Cameraperson is somehow equally inspiring in both its humility and its boldness. The sheer gravity of the events and circumstances director Kirsten Johnson has captured over the course of her career seems like it demands reverence; when the film intersects her personal reflections with them, it almost seems audacious. When the film cuts from a physicist discussing quantum entanglement to a montage of sites where atrocities took place, it almost seems hokey and trivializing.
But it’s not. By presenting the domestic, the foreign, the unpredictable, the horrifying, and the hopeful through the eyes of a person who never appears on screen, Cameraperson never trivializes. It doesn’t lay claim to some big picture into which it situates all its components; rather, it acknowledges, maybe even celebrates, the finitude of a single person’s perspective – the camera itself – as it passes through a world of incredible variety. The film comprises unused footage from various documentaries on which Johnson served as cinematographer – cases in which she was offering up her eye for someone else’s purposes.
Lightning and Avalanches
Cameraperson draws from footage of a beleaguered Nigerian doctor laboring to save a newborn baby’s life, a family living in the wake of the Bosnian War, a prosecutor examining evidence in a murder case, and a woman airing out her frustration after her mother’s death, among other things. The only unifying element as the film oscillates between these is Johnson behind the lens.
There are also a couple moments in which the film captures some miracle of nature, like a lightning strike or an avalanche. (Or something not natural, but equally miraculous: footage of secret, high-stakes activity taken from Johnson‘s work on the acclaimed Citizenfour.) Johnson (and probably the viewer, for that matter) can only marvel at the sheer fortune of getting these moments on film. When you understand the reverence and gratitude engendered by such scenes, it becomes clear exactly what the film is doing.
A cinematographer’s challenge is not only to use the camera to convey information, but also to be aware of and responsible for what kind of spin they may be putting on that information. The ambiguity in this state of affairs is no clearer than in a scene in which Johnson happens to film a pair of children playing with an ax; does she interfere, or does she defer to the children’s parents who don’t seem worried?
The way the film makes connections between all this footage suggests Johnson‘s effort to draw from her past experiences to film in a way that’s both coherent and empathetic. At the same time, the film posits that each situation is utterly unique, as miraculous as a lightning strike, and so must also demand some level of adaptation on Johnson‘s part. (I don’t mean to be making statements about Johnson‘s intentions for the film so much as statements about how I see the role she plays as a part of the film.)
For me, Cameraperson attests to a certain kind of beauty (a word I try not to use lightly or often when discussing films, both because it’s vague and because it can be of dubious value). That is: a person’s capacity to, all at once, change and stay the same. The confluence between the film’s form and its content celebrate the fact that a person can retain a completely unique perspective while also approaching every situation with a sincere effort to learn, accept, and take influence.
If that weren’t enough, the stories of the people who appear in Cameraperson‘s footage are extraordinary in their own right. As the film returns time and again to the aforementioned doctor, it’s easy to become invested in her efforts, and inspired by the determination and professionalism she exercises under so much pressure. Equally moving is the pained introspection of the woman who lost her mother – as is, for that matter, Johnson‘s home movie footage of her own mother struggling with Alzheimer’s.
The people who appear in the film are as much of a testament to infinite possibility as the film itself. At one point, an elderly Bosnian woman declares that she would never wear anything around her neck; in footage we see from a later trip Johnson made to Bosnia, we see that same woman wearing a scarf. Even if you somehow forgot about the person behind the camera, Cameraperson might still manage to fascinate you.
I feel sort of bad; I can’t go through all the stories here, so I can’t really do them justice.
Cameraperson is arguably more an essay film than a documentary (insofar as you want to make a distinction between those two things), and as such, it’s difficult to know who to recommend it to. It’s quite accessible, but some people might still find it demanding on their patience.
So, I’ll just recommend it to everybody; there’s enough potential for any person to take something away from it, and it’s absolutely worth trying to get on its wavelength.
What did you think of Cameraperson?
Cameraperson premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 26, 2016, and is scheduled to be released for home viewing by the Criterion Collection on February 7, 2017.
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