Milo Garner reviews Cameraperson, a documentary detailing filmmaker Kirsten Johnson’s life behind the camera.
As Cameraperson opens, a message from its director is displayed on the screen – she describes the work about to be shown as a memoir. This might seem odd given that aside from one (very intentional) moment the director, and cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson is offscreen. But the power of this documentary is exactly that – it communicates so much of Johnson’s career, personality, and life without ever needing her to move from behind the camera.
In effect the film is a sort of montage taken from the rushes of Johnson’s various documentary camerawork over the last 25 years (including the likes of Fahrenheit 9/11 and Citizenfour), compiled together with title cards to inform the audience of when/where each segment takes place. Notably, however, the footage isn’t just various sections of the aired documentaries, or even ‘deleted scenes’ so to speak. Instead Johnson includes more than just the ‘intended shot’ – we get to see, as the camera is set up and the composition is made, often a rugged process; we get to hear the various conversations behind the camera for many shots, typically the kind that would be muted in the finished product; and we also get to see after a shot is complete, the reaction and responses. But all of this from the view of the camera she is operating.
A good example of what this can entail is in a segment taken from her time in Yemen, where we first see the window of a car being cleaned so as not to obstruct the shot through it. Following this we hear Johnson talk to the driver, asking him to stop near the military prison so she can get some footage of it – he is wary as documentary filmmaking can result in trouble, but relents as they could probably excuse it as a fiction project. He stops the car for the while and we see the shot set up, a rather innocuous look at the prison, though in context the visible armed soldiers are somewhat concerning. The driver then returns and, despite protests from Johnson, begins to drive away – but not before being shouted at to stop by a canny solider. The soldier is then heard approaching and talking to the driver, and the camera is shut off. In the finished documentary, all that would be seen is the few moments of footage directly pointed at the prison, but here we are given a whole new drama, and a slice of Johnson’s own personality – dedicated and ambitious, but not quick to anger or frustration even when interrupted mid-shot. This process is repeated in varying circumstances throughout – in one section in Bosnia an old lady is being pushed to talk about the atrocities caused there by the Serbs, but isn’t budging. Noticing the wall they’d come against, Johnson changes the conversation to the old lady’s fashion, and suddenly her face lights up (and she almost blushes). Again, this shows up Johnson’s sympathy and quick-thinking, and both reveals things about the subject and interviewer. Admittedly, Johnson is unlikely to include much footage that makes her look bad, if it exists, but this is typical of memoirs of all kinds.
But the real power of the film exists beyond its biographical trappings, as it also serves as evidence to the power of documentary filmmaking. Spanning her 25 year career the film takes its audience across the world, to East Africa, France, Bosnia, the US, Yemen, Afghanistan, and so on – and through her lens we see a distillation of all the people she met. We see new life, and death, we see hardship and happiness, a whole spectrum of human behaviour caught in snapshots without their original context. But if anything this might empower the images more so – instead of serving a specific purpose, usually didactic as far as documentaries go, we get to see the clips isolated, and ordered more for personal significance than to make conclusions on their subjects. An example of this style of editing is found especially when Johnson cuts between some of her home-footage, both before and after her mother’s death. Though both of those videos were taken without intent to match them, they are cut together, without narration, to create personal meaning according to Johnson. The editing in general is one of the film’s strongest points, and though the emphasis is on the personal, this too relates to a career punctuated by a focus on more shocking events – a particularly sobering montage in the film cuts between the locations of various atrocities and genocides that Johnson had filmed in, and text on the screen notes the number of deaths that had been inflicted there.
Despite its minimal structure and limited narrative, Cameraperson is a film that manages to tell both many stories of its subjects, but more essentially the story of its creator. Perhaps for the first time the life of someone behind the camera is told while they were still behind it, and there is little better tribute to the career of a cinematographer than to celebrate it with their own images.
Featured Image: Dogwoof Films