There’s no clearcut, conventional narrative in Kirsten Johnson’s frequently moving Cameraperson. Johnson, who has worked as a cinematographer or camera operator on many documentaries (including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11), has assembled a quilt of outtakes from some of those films and presents it here as a sort of visual memoir. Shortlisted as a possible Best Documentary Oscar nominee, Cameraperson comes to DVD and Blu-ray in February via Criterion, and it’s worth watching for anyone interested in this art form and the people who have to capture life and shape it.
It is also undeniably, serenely and triumphantly female. We always feel, somehow, even if we don’t hear Johnson’s voice behind the camera, that we are seeing through the eyes of a compassionate woman. And since the subject of many of the films she works on is trauma, specifically female trauma, that matters; it matters that the women on-camera feel listened to, feel safe. Whether the speaker is a Bosnian rape survivor, an unexpectedly pregnant young woman agonizing over her decision to abort, or Johnson’s own Alzheimer’s-stricken mother, Johnson seems able to create a warm bubble in which they can breathe and tell their stories. This works even on men: a Fahrenheit 9/11 outtake expands on Corporal Abdul Henderson’s pained choice not to return to Iraq even if it gets him in deep trouble. Henderson’s hesitations when talking — something that would be edited out of a conventional documentary like Fahrenheit 9/11 that has so much else on its plate — speak volumes here.
As it goes on, Cameraperson reveals a sort of supernarrative tied to the humanity and responsibility of what we’ll call, for want of a more precise term, “the media.” At one point, the camera watches two Bosnian kids, one only a toddler, playing with a small but sharp axe, and though we figure the footage wouldn’t be here if it ended with an accident, we feel tension anyway, and Johnson sounds a bit tense too, hoping someone notices the kids with the axe, yet probably feeling it isn’t the white American’s place to step in. She’s just there to record. Yet whose place is it to help the Bosnians — or the Syrians?
Johnson can help to report on global pain, but obviously the traumatized people have stayed with her. They’re all pieces of her own story, and in Cameraperson she makes a movie out of the pieces. The editor, Nels Bangerter, shuffles it all together into an organic visual poem, with certain magic tricks only cinema can perform — Johnson’s mother is dead one minute, then alive again, a Tralfamadorian temporal irony (it’s been done before, of course, but in the context of this film it feels fresh). The movie is personal, yet seems to expand its purview to take in life and cinema and how one impacts the other. It’s also the portrait of an artist using the artist’s own art — we get a sense of Johnson’s compositional superego, her hands pulling away blades of grass until the image feels right to her; at other times, the imperfection of a shot is its point, such as when she films a furious documentarian (Kathy Leichter) flinging bits of her deceased mother’s belongings around the room.
You don’t want a pristine image there; you want a reflection of chaotic reality, same as when Johnson catches an enraged boxer after he has lost a fight. In the instances of the Bosnian rape survivor and the young pregnant woman, Johnson films them from the chest down, keeping their faces out of frame but focusing on their hands, twisting in torment. Johnson knows when to go for a painterly effect and when to wing it, and it always comes back to expressing life as it is for the subject — a Bosnian sheepherder, a Nigerian midwife. One nearly abstract image from Citizenfour, the Oscar-winning Edward Snowden documentary, seems to stand in for that entire movie and the experience of making it. The title almost invites a comma — Camera, Person — but it’s one word, one concept indistinct from the other. The person doesn’t stop where the camera starts.