Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Opens September 9 at IFC Center
“I know you are but what am I?”
Ingeniously assembled and dense with points of interest, Kirsten Johnson’s debut feature is nothing if not resourceful: the award-winning cinematographer fashioned her film from cast-off footage she shot for over a dozen documentaries including Citizenfour, Very Semi-Serious, Fahrenheit 9/11, and Derrida. But Cameraperson is also approximately a dozen other things: an expert compilation movie, a manual on documentary technique, a meditation on documentary ethics, a celebration of female camaraderie, and a hit-after-hit close-up record of a great cinematographer at work, at the height of her empathic powers.
What, again, is Cameraperson? It begins like a pleasant assortment of picturesque moments, tagging along with a globe-trotting cinematographer as she chats with a shepherd and dodges sheep, or catches a glimpse of pretty flowers by an innocent-looking white house, or—in a perfectly played opening joke/koan—takes one perfect shot of a lightning strike and includes her own accidental divine intervention. On a basic level, it’s a travelogue of an in-demand cinematographer, spanning mesmerizing African dances, Penn State football rallies, shattering sit-downs with anonymous visitors to clinics, and more. To this view, the personal element enters explicitly with shots of Johnson’s growing children or her Alzheimer’s afflicted, beautifully weathered mother; political views, too, seep in through montage and otherwise, as in the side-by-side visual listing of Guantanamo Bay and a pool used for Taliban executions.
Yet in these many encounters, the truly personal presence comes through in Johnson’s palpable empathy and ability to suss out the expressive. Truth be told—and that’s part of what the film meditates upon—this film could very easily be a scattered grab-bag in hands other than Johnson’s and editor Nels Bangerter (the man behind the riveting Let the Fire Burn). But Johnson’s technical skill—combined with behind-the-scenes moments when she is figuring out whether to include haze in a shot, or how to snag a shot of a prison for Laura Poitras, or to capture an American soldier’s eye line talking to Michael Moore—creates a virtual study of filmmaking and its specific challenges and decisions. With a Wiseman-esque knack for appropriation, Johnson lets shots she created for other filmmakers become her own commentary, as when a war-crimes investigator and field producer muse on the toll exacted by chronicling the trauma of others.
Documentary has its musers like Ross McElwee and others who reflect in voiceover, but Cameraperson gives itself over to the found-footage approach, using the chance audio of Johnson bantering with subjects (or muttering “oh, jeez” when she notices a Bosnian baby dangerously close to an ax). Like the best verité footage, this intimacy feels spontaneous and unfiltered, though of course, like everything in this and other films, it’s selected; yet there are few such personal films that make one so aware of the human presence behind every shot you view. Indeed, one of the warmest feelings one gets from the film is of the verbal exchanges between Johnson and her director or her subjects, of the emotional energy and infectious curiosity that goes into making the orphaned-seemed images we watch in a finished film.
So often reviews can rotely write of a director as the sole auteur of the film, but Johnson’s reappropriations here underline the pair of eyes looking through the camera, thinking and feeling and making, too. “A film by Kirsten Johnson” reads the directorial credit, threaded together from the many films she has shot with others, an inheritor, in a new nonfiction era, to the sociocultural diaries of Mekas or the plenitudes of Warren Sonbert in Carriage Trade. One might as well say “A film with Kirsten Johnson” as we feel and perceive the artist and her art with fresh awareness.