Sundance Film Review: ‘Cameraperson’

Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson delivers a uniquely insightful memoir-cum-critical-treatise on the nature and ethics of her craft.

New Frontiers Lineup Sundance Film Festival
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

A nonfiction collage that plumbs the complicated relationship between filmmaker and subject, “Cameraperson” finds cinematographer Kirsten Johnson assembling snippets from her past works in order to evoke an assortment of intricate, uneasily resolved questions. The person behind the camera for “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Darfur Now” and “Citizenfour” (among many others), Johnson has made a decades-long career out of traveling the globe for stories that uncover hidden truths — a modus operandi reflected in her backward gaze, seeking the larger threads uniting the images and moments that continue to affect her. Without narration or a conventional storyline, it’s a uniquely insightful memoir-cum-critical-treatise that, after its Sundance premiere, should garner substantial attention from the documentary crowd.

Aside from opening text that explains the diary-like nature of the project, “Cameraperson” offers little overt context regarding its intentions, instead diving headfirst into snapshot after snapshot from Johnson’s earlier films. Those clips are identified not by title but by location, and range from a Brooklyn arena locker room filled with aspiring young boxers, to a Nigerian hospital where a midwife struggles to deliver babies with minimal resources, to a Bosnian farm inhabited by one of the few Muslim families to return to the country after the genocide, to an Alabama women’s clinic and an Afghanistan Ferris wheel, to the U.S. Capitol, where Michael Moore interviews a corporal opposed to returning to the battlefields of Iraq.

At first, these disparate scenes seem connected by little more than their photographer, who’s occasionally heard discussing camera setups, focal points and movements with her directors — or, as in an opening panorama of a highway situated beneath an imposing Western sky, sneezing just enough to cause her equipment to shake. Although Johnson is spied on screen only during two late passages, her presence is felt throughout “Cameraperson,” thanks in large part to the way she cannily assembles her material to raise a number of thematic inquiries that — due to the fact that they repeat throughout her projects — resonate as highly personal.

Central to those concerns is the cinematographer’s connection, and responsibility, to those he or she films, which is addressed in ways both obvious and understated, and none more bracing than in a brief snippet of a Bosnian toddler trying to play with, and then wrestle away from his older brother, an ax. As the tyke’s hands reach perilously close to the instrument’s blade, Johnson can be heard muttering a terrified “Oh Jesus!” Yet the fact that she doesn’t interfere with the action — instead opting to simply record whatever transpires, good or bad — proves a telling example of how filmmakers balance the thin line between compassionately recounting others’ tales, and actually doing something to improve their subjects’ dire fortunes.

The push-pull between kindness and detachment runs throughout “Cameraperson,” as when Moore offers to help the would-be insubordinate corporal with any future legal fees, or when Johnson gasps as a newborn Nigerian baby fights for its life while the attendant midwife diligently goes about her duty trying to keep the infant breathing. More than a one-note critical-theory treatise on documentary ethics, however, Johnson’s film segues smoothly between topics in order to get at multifaceted notions about the roles a filmmaker assumes when they train their eye on others.

Be it the sight of two different women — shot so only their hands and legs are visible — discussing feelings of sex-related shame, guilt and fear, or of a boy recounting how he lost his eye, “Cameraperson” touches on the means by which filmmakers (sometimes without manipulation, sometimes through careful preplanning and staging) extract, and protect, others’ confessions. Employing shrewd editorial juxtapositions, it elucidates cinema’s quest to locate truths that, for reasons nefarious or natural, are concealed behind facades. For Johnson, that mission invariably involves confronting the past in order to reveal something genuine about the present, as well as about the human condition — an aim also felt in her montage of places, buildings and spaces (the World Trade Center, Wounded Knee, Tahrir Square, various edifices where Serbian atrocities were planned and executed) that resound with historical horror and suffering.

The way individuals, and societies, grapple with memories both buried and lost stands at the heart of “Cameraperson.” Thus, it’s little surprise that the film’s most piercing passages are its most private: those of Johnson’s Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, Catherine, traversing the family farm, plagued by a mental fugue from which she can’t escape. In these episodes — of Catherine being nearly swept away by a gusty wind, or helping Johnson comb her hair in the mirror — the desire to recapture that which is gone, to remember that which has been forgotten, and to express one’s self through art all emerge with grace and power. In the process, they suggest that the cameraperson’s ultimate role is not only that of the silent witness, but also of the engaged participant and the empathetic (auto)biographer.

Sundance Film Review: ‘Cameraperson’

Reviewed at IFC Center, New York, Jan. 15, 2016. Running time: <b>102 MIN.</b>

  • Production: (Documentary) A Fork Films presentation of a Big Mouth production. Produced by Kirsten Johnson, Marilyn Ness. Executive producers, Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker. Co-producer, Danielle Varga.
  • Crew: Directed by Kirsten Johnson. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kirsten Johnson; editor, Nels Bangerter; sound (DTS/SDDS/Dolby Digital), Skywalker Sound; sound designer, Eric Milano; re-recording mixers, Peter Horner, Eric Milano; graphics, Dave Tecson.
  • With: (English, Bosnian, Arabic, Dari, Hausa, Fur dialogue)