The documentary landscape recently grew a little bit brighter with the release of two first-rate works, very different from each other, but both doing what film has always done best: eliciting powerful emotional responses by showing us things we have not seen before. At least not like this.
The first movie is Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. Johnson, who has spent the better part of two decades filming stories for other directors, has traveled the world capturing the life of the voiceless. Though several of her films are well-known, such as 2004’s Fahrenheit 9/11 for Michael Moore, and Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning Citizenfour in 2014, most of Johnson’s work can be found in hour-long television programs, many produced by PBS. Programs in which cinematographers are often not even credited.
But as Johnson writes in her simple introduction to Cameraperson, the images she has captured “have marked me and leave me wondering still.” In Cameraperson, she assembles some of that footage – we can assume the footage that has instilled the most wonder – and edits it to some internal rhythm of which only she is aware. The results are often stunning.
From Bosnia in the aftermath of large scale inhumanity to Jasper, Texas in the aftermath of a singular, yet no less horrifying, abomination, Johnson has seen a great deal. Yet she maintains humour and perspective. If seeing the rusty chain used to brutally drag James Byrd, Jr. to his death in Two Towns of Jasper (2003) fills the viewer with revulsion, Johnson’s home movies of her children burying a dead bird discovered in the woods near their home, restores a piece of the soul. And so slowly, throughout Cameraperson, connections begin to emerge. Intimate footage of a woman trying to come to terms with her hoarder mother reinforce later scenes we see of Johnson dealing with her own mother’s dementia. They are similar moments in some ways, but they run the gamut of human emotion.
That is Cameraperson’s magic. Without forcing the issue, it allows us to perceive the interconnected nature of humanity. How we all deal with the same issues. And how our reactions can be so diverse. Johnson never seems to judge. The almost comically philosophical attitude of an elderly Bosnian woman to the abuses her country has endured (I Came to Testify, from the PBS program Women, War and Peace, 2011) is countered by the enraged reaction of a boxer losing a Golden Gloves match (2016’s Cradle of Champions). Both moments are presented as equal representations of human reaction to injustice.
In fact, the trick to watching Cameraperson, is to try to remove broader context. This is hard at first. Johnson provides some limited titles to identify locations, but little else in the way of exposition. You find yourself drawn into the stories being referenced, often wanting more. But that is not her intention. Her intention is to provide a panorama of her own experiences which are fortunately rich enough to get us thinking about all sorts of other things once we let go of any one particular narrative.
The approach here may recall Dziga Vertov’s revolutionary The Man with the Movie Camera (1929), in which Vertov and his brother, cameraman Mikhail Kaufman, chronicled the life of a city as seen through the eyes of a cinematographer. But to me, Johnson feels closer to the inspired work of Chris Marker, the French documentarian who took his camera all over the world in search of wonder.
And it is that wonder that makes Cameraperson as good as it is. I defy you to find a more potent sequence in any film made in 2016 than the moments we spend with Nigerian midwife Aisha Bukar as she attempts to save the life of a newborn without any of the necessary resources. When you consider that this footage was shot by Johnson for a NewsHour documentary called The Edge of Joy televised back in 2010, it reveals another of Cameraperson’s gentle lessons. How much life and death remains hidden away on film or tape in some dusty archive, perhaps waiting for discovery – perhaps never to be seen again?
Filmmakers Ricki Stern and Annie Sundberg encountered a different version of that question when they set out to tell the story of the Patriots’ Day bombing at the Boston Marathon in 2013. Stern and Sundberg, who, like Johnson have a long history with the documentary form, have made profiles of everyone from Burmese soldier-turned-dissident Myo Myint to Joan Rivers (no introduction needed, I presume.) They filmed a story about Darfur right around the time Kirsten Johnson was shooting a Darfur movie for director Theodore Braun.
When they began developing the movie that would become Marathon: The Patriots’ Day Bombing, the story was already a year old. But they were fortunate enough to have a seemingly endless supply of archival video to document the events of the horrible day. That footage came from surveillance cameras and personal cell phones alike.
And they had something even more important. They had victims of the day who were willing to talk. Much more than talk, in fact. They were willing to share their fears and memories. They were willing to let Stern and Sundberg into their lives at the worst possible time and document their often painful recoveries.
Stern and Sundberg did not need to do anything revolutionary in order to create their movie. They knew they had a remarkable story to tell. And they told it brilliantly. Forging relationships with the Boston Globe, which supplied a wealth of information and contacts, the FBI, which supplied the investigatory expertise, and the doctors and patients at Walter Reed Medical Center, who provided remarkable access to the healing process experienced by blast victims, the directors were able to present a well-rounded narrative. With very few exceptions, the editing is flawless, seamlessly shifting between the recovery stories of three specific families and the hunt for, and ultimate trial of, the perpetrators.
In Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downes, they had what may be the most engaging couple you will see on screen this year. Kensky and Downes had been married just seven months when their limbs were assaulted near the finish line of the marathon. Between them, they were left with one leg. Yet their humour and their fierce defiance remained in tact. They allowed Stern and Sundberg to document their pain and their triumphs. The directors were worried about infringing on the privacy of their subjects during some very difficult moments (a theme which is powerfully expressed in Marathon through the story of Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki, who struggled with similar questions). But early on, when discussing this issue with the victims, Kensky put their concerns to rest. “I think this movie should show what it is like for a person to be blown up,” she said to Stern. Stern and Sundberg realised they had extraordinary subjects.
There is a great deal more that is extraordinary in Marathon. The film follows several other families who were victims of the day. At times, you wish for a little more on some of them. The Corcoran family, mother Celeste and daughter Sydney both survivors, scratch the surface of collateral damage of the attack, but there does not appear to be enough time to delve into some of those areas. Brothers JP and Paul Norden, two more survivors, hint at yet another unexplored avenue because one of them is noticeably absent from the film. But these are minor quibbles that emerge from an abundance of material.
Actually, the biggest flaw in Marathon, may have grown out of one of its strengths. The partnership with the Boston Globe, which no doubt provided a great deal of value for Stern and Sundberg, may have also caused them to devote a section of the movie to chronicling the manner in which the Globe covered the aftermath. This is a reasonably interesting story, but it really feels out of place in a movie primarily about the survivors. That time may have been better spent elsewhere.
Still, that doesn’t keep Marathon, which will premiere in Los Angeles, New York, and, of course, Boston, next month before taking up permanent residence on the HBO family of platforms, from being among the best movies, documentary or otherwise, of 2016. Along with Cameraperson, it helps revive a fairly drab year.