Exposing her role behind the camera, Kirsten Johnson reaches into the vast trove of footage she has shot over decades around the world. What emerges is a visually bold memoir and a revelatory interrogation of the power of the camera.
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Isaach De Bankolé,
A boxing match in Brooklyn; life in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina; the daily routine of a Nigerian midwife; an intimate family moment at home: these scenes and others are woven into Cameraperson, a tapestry of footage collected over the twenty-five-year career of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. Through a series of episodic juxtapositions, Johnson explores the relationships between image makers and their subjects, the tension between the objectivity and intervention of the camera, and the complex interaction of unfiltered reality and crafted narrative. A hybrid work that combines documentary, autobiography, and ethical inquiry, Cameraperson is both a moving glimpse into one filmmaker's personal journey and a thoughtful examination of what it means to train a camera on the world.Written by
"Cameraperson" is recent film by veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. It is composed of several different scenes that were filmed by Johnson over her career for various other documentaries all over the world. The images in this film may be familiar to some members of the audience because they were originally filmed for other documentaries. They aren't all final cuts though; many of them are clips of trying to set up the camera or getting the right angle or frame along with clips from the family life of Kirsten Johnson. The first thing that struck me about this film was how captivating it is from the first frame to the last; I could not look away from the screen no matter how opaque the shot might seem at the moment. The first twenty to thirty minutes or so will have most members of the audience, including myself, confused as to what exactly the point of the images we are seeing is. Patience is required in the viewing of this film. Once it clicks, and you'll know when it does, it becomes all the more engaging. This film tells many stories, not chronologically, but nonetheless effectively and perhaps all the more moving. At its core, "Cameraperson" is an autobiography of Kirsten Johnson. But it is also a meditation on human suffering, the wonder of the world around us, the ethics of nonfiction film, the sadly ironic contrast between the beauty of nature and the extent to which it can be defiled by evil, and an examination of the filmmakers own family. We see her in scenes taking place at her New York apartment, home in Colorado Springs, and far away ranch as she interacts with her mother, a victim of Alzheimer's disease, her father and her twin boys. These scenes are surrounded by scenes of shepherds in the Bosnian Mountains, desert plains, city streets, and government black sites. The ethics of documentary filmmaking, as I mentioned earlier, are also examined. Is it more moving to see images of a body that has been torn to shreds after being dragged by a truck, or to see the chain that dragged him being held by the prosecutor as he speaks about the atrocity? This question is answered in one scene, split in to two parts and book-ending several other scenes. In the first scene, we see the lawyer talking about the book of images that they distributed to the jurors to prevent causing further pain by having to show them in trial. The second comes directly after a conversation had with a film professor as he talks about the depiction of violence in nonfiction film and how it ultimately ends up being disrespectful, becoming entertainment. We then jump to a cut of the cover of the book of photos; we no longer want to see what's inside as we did before. Bringing attention to the art of filmmaking is also a theme in the film, particularly in recognizing the technical aspects of filmmaking. Most people don't think much about the cinematographer when they think about a great film. Shots are attributed to the director, but this film brings a special attention to the person behind the camera making all the shots work, and staring directly through the lens of the camera into the eyes of human beings. In film, especially nonfiction film, the cinematographer is responsible for establishing the human connection between the audience and the subject. "Cameraperson" does this especially beautifully because at the end of the film, we are able to see how the experiences and people Johnson has filmed connect her to them, us to them and her to us. This is an autobiography not merely because it is a compilation of the footage that has touched her throughout her extensive career, although it is that, but because she has her own story that is also full of pain, loss, love and life just like those she connects with as a Cameraperson.
"Cameraperson" is directed and photographed by Kirsten Johnson, distributed by Janus Films and released by Criterion. It had its premiere on January 26th at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. It is not rated. I gave it four out of four stars.
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