If you were to see the floor of my home office right now, you’d learn a lot about me.
I start this inventory every year after Christmas. I aim to file all loose papers, throw out expired coupons, finish and send letters that I left half-written, organize souvenirs and conference packets and travel papers that I tossed aside and forgot about. I always begin with zeal, driven by a desire to start the New Year with a clean slate. But I never finish the job. Why? The answer is discouraging. I lose my enthusiasm for the future as I stare into the disorder of the past. And the mess of my life stares back at me, saying “What are you going to do about it?”
Things means things. That’s what my high school poetry teacher used to say as I blinked at seemingly unrelated elements of a poem. Now I know what he means. The details of our lives, however arbitrary, will talk with one another if they are set side by side. And they will reveal patterns, obsessions, fears, and priorities.
Case in point: my favorite movie of 2016: Cameraperson, a documentary by Kirsten Johnson.
A lot of you will probably stop reading right there: A documentary? You don’t go to the movies for a report, right? You want to be caught up in a visionary work of imagination.
Well, “documentary” isn’t the best word for Cameraperson. It’s more like a mystery or a puzzle. Johnson, a cinematographer who has worked on some of the most provocative documentaries of the last 25 years, has cleaned up the cutting room floor and selected excerpts for an exhibition: fragments from between the scenes that “mattered,” throwaway segments of interviews, and excerpts from her own home movies.
She takes these “deleted scenes” and casts them like tea leaves across the big screen. A boxer, before and after an important fight in Brooklyn. A toddler who picks up an axe. A flash drive—buried, secrets and all, inside an active cement mixer. A newborn baby gasping for breath that might not be enough. An interview with a Bosnian counselor for rape victims; another, with a filmmaker full of unresolved rage toward her mother. A candid conversation with Johnson’s own mother, who is vanishing into an Alzheimer’s fog.
And she asks us to pay attention.
While at first these moments seem arbitrary and unrelated, they eventually reveal (for those with eyes to see) profound relationships. Edited by Nels Bangerter and David Teague, this is poetic cinema par excellence. It’s a war photographer's alternative to the whimsy of Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I. Little by little, we begin to understand what interests Johnson, what amazes her, what terrifies her, what leaves deep and smoldering scars.
Don’t miss the importance of this: Her personal exhibitions include a handwritten page from her childhood declaring the goodness of God, and shots of young girls in Colorado Springs dressed as the Bride of Christ, juxtaposed with shots of people in prayer in parts of the world routinely scarred by hatred, poverty, and violence.
“Show me your online history, your gas mileage, your receipts, a transcript of all you’ve done and said on a given day,” writes David Dark, “and we might begin to assemble a rough picture of your religious identity or, more generally, the witness that is and will have been your one wild and precious life. We’re never not broadcasting, testifying, worshipping, and making plain our core commitments.”
In that sense, Cameraperson is a profound portrait of a truth-teller and a person of faith. And it is not a contradiction to say that it is also a portrait of a person of doubt. They are the same person. She stays behind the camera, documenting troubles in Bosnia, Nigeria, Guantanamo Bay, and Darfur that can make you doubt God’s sovereignty one moment and then praise him for his glory the next. And yet, these things cohere into revelatory self-portraits.
That little girl who asserted that God was so very, very good? She has now seen things that have shaken her to the core. They shatter that young-evangelical smugness I once felt in asserting that “It’s all part of God’s plan.” Has Johnson lost her faith? Perhaps. Or perhaps this movie is her version of Psalm 88: a desperate appeal to God that doesn’t arrive at a satisfying answer.
And yet, while I come away burdened, I am also exhilarated at what has been revealed: a coherence of human experience, a connectedness across contexts.
Things mean things. It is Johnson’s job not to explain, but to bear witness. "All creation groans," and she has witnessed harrowing testimonies, haunted places, battle-scarred faces. What sets her apart is her patience and vigilance, her capacity for finding beauty and love in the ruins. And I suspect that moviegoers will experience meaning here in remarkably personal ways. To borrow another favorite word from David Dark, that makes Cameraperson endlessly “talkaboutable.”
Track this movie down. Prepare yourself. Buckle up. And save time afterward, because viewer discussion is highly advised.
[I recommend Cameraperson for viewers 17 and up. Caution: There are painful and difficult images and testimonies included, some of which include harsh language, and some depicting life-and-death circumstances. You can preorder The Criterion Collection’s February DVD/ blu-ray release now.]
- What images from your own life—the most difficult, the most breathtaking, the most haunting—might you assemble if you were to create a collage of your own? What have you witnessed that you would show the world, as a question or a testimony or both?
- This movie, perhaps more than most, can reveal a lot about a moviegoer. Which moments do you find most significant? Surprising? Discomforting? Beautiful? Confusing?
- It’s a question that comes up for almost any photographer: At what point should you step out from behind the camera and directly intervene in the scenario you’re witnessing? Is it ever appropriate to let suffering unfold and just go on filming? Why or why not?
- Trace some of the ways in which disparate elements of the film seem to be connected. Are there any scenes that leave you puzzled about why she included them? Talk with others: Did they detect some poetic resonance?
- Consider the juxtaposition of images from Colorado Springs Christianity and prayers spoken in the Middle East. What questions or observations do you think this suggests? What scenario in the film, for you, addresses questions of faith most powerfully?
- Overall, do you find this film to be inspiring? Disheartening? Why?
- What Scriptures might provide an appropriate epilogue to this experience?