Category Archives: Experimental

Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)

Filmmaker: Kirsten Johnson

Year: 2016

Country of Origin: United States

Format: Streaming

Running time: 102 min

Screen Shot 2019-11-05 at 4.23.54 PM

Still from Cameraperson


Documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson takes the audience on a reflective journey through her career in this documentary comprised of footage from decades of past projects. Described as a “memoir” of “images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” Johnson reflects outwards, meditating on the documentary form and its relationship to ideas of truth and transparency, and inwards, exploring the ways being a cinematographer has shaped her emotional and personal life. She moves from a boxing match in Brooklyn to a nursery in Nigeria to postwar Bosnia in a structure that initially feels like a stream of consciousness, but is in fact deliberately designed to pose philosophical and ethical questions that stay with you long after the film has ended.

Bill Nichols writes extensively on the documentary form and how its changed over history, each iteration of form a reaction to the last in a futile attempt to portray the objective truth. The inclusion of “mistakes”–the moments of acknowledgement of the camera by the subjects, the shaky camerawork as Johnson sets up her next shot, the times when Johnson herself is heard reacting to the events on screen or interacting with the subjects–gives this film a layer of transparency which reminds us that there is a human behind the image. This resembles elements of what he considers “reflexive documentary” which makes use of a self reflexive critique or statement to acknowledge the documentary form and its impact on authenticity. These “mistakes” are moments that would be left out of any other documentary for the sake of presenting a perfect film product or portraying an objective truth, which is impossible. In this alignment, the audience is able to acknowledge the subjectivity of the image–in the mistakes, we see how the camera image is used to promote an ideology, to emphasize or ignore, to reveal a truth through lying or lie to tell the truth (Koresky).

Halfway through the film, there is a montage of locations around the world where atrocities–murders, rapes, torture–took place. Afterwards, a Bosnian translator and a field producer are discussing their careers documenting the stories of victims of humanitarian atrocities. “Our jobs are hard because we process these stories and we put them inside ourselves. So how do we deal with the trauma…we who collect these stories and share them with the world?” Cameraperson succeeds because it doesn’t attempt to describe the truth of the world, but rather Johnson’s personal truth as someone who has become one with her medium. When a filmmaker shows this level of vulnerability, you can’t look away. By taking advantage of film’s ability to connect ideas over time, using time and place to come to a greater realization of what it means to document, to experience, and to live.

Bibliographic Items:

Koresky, Michael. I Am a Camera. Film Comment; Vol. 52, Iss. 5

The Cancer Journals Revisited

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 98 min
Still from The Cancer Journals Revisited

Still from The Cancer Journals Revisited

The Cancer Journals Revisited is a film that honors the life of Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet Audre Lorde. In this film, Lana Lin reflects on the meanings and implications of Lorde’s memoir The Cancer Journals (1980) by joining the text with interviews of 27 current and former breast cancer patients. The patients featured in the film are largely women of color. They read aloud and reflect on excerpts from Lorde’s memoir, sharing personal anecdotes and messages about what it is like to navigate illness and treatment in America. While not restricted to a solely American context, the film’s focus on American society is reflective of the critiques found in Lorde’s memoir. As the audience learns about the experiences of the various readers, viewers are also presented with information about Lorde’s life in the form of on-screen text and shots of archived materials––such as The Cancer Journals’ original manuscript box. Lin also inserts herself into the film through text overlay, acting as a “container” or “holding environment” to support the readers’ stories. 

In a class conversation with the director, Lin described The Cancer Journals Revisited as a film, shying away from the labels documentary and experimental. This perspective is absent from reviews of the film, as most film festivals have placed The Cancer Journals Revisited in the documentary category. During this conversation, Lin also spoke about her decision to produce a film combining 4K, 16mm, and super 8mm raw stock shots. She explained that the decision to film on leftover raw stock came before she conducted the readings and interviews. Throughout the film, the raw stock serves as B-roll. In some scenes, Lin’s interviews begin with the interviewee on-screen and shift to a voice-over. For example, one reader’s interview served as a voice-over for an extended shot of two people doing Acro Yoga. While some of the scenes could be considered distracting, they display different bodies in relationship with one another––a major theme in Lorde’s life and writing. The Cancer Journals Revisited pays homage to Lorde in that it leaves out the opinion of cancer experts and centers the lived experiences of breast cancer patients of color.

