In one way, Cameraperson is a nearly two-hour longer trailer for all of Kirsten Johnson’s documentaries.
Critics hold the film high for its selection of particularly jarring and emotional moments from Johnson’s encompassing and revealing career. It touches on the boundaries of ethical cameraperson behavior and how far in front of a camera a cameraperson should go. But if you’re unfamiliar with Johnson’s work, it is different things to different viewers. On one hand, it is a documentary on war crimes. Not just this, but a documentary not intending to show war crimes, but to demonstrate the sheer frequency of them. As a political statement, this exposure is stunning and rare, but important. On the other hand, this is a documentary of Johnson’s life as a cameraperson. This review attempts to explore the film as a stand-alone art piece; a study in dense collage.
Many art critics speak about the “fantasy” of art. Many artists cite art as the opportunity to escape from real life. But as Johnson works in non-fiction, it takes a certain gut to regard it as art, as nothing more than escapism. But Johnson, as a cameraperson, is forced to make artistic decisions. The fact is there because Johnson openly speaks in the film about setting up shots, her appreciation for a certain light, a mood, even a sound. This attention to beauty is challenging because the subject matters Johnson documents are often by no measure “beautiful”. They are heartbreaking; they are controversial.
In Cameraperson, you must work to shape the story, if you want to. You may be more interested in letting it happen as you see fit. Though the segments are brief, know that Johnson was aware of her selections, their arrangement, their lasting moments. In the most unexpected way, she offers normalcy in Cameraperson. She captures a sense of being normal in, to the western eye, unusual places, often in the aftermath of unusual events. It was first noted when she filmed outside of a prison in the Middle East. Just people, a streetscape, parked cars. This is B-roll work, unlikely to ever make it into a documentary in its full form. And it was improbable, especially as the scene was focusing on the trouble she was having actually shooting the prison. Suddenly, it becomes clear the problem and blessing of Cameraperson. You want to enjoy a moment of scenery, a moment of a normal point of view (Johnson almost always shoots at human height with a lens often mirroring that of the human eye), and you want to ignore Johnson. In the prison shoot, it seems as though she is actually setting up the shot. And you hear her setting up shots often through the film. But then she cuts it just as you were getting into the moment, which reveals that visual satisfaction may have never been high on the agenda. Or Johnson isn’t actually that committed to normalcy. The latter seems unlikely. She documents a normal day for everyone involved, but that ‘normal’ varies widely from place to place. A normal day for a Bosnian Muslim family, a normal day for her mother, suffering from alzheimer’s. A nurse in Nigeria, a lawyer in Texas. The normalcy study introduces elements of privilege, environment, and more. By showing a football game then the next shot being in Africa, the viewer is forced to consider this reality, but Johnson makes it all seem normal, and that reality is only as good as one knows it to be.
In a tidy closing, Cameraperson is trying to tell a serious story amid curated observations while exploring the technicality of being a cameraperson. A cameraperson makes a scene by tightening it up the best she can. Critics may call foul for Johnson’s dramatic way of setting up shots, as if to make situations seem more severe than they are. Her response is twofold. One, setting up a shot to capture as many interesting subjects is not necessarily disingenuous, as it is happening from at least one point of view. Second, she allows moments of reflection, with no dramatic shot needed, just the still reminder of things in the past, in this case, captured by shooting near-still shots of sites of past crimes. Some have regarded documentary as an assault on authenticity, which is a selfish argument to begin with. To address the question of what a cameraperson is to do, Johnson sits back during a post-wrestling match bout of frustration. She does not follow the character the entire time. She lets private space be private space. Elaborating on this, when with the lawyers in Texas dealing with the Byrd case, she never peaks into a booklet of gruesome images. She lets the lawyers show what they wish. But Johnson feels compelled to do something at a Nigerian hospital. She gets involved as a child is suffering from a lack of oxygen. Johnson might have included that deliberately for the sake of documentary (not art).
From an antirealist point of view, Johnson’s work seems to contrarily fit comfortably in the lens of Walter Benjamin’s assessment of Brecht’s ‘epic theater’, which leaves audiences astonished rather than ever identifying with characters. But the work is visually poetic; notably her mother is of a different time, a different space entirely, a spareness that leaves the viewer grasping for anything they can. The work is often warm and natural with an interspersed appreciation of the built world. Not to mention normalcy again, but Johnson’s examination of visual plainness is striking, calling to mind fleeting reminders of a Klimt in motion, an American Gothic work. The artist of American Gothic, Grant Wood, had a use of muted tones and serious faces which appear often in Johnson’s Cameraperson. Perhaps people around the world haven’t got much to smile about. She faces her subjects with honesty, she allows them to control things. She often lingers just a little too long, as Wood seemed to have done with American Gothic, but those lingering moments are the most authentic. American Gothic feels as if it would speak more than one language. Cameraperson actually does. But it is at once the language of status quo, the moments not thought about, the moments that dominate a very dense world.
We also stopped by a small reception after the screening at the residence of Abigail Disney, a producer on the film. Guests enjoyed snacks and drinks and chatted with IFC executives and director Kirsten Johnson.