Directed by: Kirsten Johnson.
Cameraperson is an odd documentary. It is directed by Kristen Johnson, who has worked as a cinematographer on documentaries for well over a decade now – working with directors like Laura Poitras, Michael Moore, Kirby Dick among many others. Cameraperson could be described as being a movie of outtakes of those documentaries – presented with context, identified only by the location in which they were shot, not the films the footage was shot for. Sometimes it’s very obvious – anyone can pick out shots from Fahrenheit 9/11 for example, with Moore himself in the shot – and sometimes you’d be hard pressed to figure it out, even if you know the documentary it was shot for. Johnson has described the film as a visual memoir – and there is footage that she shot of her own children, her father, and her mother, with Alzheimer’s – which do provide some sort of context for the movie, and provide a degree of structure. Other sequences, I have no clue why Johnson felt the need to include the shot. The film has become one of the critically acclaimed docs of 2016, and while I don’t love the film that much, it is a fascinating film in its own right.
One of the aspects of Cameraperson I enjoyed the most are the genuine moments of surprise that come out – that we can hear Johnson behind the camera either delighted or horrified, or just surprised by what happens in front of her camera. We’re used to that from amateurs shooting YouTube videos, but it’s striking when it happens in professional work – work that has been perfectly framed, and then something unexpected happens. It can be amusing when it’s something like a lightning strike she had no idea was going to happen – or when she sneezes. It can be horrifying, when she sees something dangerous a kid is doing in front of camera (she does not, telling, stop it). Another part of this, is that Johnson certainly doesn’t hide how much of what makes it into documentaries is staged – not in a way that is trying to fool the audience, or impart untrue information – but simply for the sake of the shot itself. We see her clean the camera lens for instance, or adjust objects in the room to make the shot more balances, or removing things she doesn’t like the look of. Documentaries are often criticized for having the same, boring visual look – what Cameraperson shows is how much thought goes into the visual look of at least certain films. As a behind the scenes look at what goes into making a documentary, Cameraperson is fascinating.
I didn’t love everything about it. There are times when I had no idea why Johnson felts the need to include certain clips – and it takes probably a good thirty minutes to get into the rhythm of the film. Gradually, you do start to see what Johnson is up to – it started to come together for me when she started to include family of her own family, which ends up providing at some reason why the rest of the clips are included – and make them seem more personal and painful.
Cameraperson has no narration – it provides no hand holding for the audience, and doesn’t walk you through what to make of it. I appreciate this style – even while at the same time, I think a little hand holding may have been helpful. I’m usually not a fan of montage docs – not much anyway, as they often feel rudderless, structureless and unfocused. Cameraperson drifts at times, and repeats itself. It doesn’t strike me as the masterpiece others seem to see. But, for those interested in documentary films – how they’re made, and the ethics behind them – it’s still a must see, even if I have to admit it’s not really a film for me.