Magazine article The New Yorker

Framing

Magazine article The New Yorker

Framing

Article excerpt

Framing

Kirsten Johnson

Kirsten Johnson's camera swings toward gusto. As Johnson stood on an East River ferry on a steamy afternoon, talking about her new documentary, "Cameraperson," her Canon video camera kept twitching, tugged by her peripheral vision toward a woman in a white tank top. "I want to film her, because it's just so great," Johnson said, bending to her viewfinder. The woman was roaming the far rail, snapping the skyline with a chic white camera. "She's got this bleached white hair, and it's sort of streaming, and she's looking very pleased with the wind."

Johnson panned slowly, balanced against the chop like a gimbal. The massed tourists gazed back curiously; the cinematographer, chummy and nearly six feet two, is a very visible observer. "Cameraperson" consists of resonant outtakes that she shot for various documentary directors, such as Laura Poitras ("Citizenfour," about Edward Snowden) and Michael Moore ("Fahrenheit 9/11"), including a sequence--footage of houses and motels and churches and fields of sunflowers where various massacres took place--that she calls the "montage of horror." Intercut with this harrowing material are home movies of Johnson's twin toddlers putting the lens cap back on her camera, and her mother, who has Alzheimer's, turning in surprise to say, "You caught me!," uncertain who this strange cameraperson might be. It all feels deeply personal, from the way Johnson gasps at a bolt of lightning while filming a back road in Missouri, then sneezes twice, to her joy when a midwife brings a newborn back to life in a Nigerian clinic. ("Oh, my God--he's breathing. I'm so happy." Stoically, the midwife explains, "He needs oxygen now. And we don't have oxygen here.")

Fanning herself with one hand as she framed Dumbo, Johnson said that her original assemblage portrayed the world as a charnel house: "Six genocides and a baby dying and a rape are like the tip of my iceberg, so of course I could put it all in a movie and it would be watchable." The questions of what you need permission to film, what is watchable, and what should be remembered permeate the movie. She filmed Nyamata Church, in Rwanda, where more than ten thousand people were killed. "One man there had survived the massacre," she said. "And he was, like, 'Come, come film this.' And he took me down into this crypt, and there were wooden caskets in the mud, and he was opening caskets and showing me bodies. …

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