It was a tough week, trying to swallow the bitter pill of the US Election. Plenty has been written in the ensuing days: on what happened and why, on what it means for America and the world, on how to move forward. Much of the prose has been erudite, hopeful, and invigorated with purpose. I read a lot of it, but it didn't deliver what I actually needed.
Cameraperson, the new documentary-cum-travelogue-cum-autobiography from career cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, opens on a lone sheep farmer in Bosnia. Then we're in Nigeria, listening to a midwife recite the details of her latest delivery. In New York, someone is boxing; back across the Atlantic, others are dancing energetically. Johnson has spent 25 years travelling the world with storied filmmakers like Laura Poitras and Michael Moore, using her camera to capture moments of unfettered joy and unbounded sorrow. The accumulation of ideas and fragments over a quarter-century is what one might expect to find in a garage or an attic — indeed, Johnson seems to acknowledge this by including a scene of a friend cleaning out her mother's house after her passing. Cleaning out such a space is typically a private endeavour, a nostalgic and memory-laden process of catharsis and (re)discovery that would appear foreign to most others. In Cameraperson, the internal is turned outward and shared with the world as Johnson revisits and recontextualizes the images that have stayed with her.
On a technical level, Cameraperson is fascinating. The editing prowess required to unify decades of footage that varies in picture quality, shooting style, and pace cannot be overstated. That the film is so much more than the sum of its parts, then, is an even greater triumph. The trick, I think, is in how Johnson sneakily pulls back the curtain on the filmmaking process. She sneezes behind the camera. She films a kid playing with an axe and gasps at the same time as the audience. She talks with her director about a specific shot she wants to get and, boom, it's on the screen. So many other films, as impactful and emotionally-charged as they may be, feel polished and final. Cameraperson isn't about the filmmaking process, it is the filmmaking process. The footage implies a globalist perspective, but it is the construction that has Johnson actively participating which exposes her humanity and connects it to ours.
Art isn't politics, but it can be political. This week, the need for a renewed unity between people of all stripes has gone from apparent to essential. Speaking about the 1998 murder of James Byrd Jr., one subject in the film remarks that "hearing someone talk about [an image] and actually seeing it is different". This gets at what the articles I've been reading have been missing. While the calls to action are prudent — We should be doubling down on efforts to support marginalized groups! We should be promoting meaningful political and humanitarian activism! — it can all seem a little backwards to start strategizing in response to an event rather than working to help the people it affects. As a film, Cameraperson is sublime; as a reminder of the beautiful, important lives outside our own, it is truly vital.
- Zack Miller
At last year's Atlantic Film Festival, a documentary called This Changes Everything purported to offer a different kind of study of the problems around climate change. Based on a book by narrator Naomi Klein — and directed by her husband, Avi Lewis — the film wound up beating the drum for indigenous cultures and grassroots alternatives to global energy consortiums and corporate resource management, but offering little personal engagement.
Demain is the film that This Changes Everything wanted to be, a genuinely fresh documentary on the solutions to climate change. It is contemporary, hopeful, and compelling.
Directed by French poet and activist Cyril Dion and actor Mélanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds, Enemy), the film is told in chapters, examining first the problems, then presenting possible solutions in areas of agriculture, politics, economics, energy, and education. The filmmakers travel to Detroit, San Francisco, Copenhagen, Normandy, Espoo, and Kuttambakkam to speak with people who have come up with local solutions to global issues.
Not all of it is directly about climate change — sometimes it's about smaller social problems that need to be managed before the bigger issues can be tackled. But all the examples show that lateral, progressive thinking serves people better than cynicism. Demain is also the first documentary of its kind to have a memorable score: songs by Fredrika Stahl are tuneful, with lyrics appropriate to the subject matter.
It's not a perfect film. At two hours it could have benefited from a little editorial trimming, and it occasionally threatens to be too much about the directors and their inspiration than the subject at hand — the "Michael Moore Syndrome" of modern documentary-making. But as we go along, Laurent and Dion step back, serving as periodic narrators and charming observers.
The filmmakers' enthusiastic approach and faultless research, along with their choices of who to put on camera to elucidate these examples of positive change, are right on the money. It's so refreshing to come out of a film like this feeling positive about the world, our place in it, and a possible future for all of us.
- Carsten Knox