A dazzling example of storytelling in its purest form.
Cameraperson (ND/NF Review)
In a 2004 interview with The Guardian, filmmaker and film historian Peter Bogdanovich recounted a conversation he once had with Golden Age Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart. In the conversation, Stewart, while speaking about making movies, said, “… then what you’re doing is, you’re giving people little … tiny … pieces, of time … that they never forget.” It’s a great quote that has stuck with me since I first read it, and I was reminded of it while watching the excellent new documentary Cameraperson.
The film comes from director Kirsten Johnson, who has been a cinematographer on more than 40 documentaries since 2001. The pieces of time she presents are truly pieces of time from her life: dozens and dozens of cinematic moments she has shot over the years. But these are not solely excerpts from the films she’s worked on; these are clips of when she rolled film to test lighting, scout locations, discuss shots with her directors, experiment with camera angles, and even just footage of her own family she shot at home, too. Assembled in no chronological order, there are no mentions of the original films the clips are associated with. It’s an effective tactic, as it takes the focus away from “Look where this scene is from,” and moves it to, “Look at this scene.” Johnson presents the clips only with title cards to indicate the geography of the moment, and what geography it covers, globetrotting from Bosnia to Brooklyn, Gitmo to Nodaway County, MO, and everywhere around and between.
At first, the presentation seems so random. There’s an early scene of a boxer in his Brooklyn locker room, preparing for a big fight. In the next scene, a midwife aids in the delivery of twins in Nigeria. These two worlds could not be further apart geographically or thematically, and yet they aren’t necessarily ripe for direct contrast, either. Johnson leaves those scenes where they are and moves onto others, and then patterns start to emerge.
Men in Herat, Afghanistan are connected to a troupe of young ballerinas in Colorado Springs, CO, who are both connected to Johnson’s own family in Beaux Arts, WA, all by a theme of religion. This segues into the theme of how death is approached by connecting another documentarian, a spokesperson for the Syrian Film Collective, and the prosecutors of a murder trial in Jasper, TX. Many other patterns take shape in this manner as the film progresses.
The scope of it all is what’s so amazing about Cameraperson: how themes of life, death, faith, crime, childhood, parenthood, government, joy, and sorrow intersect, overlap, and intertwine across time and around the globe.
This film isn’t the work of a director who has an idea for a documentary and decides to gather new footage or mine soundbites to make what they want. This isn’t someone, for example, who wants to showcase the looming specter of governmental distrust, and in doing so shoots scenes at Guantanamo Bay, adds a Washington, DC interview between a documentarian and a Marine willing to go to jail to avoid a second tour of duty in the Middle East, and caps it off with a shot of a mysterious thumb drive being entombed in fresh cement at an undisclosed location. This is a filmmaker who shot scenes at Gitmo in 2010 for one story (Laura Poitras’ The Oath), in DC in 2004 for another (Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), and at an undisclosed location in 2014 for a third (Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour). Johnson then combines her pinpoint eye for filmmaking with her broad eye for history to illustrate how the more things change, the more they stay the same. It’s breathtaking in both ambition and execution.
Edited with great skill by Nels Bangerter (whose work on Jason Osder’s Let the Fire Burn is must-see), Cameraperson has such a great variety of entries that everyone will surely have a favorite subject, even when that subject is taken on its own merits and not looked at as part of the greater whole. My favorite? Two, actually: the boxer and the midwife from the start of the picture. How Johnson concludes their individual stories is supercharged with raw, genuine emotion. How she connects the two tales is visionary.
Cameraperson is a dazzling example of storytelling in its purest form—being observed, not told—and every little piece of time she gives us is time well spent.
Cameraperson screens as part of New Directors/New Films in New York City. To learn more about the festival or buy tickets, visit www.newdirectors.org.