Members of the TriCo can find The Cancer Journals memoir at this link:

Other prominent works by Audre Lorde include Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (1982) and Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (1984).


July, Beandrea. “Documentaries That Make New Connections Between the Personal and Political.” Hyperallergic, 2019. (

against a trans narrative (Dir: Jules Rosskam, 2008)

Film: against a trans narrative

Director: Jules Rosskam

Release Date: November 20, 2008

Country of Origin: USA

Runtime: 61 minutes

Through reenactments, interviews, and both informal and structured conversations, filmmaker and subject Jules Rosskam deconstructs the idea of a singular trans narrative. His reflexive film acts more as an intersectional conversation and discussion instigator than as a traditional story-telling documentary. The scenes in the film, which vary in type from confessionals to individual/group interviews to reenactments to dinner table conversations to “behind the scenes” footage, not only respectively contain challenging and controversial conversation, but also engage in conversation with each other, working cohesively to deconstruct the idea of one cohesive trans experience.

Rosskam, often using his own experiences, aptly addresses some of the most pressing, yet coded and hidden topics of FTM trans experiences both through reenactments and his own narrative. These topics include navigating the healthcare system as a transperson, transitioning while in a relationship, evolution from one part of the queer community to another, personal physical comfort in contrast with social perceptions, and constructions of both feminism and masculinity. While representing several experiences of FTM folks and those who surround them, the film also seeks express the importance of individual experiences and the multifaceted and varying aspects of physical and social gender transition.

The film also captures sociopolitical stances of a time around 2008 through its subject’s statements. This was timestamp was particularly noticeable in a conversation about feminism; a group of men are prompted to discuss feminism, and one states, “I wouldn’t go out and say I’m a feminist… I identify as a feminist but I don’t know if that’s a thing I should say.” Rosskam, who certainly engages with more current ideas about feminism and gender, introduces ideas that are just now (in 2015) starting to enter more mainstream vocabulary. Most prevalently are the concepts of passing and an idealized narrative; “the idealized narrative of what it means to be trans has become so pervasive that ultimately we’re all in process to get to a certain endpoint, and that endpoint is to be passable and read as a man or a woman in a world. And then if you’re not passable and read as a man or woman in this world, then clearly you haven’t finished yet.” Rosskam further challenges the binary that sits at the core of the idealized narrative, using footage of himself talking to his girlfriend about his social transition: “I’m afraid you’re going to lump me in with men – and I don’t see myself that way, I don’t identify myself that way.” Furthermore, Rosskam directly confronts the intersectionality that is too often ignored when discussing trans issues and narratives by asking his subjects “how do you think that your race and class impact your transition?” and related questions.

While Rosskam’s film is not a comprehensive view of trans lives, it offers a glance at many pivotal (and often silenced) issues. His involvement in the film (which ranges from confessional footage of himself, to vlogs with his girlfriend, to him appearing on screen to sync sound with audio) gives a humble tone of reflexivity and determination for self growth within an ever-expanding, intersectional, and complicated community that exists within a world designed to work against exactly the identities fostered in his community.

Related Subjects: Gender Studies, Feminist Studies, Queer Studies, Health Studies, Identity Politics

Critic Responses:

“Employing roundtable discussions, confessional on-camera monologues, acted-out skits, rehearsals of the acted-out skits, and rather fine rap poetry, the film can be applauded as an important tool for classroom use, but as a finished product for mass appreciation, Against is too haphazard, too unstructured, too insular. It’s a slightly amateurish paean to academic solipsism broken up by numerous episodes of power.”

