Behind the Camera. Films reviewed: Cameraperson, Harry Benson: Shoot First
Hi, this is Daniel Garber at the Movies for culturalmining.com and CIUT 89.5 FM.
Every film is actually just a series of still images, sped up to appear to be moving. We don’t see the still shots only their motion. But did you ever wonder who is behind the camera, who is taking these pictures? This week I’m looking at two new documentaries about life behind the camera. There’s a celebrity photographer who always pulls out his camera in the right place at the right time; and a documentary cinematographer who captures war and death, but is affected by what she sees.
Dir: Kirsten Johnson
What would you do if…
A baby is delivered by a midwife in a hospital in Kenya. She leaves the room, but the filmmakers are still there… and the baby doesn’t seem to be moving. Should they just observe? Or run after the midwife to save the baby’s life?
In the aftermath of the war in Bosnia, an elderly woman in Foča refuses to tell American reporters about the rapes and massacres: nothing happened, she says. But earlier another woman described what happened to four young women who talked to a reporter in the sports stadium where they were interred. They were taken away and never heard from again. Should all journalists bear responsibility for deaths caused by one reporter?
A boxer in blue shorts, storms out of the ring, furious after losing a match. He is followed down the halls by a camera that catches him punching at walls, storming past people, knocking over tables. Then he turns to face the cameraperson with fire in his eyes. Should the cameraperson keep shooting, or should she run for her life?
These are just some of the dilemmas and dangers faced by a cinematographer shooting real-life events, things that she caused or what shooting the documentaries did to her. This film follows seemingly random shots taken from films that cinematographer Kirsten Johnson – the cameraperson of the title — has worked on. These include Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, Johanna Hamilton’s 1971, and Kirby Dick’s The Invisible War. But don’t expect a conventional “greatest hits” collection of scenes from famous docs. This is an arthouse flick and much subtler than that. It differs from the usual fly-on-the-wall style of filmmaking by bringing the cameraperson into the story.
The clips you see are made of footage that usually ends up on the cutting room floor. The wobbly camera before it is fixed, the setting of the shots before they decide on the framing. They don’t show Johnson herself, but you get to hear her voice and reactions before they get edited out. She gasps when there’s a sudden lightning bolt striking across a field. And she starts to cry when a young boy tells what happened when a bomb hit his brother… even though he she doesn’t speak his language or understand what he said (the subtitles are added much later.)
This is a beautiful and powerful film about how a photographer affects what she sees, and how it haunts her long after the film is made. It’s quirky and spontaneous, with lots of unexpected turns. (Like a filmmaker who loses it on camera, just as a tiny avalanche of snow off the roof falls outside the window behind her.) Through clever editing, seemingly unrelated events are tied together, with athletes and abstract modern dancers followed by rows of gravestones in Bosnia or prison tents at Guantanamo Bay. It has striking scenes that seem to come out of nowhere, like the unexplained jerky movements and bizarre facial contortions of (what appears to be) dancers in Uganda. What does it mean? (Who knows?) But just like the rest of Cameraperson, the photography and its consequences stay with you long after it’s finished.
Harry Benson: Shoot First
Dir: Justin Bare, Matthew Miele
Harry Benson is a famous photographer born to a working class family in Glasgow, Scotland. He makes his way to Fleet Street in London – and the fiercely competitive world of gutter journalism – to work as a news photographer. But he catches his big break in 1964. He is sent to Paris to follow the Beatles just before they hit it big. He is with them, shooting their famous hotel room pillow fight, the moment they receive word they are headed to America to appear on the Ed Sullivan Show. And he is going with them. He never looks back. He continues his winning streak by always being right there in the nick of time. He chronicles youth culture and the baby boomers as they gradually age against the background of rapidly changing world events. Some examples: Harry goes camping with Bobby Kennedy’s family… and is right beside them when RFK is murdered in Los Angeles by Sirhan Sirhan. He was the one with the camera even as Ethel Kennedy tries to shoo him away: shoot first (think later). He is there in Memphis the day Matin Luther King is shot, and is invited into Richard Nixon’s home when he resigns in shame.
After the early seventies, Benson is famous enough to concentrate on celebrity pics. For some reason, even the most reclusive and private figures seem to trust him. He is allowed to photograph football star Joe Namath’s in his secret bachelor pad, OJ Simpson naked in the shower, and Bobby Fisher with a white horse in Iceland. By the 1980s, he is part and parcel of the Reagan Era’s glitz and glamour, a time of Vanity Fair and Ralph Lauren. His photos are geared more toward People Magazine than LIFE. But his eye for beauty — even in tragic circumstances – is why the rich, famous and powerful let him into their inner sanctums: he always makes them look fantastic.
Is he to blame for the glamorization of politics — the film shows his photos of both First Lady Hillary snuggling up with Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump snuggling up with a million dollars in cash — and our obsession with celebrity culture? Probably.
I had never heard of Harry Benson before this film, but I sure knew his pictures – they’re everywhere, engrained in the collective unconscious. If you like glamour and celebrity caught in unusual ways at the cusp of history – this is a the film for you: it’ss hocking, exciting and amazing.
The documentaries Cameraperson and Harry Benson: Shoot First both open today in Toronto; check your local listings. This is Daniel Garber at the Movies, each Friday morning, on CIUT 89.5 FM and on my website, culturalmining.com