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The job of a cinematographer might not be one many are familiar with, even if they have heard the term. In charge of selecting the camera, film stock, filters and more to help bring the director’s vision to the screen, they often are responsible for making artistic and creative decisions. While most don’t know the names of even the most celebrated cinematographers, they are instrumental in the filmmaking process. With Cameraperson, we see the world through one such artist, Kristen Johnson, a documentary cinematographer perhaps best known for Darfur Now (2007) and The Invisible War (2012). She compiles what seems a random collection of moments that narratively are disconnected but together are a breathtaking emotional experience.
It begins with a short bit of text that informs the viewer of who Johnston is and what she’s been doing for the last 25 years before jumping straight into the journey, a massive collection of moments from around the world illustrating the great diversity of culture and tradition, beliefs and history, never greatly explaining what we are seeing only immersing us directly into them. We are given only a location and sometimes provided a short summary of the person or people we are seeing and then dropped directly into their story, however briefly, and left to feel whatever they elicit.
From a Nigerian midwife delivering babies in a hospital ill-equipped to handle those who need special care to a criminal court proceeding with investigators detailing the atrocities fell upon James Byrd Jr. to farmers in Kosovo to the first game after the Penn State sex scandal to her own mother dealing with Alzheimers visiting their family cabin to so much more, we are swept up in a patchwork of human events that paint a wide spectrum of what it means to be inhibitors of this planet.
What makes the film so profound is the extreme intimacy of the project. With clips seldom lasting more than a minute or two, and sometimes shorter, the effect is both jarring and yet somehow all the more engaging, as if we are thumbing through a photographic journalism magazine with whim, peering into the captured moments of the hidden horror, joy, power and weakness of the world we live in. Often in silence, she travels us through the death sites of a number of well-publicized executions and terror attacks, to the people who affected by scandal, corruption, poverty, and injustice while showcasing the people who stand up to it all, fighters and investigators, survivors and champions, men and women, boys and girls with impossible courage, witness to things that deeply changed them.
And yet, there is great joy in the film as well, a celebration of ourselves in the smaller hopes of people living their lives wherever they are. From a rickety Ferris Wheel in the hills of Afghanistan to women chopping down a tree in Darfur for firewood, to a woman dealing with her mother’s suicide who undergoes a traumatic transformation on camera, there is majesty in their presence as people take what is given and find happiness in their lot, even if there is strife all around them. No matter the disjointed presentation, there is none that doesn’t compel and leave you stuck by the spirit of those who pass in front of her camera.
Cameraperson is a unique and challenging film that is filled with great truths, sometimes uncomfortable, sometimes harrowing, sometimes inspiring, and always engaging. It is a stripped down look that reveals we as a species and her as human (she allows herself to be heard as she asks questions and even sneezes). Perhaps we are meant to asks questions, though to whom and for what reason are left to ourselves to figure out. No matter what it draws out from the viewer, it’s impossible not to be moved by it. We are an amazing people, housed with terrible potential and unlimited morality. Cameraperson exposes us to the heroism and horrors of it all in an affecting film that is truly an accomplishment of staggering power.
Movie description: Cameraperson is a 2016 documentary that highlights more than two decades of unused footage by a documentary cinematographer, spliced together to serve as one woman's photographic memoir.
Director(s): Kirsten Johnson
Actor(s): Kirsten Johnson