“These are the images that have marked me,” reads an opening title card from cinematographer Kirsten Johnson’s directorial debut. And Cameraperson is certainly a collection of memorable images, but it’s more so Johnson’s facility with narrative, on a micro and macro level, that impresses. Ostensibly a DP’s scrapbook, Cameraperson is comprised of unused footage from other people’s films, which Johnson herself shot. But that work is in effect repossessed here, which means the film not only transcends its title, but also Johnson’s prescribed role in her images’ creation.
Cameraperson’s stream of isolated moments, stripped of their original context (titles indicate geographical location and some individuals’ names, but don’t identify the films for which the footage was shot), can seem like the “live picture” gimmick Apple hocked at their last keynote. Landscapes, rooms, and faces are briefly animated, but still seem caught in a purgatory somewhere between the still and cinema. The effect causes some frustration: a Nigerian midwife details the complications of a birthing, before a hard cut to black denies us resolution; and an impatient Yemeni official yells, “Get out of the car!,” at a spooked camera crew, just before that sequence’s abrupt end.
Gradually, though, Cameraperson organizes its montage around a personal coherence. More importantly, it maintains the integrity of that associative emotional logic while at the same time tending to, and even heightening, its mini narratives’ progressions. Because Johnson does in fact double back to those earlier story threads, and she keys their eventual climaxes to at least a simulation of the understandings and acceptances she’s arrived at in her work. Consider a feature-length Eisensteinian montage, but one in which the action is also an autobiographical expression of the director’s own thought process. Johnson not only asserts herself as a narrative filmmaker, but also reinvents the language of narrative, specifically in the documentary form.
That’s pretty heady stuff, and while some individual moments in Cameraperson pack substantial emotional pay-offs, other parts can register as more intellectually than viscerally engaging. But by the time the film wends its way to a lengthy denouement that has all the momentum the other stretches occasionally lack, one gets the sense that power and meaning have been accumulated at a pace appropriately representative of the auteur’s own experiences. In this way, the words Johnson speaks to one of her subjects, at the very end, feel like a similarly earned extrapolation of that opening title card: “You are making me cry, even though I don’t understand the language.”