Kirsten Johnson’s new documentary Cameraperson begins as enigmatically as the rest of the film will remain for its puzzling yet rewarding duration…
A frail old man on a pony herds a field of sheep in Bosnia. The cameraperson seems surprised at his presence but says they’ll “follow him a little.” You hear the breaths of the cameraperson as they lie on the floor, removing pieces of grass in order to capture the perfect shot of the farmer. The shot lasts for mere seconds, as the farmer soon wanders off on his own journey.
The cameraperson is left with some possibly unusable footage for that particular project, but here, placed at the beginning of this extraordinary documentary, it works as a neat summation of what it means to spend a life training a camera on the real world. A life full of complex practicalities, magical coincidences, frustration and once in a lifetime opportunities.
The cameraperson in question is Kirsten Johnson, a New York based documentary filmmaker, who over the course of 25 years has won awards for her work on an exceptional range of subjects. From the nonviolent protests of the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement (Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 2008) and the genocide in Darfur (Darfur Now, 2007) to Edward Snowden (Citizenfour, 2014) and Abu Jandal, a taxi driver who worked as a bodyguard to Osama bin Laden for four years (The Oath, 2010).
Johnson’s is a non-critical eye; a lens for whatever direction both the filmmaker and the subject wants to travel in. But the documentaries mentioned above only speak to one facet of the relationship between the cameraperson and the camera, and the camera with the subject. Cameraperson instead asks, how does the camera alter the world its pointed at? How does difficult subject matter affect the person behind the camera? At what point does a cameraperson interject, or physically alter the proceedings?
If you’re the kind of person who watches a David Attenborough wildlife documentary and says, “oh no, why doesn’t the cameraperson go and help that poor defenceless baby iguana?” then this film may be too infuriating for you, as it offers no easy answers. Instead Cameraperson offers a collage of juxtaposed scenes, all of which are taken from Kirsten Johnson’s work over the last 25 years in order to form a non-chronological memoir that says more about the life behind the lens than it does about the subjects in front of it.
At first there appears to be little to no reasoning behind the order of the scenes. The opening featuring the Bosnian farmer cuts to a lengthy shot of a road where a thunderstorm brews in the background, and then to footage of a boxer warming up for a match in Brooklyn. Later we witness scenes of a Nigerian midwife delivering twins in a hospital with a severe lack of resources. Then in Texas we see the physical exhibits used in a trial against the white supremacists who murdered James Byrd Jr in 1998. Further footage shows Kirsten Johnson interacting with her own family, as well as the odd cameo from Michael Moore and Jacques Derrida.
It’s an overwhelming tableau, that threatens to make the film utterly impenetrable. But then themes begin to emerge, questions are raised, scenes that first appear purposefully obtuse take on a whole new meaning later thanks to some subtle juxtaposition. Early in the film, there’s a short section where Johnson encourages her two young children to interact with the camera directly, helping her change the lens. Later, we’re back in Bosnia where Johnson studies two young siblings playing with a hand-axe. Johnson remains behind the camera at a distance, while the youngest toddler tries to prise the axe out of a block of wood, but we can hear Johnson’s own fear in her anxious breaths and whispers.
There are plenty more heartstopping moments like these. Take for instance the Brooklyn boxer’s utter fury at losing a match on points, who we then follow to the changing room where he punishes anything inanimate within range of his fists, until his mother placates him in her arms. This is directly preceded by the Nigerian midwife, whose recently delivered baby is struggling on the edge of life and death.
These scenes obviously pack an emotional wallop on their own, but presented alongside footage where Johnson breaks the ‘fourth wall’ (a wipe of a camera lens, a cough from behind the camera which jiggles an otherwise dramatic shot of a thunderstorm, the erasing of footage taken at Guantanamo Bay) mean you’re constantly aware of the cameraperson’s role in all the proceedings.
You could argue that the footage is more powerful when contextualised as part of its own narrative, within their own respective films. But that’s not the point of Cameraperson. This isn’t a ‘showreel’. It’s a meditation on a life spent behind a camera. Any questions around intervention are dispelled when you realise that the job of a documentarian is to shine a light into the darkest, most dangerous corners of the world that would otherwise be ignored. Any questions about whether a cameraperson has lived less of a life, because they’re permanently trapped behind a dispassionate machine, are dispelled when you realise that Johnson has lived 30 lifetimes and experienced worlds far beyond our grasp.
Ultimately though, if Cameraperson does nothing else other than move you to explore more documentaries (whether Johnson’s own or otherwise) then that’s wonderful enough on its own merit. 5/5