Sundance Film Festival 2016
By Michael Koresky
The camera is weapon and savior, mediator and patient observer, but it’s never objective in Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson, an extraordinary and singular filmmaking document that quietly lorded over everything I saw at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Culled from footage Johnson shot over the course of the past decade-plus as a cinematographer on multiple documentaries, some of them among the most important and popular nonfiction features of recent years, this piercingly simple, immensely rich work at once functions as personal memoir and expansive philosophical meditation. The film is excitingly prismatic: it bounds from one space—one country, one time, one idea—to the next, giving the viewer only the location via onscreen text, withholding the year and the title of the film for which it was shot. At first it seems like a nonchronological, intentionally disjointed diary, yet patterns emerge, aesthetic connections between segments become clear, and the viewer is slowly drawn into an artistic work of ethical urgency, as much about the underlying connections between wildly varied human experience as it is about how the camera frames and even repositions those experiences.
From her opening-credits punchline, in which a behind-the-camera sneeze causes an otherwise placid landscape image to hiccup, Johnson is implying that there is no such thing as a purely impartial movie image. Often she shows us frames that either betray the perspective of the person looking through the lens or that invite viewers to want (no, beg) that person to intervene. At one point, two children from a Bosnian family she has been filming—one prepubescent, one very young—fool around with an ax, inciting Johnson to elicit a breathless “oh, please” as she frets from behind the camera; luckily the children walk away from danger on their own. At another point, a teen at a women’s health clinic, whom we only see via close-ups of her fingers picking at the threads in the holes in her jeans, is told by the filmmakers’ empathetic off-screen voices not to be ashamed of her unplanned pregnancy; they also coach her gently, telling the nervous girl where to restart her sentence. Then there’s the harrowing sequence in which a Nigerian nurse can barely keep alive a newborn baby due to her hospital’s lack of adequate facilities; the camera seems to think about whether to intervene as the child gasps for air. These are wildly different examples of the cinematographer’s connection to her subject—yet in all cases the filmmaker and viewer are both implicated.
There’s much more going on here, however, than Johnson revealing her own role in the filmmaking process and delineating her job’s constant ethical minefields. Cameraperson is even more specifically about how an artist can choose to represent violence, turmoil, and death onscreen. In asking this, Johnson uses her footage to find connections between various modes of suffering. So expertly and subtly drawn is her collage approach to these matters that when, midfilm, she and her editor Nels Bangerter cut from the benign-looking municipal building in Foča that served as headquarters for ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian war to the inside of the pickup truck that dragged James Byrd Jr. to his death in Jasper, Texas; to images of Wounded Knee; Tahrir Square; the Nyamata Genocide Memorial in Rwanda; Ground Zero at the World Trade Center; and other hollowed-out murder sites from around the globe, it doesn’t feel at all forced or heavy-handed. All of these images, likely captured as B-roll, function as haunted spots, pregnant with terrible memories that no camera could ever truthfully capture, while at the same time they reflect the persistent, ever-expanding memories of a woman whose mind will forever be a catalog of the often painful places she has visited.
There’s nothing solipsistic here, even when Johnson subtly connects world suffering to her own experiences. At one point, Johnson and Bangerter cut from a scene in her family home, where her recently deceased mother’s ashes sit on her family’s mantle, to an Afghan mosque, and the Muslim prayer becomes an incantation for her beloved parent. Later, a scene of Johnson’s children inspecting a dead bird in the garden with their grandfather is immediately followed by a discussion at a Syrian Film Collective in the Bronx on portraying death on film. Says the man leading the talk, whose words stand in effectively for Johnson’s point of view, “We have to find ways to represent horror and respect death.”
This is one of the main preoccupations of Robert Greene’s latest feature, Kate Plays Christine, which pushes some of the concerns of his 2014 film Actress—the intersection of performance and documentary, artificiality and authenticity—into richer territory. This is a work that’s constantly looking for what’s right; as with Cameraperson, you can feel the film thinking while you’re watching it. Greene is searching for morally sound, innovative, and dramatically satisfying ways to tell a true-life tragedy: the story of Christine Chubbuck, a Florida news anchor who shot herself in the head on live television in 1974 and died hours later. Debuting at Sundance fortuitously, perhaps troublingly, and certainly revealingly the same year as Antonio Campos’s Christine, a fictional dramatization of the same story, Greene’s film refuses to fall back on sensationalizing inherently sensational material. If this is an impossible task, then Greene’s film revels in this impossibility, building to an emotional crescendo in which the film implicates itself, its director, its actor, and its viewers.
