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Kirsten Johnson’s bold visual memoir shows the power of the camera

The accessibility of smartphones has turned everyone into a cameraperson. To make one’s career as a professional cinematographer, however, requires a fearless point of view and a willingness to immerse oneself in often uncomfortable and perilous situations. That is what Kirsten Johnson has done for 25 years, and Cameraperson gives viewers an intimate and meditative look at her work.

Cameraperson has its national broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View) on Monday, Oct. 23, 2017 (check local listings). POV is American television’s longest-running independent documentary series, now in its 30th season.

Described by Johnson in the opening scene as “my memoir,” the award-winning film is culled from footage she has shot over decades around the world. Rather than offering a straightforward narrative, the film invites us behind the lens into this cameraperson’s world, where we witness a captivating collage of episodic images and stories connected thematically, texturally, sonically and emotionally. The film vividly combines documentary, autobiography and ethical inquiry.

“In making Cameraperson, we decided to rely as much as possible on the evidence of my experience in the footage I shot in the moment,” explained Johnson. “We know that this fragmentary portrait is incomplete and are interested in the way it points to how stories are constructed.”

The New York-based documentary cinematographer adds, “Our hope is to convey the immediacy of finding oneself in new territory with a camera, as well as giving the audience a sense of how the accumulation of joys and dilemmas that a cameraperson must juggle builds over time. The film itself is an acknowledgement of how complex it is to film and be filmed.”

Scenes from the two dozen critically acclaimed documentaries Johnson has shot, including Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Darfur Now (2007) and Citizenfour (2014), are represented in Cameraperson. There’s a powerful montage of places, buildings and spaces (the World Trade Center, Wounded Knee, Tahrir Square, Serbian genocide burial sites in post-war Bosnia) united by the atrocities that occurred in those places. But perhaps the film’s most moving moments are the tender passages where Johnson interacts with her mother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s.

“Cinematographers are invisible artists, perhaps especially in documentaries, which often emphasize content over visual aesthetics,” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote of the film. “Viewers are aware of the faces of the people on screen and the intentions of the director, but we generally don’t think about whose eyes we are literally looking through. Ms. Johnson, in correcting that oversight, invites us to reconsider our assumptions about the ethical and emotional foundations of nonfiction filmmaking. Her film’s straightforward title turns out to be profound and complicated. The camera may be a machine, but it has the power to reveal a multiplicity of human presences.”

Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director of POV/American Documentary, said, “From Jasper, Texas to Darfur, Sudan, Johnson reveals a seemingly limitless spectrum of humanity through vignettes of lives lived across the world. Her Cameraperson is also an example of masterful filmmaking, as she seamlessly weaves together footage from war zones and her childhood home. This is a challenging piece of storytelling, but also an exceptional one that we have no doubt public media audiences will enjoy and remember for a long time to come.”

About the Filmmakers:

Kirsten Johnson, Director

Kirsten Johnson is a filmmaker and cinematographer interested in addressing the changing dimensions and urgent ethical challenges of documentary camerawork. Her most recent film, Cameraperson, which premiered at Sundance Film Festival in 2016, was short-listed for an Academy Award, won the National Board of Review Freedom of Expression prize and was awarded three 2017 Cinema Eye Honors, including Outstanding Achievement in Nonfiction Feature. Cameraperson was named one of the Top Ten Films of 2016 by The Washington Post and The New York Times and was the Grand Jury Prize Winner of nine international festivals. Her short film, The Above, which premiered at the 2015 New York Film Festival, was nominated for IDA Best Short of 2016. Johnson’s camerawork appeared in the Cannes-premiering Risk, Academy Award-winning Citizenfour, Academy Award-nominated The Invisible War, Tribeca Documentary winner Pray The Devil Back To Hell, Cannes winner Fahrenheit 9/11, and Emmy Award-winning Ladies First. She shared the Sundance 2010 Cinematography Award with Laura Poitras for their work on The Oath. She and Katy Chevigny co-directed Deadline, which premiered at the Berlinale and won the Thurgood Marshall Award.

Marilyn Ness, Producer

Marilyn Ness is a two-time Emmy, Peabody and Alfred I. duPont Award winning filmmaker, working as a producer and a director. Her most recent film, Cameraperson, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, was released by the Criterion Collection and was shortlisted for the 2017 Academy Awards. Trapped (directed by Dawn Porter), which premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, received the Jury Prize for Social Impact Filmmaking and screened nationally on PBS. She also produced Katy Chevigny and Ross Kauffman’s feature documentary E-Team, which premiered at Sundance in 2014 and was bought by Netflix, as well as Johanna Hamilton’s feature documentary 1971, which premiered at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival and was broadcast on Independent Lens in 2015. She directed the documentary feature film Bad Blood: A Cautionary Tale, which was broadcast nationally on PBS in 2011


Director: Kirsten Johnson; Producers: Marilyn Ness, Kirsten Johnson; Co-Producer: Danielle Varga; Executive Producers: Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker, Amy Ziering; Editor: Nels Bangerter; Co-Editor: Amanda Laws; Executive Producers for POV: Justine Nagan, Chris White

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POV Pressroom
Produced by American Documentary, Inc., POV is public television’s premier showcase for nonfiction films. Since 1988, POV has been the home for the world’s boldest contemporary filmmakers, celebrating intriguing personal stories that spark conversation and inspire action. Always an innovator, POV discovers fresh new voices and creates interactive experiences that shine a light on social issues and elevate the art of storytelling. With our documentary broadcasts, original online programming and dynamic community engagement campaigns, we are committed to supporting films that capture the imagination and present diverse perspectives.