Brandon Judell, CultureCatch

“It is inarguable that documentary is meant to create a motion, but “Against a Trans Narrative” does more than this. It creates a conversation, which is the first step towards understanding. Watching films such as these will encourage people to push for an open dialogue about how to make not only Colgate, but society more accepting.”

Reyna LaRiccia, Colgate Maroon-News

Bibliographic items:

Raun, Tobias. “Out Online: Trans Representation and community building on YouTube.” Roskilde University.

Rosskam, Jules. “The ties that bind are fragile and often imaginary: Community, identity politics, and the limits of representation.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory.

William, Gabe. “How I knew I was Trans: My Story and the Trans Narrative.” Youtube.


Dreams of a Life (Dir: Carol Morley, 2011)

Filmmaker: Carol Morley
Year: 2011
Country of Origin: England
Running Time: 95 min

Promotional Poster,

Promotional Poster,

Carol Morley’s Dreams of a Life asks a question – “Would anyone miss you?” It is posed through the story of Joyce (Carol) Vincent, a 40-year-old, well-liked woman who died in her London flat in 2003, but whose body was not discovered for three entire years (by bill collectors, nonetheless). Almost completely disintegrated in the middle of her living room floor, Joyce Vincent’s only company was a television set that never turned off and half-wrapped Christmas presents for unknown recipients.

Framed primarily through interviews with people who knew Joyce Vincent in different capacities, and artistic re-imaginings of what Joyce Vincent may have been like (performed by British actress Zawe Ashton), Morley tries to piece together Joyce Vincent’s life and why, at the end of it, nobody knew that she was gone.

Dreams of a Life is a wonderful film for examining how staged dramatics can function within the realm of documentary film. Zawe Ashton transcends her role as an actress and becomes our conception of Joyce Vincent’s happiness, sadness, and the loneliness that underpinned her existence. The interview segments provide insight for framing Zawe’s actions, as people who knew Joyce Vincent in real-life remark at length about how beautiful, charming, and wonderful she was, but are completely at a loss for why nobody – themselves included – realized she was gone. The film is self-reflexive in this way, as Morley challenges the interviewees to understand why they failed Joyce Vincent. They are offered newspaper clippings and other material about Joyce Vincent’s life and death, and they react (usually with surprise) on camera. This eliminates the typical staginess of the documentary-interview, but is in direct contrast with how formally the interviewees are physically framed.

Dreams of a Life does not provide answers as much as it provides questions. It challenges the viewer to examine their own relationships with friends, family, and the world around them. It asks the viewer to explain why no one realized Joyce Vincent had disappeared. The haunting question that the film leaves viewers with is no longer “Would anyone miss you?” but “Why should anyone miss you?”


Dorian Gray in the Mirror of the Yellow Press (Dir: Ulrike Ottinger, 1984)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 150 min

Format: 35mm, color

Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse shows the progress of a media conspiracy led by Frau Dr. Mabuse (Delphine Seyrig) to create, corrupt and destroy the ultimate celebrity, Dorian Gray (Veruschka von Lehndorff). Though Dorian begins as a wealthy man with no occupation but a seemingly endless string of appointments, read to him by his Chinese manservant, Hollywood (Toyo Tanaka), Dr. Mabuse starts Dorian down a more sensational road. At a performance of an opera about the takeover of the Happy Islands (modern: Canary Islands) by Don Luis de la Cerda, Infant of Spain (also played by von Lehndorff), in which Dorian’s onstage counterpart falls in love with the current queen of the Happy Islands, Andamana (Tabea Blumenschein), Dorian falls in love with the actress, who is also named Andamana. Their love forms the basis of the newspaper stories published by Dr. Mabuse’s media conglomerate, as the opera forms the basis of the story of the film. Notably, the narrator of the opera is played by Hollywood and the Grand Inquisitor of Spain, who arrives to declare that the Islands must be exploited for all their natural resources despite what Don Luis would prefer, is played by Dr. Mabuse. Scenes from this opera, performed in expansive natural settings, are interspersed with the action of the film, when events replicate those of the opera. Other settings in the film include the Press Ball, in which every surface is covered with newspaper, Dr. Mabuse’s office, lined by televisions covered in barbed wire, with one central television showing the actions of the characters in the room in closeup, and the Underworld, which is actually underground, and looks something like a cross between a sewer (the hallways are formed by large pipes) and a garden (Dorian and Dr. Mabuse eat their dinner off of plates floated to them on the surface of the water in a fountain).

