Cameraperson – first look

Wayfaring nonfiction cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s first directorial credit considers the movie camera as bridge to the world.

One of Sight & Sound’s best films of 2016.

Jordan Cronk
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Cameraperson (2016)

Though Cameraperson is Kirsten Johnson’s first solo directorial credit, she’s now been making films for over two decades: as cinematographer for many well regarded documentaries (The Oath, Very Semi-Serious and Citizenfour among them), she’s been as important to a certain sect of contemporary image-making as any credited nonfiction director one might name. Cameraperson is, in one sense, about the democratic nature of the filmmaking process and the multifaceted manner in which the cinematic image is conjured; in another, it’s about the utility of these seemingly fixed moments and the untapped potency of even the most negligible of materials.

Johnson’s film is pieced together from untold hours of unused and B-roll footage originally shot for other directors’ films – outtakes, essentially, though these moments have here been repurposed by Johnson into vivid mini-narratives all their own. Stripped of all but the most basic contextual information (titles cards divulge only the shooting location), individual episodes are left to communicate on their own accord, through both the immediacy of the attendant imagery and the uniquely reflexive manner of their presentation. Johnson’s profession has taken her all over the globe, and the footage she’s salvaged in turn presents a kind of cross-continental index of her many excursions.

The origins of the various materials being what they are, it goes that Cameraperson is an intrinsically political film. We accompany Johnson to Turkey and Tahrir Square, Afghanistan and Wounded Knee, Bosnia and Washington D.C., each at flash points of social and cultural discontent, of which the film functions as useful documentation.

Cameraperson (2016)

But from the chaos Johnson is also able to exhume intimate moments, locate personal stories and even capture an offhand miracle or two. In powerfully accumulating fashion we witness two very young Bosnian children playing innocently yet dangerously with an ax, an unidentified young girl being offered encouragement from the camera crew as she learns of an unplanned pregnancy and a friend of Johnson visibly reeling as she recounts the details of her mother’s suicide – all ostensibly unrelated vignettes which Johnson unifies through a shared sense of empathy and an ethically inquisitive approach to the vagaries of cinematic mediation.

Later, in the film’s most remarkable sequence, a Nigerian midwife attempts to save a barely-breathing newborn as Johnson captures the terrifying ordeal in a single, unbroken shot. What is the role of the filmmaker in instances such as this? What responsibility does the artist have to their subject? These are questions Johnson poses throughout the film, even to the point of self-implication. But then, if anyone or anything is the subject of Cameraperson, it’s Johnson herself. In an opening quote she refers to the film as her “memoir”, and indeed the film evinces a richness of lived experience – much of which was necessarily felt from behind a camera.

Cameraperson (2016)

What’s notable, then, is how much of Johnson’s personality transcends the disconnect. She can often be heard speaking from off-camera to her subjects or reacting to what’s transpiring before her lens; there are moments where it seems as if she’s seconds away from intervening during some of the more precarious encounters, but in each case maintains her composure. One beautiful and touching scene late in the film features Johnson recording her ailing mother at her home that brought to mind Chantal Akerman’s swan song, No Home Movie (2015).

The dovetailing of the personal and the political in a nonfiction context is not a new phenomenon. Jonas Mekas’s diary films are an obvious precedent, as is the work of Chris Marker (a more direct contemporary comparison could likewise be made with Jem Cohen’s Counting (2015), itself a Marker homage). But Cameraperson’s unique formal conception and restlessly interrogative assemblage forms a striking and, dare I say, original vision, one that sees the medium not simply as a political apparatus, but as a kind of philosophical armament with which to confront the world.

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