It’s often said that the act of observing something affects the behaviour of the thing that’s being observed, but it’s equally true that it changes the person doing the observing. In Cameraperson, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson – a legend in the industry who has worked on films like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour – has compiled a “memoir” of clips spanning the length and breadth of her 25-year career, filming everyone from boxers in Brooklyn to victims of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
From the start, we’re constantly hyper-aware of Johnson’s presence. In one sequence her hands pluck stray blades of grass from the foreground of a shot. In another we hear her audibly gasp as the Missouri sky is split by lightning, moments before she sneezes with enough force to shake the camera.
The fact that such disparate snippets of film have been stitched into such a coherent whole is impressive, and eventually certain themes begin to bleed through; footage of a midwife in Nairobi delivering babies, for example, feels somehow influenced by Johnson’s footage of her own young children. The most poignant footage is the most personal; much of this memoir focuses on Johnson’s own mother losing her memory to Alzheimer’s in the years before her death.
As clichéd as it sounds, Johnson’s images are striking enough to speak for themselves, yet it’s sometimes frustrating that we don’t hear more directly from Johnson herself – especially considering the scope of her experiences and the fascinating people she’s interviewed.
Part retrospective and part introspective, Cameraperson is a remarkable documentary from an equally remarkable filmmaker. Those not intimately familiar with Kirsten Johnson’s work will be hungry for more context, but this is a must-see for anyone who loves great documentary or aspires to make their own.
DIRECTOR: Kirsten Johnson
SYNOPSIS: For 25 years American cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has roamed the globe for some of the doc world’s biggest directors, including Michael Moore and Laura Poitras. In this thoroughly engrossing film she refashions some of her footage into a kaleidoscopic musing on her profession.