Cameraperson is singular. It’s a complicated and entrancing autobiography built out of footage from other nonfiction films. What we see and hear becomes a reconfiguring of what it means to see and hear a film, the various sequences united only by the vision they represent. As a movie about vision – about what we see, about what filmmakers’ choose to show, about how these sights affect those who create and those who view – there’s a multitude of vantage points one can take to begin to make sense of it.
Here are a few.
1. It’s a movie as memoir. The cameraperson in question is Kirsten Johnson, cinematographer and camera operator on dozens of documentary projects over the past 20 years. In making this movie, she has collected and compiled shots and scenes from her career, placing them together, not chronologically but in some intuitive memory logic. Individually they are compelling, fascinating, carrying the intellectual charge that brought the documentary crew to capture them in the first place. But there’s a larger goal at work. We see moments that have, as she writes, “marked” her and “leave me wondering still.” Slowly, she adds personal footage, of her mother and father and children. Together they add up to a portrait of a woman’s professional and personal life. There is no narration. There is little explanatory text beyond a brief note at the beginning telling us to take the following as memoir. We’re to view her in every frame. She is her occupation.
2. It’s a movie about the woman behind the curtain. But it doesn’t pull the curtain back or peek behind. She simply wants us to be aware of the person there.
3. It’s a movie about work. We can get swept up in stories, people, and vivid tableaus presented, but there’s always the understanding Johnson is behind the camera. The film is a procession of images and sequences, artful and intense, by turns emotional and clinical. But unlike their sources, here there is new awareness placed on the hard work of their making. It draws attention to the labor involved. What does a cameraperson do? She gets the shots. She crafts the images. (One moment shows her hand dart in front of the lens to pluck an errant clump of grass from distracting.) By showing us the process through this context, she makes it clear we see what we see because she decides we could. The movie features little in the way of looks behind the scenes. What it does show us is what’s in the frame – and implies what’s outside the frame – in the margins of the original works. Fleeting moments reveal the personality behind the camera through a gasp, an command, an admission of emotional investment, a worried concern, and hushed indications of found profundity.
4. It’s a movie as clip reel, a portfolio. This is no diminishment, because this is no That’s Entertainment! comprehensive overview or utilitarian résumé. We’re not seeing greatest hits or notable outtakes. We’re seeing moments. Through the scope of the projects presented, as well as the diversity of subjects tackled, one can see the expertise Johnson brings to each film on which she works. There’s a casual beauty to the way she takes in landscapes and architecture, and an acute sensitivity to the emotions of her interviews. Whatever it is, she throws herself into getting a good shot. She races along next to philosopher Jacques Derrida down a street, trips walking backwards in front of The New Yorker’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, listens with empathy to a devastating story from a child injured in an I.E.D. explosion (telling him she’s deeply moved). It’s a movie of considerable skill, aptitude in every shot, a testament to her talents.
5. It’s a movie of poetry, knowledgeably and thoughtfully assembled. The details are precise, sharply drawn, well observed. Its tapestry assembles slowly, deliberately, and patiently. What are we to make of the connections between projects with disparate topics? Reading the surface you could see a simple travelogue (Afghanistan, Alabama, Bosnia, Brooklyn, Nigeria…) or a look at the varieties of modern documentary concerns (hot-button politics, shameful tragedies, quirky character studies). Or you could look closer, get beneath the tenuous and obvious strands, and see an interconnected web of sensitive emotional connections and endless possibility for interpretation. Recurring ideas of parents, children, emotional and literal violence, and the aftermath of trauma (one haunting montage includes empty buildings and fields where atrocities have taken place) are both specific and symbolic. It feels like a carefully composed ode to her career, its meaning in the world, and impact on her soul.
6. (It’s a movie of fonts. Here is where I must point out Johnson’s incredible attention to detail extends to the typefaces. I didn’t think of this on my own. Read Charlie Lyne in Filmmaker Magazine with a brilliant dissection here.)
