Introduced as a memoir, Cameraperson provides an indirect overview of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s career in the form of outtakes from her many projects. Assembled in almost impressionistic fashion, the footage leaps across time and place, such as a montage of walking that flits through images of parades, a one-legged man, and Johnson tripping as she walks backward through an office, her subject laughing even as he warns her to watch out. The editing also links moments as disparate as a murder trial and a shot through the windshield of a taxi in Yemen. The grounding presence is Johnson, whose status as a cameraperson becomes the film’s thematic core, adopting the perspective the professional observer instead of the person in charge.
Johnson’s footage is especially compelling because of the nature of her work, which has taken her to war zones and other global hotspots. Though the film lacks actual instances of battle, it’s infused with the tension of buildup and aftermath. Among the most memorable images are shots of a battle-scarred Sarajevo, with Johnson’s camera trained on the pockmarked façades of bullet-ridden buildings, or a huge cemetery filled with the victims of the city’s siege. In Afghanistan, Johnson, embedded with a local security patrol, receives watermelon freshly cut by an officer in a cheerful moment before the patrol receives an assignment and immediately crowds into trucks for deployment.
Johnson uses Cameraperson to tacitly explore ethical questions raised by her work, specifically in the propriety of telling the stories of the traumatized on their behalf. Early in the film, we see an old clip of Jacques Derrida walking in the street and warning a tracking Johnson that she’s about to trip, wryly noting that, as the cameraperson, “she sees everything around her and she’s totally blind,” comparing her blinkered observation to the philosopher who falls through an open manhole while gazing too fixedly at the stars. That statement forms the thesis of Cameraperson, challenging Johnson to find ways to capture the fuller range of the many subjects that she’s photographed to express a more complex reality beyond political ideology.
For all the scenes of war zones and harsh regions, the film also includes as many images of domestic life, cultural expression, and simple clowning that suggest just how much more there is to see of the places Johnson has documented. She lays out the arc of her own life through her career, but she also weighs the moral value of those images, suggesting that the work of a cinematographer is every bit as ethically oriented as that of a director.
Sourced from footage taken by various film and HD cameras, Cameraperson features images that are inevitably inconsistent in their quality. Judging the accuracy of the disc can be difficult given the wide range in film grain and video compression on display, but whatever issues exist can be traced to the source materials. For the most part, the transfer looks splendid, as much of the 35mm and high-quality video images are rich in detail and stable in their shifts in color balance. The film's sound comes from direct sound recordings that similarly oscillate in clarity, but the mix stabilizes the more erratic sounds, from wind gusts to blowouts from fuzzy microphones, ensuring that dialogue and ambient noise remain clear throughout.
Excerpts from two film festival talks with Kirsten Johnson, including one between her and Michael Moore (whose Fahrenheit 9/11 was shot by Johnson), are frank, self-questioning looks into Cameraperson's themes, while a roundtable with the director and some collaborators speaks more to the direct challenges of shooting harrowing stories. Another featurette looks at the editing of the film and the narrative and thematic threads that Johnson created in the cutting room. Also included here is Johnson's 2015 short film The Above. Finally, a booklet lists the various films used as sources for footage, as well as a statement from the director and an essay by Michael Almereyda that examines the film's philosophical bent.
Kirsten Johnson’s elliptical, ruminative documentary was one of the highlights of a strong year for nonfiction, and Criterion’s home-video release provides the film with the swift canonization it deserves.