Kirsten Johnson: Cameraperson/2

This is a film that had its premiere at the Sundance festival in January, was at numerous festivals in the USA, won first prize at the festival in Sheffield and has got fine reviews in newspapers and magazines. Here is one more enthusiastic review of a film by Kirsten Johnson with whom I have been tutoring in the Middle East, and whose generosity in sharing experience and inspiring people is both professional, humble and warm. As is her film that I am sure will get to a bigger non-Brexit European audience. It is a film that deserves all the attention it can get.

BECAUSE it puts the cinematographer and his/her work in focus through Kirsten Johnson, who says – a text in the beginning of the film – ”for the past 25 years I’ve worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I ask you to see it as my memoir. These are images that have marked me and leave me wondering still”.

Memoir, yes, the film comes out as not only an offer to reflect on

ethical and aesthetical choices of a cameraperson, it is also an autobiographical essay, as – luckily – Johnson connects what she is doing behind the camera with her own private life as mother of twins with a mother, who suffered from Alzheimer’s and a father/grandfather playing with her Viva and Felix, the names of the twins. In other words private footage is included in a film that is very rich in its thematically structured narrative.

It makes no sense to mention the films from where the footage shot by Johnson is taken. It does not matter as she has created a new context with the clips chosen. Very elegantly she returns to some of the clips and actually puts stories into the minds of us as viewers, to make us understand/feel why that shooting has influenced the cameraperson.

It’s all about Life and Death. If we take one of the red threads of the film, location Foca in Bosnia, there is a fine clip in the beginning with Kirsten Johnson running after a shepherd on horse leading his sheep. It is full of joy, you hear the cameraperson losing her breath, you sense she likes where she is and what she is filming. Later on you are taken back to the same location with a small boy in focus; the camera and the one holding it falls in love with him, the director of this film, ”Cameraperson”, puts music on the sequence, that becomes lyrical. And yet the background is given to the viewer, Foca was hell on earth during the Bosnian war, witnesses tell about murders and rapes and Johnson includes the driver, who is also a war investigator AND the translator in the story, that becomes human far from the reportage-like programmes we have seen so many of. It all ends up in a beautiful scene towards the end of the film, where Kirsten Johnson is back in Foca five years later showing the Bosnians the material from then, saying that what she remembers is NOT the horrors they told her about but how she was received by them as a human being. Respect!

Another story followed through clips is the one from the courtroom, where the case of James Byrd was held – Byrd was the black man, who was chained to a car that dragged him through the town of Jasper, with a brutal death as the consequence. Johnson asks a man from the court to take the chain out of a box and films it in its full length. Or the very touching sequences from Kenya with a wonderful midwife, who fights for the life of a newborn baby in a cool way ignoring he presence of the camera but also responding, when the worried cameraperson asks questions.

Kirsten Johnson has been all over the world and very very often to war zones filming in places where massacres have been performed. You wonder what keeps her going from horror to horror. The mentioned example with the Bosnians is one, curiosity and compassion another, having her twins at home in a safe place a third one etc.etc. There is a lot of death in ”Cameraperson”, but when showing and talking about death you have to ”respect the golden rule”, as says a Syrian refugee at a meeting in Bronx New York, ”Dignity”. That is the approach of Kirsten Johnson for sure.     

USA, 2016,

PS. I have not read it yet but at the newest edition of the IDA published magazine Filmmaker, Kirsten Johnson is on the cover page, promotion line: Make sure to pick up the current issue to read a fascinating article where she discusses and meditates on 11 shots from the film.

PPS. The film is shown at the upcoming festivals in Prizren (DokuFest) and Sarajevo.

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Tue Steen Müller
Tue Steen Müller

Müller, Tue Steen
Documentary Consultant and Critic, DENMARK

Worked with documentary films for more than 20 years at the Danish Film Board, as press officer, festival representative and film consultant/commissioner. Co-founder of Balticum Film and TV Festival, Filmkontakt Nord, Documentary of the EU and EDN (European Documentary Network).
Awards: 2004 the Danish Roos Prize for his contribution to the Danish and European documentary culture. 2006 an award for promoting Portuguese documentaries. 2014 he received the EDN Award “for an outstanding contribution to the development of the European documentary culture”. 2016 The Cross of the Knight of the Order for Merits to Lithuania. 2019 a Big Stamp at the 15th edition of ZagrebDox. 2021 receipt of the highest state decoration, Order of the Three Stars, Fourth Class, for the significant contribution to the development and promotion of Latvian documentary cinema outside Latvia. In 2022 he received an honorary award at DocsBarcelona’s 25th edition having served as organizer and programmer since the start of the festival.
From 1996 until 2005 he was the first director of EDN (European Documentary Network). From 2006 a freelance consultant and teacher in workshops like Ex Oriente, DocsBarcelona, Archidoc, Documentary Campus, Storydoc, Baltic Sea Forum, Black Sea DocStories, Caucadoc, CinéDOC Tbilisi, Docudays Kiev, Dealing With the Past Sarajevo FF as well as programme consultant for the festivals Magnificent7 in Belgrade, DOCSBarcelona, Verzio Budapest, Message2Man in St. Petersburg and DOKLeipzig. Teaches at the Zelig Documentary School in Bolzano Italy.

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