The most striking image in Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is a small gesture, a woman wrapping a scarf around her neck—appropriate for Johnson’s autobiographical documentary, which only shows the director’s face once. Generally, an audience comes to know a person through watching them, but Cameraperson asks viewers to understand Johnson through watching her craft. As both a documentary filmmaker and cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson has been capturing footage for more than twenty years in various parts of the world. Cameraperson combines this footage in unique and powerful ways, and what results is an incredibly effective portrait. Cameraperson shows to its audience not just a woman, her life, and her body of work, but the power of the camera itself as a means of capturing the breadth of emotion humanity has to offer.
A midwife in Nigeria goes about her day with a calm sense of professionalism—even as a newborn struggles to breathe her face remains focused, her routine practiced. She tells us she never knows how many women will come in during the day, but on the day in particular there are, herself included, only three midwifes. We see footage of Johnson’s own mother, Catharine, who had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and passed away in 2007, during a day at the family ranch. The hands of an unidentified Bosnian woman recounting her rape during Serbian occupation contrast with the hands of a single mother considering an abortion. After Johnson shows us footage of a day spent with her twins and her father at her childhood home, we see her trying to capture film of an Al Qaeda prison from the back of a car, documenting the evidence used in the 1999 murder trial of James Byrd, following a boxing match in Brooklyn, and helping a woman recount her time dealing with the suicide of her mother. These fragments, among many other moments, risk being compiled into a mere jumble of striking images, but Cameraperson finds in them all a thread of nonverbal expression that seems to transcend language, even facial expressions, and connect directly with viewer’s empathetic centers.
The closest Cameraperson gets to a clear narrative is its use of footage from a documentary investigating the systemic abuse of Bosnian women after Serbian occupation. Excerpts of this narrative are threaded throughout the film and provide that small, unforgettable image of the woman wrapping a scarf around her neck. At this point Johnson has returned to Bosnia to meet with a family she documented for the aforementioned series, Women, War and Peace, to tell them how much they affected her and her memories of Bosnia. Perhaps the film’s centerpiece is an interview with an elderly woman who denied ever having lived a bad life due to occupation and war. Eventually, the interviewers cease questioning her for proof of systemic oppression against women, and instead ask her about her fashion. She gleams, coyly admitting to being stylish, reminiscing about the days before her marriage when she would wear short dresses, and explains why she never wraps anything around her neck: it makes her feel nervous.
It’s small, sudden changes in energy like these that Johnson has a talent for documenting—changes signaled not by dialogue but by posturing. The way the woman smiles seeing her interview after all these years, how the picked-at nails of the mother in the abortion clinic communicate to us more about her anxiety that seems to precede her situation. But what makes Cameraperson more affecting than and distinct from so many other documentaries is its focus on the humanity behind the camera in relation to what’s in front. The movie opens, in fact, with a montage of clips that show us Johnson framing her shots. Later on we reach a hilarious segment that shows her skillfully tracking her subject through various locations until she finally runs herself into a wall. At many points her comments from behind the camera are audible, such as requesting the single mother not to talk about herself in a negative way because it’s making her cry, or getting footage of the chain used to drag James Byrd’s body before saying, “That’s enough,” in a stifled voice.
This is the profound success of Cameraperson: an embrace of the camera’s existence not as a frame for seeing humanity, but a mediator. Johnson never wants to let her viewers “lose themselves” in the film while looking at what’s on-screen. Her strong presence in the film places the captured events in relation to the world around them, reminding the audience that these images, real as they remain, have been siphoned off from their larger context in the world. The camera, as it stands, can only capture a moment. Too often we are allowed to believe that what we see on the screen is what the world is, and Johnson directly confronts that idea. Cameraperson never gives enough of the people it depicts—there is always something more to them that we are denied access to. Johnson refuses to think an entire person could be captured and depicted in the course of 100 minutes on-screen. In recognizing film’s own limitations, Cameraperson seems to capture more of humanity, in front of and around its camera, than most films ever dream of.
Cameraperson plays at the IFC Center through October 6th.