and passing remarks. The trainer of a Golden Gloves boxer in Brooklyn advises his fighter that “There’s nothin’ wrong with gettin’ close” to the other guy—words that might also serve as a motto for a documentary cinematographer. Right after you hear them, you see a newborn infant being laid in a cradle in Kano, with the midwife laughingly saying to Johnson, “He’s lookin’ at you.” People in the frame always have the possibility of looking back, and the filmmakers who set up the shot can’t evade the responsibilities of having drawn close, whether the consequence is to offer words of sisterly support to a miserable young woman in Huntsville; cry at the story of the half-blind young man in Kabul; get stopped by military guards in Sanaa (along with the extraordinarily brave taxi driver whom they’ve implicated); or share an intimate moment of grooming with a fading mother.
What comes of all this intrusion and complicity? Johnson is far too smart to offer a simple answer; and as she demonstrates by assembling a self-portrait made up of images of other people, she’s too modest to claim any exculpation for herself, let alone virtue.
Still, she is willing to incorporate an ethical and political guideline laid down by someone else: the expatriated Syrian dissident Charif Kiwan, who is seen addressing a media collective in the Bronx. “Why do we have to look at dead people in the media?” he asks. “When you focus on death, you think it’s done, it’s finished. Nothing to be done but watch and… Wow.” Kiwan’s idea of useful documentation depends on maintaining a sense of dignity amid extreme situations, even when people have suffered terribly.
In that vein, Johnson returns, near the end of Cameraperson, to places and people she’d filmed in Bosnia five years earlier. She doesn’t ignore the history of murder—she drives with the war-crimes investigators to the site of a mass grave—but her main business now is to go back to a rural family and show them how they look in her footage. Johnson explains to them that she was so caught up in their ongoing lives that when she came back to the US, she thought that instead of having made a documentary about ethnic cleansing, she’d recorded a film about blueberries. The family members, laughing with her, enjoy seeing themselves on the computer screen and suggest that in future years, maybe Johnson’s children would like to visit, “to see how peasants live.”
Cameraperson can teach you something about exposure, framing, camera placement, and choice of subject; that’s also a part of Johnson’s agenda, though a small one, which she tends to present lightheartedly through a series of her mistakes. The rough spots are perhaps not so much illustrations of the technical challenges of her profession as they are reminders of a human presence. They, along with the offhand comments and ambient sounds, keep your eyes and mind open and your spirit invigorated throughout this remarkable film.
Cameraperson is like a latter-day Man With a Movie Camera made by a woman, not to celebrate the thrilling power of technical progress and social revolution (as Dziga Vertov did), but to express sorrow, respect, and admiration for the individual lives caught in the grand sweep and small eddies of history. Cameraperson, too, can be exciting—but its introductory text is signed, appropriately, “With love.”
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Just as 9/11 is part of the fabric of Cameraperson, so too is it integral to Clint Eastwood’s new movie, Sully, which by no coincidence opened in theaters on the weekend of the 15th anniversary of the attacks. You don’t need to search for a subtext to understand that this dramatized account of the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549 on the Hudson River in January 2009, with all passengers and crew surviving, draws much of its emotional power from the trauma of 2001. As a pilots’ union representative says to Tom Hanks, white-haired and white-mustached in the role of Capt. Chesley Sullenberger, “It’s been a while since New York had news this good—especially with an airplane in it.” If that’s not enough of a hint, Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki repeatedly show you Sully’s nightmares and waking fantasies after the landing—visions of what might have been, as the disabled aircraft slews into skyscrapers—and during reenactments of the event, the filmmakers insert point-of-view shots of pedestrians, their faces tense as they once again see a jetliner coming in much too low.
Perhaps it’s the need to work through an obsessively remembered pain, as much as to sustain the audience’s interest in an event whose outcome is known in advance, that gives Sully its repetitive structure. As Sully relives the episode, often in disastrous variations, and as he and his copilot (Aaron Eckhart) testify before a panel of federal investigators, you see three full-dress re-creations of the incident, spaced at intervals throughout the movie. On top of that, you watch four more versions, played out in simulators and introduced at the hearing as evidence, because the investigators aren’t so sure that a landing on the Hudson was necessary. On the level of plot, these recurrent catastrophes eventually lead to Sully’s exoneration, as demanded by a screenplay that posits possible condemnation as the only element of suspense. On the more important symbolic level, the recurrences deliver not exoneration but redemption. You live through the shadow of September 11 again and again, and at last there’s a happy ending.
Whatever details Sully might get wrong, or invent, this is pretty much the truth of New Yorkers’ feelings about the landing on the Hudson—and Eastwood brings them back with a crisp, unmannered efficiency of which few other moviemakers are capable. He isn’t always capable of it himself, as you can see from the fussiness of recent films like Hereafter, Invictus, and his other post-9/11 movie, the dreadful American Sniper. In Sully, though, Eastwood is back in form, maybe because this is the story of a man not unlike himself, an old pro with a task at hand. The point of the movie—a point that’s in productive tension with its goal of lifting you up—is that Sully and his copilot are neither heroes (a fiction of the media and an emotionally needy public) nor wrongdoers (a false supposition of the investigators). All the pilots need to know about themselves is that, with the help of many other people, they saved 155 lives. All they have to say about it is: “We did our jobs.”
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Looking ahead to Halloween, we’ve got yet another film that evokes 9/11 in Zach Clark’s improbably engaging Little Sister. Set in late October 2008, when people are putting out jack-o’-lanterns and “Obama-Biden” lawn signs, it’s the tale of young Colleen (the diminutive Addison Timlin, whose eyes look worried and whose mouth has a way of tying itself into knots), who fled her crazy North Carolina family three years earlier and is now living in New York, where she’s about to take vows as a Sister of Mercy. Early in the film, at the request of a friend, Colleen visits a Brooklyn performance venue, where she meekly suffers the mockery of hipsters (they’ve never seen a real nun) and seems out of touch with the show, which involves a burlesque destruction of the Twin Towers. But when she tentatively returns home—alerted that her older brother Jacob (Keith Poulson) has come back from Iraq gravely disfigured and won’t leave the guesthouse, where he thrashes at his drum set day and night—it turns out that mild little Colleen is herself a veteran of satanic entertainments. To reconnect with Jacob, she dyes her hair hot pink, puts on corpse-paint makeup, and lip-syncs one of his favorites, Gwar’s “Have You Seen Me,” while mutilating baby dolls.
Although Little Sister’s reconciliations might ultimately seem sentimental—I’ll leave that call to you, depending on your mood when you see it—the Gwar scene alone is worth the price of admission. So, too, is its sympathy with young people who at one time wanted to play at being monsters, and now might be mistaken for them; and so is the welcome understanding that a true Sister of Mercy will remain just that, no matter her hair color.