Actor Kate Lyn Sheil’s haunted face is our conduit to all these concerns. The gambit of the film is that she has been cast by Greene to play Chubbuck, although this fictional project, seen only in super-stylized, often ludicrously soap operatic glimpses, was clearly never the end point. The search is the thing as much as the play is, and as Sheil travels from New York to Florida to find out about Chubbuck—who she was, and perhaps through that, why she did what she did in such monstrously public fashion—Greene’s film functions as at once investigative journalism and as a window onto an actor’s process. As Sheil tries to learn more about Chubbuck, she only seems to get more lost. The people she meets along the way who are willing to talk to her—whether coworkers still haunted by the incident, former friends, or, in one episode, a gunshop owner all too willing to sell her a revolver—can barely begin to help her and us understand the circumstances around this strange event and the human being who did it.
Just as Sheil constantly asks what is the right way to play this tragic person, Greene is persistently questioning how to represent her and by extension how to represent the extreme violence for which she is remembered. Crucially no public videotape exists of the shooting, so if Sheil and Greene must recreate it—and must they?—they can only do so as a dubious feat of imagination and faith, based on the faulty memories and stories of those who saw it with their own eyes, and fueled by the understanding that what they’re doing is artistically or morally valid. An ethically coherent and surprisingly accessible experiment, Kate Plays Christine is the kind of film that will inevitably meet with furrowed brows from those who consider its constant self-questioning “indulgent” and its explorative approach “meandering,” but that’s only because it refuses to conform to set generic standards for fear of doing a disservice to art and truth. Imagine if all American films were this scene-for-scene thoughtful.
It would be a waste to grant space to all those American films I saw in this year’s festival that had not a fraction of the aesthetic adventurousness of Cameraperson or Kate Plays Christine. From the noxious sensationalism that undermines the social observations of Elizabeth Wood’s hyperactive tale of Caucasian privilege, White Girl; to the nasty undercurrent of misogyny that mars the otherwise amusing parade of one-liners in Jeff Baeana’s white-guys’-weekend Joshy; to the desperate drive toward LGBT positivity that tamps down the potentially intriguing complexities and conflicts in Jason Benjamin’s Suited, a very good-natured documentary about a Brooklyn custom suit designer catering exclusively to transgender people, these were films that all too often devolved into formula. And the less said the better about Sian Heder’s Tallulah, an eye-rolling, machine-tooled melodrama about kidnapping and surrogate motherhood with Ellen Page and Allison Janney that felt ersatz from first frame to last.
Instead, I’ll highlight two minor-key, culturally specific coming-of-age tales that persuaded by the force of their empathy and good nature. Morris from America, Chad Hartigan’s follow-up to the crystalline character study This Is Martin Bonner, focuses on a thirteen-year-old African-American kid (newcomer Markees Christmas) living in Heidelberg, with his father (Craig Robinson), who was transferred there for work. The young wannabe rapper’s racial otherness is exacerbated by the fact that he’s now living in a lily-white German city, and Hartigan dramatizes the daily confusions and humiliations that come from that disenfranchisement with tenderness and humor. The movie is at its best when it allows for ambivalence, particularly in the confounding relationship between Morris and hot-cold teen beauty Katrin (Lina Keller), who seems to toggle back and forth between mercilessly taunting and embracing Morris, her casual cruelty and racial naiveté, and Morris’s continual coming back to her, making for discomfiting viewing. The white Hartigan, who says he based the script on his own experiences living for a period in a German town, is on less solid ground putting Morris through the motions of an overly schematic script whose perpetual need to please—especially in the pat, smiley-face way it concludes the fraught Morris-Katrin friendship—occasionally comes across as patronizing to its young protagonist.
Though Andrew Ahn’s Spa Night has precisely the opposite problem—an admirably open ended conclusion that nevertheless feels narratively under-realized despite its authenticity—it’s an even more emotionally resonant depiction of an alienated young man. Unlike Morris, however, this film’s main character, David (an appealing, empathetic Joe Seo), feels estranged from his own people: his family and neighbors in Los Angeles’s Korean-American community. With his economically struggling parents wondering when he will settle down with a nice Korean girl, David is slowly growing aware of his attraction to men, which first develops as a timid crush on a former high school friend he visits at college, and finds its first physical outlet in the sweaty backrooms of the spa he secretly works at to help his family make ends meet. Ahn assiduously avoids many clichés of indie gay dramas—this ultimately is not a coming-out story—instead placing his protagonist’s frustrated sexual longing within an increasingly constrained environment, the abstracted liminal space of the spa, with male flesh filmed in stark, intense close-ups by Ki Jin Kim. Spa Night develops far beyond its tantalizing premise, always circling back to David’s parents, revealing itself to be about the hardships, the compromises, the joys, and the disappointments of immigrant life. Like Cameraperson and Kate Plays Christine, it doesn’t turn out to be the movie it at first seemed, refusing to conform to genre codes. And finding the unexpected is what festival-going is supposed to be all about.