Cameraperson dir. by Kirsten Johnson, and: Stories We Tell dir. by Sarah Polley (review)
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Reviewed by
Cameraperson. Documentary film directed by Kirsten Johnson. Produced by Kirsten Johnson and Marilyn Ness. Criterion Collection, 2016. DVD; also available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, GooglePlay, and Vudu.
Stories We Tell. Documentary film directed by Sarah Polley. Produced by Sarah Polley, Anita Lee, and Silva Basmajian. Performed by Pixie Bigelow, Deirdre Bowen, and Geoffrey Bowes. Lionsgate, 2013. DVD; also available on Amazon, iTunes, YouTube, Google Play, and Vudu.

As oral historians, we often wonder what makes oral history and what can be made with oral history. How can oral histories exist outside of the archives? What counts as oral history? Here, I review two documentary films, both memoirs, and consider these questions. The first, Cameraperson, is a 2016 film by Kirsten Johnson that shows, rather than tells, her life stories. The second, Stories We Tell, is a 2012 film by Canadian Sarah Polley, which seeks to find, through interviews, the truth about her mother, and ultimately herself.

Cameraperson is a montage of scenes Kirsten recorded all over the world. At the opening of the film, the following appears:

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 the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.

The film shows clips, excerpts, and outtakes from the locations where Kirsten made films throughout her twenty-five-year career. In Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Yemen, she shows sites of mass violence and rape, and the survivors. We visit a Brooklyn fight club, a midwife in Nigeria, Ground Zero in Manhattan, a murder trial courtroom, a Yemeni prison, Kirsten's ranch in Wyoming, and her apartment in Brooklyn. The film feels like a long sentence with commas, as it goes to and from these places with barely a pause. We see Kirsten's face only once. But we see her hands working, pulling out blades of grass and wiping windows to clear the camera's view. We hear her voice, talking about composition, lighting, and ethics. [End Page 368]

As a kind of oral history, it is powerful. On the surface, we consider Kirsten as a cinematographer. Next, we consider her decisions—how she behaves as the observer. In one scene, a pregnant, single mother in a health clinic talks about feeling like "a bad person" for wanting an abortion. Kirsten focuses on the woman's wringing hands, not on her face. We feel her distress and Kirsten's. In another clip, she films two very young boys playing unsupervised with an ax. One boy pulls it from a stump as if it is Excalibur from the stone, and it swings a hair's-breadth from his forehead. We gasp along with Kirsten, as she chooses to stay in the background, not interfering. Finally, through the incorporation of her home movies, we learn about themes—like motherhood—that resonate with her personally. For instance, she questions an anxious Nigerian midwife about a difficult birth of twins. Later, we see Kirsten's own happy twins bouncing around. Then we hear Kirsten's frantic voice as she films the midwife trying to resuscitate one of the twins, and when the baby cries, Kirsten's sigh expresses her sincere relief. In another moment, a young boxer, enraged after losing, storms out of the locker room and runs towards the arena, shouting that he is going to find his mother. Kirsten follows and zooms in on him as he tucks his head into his mother's neck and she wraps her arms around him.

We also see Kirsten grapple with time and death. She films her mother, who has Alzheimer's, stumbling around their ranch, confused. We later see the camera linger on a dead bird, then a note Kirsten wrote to God as a child, then the box containing her mother's ashes. In the next scene, Kirsten reverses the clock. We see her elderly mother, reaching out to Kirsten with a brush. Kirsten turns the camera around, capturing her own face and her mother's hands brushing her hair. We know we are experiencing her poignant memory...


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