The film’s heavy use of symbolism, both from the opera and elsewhere, makes for a surreal experience. For example, when in a drug-induced trance, Dorian dreams of himself as a child being handed a pig’s head on a leash by a butcher, waking up to discover himself as an adult holding the pig’s head. He stands up and realizes he has been sleeping on a vaguely pig-shaped pile of rocks. This scene is reminiscent of a scene in the opera in which Don Luis de la Cerda goes exploring the “sea of stones” with a pig on a leash as a guide. Moreover, which may not immediately apparent to the viewer, Dorian Gray, the male main character, is played by Veruschka von Lehndorff, a female actress. Some of the otherwise unflattering and/or exotifying images of women and women’s bodies in the film, such as the comedic burlesque show involving full-figured women performing semi-nude ballet on point, their breasts and bellies rippling with every tiny step, and the Siamese twin sex workers whose dance performance for Dorian ends with them stepping down from their fountain-stage to embrace him, are tempered by this awareness of Dorian’s femininity. Andamana’s body becoming an object of the viewer’s gaze, as she performs mostly nude in the opera, is also somewhat changed by the fact that the reverse-shot of the audience consists only of Dr. Mabuse and Dorian, both actresses.

I believe the fact that Dorian is played by a woman is what prompts many sources to cite this film as a gay/lesbian film, but I would be cautious in that respect. Though there are scenes of gay men and lesbians in the Underworld, including a dance/knife fight/love scene between two male sailors (with mustaches), these are subordinate elements to the theme of performance and presentation in the film. The use of the opera throughout reminds the viewer that it is not only Andamana who is an actress. All the characters play staged roles, in the world of the opera, in the “real world,” as pieces of the media story of Dorian Gray, and in the world of the movie, as players for the benefit of the viewer. Only Dr. Mabuse cannot be seen on film, as a negative of an accidental photograph taken of her becomes an important problem for her plan. Those shown on film become objects of the media story, losing control of their own representation, and, in the case of Dorian, their own life.

Though very interesting and visually entertaining, the length of Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse is nearly prohibitive for an in-class showing. However, its visual elements and low-key yet metaphoric storytelling method as well as its direct exploration of the role of the media make Dorian Gray a useful resource for film and media studies classes, as well as any class dealing with film representations or new adaptations of literature. Moreover, since many scenes in the film are interesting enough on their own, removed from their narrative context, segments of the film may be used in class.

Internet Resources:

An anonymous Internet essay about the film that seems nevertheless to be sound:

A photo of Dorian Gray holding a newspaper with the headline “Dorian Gray Dead”:

Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse on IMDb:

On Tripod

Rickets, Laurence A. “My Last Interview With Ulricke Ottinger: On Southeast Passage and Beyond.” Subtitles: On the Foreignness of Film, ed. Atom Egoyan and Ian Balfour. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004.

Seiglohr, Ulrike. “Women Film-Makers, the Avant Garde and the Case of Ulrike Ottinger.” The German Cinema Book, ed. Tim Bergfelder, Erica Carter and Deniz Göktürk. London: British Film Institute, 2002.

Other Films by Ulrike Ottinger on Tripod:

Bildnis einer Trinkerin (Ticket of no return), New York, Women Make Movies, 1979

Johanna D’Arc of Mongolia, New York: Women Make Movies, 1989 (VHS)

Madame X, eine absolute herrscherin, New York: Women Make Movies, 2000 (VHS)