Cameraperson (2016) by Kirsten Johnson
Review by John McAmis
As a budding filmmaker who’s dealt with making documentaries around personal events and familial relations, I was immediately captivated by Kirsten Johnson’s approach to her cinematic memoir. For the past fifteen years, Johnson has worked as a cinematographer for a plethora of documentarians. She’s travelled across the world and back enough times to make Jules Verne’s head explode. And with all of her traveling comes the privilege of immersing herself in cultures and interacting with people whose lives are different, but also similar to hers in enough ways that she can tell her own personal story via their experiences.
During her stints as a member of various film crews, Johnson has accumulated hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of footage. This is something that happens to every traveller and continent-hopper: an overload of pictures and videos and mementos. Johnson’s surplus of media is vastly different, however, because as a trained cinematographer, she knows how to compose a shot. Her film snippets aren’t just point-and-shoot snapshots of a landscape or building, they’re pans of cityscapes, low-angle shots of sheep hooves stampeding across the dusty earth. This is her artistic talent, and any artist knows that it’s not only the medium you use to create, but what you create with the medium. The way in which Johnson has shot the films she’s worked on says more about her life and character than any literary work could. Her intentions on following this person and not that person communicates to viewers who Johnson believes to be the most important character in this crucial moment. Ultimately, a visual memoir is created when Johnson stitches her surplus of clips together to form a cohesive film.
Not only does Johnson include footage from her travels and unused clips from film projects, she also incorporates scenes of her home life. Her children make a few appearances, so does her dad and her mom. We learn from subtitles that Johnson’s mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s three years prior to when the footage was shot. We catch small glimpses of their life with short, meaningful clips of mother and daughter interacting with one another. A heartbreaking series of images reveals Johnson’s attempts to refresh her mother’s memories of the family with pictures and anecdotes. Johnson’s inclusion of familial relations ground the film in a reality with which Americans are familiar.
Johnson reveals the location of every film snippet with a small title card prior to the clip’s appearance on screen. Many locations in the film are repeated, such as Bosnia and Nigeria, where as some locations only appear once. One is even withheld from the viewer. The rhythm of these vignettes is pretty much consistent throughout the film. You’re dropped into a location, introduced to strangers via the camera lens, then move on. This treatment of the viewer acts as proxy to how missionaries or film crews storm-in to capture a problem, then leave with a good conscience and plans to never return. Johnson herself returns to a small village in Bosnia in one of the clips. She personally provides a screening to the subjects of one of the documentaries she shot. It’s a poignant and revealing scene that shows Johnson’s care for her subjects, as well as her specific thoughts about filmmaking and the genre of documentary.
This rhythm of the titles and clips is echoed in a few sequences when Johnson stitches together clips that graphically or thematically relate to one another. Clips of people walking in one direction, but in wholly different environments. Animals’ stampeding. Cloud formations. It’s in these sequences that Johnson demonstrates the unity of all countries on this rock called Earth, and all the life that occurs upon it as it hurtles through space. A clip of children playing with a hatchet in a small Bosnian village. A clip of Nigerian men standing alone and talking in the early morning. A clip of Johnson’s mother roaming the pastures of their Wyoming home. Johnson not only shows the viewers the life she’s lived as a cinematographer, but the lives of others and their impact on the world.
Johnson’s memoir has a run-time of 103 minutes, but the rhythm and randomness she creates with the clips (one never quite knows what country will pop-up next) would have allowed me to watch for at least another thirty minutes, maybe an hour. Life pervades this feature. In every clip, every bit of surplus Johnson possesses from her travels, she’s captured a visceral moment that not only tells her subjects’ stories, but hers as well.