The boundaries of documentary films have been expanded this past year. Alongside expansive, televised epics like O.J.: Made in America and animated/reenacted thrillers like Tower, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is an ambitious, unique contribution to the genre. Having been a cinematographer behind the camera of numerous acclaimed documentary films (Citizenfour, The Invisible War, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, Fahrenheit 9/11), Johnson stitches together 25 years of leftover footage–the scraps of the film–into a cinematic quilt. Images juxtaposed against one another draw out themes about the human condition, life and death, and bearing witness to it all through a camera lens. There isn’t a narrative here, per se; this is the essay film at its finest, a personalized meandering through ideas and stories, at once autobiographical and universal.
The ethical questions Johnson appears to be asking revolve around her role as a cinematographer. She visits war-torn places like Bosnia, Liberia, Darfur; she films the victims of horrible crimes and records the emotional aftermath through her lens. At one point, in perhaps the most tense and suspenseful filmic moment of 2016, she films two young Bosnian boys playing in their yard with a hatchet. The littlest one, merely a toddler, attempts to pick up the axe, but it’s his older brother who detaches it from the log where it rests. Slamming the axe repeatedly into the log, not noticing his little brother reaching his hand for the tool–it raised my blood pressure. One can hear Johnson’s whispers and gasps as the boy turns the axe around, still raising it dangerously close to his head and his brother’s body, the blade flying carelessly through the air. Does she say intervene? Should she call attention to the parents? Should her camera stay on or be turned off? It raises the question of responsibility, of voyeurism, of the significance of bearing witness to people’s lives.
While other films try to hide their equipment or presence behind the camera, Cameraperson makes it very clear that this is a film in production, crafted with intentionality and hard work. Whether it’s Johnson pulling up grass and weeds out of the frame of a shot in order to get a clearer view; Johnson discussing the various shots she’s getting of a town and whether the presence of people in the shot adds or detracts from its value for the production; Johnson asking a taxi driver to park outside a Middle Eastern prison surrounded by suspicious armed guards, filming without permission as the guards demand that they get out of the car: Cameraperson celebrates the process, the pursuit, the work. Often we can forget just how much footage was left on an editing room floor (or, these days, on a hard drive). Cameraperson draws our attention to these marginalized-yet-momentous images, the beauty of the ordinary, a meditation on the spirit permeating our world.
If there was a larger thread in the midst of this tapestry, it’d be the theme of death with dignity. Johnson devotes time to images of her mother, a beloved woman who suffered from Alzheimer’s and who passed away in 2007. There are interviews with people who have lost loved ones to war or violence, moments filled with tears and heartache. At one point, Johnson’s children find a dead bird on the ground outside her childhood home in Washington. She films as her father and the kids decide what to do about the deceased creature–bury it, toss it away, leave it be, etc. Set next to the images of her mother, a baby born in Nigeria, a hate crime case in Texas, and the site of a mass grave due to genocide in Bosnia, this shot of a dead bird highlights the delicacy of death and the fragile sacredness of life. We bear witness to others every single day, human beings with stories and souls, and often miss the significance of the moments. Cameraperson invites the viewer to be present, with both loved ones and those around us, to look closer and listen well, because there’s truth and beauty to be found for those with ears to hear and eyes to see.
IMDB Listing: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5375040/