VOD Review: Cameraperson

Kirsten Johnson (left) in "Cameraperson" Credit: Lynsey Addario / Janus Films
Kirsten Johnson (right) in “Cameraperson” Credit: Lynsey Addario / Janus Films

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

The title “I Am a Camera” refers to John Van Druten’s critically acclaimed 1951 Broadway play. Yet this title is also an apt summation of Kirsten Johnson’s cinematic memoir documentary, Cameraperson.

Over a twenty-five-year career, Johnson has been the cinematographer for such standout documentaries as Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour, Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s The Invisible War, and Gini Reticker’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Johnson and her camera have traveled to the ends of the earth and, it seems, every place in between. Cameraperson mixes Johnson’s found footage from over 30 films with scenes shot from her own life, training her camera on such subjects as her mother — suffering from Alzheimer’s — and her twin toddlers.

The film is a non-linear whirling dervish, herding the audience from Bosnia to Brooklyn, from Afghanistan to Texas, from Nigeria to Alabama. While there’s no frame of reference as to the date, or the specific movie that the footage comes from, each subsequent destination is announced via an onscreen title card. Sometimes the segueways are purposeful, even ironic; other times, the transitions are merely a jump from hither to yon.

As Cameraperson unreels, many of the locales repeat — and as they do so, gleanings of particular stories come into view. Such as the portrait of a Muslim family who had returned to Bosnia, or the Nigerian midwife who attempts to save the life of a newborn in distress. Or the Afghan teenage boy who lost his eye and his brother in a bomb blast.

"Cameraperson" Janus Films
“Cameraperson” / Janus Films

With the exception of a single shot of Johnson near the end of the film, she stays hidden behind the camera. However, we hear her throughout, from her off-screen gasps, murmurs and sneezes to actual conversations with her subjects. Such as when she attempts to verbally comfort a distraught young woman who’s agonizing over having an abortion. This scene is all the more compelling due to the fact that the woman won’t allow her face to be filmed; we hear her cries, we hear her words, but the film only reveals her hands picking nervously at the threads of her jeans. In this instance, we get two disembodied voices: that of the young woman’s as well as Johnson’s. The effect is fascinating.

In an interview with Film Comment last March, Johnson reflected on breaking the silence behind the camera: “There is a real thing about when you can talk. Sometimes you transgress, like that moment where I ask the older woman in Bosnia, has she always been such a great dresser—I couldn’t bear anymore the fact that we were asking her all these questions about the horror [of war crimes]. Sometimes that happens, where I know we have the material that’s needed for the film and I see where we’re taking the person, and I just can’t restrain myself. It’s not appropriate, but sometimes I’ll feel like we’re riding some train too hard, and I’ll just be like: ‘Can’t we just go sideways with it?’ And I’ll throw a monkey wrench into things.”

The title of Cameraperson is subtle, yet it speaks worlds as it breaks the assumption that the DP is male. (Which hearkens to the fact that the reference to “Doctor,” even at this late date, often brings to mind a male practitioner – even though the first American woman earned her medical degree in 1849.) Given Johnson’s 25 years of award-winning work, she doesn’t have to remind us that she’s breaking the mold. She demonstrates it first hand: It’s the talent; not the gender. However, as Johnson stated in a recent interview, “And speaking of my field of work, there are too few women cinematographers. Almost on a daily basis I’m mistakenly called a cameraman.”

(Surprisingly, no one in Cameraperson reacts to the fact that they’re being photographed by a woman. No one: not the men living in third world countries, nor the denizens of remote Bosnian villages; not even the macho fighters hanging around the hallowed backstage area of a Brooklyn fighting arena. Is Johnson invisible? Or was it the fact that those expected reactions, so unnecessary to the work, were simply edited out?)

Kirsten Johnson, "Cameraperson" / Janus Films
Kirsten Johnson, “Cameraperson” / Janus Films

All told, as fascinating as the movie’s visuals can be, the lack of story frustrates. Cameraperson unwittingly teases us into thinking we’ll learn more, especially when Johnson spends a substantial amount of time interviewing a subject, or filming a location. But at the end of the film, we still won’t know what happened to that oxygen-deprived infant, or the stylish old woman, or the laughing ladies attempting to cut down a tree.

And it is this frustration that serves as an untoward reminder that above all else, the audience hungers for a story. The refrain of “What happens next?” might as well be a universal anthem.

We’ll just have to wait for Johnson’s next film to get that story. In the meantime, Cameraperson presents a searing, cinematic globetrot that unflinchingly looks at the vestiges of war, poverty and abuse – yet manages to offset the despair with sparks of beauty, humor and kindness. It is the human condition both at its worst … and at its best.


Rating on a scale of 5 entreaties to “lens me your ears”: 4

Release date: January, 2017 (VOD, multiple platforms including Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google)
Directed and Filmed by: Kirsten Johnson
Edited by: Nels Bangerter
Running Time: 102 minutes

Here’s the trailer for Cameraperson:

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