Thanks to YouTube and smartphones everyone is now a camera person. However, I doubt you could call many of those recording the action on your standard YouTube posting an actual cinematographer. To make one’s career as a professional cinematographer requires a definitive point of view and a willingness to face all situations regardless of comfortable or peril. Kirsten Johnson has been a professional cinematographer for twenty-five years, and the documentary, Cameraperson provides an intimate and meditative look at her life's work. The film has its national broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series POV (Point of View) Monday, October 23, 2017. You can check local listings here for air times.
Described by Johnson in the opening scene as “my memoir,” the award-winning film is a collage of footage shot over decades around the world. Rather than offering a straightforward narrative, the film invites the audience behind the lens in order to see life from the perspective of this cameraperson, viewing a variety of episodic images that form stories, sometimes connecting thematically, and sometimes emotionally. The film is an excellent example of documentary at its best, merging autobiography perfectly with ethical inquiry.
“In making Cameraperson, we decided to rely as much as possible on the evidence of my experience in the footage I shot in the moment,” explains Johnson. “We know that this fragmentary portrait is incomplete and are interested in the way it points to how stories are constructed.” The New York-based documentary cinematographer adds, “Our hope is to convey the immediacy of finding oneself in new territory with a camera, as well as giving the audience a sense of how the accumulation of joys and dilemmas that a cameraperson must juggle builds over time. The film itself is an acknowledgement of how complex it is to film and be filmed.”
Scenes from the two dozen critically acclaimed documentaries Johnson has shot, including Fahrenheit 9/11, Darfur Now and Citizenfour, are well represented in Cameraperson. As you would imagine, there’s a powerful montage of places, buildings and spaces (the World Trade Center, Wounded Knee, Tahrir Square) united by the atrocities that occurred in all of those places. But perhaps the film’s most moving moments are the tender passages where Johnson interacts with her mother, who is afflicted with Alzheimer’s.
“Cinematographers are invisible artists, perhaps especially in documentaries, which often emphasize content over visual aesthetics,” New York Times film critic A.O. Scott wrote of the film. “Viewers are aware of the faces of the people on screen and the intentions of the director, but we generally don’t think about whose eyes we are literally looking through. Ms. Johnson, in correcting that oversight, invites us to reconsider our assumptions about the ethical and emotional foundations of nonfiction filmmaking. Her film’s straightforward title turns out to be profound and complicated. The camera may be a machine, but it has the power to reveal a multiplicity of human presences.”
Justine Nagan, executive producer/executive director of POV/American Documentary, said, “From Jasper, Texas to Darfur, Sudan, Johnson reveals a seemingly limitless spectrum of humanity through vignettes of lives lived across the world. Her Cameraperson is also an example of masterful filmmaking, as she seamlessly weaves together footage from war zones and her childhood home. This is a challenging piece of storytelling, but also an exceptional one that we have no doubt public media audiences will enjoy and remember for a long time to come.”
It seems as if cinema is more and more often taking a hard look at itself. Sometimes critically, and sometimes from the point of view of an archivist or historian. As we take on this examination it's important to look closely at the who behind the what and how. It's just as important to understanding the history of cinema as every other component. It looks as though Cameraperson is the first of its kind to breach into this complex dissection. Catch it while you can.