7. It’s a movie as an invitation to think. Johnson doesn’t want a passive viewer. No, by recontextualizing her past work in this new form she invites a focus on why a shot was made, and on why we’re seeing it now. She wants your intellectual involvement, not to take in and feel and react passively, but to let the sounds and images light up your mind. All movies – with the exception of the egregiously brain dead – activate thoughts. But here’s one that cultivates a rhythm and space for active wondering about the construction, drawing unavoidable attention to every artistic choice, each frame, each cut.
8. It’s a movie that blends the personal and political, as if there’s a difference to begin with. Jobs have taken her to troubled areas all around the world. Everywhere, political strife has hurt. We glimpse it with a USB drive from Citizenfour ground up in cement. And Michael Moore mid-Fahrenheit 9/11 promising he’ll try to help a soldier who admits he plans to go AWOL before his next deployment. And women in every corner of the globe bravely explaining their rapes, their kidnappings, their decisions to have abortions. Johnson’s camera has captured much pain, and the weight of these encounters make it clear that nothing is ever a simple case of partisan or ideological talking points. Life is as political as it is messy.
9. It’s a movie of one life reflected in other people. Late in the film is footage of Johnson returning to a small village to visit a family she recorded years before. (We’ve seen some of them earlier, including one harrowing shot of a toddler playing with a hatchet, hearing and sympathizing with Johnson’s off-camera winces, aching with tension as she, and the camera, keep an objective distance.) She wants to show them the final product and tell them how much their kindness meant to her. Here’s something we don’t often see in a documentary. Yes, there are the facts recorded. But what impact did it have on those filmed, and those doing the filming? What we see as cinema vérité has an unseen reverse shot. Taken together they’d be a slice of life for the fly on the wall, too. When we see glimpses of home movies, Johnson’s twins or her dying mother or her aging father, we see a mostly happy family with usual problems, and yet we also see a stark contrast to the human misery she’s devoted her life to chronicling. When we hear her voice from behind the camera, she’s not breaking the fourth wall. She’s behind it, the engaged and empathetic artist and witness.
10. It’s a movie of juxtapositions. With editor Nels Bangerter (who has worked on some of the same projects as Johnson) images, ideas, feelings, impressions, and stories sit side by side. We see a tough boxer taking a hard loss, then getting comforted by his mother. We see Johnson’s mother slipping into Alzheimer’s. We see people around the world recounting past trauma. We hear the urgent warnings of a translator and guide as military in a far flung conflict zone suspiciously sizes up the presence of a doc crew outside a prison. We see a creaking Ferris Wheel in Afghanistan. The world is large, and full of surprise. Johnson finds the serendipity and logic behind the vast differences and confluences, forcing to think about moments in new contexts. We see the resilience of those who face the unthinkable, carry unspeakable devastation, and continue forward, living their lives. The mundane and the moving sit comfortably together.
11. It’s a movie as a way of understanding a mediator. What is a cameraperson but the one who sees the things we can’t and brings it back to us for our consideration? It’s her decision that shapes a moment, notices detail, frames a narrative. With a director and editor it becomes a documentary’s message. But she’s the source. It starts with her. Now she shapes it to her own purposes, aiming it directly at the audience, with an understanding that they’ll make of it what they will. Here’s what she saw. What do you make of it?
12. It’s a movie as metaphor. The cameraperson is a conduit for so much human existence. She’s a purifier, collecting the most wrenching moments of someone’s life (a limp newborn baby not breathing, the film’s most harrowing sustained sequence; or an old woman’s testimony of kidnapping and torture, hard even to hear) and making such grief useful to a wide audience. There is the old concept of the sin-eater, a person who absolves the departed of their pain by engaging in a ritual meal that allows them eternal peace. Taking in others’ pain can be an act of kindness. Johnson includes an interview with people investigating war crimes. They explain what a relief it is to the victims to unburden themselves, and yet how difficult it is that now the investigators must carry that burden with no release. Isn’t that true, also, of the cameraperson along with them? Where can she go to take the pain she’s recorded? She’s taken in the strong emotions, good and bad, of everything she’s seen, and now it is a part of her. The only release is to share it with us.
13. Cameraperson is a masterpiece.