It is unusual to say that a film’s star is its director, especially when that director hardly appears on the screen. However, in Cameraperson, perhaps the only character more central to the film than its creator, Kirsten Johnson, is the camera itself. The film is a compilation of moments that Johnson has captured in her years as a documentary cinematographer. Other than some thematic ties, the scenes are often entirely disconnected. Yet Johnson still manages to send a powerful message.
Many of the scenes take place in poor countries, capturing people affected by abuse, oppression, and violence. She captures many of the most marginalized people in the world, and illustrates the absolute depths of human suffering. Johnson has an understanding of precisely the ways that people express their emotions in a visual medium. Close ups on people’s hands as they tell their stories let the audience in on the anxiety that these people are feeling.
Johnson takes the viewer behind the camera, but not in a way that feels behind the scenes. As she films, you can often hear her discussing how she wants to approach capturing the material, or the limitations of any given shot. She visits countries where journalistic filmmaking is illegal, and she must justify her film as a work of cinema rather than one of reporting. She shows a clip of a film she made with famous political documentarian Michael Moore where Moore interviews a soldier who emotionally explains that he would rather face jail time than return to the Middle East and be forced to commit acts of violence against civilians. He expresses these feelings despite the fact that he isn’t allowed to discuss his activities in the Middle East with journalists. She then shows an unexplained clip of an encrypted hard drive being buried in cement.
Cameraperson isn’t really political, however. Despite its political subtext, the film is about people. She conveys the massive levels of injustice she has seen in an incredibly powerful montage portraying silent shots of sites where mass rapes and murders were committed. The absolute serenity of each shot, paired with a subtitled description of the atrocities that occurred there, is striking and absolutely devastating. In another scene she shows a nurse at a poor hospital trying to tend to a newborn who is struggling to breathe on its own. While she gets the baby breathing, the segment ends abruptly, with the realization that despite this minor victory, the hospital may not have the resources to keep the child alive.
Amongst these many scenes of people Johnson has met over the years, she intercuts many personal clips of her own family. In particular, she focuses on her mother who died of Alzheimer’s in 2007. The only time that Johnson herself is shown in the film is while she holds the camera away from her body and films her mother helping her fix her hair. She also shows some more recent clips of her children spending time with their grandfather, frequently cutting back to the box which holds her mother’s remains. Through this device, Johnson expresses the extent to which her life has always been influenced by the camera lens.
One could go into endless detail about the many themes expressed throughout Cameraperson. With so many people and so many moments captured, it’s impossible for me to be entirely comprehensive without going into pages and pages of detail. However, this film is so much more powerful if simply experienced. Johnson cuts these stories together in a way that perfectly expresses the many emotions at play, and her patience as a filmmaker and affinity for beautiful scenery makes the film a visual delight. Cameraperson is essentially Kirsten Johnson’s first major directorial project, but her strengths and experience shows. It is one of the most powerful and moving films that I have seen in some time.