Kirsten Johnson has been working as a documentary cinematographer and filmmaker for 25 years, and has credits on films as “Darfur Now,” ‘The Invisible War,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and “Citizenfour” under her belt, as well as many more. “Cameraperson” is what she calls her memoir, or autobiography, and it’s also a rumination, a treatise, a theory of documentary filmmaking — a manifesto of sorts that asserts the importance of the camera as a person. The film is made up of snippets and outtakes of footage from films that she’s worked on, and it’s primarily the moments where someone on camera interacts with her or with the camera itself.
In these small interactions, in which we often only hear her, we are able to glean an understanding of the relationship between subject and filmmaker that is sometimes obfuscated in a final documentary. The result is a surprisingly emotional and heartfelt film that tells us who Johnson is as a person and as an artist, though we barely see her onscreen. It’s through her work and the way that she approaches filmmaking that we understand her, and the experimental nature of “Cameraperson” ends up as a stunning achievement in documentary form.
Initially, it’s difficult to suss out just how this film is going to work as a feature. We’re introduced to Johnson through little outtakes, camera set-ups and focus pulling to get just the right shot. We hear her gasp at a lightning bolt and greet a Bosnian shepherd on a rural road; Brooklyn boxing trainers glance into her lens as she captures a pre-fight locker-room session. These are little introductions that lead to more meaningful interactions and conversations and outtakes — talking to a midwife in a Nigerian hospital as she delivers twins with an almost eerie sense of calm, chatting with a director about shots of mosques and minarets in Bosnia, stumbling in the New Yorker cartoon office, or getting into a near hit-and-run while filming French philosopher Jacques Derrida in New York.
The footage loops back on itself again and again, knitting the narrative together with Johnson’s presence threaded throughout. A seemingly innocuous scene at the beginning of the film returns at the end with an intensely dramatic, breathtaking result, a routine event becoming suddenly a life-or-death situation — how does a documentarian handle that? You can hear Johnson when she worries or sighs in relief behind the camera, attempting to maintain both her observant eye and her personhood.
One funny moment along these lines happens in a Bosnian village as a toddler tries to play with a small hatchet. You can hear Johnson’s concern, but as a filmmaker, she can’t step out from behind the camera and stop the kid, though her desire to do so is palpable. There are so many moments like this in the film — whether she and a director are gently chastising a young woman for continuing to say she’s a bad person for her unwanted pregnancy, or attempting to right an interview that’s gone off the rails.
The editing and sequencing offer trenchant commentary as well. One sequence of a particularly scary stop by the military outside an al-Qaeda prison in Yemen is followed by shots of Johnson testing her camera at home. Her adorable twins toddle in and out of frame as she talks to them, and the juxtaposition of her dangerous international political work with her maternal side helps to make the argument for women making films behind the camera, a maternal nature going hand in hand with bravery. Her empathy and connection with the filmed subjects comes through clearly in “Cameraperson,” and demonstrates the way in which the person who she is informs the way that she uses her camera and the way that the subjects relate to it. Particularly with women, there is clearly a strong emotional connection, whether it’s Muslim rape survivors in Bosnia, or her own mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, who Johnson lovingly capturing her final moments.
At times the film feels akin to non-verbal documentaries such as “Koyaanisqatsi,” or “Baraka,” where disparate scenes are woven together into a mesmerizing whole, a narrative emerging in the linking of sequences. However, while those films are often abstract and anonymous, consumed by landscapes and crowds, Johnson’s film is ultimately concerned with the individuals that she films. There’s a sequence of shots of empty spaces, homes and buildings and hotels with titles of what conflict, war and horror happened there, imagination filling in the in blanks of the dehumanizing events. Humanity permeates “Cameraperson,” thanks to Johnson’s presence, so as experimental as it is, it’s also stirring and poignant, with a tangible sense of empathy intact in every frame. “Cameraperson” makes a strong argument to assert the person behind the camera — who they are, how they live, and how they interact with others as a crucial focal point in the process of filmmaking. It shouldn’t be a novel idea, but in the diversity-starved, non-inclusive world of Hollywood, it’s certainly radical. [A]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. “Cameraperson” opens on Friday, September 9th