The Films of 2016: Cameraperson

A title card at the beginning of Kristen Johnson’s Cameraperson explains that she sees the film, a compendium of loose ends left over from various documentary projects shot over the course of some fifteen years, as a kind of memoir.  The footage occasionally relates to Johnson’s personal life—her children and her parents, especially her mother, who died in 2007 after battling Alzheimer’s.  More often than not, though, it functions as Johnson’s meditation on issues engaged by a career spent watching and recording the lives of others: survivors of the wars in Bosnia and Afghanistan, single moms, college students, a soldier, an athlete, a philosopher, a midwife.  (Johnson has worked as a DP on some thirty documentaries, the best known of these being Fahrenheit 9/11, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, The Invisible War, and Citizenfour; among the familiar faces that turn up in Cameraperson are Michael Moore and Jacques Derrida.)

While the film is not political in any traditional sense of that word, the pieces of footage work together dialectically to create a record of women’s experiences across the globe that seems to me undeniably feminist.  Johnson features interviews with women talking about their experiences of rape, abortion, political oppression, their children and their mothers.  At other points the editing of the film shifts to draw our attention to legacies of torture and genocide throughout the world.  But Johnson’s approach is always to listen more than she speaks—and to observeCameraperson is not a depressing or outwardly angry film; it is serenely calm and richly enjoyable to watch, driven as it is by Johnson’s powerful humanity toward her subjects.  At certain points we’re held in suspense, fearing for the safety of the people in front of the camera (as when two children are shown playing with an axe in the yard outside their family’s farm) or the person behind it (as when Johnson puts herself in the path of a volatile boxer who has just lost a fight).  On the whole, though, the tone of the film is contemplative, wondrous, and suffused with humility.

Johnson ultimately leaves it up to us as viewers to make connections between the film’s many different pieces of footage.  Cameraperson engages questions of spectatorship and violence, gender and globalization, but in such a way that’s impressionistic and open-ended.  Johnson’s eclecticism, her rapidly shifting attention span (the film changes locations and subjects approximately every two minutes), and her hunger for images and ideas—her wish to understand the way we live now, in all of its density and complexity—recall the late Chris Marker, whose film Sans Soleil (1983) Cameraperson resembles.  Unsuspecting viewers are apt to be frustrated by Johnson’s approach; I found it compelling and unpredictable.  The film is a mosaic made up of individual pieces that are fascinating in themselves, whether or not one wants to do the work of thinking about the bigger picture that they make up.

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