One person’s trash, is another’s treasure. Over the last 20-odd years, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has amassed an impressive collection of extra footage from her various projects–sports dramas, family portraits, intimate interviews. With Cameraperson, these unrelated narratives are threaded together, creating an emotive collage of sight and sound.
Many documentaries–save for the Michael Moore variety–focus on having documentarians blend into the background, where camera lens become the spectator’s eyes. By minimizing the gap between film and reality, the hope is for a more immediate and direct connection between subject and audience. But it’s never quite reality. As long as people create, shoot, and edit these stories, there is always a level of abstraction.
Cameraperson is about these ideas. The film’s various scenes are expertly composed, proving Johnson’s competence, but also acting as a best-of reel for budding documentarians. There’s a particularly tense scene halfway through the film when Johnson is filming two little boys playing around outside. They start fooling around with an axe, unaware of its potential lethality, and the camera never stops rolling. Johnson never interrupts.
Then, across the world, Johnson is following a boxer after a devastating loss. He’s frustrated and angry, thrashing objects around, and yet Johnson follows him diligently, camera glued to his every expression. This unwavering dedication, a commitment to becoming the camera, to becoming a vessel, is fascinating to observe and illuminating to study.
It’s a beautifully assembled collection, each thread is allowed to develop, without the usual context and narration, a documentary in its truest form. There’s a particularly effective moment, as an unnamed young woman is overcome with guilt and doubt as she debates over whether to get an abortion or not. Only her hands are in frame, as they fidget and pick. There is no more of her before or after the scene, she’s not fit into a topic or a message. Her moment is allowed to breathe and stand on its own.
And yet, Cameraperson paradoxically, and quite brilliantly, does much to undo and re-contextualize these scenes of purity and precision. Take the two little boys from earlier. The camera never stops, but during the scene, Johnson can be heard audibly gasping and holding her breath. These little behind-the-scenes actions function to capture the invisible humanity behind the documentary genre that often feels dry and clinical.
Another demonstration is in the editing work. Without a set order of narration, how Johnson plays around with the scenes and its placement, become the flow and narration of things. Sometimes emotional highs follow each other, while other times sharp juxtapositions serve to jolt the spectator–a reminder that these connections are artificial.
Cameraperson succeeds because it’s able to capture the duality and struggle that defines documentary work. There is the camera, the objective tool that offers spectators a glimpse at somewhere else, something else. Johnson’s ability to capture key moments, to stay shooting, to follow the right subjects, makes the camera a delight to observe. But as she exhibits the usefulness of the camera, Johnson also demonstrates the necessity of the person. Johnson, in her commitment to staying hidden, becomes the star. Cameraperson, in its incisive loyalty to the camera, reveals itself to be humanistic. And as the film plays out as an entertaining exhibition of powerful documentary, it unravels itself–and its own genre. Not bad for leftovers.