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In Search of Reel Truth

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There is a section in Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson where she records over footage of Guantanamo Bay after being told that she has filmed buildings she wasn't permitted to. As the camera rolls, we hear Kirsten describing the original shots as she films a banal wall full of wires to erase the footage. It reminded me of an incident early in my own filmmaking career.

Towards the end of 1993, South Africa was in the painful, last throes of its transition to democracy. I was in Thokoza, on the outskirts of Johannesburg. In the previous weeks it had been the scene of brutal factional fighting and I was there shooting burnt out houses. I walked through the debris, picking out shots of singed carpets, peeling paint and blackened photos, suddenly aware that I was being watched. When I turned around, a boy, maybe 10, stood in the doorway. He watched me intently and I quickly realised that this was his home. These burnt out remnants were all that was left, and it struck me that I had no right to invade the family’s privacy for some nice shots to use in a news story or documentary. I apologised, left the house and rewound the tape, erasing the footage as I continued shooting generic shots of the aftermath.

It occurred to me that even though the shots would have illustrated a more personal and human angle to the conflict, I hadn't asked permission – the ethics kicked in. What I had filmed was just going into a generic footage bank to be used as needed. I had no way of knowing who would be using these intimate shots and in what context. It didn’t matter I had the best intentions, future clients might not. I felt I owed it to that boy and his family to erase the footage. It was my first job out of film school and if I had been more experienced, maybe I would have investigated further and created a story around the family’s plight.

This is an ongoing theme in Johnson's film, the choice of what to film, when to film and when to make a discrete exit. There is a particularly powerful scene in a Nigerian maternity ward that while graphic remains discreet, no mean feat. The film touches on this and many other themes, such as how memory, emotional entanglement with subjects and the sheer emotional toll witnessing so many traumatic events and testimonies.

Another theme that runs through Cameraperson is the well-being of the subject – just because we can film a subject, should we? Are we putting the person at risk? Perhaps they’re unaware of the impact of their participation and we need to make the choice for them.

I have come across similar ethical questions editing documentaries over the years. It's so easy to change the meaning of a person’s words, or their response to a question by the juxtaposition of images, narration and other interview responses. It’s necessary to do this when editing a documentary. We are crafting a story after all. But the question should always be asked, are we being honest or are we betraying the trust the participant granted us when they allowed us to film them? These questions are difficult to answer, so I follow a simple rule in these cases. I imagine that if I was the subject in the footage, how would I feel if I viewed the film in its current state? If I ever feel that I would be upset by the portrayal then I’ll change it.

I don’t think it’s possible to portray a single truth on screen, or in any creative work. All art is an interpretation of something. There is always manipulation, even in the work of someone like Fredrick Wiseman – the mere fact that you’ve opted to document one thing over another lends it gravitas and importance. So if truth is not possible, then what are we left with? I think the best we can hope for is honesty. As filmmakers we need to be upfront about our intentions, the story we are telling and how the subject will fit in that story. We have to hold true to that promise while editing. During her Q&A, Johnson says she makes a point of having a moment of eye contact with her subjects –creating a connection – as it’s too easy to hide behind the camera. This connection enables her to develop an intimacy and trust with the subject. This was a fascinating insight into a master cameraperson’s craft and method.

Cameraperson is constructed from outtakes taken the many films that Johnson has shot over the years, working with famous filmmakers such as Michael Moore. It takes the form of a number of seemingly  unrelated segments fashioned into a whole. Over the course of the film we get a rich and complex view of humanity and we also get an insight into the world of people who choose document life without a Hollywood imposed sheen.

There is a wonderful shot at the end of Cameraperson: Johnson’s camera meanders across a busy street scene in Liberia, expertly picking out characters and following for a while before finding another subject and trailing them. It’s the perfect metaphor, encapsulating a central theme in Johnson’s film. As documentary filmmakers you briefly engage in someone's life, fashion a narrative around them and then step away. The subject carries on with their life as do you, and it’s our job to respect that life and not do anything to change its trajectory.

You can hear this moral dilemma in Michael Moore’s voice as he talks to the serviceman in Johnson’s film. He feels sorry for the soldier’s predicament and is compelled to help him, but should he? It’s a question that many documentary makers face: how involved do I get?