Cameraperson (2016)

Directed by Kirsten Johnson

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Cameraperson is presented as Kirsten Johnson’s memoir.  She has been a documentary camera operator and cinematographer for over 25 years, and the clips that make up this documentary are assembled from what she has shot for other movies over that career. Each vignette, some of which we return to and some of which we don’t, is quietly introduced with a title card and little else.  The context is either unimportant or easy to understand.  In one moment we are with Kirsten and her camera in a field watching a lightning strike, and in the next we are outside of the prison that houses Al-Qaeda members.

There is a lot of material about Johnson’s own family, both about her twins and her mother’s Alzheimer’s, but for the most part the story here is about what Johnson has seen in her career and how she goes about interacting with it.  To be a documentarian, your responsibility is to observe, not interfere.  There is a bit of a moral dilemma here if what you’re observing requires some kind of intervention.  It’s like the famous photograph of a starving child with a vulture in the background…

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That photo was taken in 1993 by photographer Kevin Carter, and he said, “this is my most successful image after ten years of taking pictures, but I do not hang it on my wall.  I hate it.”  In 1994, Carter committed suicide, and a portion of his suicide note read, “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”

What Johnson shows in this movie is a wide variety of moments that include real pain and mortality as well as relatively smaller moments, such as an angry boxer who feels his loss was unjust.  After what we’ve seen throughout the film, this moment feels inconsequential, and yet he’s one of the most emotive characters we see.  It’s an amazing shot too.  Johnson, behind the camera, is at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.  She’s looking up at the big screen to get a better vantage point of the boxing match which is hard to see from where she stands.  A man is crowned victor, and the other jumps around the ring, completely furious.  He then hops out of the ring, and we hear Johnson or her sound operator say, “he’s coming this way,” as if they’re at the running of the bulls. You expect them to retreat, and at first they do, but then the camera remains on the guy’s face, following him through the tunnel and into the locker room.  The camera holds there while he screams offscreen, but then he comes back out, and the camera moves with him once again.

As someone who generally avoids confrontation, I was very nervous for Johnson.  I kept waiting for the guy to yell profanities at her or push the camera aside, but he never did.  Though we see him look at Johnson and her camera, it was as if she was invisible.  As a documentarian, her inclination is to keep the camera rolling as long as possible, and it provides for an amazing moment.

In another scene, Johnson films her friend, a fellow documentarian, as she talks about her what her mother left behind following her suicide.  The friend becomes more distressed as she looks through the items, and it culminates in her throwing everything across the messy room, screaming at her deceased mother.  She then hides behind the bed, admitting that she doesn’t want to be seen this way, but of course Johnson moves to get a better look at her.  The tension is, thankfully, disarmed when snow falls off the roof in a loud moment, giving them something to briefly smile about.

So throughout the film there is pain, things you or I would look away from, but Johnson’s duty is always to move in for a closer look.  She watches from afar while two kids play with an axe.  When the older of the two is distracted by something else, the younger (no more than two years old if that) is left to tinker with the axe.  You can hear Johnson expression fear behind the camera that he will seriously hurt himself.  Maybe if he got close enough to injure himself she would jump in, but she doesn’t have to.  The kid, like the first one, is distracted by something else and runs off.

In another scene, we follow a midwife in an African country as she silently, calmly cares for a newborn.  There is nothing special about the moment at first, mostly because we’ve seen this midwife earlier in the film, and this person is so calm, like everything is as it should be.  But then you notice that the baby is not moving, it’s eyes glazed open like a doll.  The midwife holds the baby up, hitting its back so that he starts breathing and crying.  The midwife is simply doing her duty, and it’s Johnson who expresses all relief at the baby’s good fortune.

So Johnson is an observer, because that’s what documentarian’s do.  There might be the question of how this influences the way she lives her life.  When others are in pain, is her first instinct to observe or to jump into action?  Or maybe you don’t ask that question, but we get an idea of her family life and where she comes from.

First we meet her mother, and we’re told with a small graphic that her mother as Alzheimer’s.  The video shows her inspecting her home, as if being put through a series of drills to help jog her memory.  Later we will see the urn which holds her mother’s ashes, and it’s shocking to see her date of death listed as June 3, 2007.  That was the first time it hit me how far apart these moments are because at first they all feel so immediate.

We return to Johnson’s mother later on, after we know that she has passed.  I’m not sure if this changed my impression of her mother or her mother’s disease, but it seems like the idea is to deconstruct how you see her mother with added context.  Maybe you’re made uncomfortable by the exploitative nature of someone documenting a family member’s struggle, or maybe it didn’t bother you at all.  Perhaps the added context that we are seeing this footage after that family member’s death makes you more at ease with her decision to put it in this movie.

Again, I’m not even sure how I felt about some of this, but it was all so fascinating.  The documentary is about Johnson’s relationship with her career and, to a larger degree, her life.  But it forces us to re-evaluate how we look at the world around us.  As I mentioned before, several scenes made me uncomfortable, even voyeuristic, and the film wants you to feel this way it seems.

For so many people, myself included, it is easier to look away, but it’s Johnson’s job not to, and perhaps we should learn to look more clearly as well.  At the same time, there are several moments in Cameraperson that show Johnson altering the scene we see on camera.  She picks a couple weeds out of the ground that interfere with a shot, or she collaborates with Michael Moore to construct a shot so that the U.S. Capital is perfectly framed in the background of an interview with a soldier.  Even if these are documentaries, meant to capture real stories and real moments, there is a degree of manipulation going on.  Yet this documentary shows many of these moments to make it clear that this is real.  We see and hear Johnson’s reactions to certain moments, and she makes herself a character in the film kind of like Louis Malle in his documentaries but much less so than someone like Michael Moore who usually comes off as the protagonist of his documentaries.

There is fact and fiction, and documentaries are somewhere in the middle.  Even if they can be manipulated, though, I’d guess that Johnson wants us to know that such dramatization only occurs to better tell the real story.  We are surrounded by entertainment, after all, and sometimes you need a hook to bring us in.

The film ends with Johnson and a translator returning to a Bosnian village she had visited years earlier.  She brings with her footage from her last visit and lets the people watch themselves on a small screen, much to their delight.  She explains to them that she was there to record interviews about heavy topics like genocide and sexual violence, but she explains that their spirit gave her a breath of fresh air.  She thanks them, through the translator, for giving her that gift.

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