REVIEW: Cameraperson [2016]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: September 9th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Janus Films
Director(s): Kirsten Johnson
Writer(s): Doris Baizley & Lisa Freedman (consulting writers)

“You’re making me cry even though I don’t understand the language”

The camera doesn’t lie. It captures private moments, immortalizes public, and adds ten pounds (so maybe it does). It shows a world we can never see: at once untouched perfection and fabricated by the operator’s gaze. And as those among us age and forget, the camera proves a tool of permanence. Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson‘s mother battles Alzheimer’s—losing time, place, and self—while she endures journalistic accounts of terror most wish to leave behind. Just because what Johnson filmed during a decade of working with cinema’s hardest-hitting documentarians flirts with the idea of Hell on Earth despair doesn’t mean there aren’t also glimmers of hope. For every nightmare conjured by a memory seared with rage comes an infectious smile of survival. This isn’t a job. It’s life.

What better memoir of Johnson’s career than what she’s seen throughout her travels at home and abroad? This is the thesis of her autobiographical film Cameraperson, a collage of moments shot while working on other movies. Some footage consists of outtakes, some set-ups pulling grass from the frame or figuring out lighting. Most is actually delivered to us with original sound (some moments towards the end get a score overlaid). So we hear Johnson sneezing as the camera shakes. We hear her anxiety as a young boy chops a tree stump with an ax while his even younger brother holds out his hand for a swing. We even hear her break down as the account of a survivor of unspeakable tragedy speaks about the brother he’s lost forever.

There’s so much she can control—zooming in and out for the perfect composition, meticulously ensuring the foreground and background subjects align, and requesting an interviewee begin her answer with the question asked—and even more she cannot. She’s helpless as a Nigerian baby is born struggling to breathe. All she can do is watch as the midwife does what she can to prolong its life. She’s helpless to get the truth from an old Serb refusing to speak bad about the men that the world knows conducted mass rape. She (and Michael Moore) must stand there helpless as a soldier explains he’s willing to go to jail instead of return to Iraq despite not even having a lawyer. She’s helpless to comfort her own mother’s disintegrating mind.

Johnson goes to these places to capture stories so we can begin to understand the horrors wrought outside of our living room’s comfort. She does this knowing that she must leave them to their pain when the day’s work is done. How do you shake that? How do you wash away the guilt of knowing you can escape and they cannot? It’s not that her work isn’t dangerous—filming prisons and internment camps while soldiers are watching with guns in-hand is never safe. The point is that when the danger is finished, she can put her camera away and return to her twins. She isn’t forced to wonder when the next tragedy will occur. She can only arrive once it’s finished its destruction. That takes an ironclad constitution.

We see her in shadows and reflections every once in a while and hear her speak fairly regularly, but we only see Kirsten Johnson’s face at the conclusion. It’s amazing how much we feel we know her anyway, though. We’re ostensibly looking through her eyes from start to finish, seeing the world as she does. Somehow during a montage of massacre sites she has a way of forcing us to acknowledge their beauty removed from the mark they will never shake. Look at the geometric pattern of stone tiles and then discover women were raped on them. Look at these sunflowers and then realize they grow atop Wounded Knee. Bask in the gorgeous, rundown aesthetic of an Eastern European motel before being told of its nightmarish past.

She’s filming pieces of a story she may not be telling and pieces she wants but the director doesn’t. She’s making connections that will stick with her as more than a paycheck to return years later and see how they’re doing despite not having a new project in that locale. But she’s also capturing moments no one could begin to imagine like the burial of Edward Snowden’s USB drive in cement or her friend’s release of frustration and anger while coping with the suicide of her mother. And with those are also glimpses of Kirsten’s personality shining through to ask the aforementioned Serbian woman about her fashion style or two African women to repeat the word they use to describe their Arab oppressors one more time (“Bastards”).

So even though we receive snippets of lives that watching the films for which they were shot could explain more, how the camera and Johnson as its operator interacts with the scenery and people turns the focus onto her. It gets to the heart of what she does for a living as well as how she does it. It captures her memories and never lets them go to celebrate the magic of joy within places we could only imagine are full of unavoidable fear and to appreciate what it is she’s able to return to once time runs out. Cameraperson depicts the life of someone always looking forward (sometimes causing personal injury as a humorous portion of near falls depicts) in a way that allows her to look back.

[1] Kirsten Johnson CREDIT: Majlinda Hoxha / Janus Films
[2] Kirsten Johnson CREDIT: Lynsey Addario / Janus Films
[3] Kirsten Johnson CREDIT: Kirsten Johnson / Janus Films

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