Director: Kirsten Johnson
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: January 27th
In the opening two scenes of Cameraperson, the off-screen presence of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson is felt in two distinct ways. In the first, filmed in rural Bosnia, a frantic handheld camera finds what could be the perfect composition of a shepherd and his flock. Suddenly a hand emerges from the behind the camera to remove some blades of grass obstructing her vision. The following scene is a static wide shot of a motorway in Missouri dominated by the grey sky above it. Just as sudden as the emergence of the hand in the previous shot, a crack of lightning appears in the sky. We hear a gasp of amazement off-screen as the crackle of thunder follows soon after. An unplanned occurrence, it is soon met with another as the stillness of the camera is briefly interrupted by the act of Johnson sneezing. These two reactions, one professional the other personal, highlight one of the recurring themes that run throughout, the link between the two in documentary filmmaking and the ethical questions that arise from it.
Composed from unused footage that Johnson shot for various projects over the past 25 years, Johnson’s film takes us to numerous locations across the globe, from an understaffed and under-equipped maternity hospital in Nigeria to survivors of warfare, genocide, and rape in Afghanistan and Darfur. For Johnson and her directors, a level of personal trust had to be established in order for their subjects to open up about their experiences. This is clearly shown by the casualness of the conversations the filmmakers have with them at different points throughout the film.
With this compassion and understanding, there also must be a certain kind of detachment as well. Johnson expertly highlights this juxtaposition on several occasions. One scene, showing the hands of an anonymous young woman talking about her guilt over having an abortion, only to be met by reassurance from Johnson and her director that she should feel no guilt, is soon followed by a moment of drama in Bosnia when a toddler is trying to take hold of an axe his older brother is playing with. “Oh Jesus,” utters Johnson from behind the camera whilst at the same time not doing anything to help stop the potential danger that may occur. Wisely, she doesn’t attempt to provide a solution to the question of the ethics of documentation, instead leaving the audience to determine the various moral conflicts that can occur.
While these dilemmas hang over it, what makes Cameraperson such an engrossing work is how it shifts seamlessly from exploring the unseen details of documentary filmmaking to the drives of the filmmaker herself. At the beginning, Johnson describes it as a memoir, and one gets a sense while watching that it is the empathy she has for her subjects that has driven her career. Everyone featured is depicted with respect, dignity and decency, from victims of war, to lighter themes such as a young boxer in Brooklyn, to her own family; the personal and the political are interwoven beautifully. For Johnson, it appears that documentaries are her way to express her passion for real human stories and encounters.
It could have been a tedious exercise in self-aggrandising, resembling a collection of B-sides. Instead Johnson has made one of the most fascinating and multi-layered documentaries in recent years, one that records the perseverance of people through unspeakable times, the ethics of filmmaking and the process of documentary work itself. While this may sound academical and dry, Cameraperson is accessible and thoroughly engaging throughout its running time.