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'Cameraperson' Captures A Filmmaker's Memoir Through Snippets Of Her Subjects


The new film "Cameraperson" begins on a mountainside in Bosnia. There's an old man on a horse herding some sheep. The only sound is the occasional bleating from the animals as they move along. As the viewer, it's not really clear what we're supposed to take away from this moment. The director, Kirsten Johnson, did that on purpose. The film is a non-narrated montage of moments from the hours of footage Johnson has shot over her lifetime. And the whole thing is about taking the audience behind the camera. This is her experience as the cameraperson.

KIRSTEN JOHNSON: Initially, you're just dropped into worlds. You can't speak the language. You don't know where you are. But there's some sheep. They're looking at you. There's a bolt of lightning. There's a bunch of little girls in Myanmar walking down a hill. And so you get compelled out into the world in the way that we all love to be by images and by movies, right?

MARTIN: Kirsten Johnson said she felt compelled to make this film because of another project she had worked on in Afghanistan, a documentary she had started in 2009 with three young Afghan women.

JOHNSON: Three years into the process, I showed the film that was virtually completed to the young woman who was in it. And she said, I'm too afraid to be in this movie. And I was so blindsided by it. You know, we had been complicit throughout the whole process. But what I realized was that times had changed.

You know, I'm a documentarian of the old school, pre-the-internet, pre-smartphones when everyone has become a cameraperson. And we can't control what happens to the images that we shoot. So it really set me thinking about all of these ethical dilemmas that have always existed for me. But they have a different meaning now than they ever have before.

MARTIN: How did you think of yourself in this film? Because we do see your face, just once though. But you are the protagonist, in a way.

JOHNSON: Well, what really surprised me in the work of making the film was defined how much evidence and me there was, you know. And people always sort of say, what does it mean to be a woman cameraperson? And so I've thought a lot about that through the course of my career. But what I didn't realize before making this film is there's evidence of the ways in which I am a woman at different moments in my life.

So there's a moment in which, you know, I just am falling in love with people that I'm filming over and over again. There's other times in my career where I'm looking intently at babies. There are other moments in my life where I'm, you know, known by the sound people behind me who helped me notice that it's hard for me to hold shots as long as I used to because I'm so involved in thinking about my mother's Alzheimer's. So that was what was fascinating in looking back at this footage, to discover how there I am, the specific person that I am. I am present in the footage.

MARTIN: You do include short clips of your twin kids...

JOHNSON: Yeah, Viva and Felix.

MARTIN: ...And your mom, who had Alzheimer's.


MARTIN: What was that process like, deciding to include those parts of your life?

JOHNSON: You know, my mother would not have wanted me to show these images of her in this film. And it's a fundamental betrayal of her. And I know that. It's also a complete expression of how much I love her. And that was what the act of filming was. You know, I - she didn't want me to film her. And yet I did because I knew I was losing her.

And so that contradiction is so implicit in that material as it is in the material with my kids. My kids can't give their permission to be in this film. And when they grow up, they may feel differently about it than I think they will. And that's part of the not knowing the future that we engage with when we film others or photograph others.

MARTIN: I want to play some tape, and I'll set this up a little bit. This is a scene where you are, along with a colleague, filming a young woman who's struggling with a decision on whether or not to have an abortion. And it's very powerful. You're keeping her anonymity, and so the shot is fixed on her lap and her hands.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The only rule I'm going to give you is you may not say I'm not a good person - anyone, 'cause that is not the case. An unintended pregnancy is an unintended pregnancy. That's all it is. I'm not kidding.

JOHNSON: Yeah, me too (laughter). And it's also happened to all of us.


JOHNSON: We've all had unintended pregnancies.

MARTIN: So this young woman, just before that, had said she thinks she's not a good person because she has gotten pregnant. We hear you and your colleague Dawn Porter both telling her, no, that's not - that's not true. Which is the natural human instinct, right? To console this woman.

JOHNSON: Yeah, that's right. And we're all trying to communicate to her that we're all women who've experienced versions of making choices like these. And I'm the one who says, you know, we've had unintended pregnancies. And I have. And I'm often most physically close to the person that I'm filming. I'm trying to articulate and express the ways in which I understand them. I'm interested in them. I allow whatever they want to bring to the moment. And it was the honor of the moment of filming, in a case like that, to get to share a really difficult moment with a person and say, we are with you.

MARTIN: Has this tension vexed you over the years, thinking about if and when to engage with the subjects you're filming and what impact that has on their reality, the reality you're trying to capture?

JOHNSON: Yeah, I would say I'm almost always involved in that vexing problem. There's a scene in the film where we watch a couple of toddlers with an axe and I'm going back and forth on sort of moving forward to stop them, to continue filming them, and, you know, breathing behind the camera. And this scene exists for me as this very clear expression of the fact - as much as we struggle to be decent, ethical people, the complex reality of this world demands that we continue to question this at all moments.

You know, all of us being camerapeople, all of us with a phone in our pocket - what are we filming, what are we photographing? Those questions are what I want this film to open and raise and give, you know, sort of this energetic, generative, kind space for 'cause there's a lot of pain. And there's a lot of misrepresentation of many things going on in the world. And I feel like if we could all open up to the vulnerability of this, it would be very meaningful.

MARTIN: The film is called "Cameraperson." The cameraperson behind the camera is Kirsten Johnson. She's the director. She talked to us from our studios in New York. Kirsten, thank you so much.

JOHNSON: Oh, thank you. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.