A thoughtful examination of what it means to train a camera on the world.
Over the course of the past two decades or so, Kirsten Johnson has established herself as one of the most respected cinematographers in documentary filmmaking. The films she’s been involved with are both impressive and impressively diverse: detailing the rape epidemic within the U.S. military in The Invisible War, capturing Edward Snowden’s treason/heroism in Citizenfour, examining a national hunger crisis in A Place at the Table, taking a hard look at genocide in Darfur Now, etc. Now, using outtakes from these and other documentaries she has worked on, Johnson has assembled a film that more or less invents a brand-new genre.
How to describe Cameraperson? Johnson asks us to think of it as a memoir, which seems about right. The documentaries she has worked on have largely been about examining the lives of other people, but the footage used here gives the filmmaker an opportunity to look inward. Doing this kind of work undoubtedly leaves a mark on a person, and Johnson is attempting to take us on a guided tour of her memories: some warm, some harrowing, some mysterious. At first glance, many of the excerpts seem completely unrelated, but the deeper you get into the film, the more you begin to see the remarkable emotional and thematic structure Johnson has created.
Johnson doesn’t narrate anything for us and there’s only a minimal amount of explanatory text, but her presence is felt in every frame. Of course, that’s largely due to the fact that she has chosen quite a few outtakes that give us a much greater sense of her presence than anything included in the actual documentaries do. She sneezes, and the camera shakes. We hear her conversing with directors or checking in on her interview subjects. We see the adjustments she makes, finding just the right angle to shoot from before landing on a moment that will be deemed worthy of inclusion in the finished documentary.
In one sense, Cameraperson is essentially a film school class on documentary filmmaking techniques, offering prospective filmmakers important lessons on filmmaking ethics (though she considers the best way to capture a scene, Johnson is careful to avoid creating an artificial reality), how to gently communicate with emotionally-distraught interviewees (so many of the people featured in the film have suffered some form of trauma – some of them, such as a young woman contemplating an abortion, won’t even permit Johnson to show their faces), how leaving things in or out of a frame can alter the feeling of a scene, etc.
However, it’s also much more than that. We feel the full weight of all of the anguish and misery Johnson has quietly absorbed over the course of her career. She seems to be using this film as a form of therapy; arranging a wide variety of documentary fragments to express her feelings in a way that words never could. It’s a movie that makes a big world feel smaller, drawing both subtle and direct lines between the lives of very different people in very different parts of the world: Sudanese refugees, New York prize fighters, Nigerian midwives. Additionally, Johnson sprinkles in home movies of her young twins and footage of her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, allowing these deeply personal images to slip into the larger emotional current of the film. In a line of work that requires this much empathy and attentiveness to human suffering, the personal is inextricable from the professional.
Cameraperson (Blu-ray) Criterion offers a solid 1080p/1.85:1 transfer, though obviously the image varies considerably from scene to scene. Certain moments look sharp and incredibly detailed, while others are scratchy and grainy. Par for the course, given the wide variety of sources being used here. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is similarly mixed depending on which source material we’re dealing with, and some of the conversations can be a little difficult to make out at times (most of these moments are subtitled). Supplements include a documentary on the making of the film, a roundtable discussion featuring Johnson, producer Gini Reticker and sound mixers Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp, excerpts from a pair of film festival talks with Johnson, Johnson’s 2015 short film “The Above” and a booklet featuring an essay by Michael Almereyda and some reprinted writings by Johnson.
Cameraperson is a unique effort that offers an abundance of interesting moments and raises even more interesting questions. A worthy addition to The Criterion Collection.