“Cameraperson” is a movie memoir, of sorts, from long time cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (KJ). Although you may imagine that life for a cameraperson is somewhat obscured by the vision of those they collaborate with; KJ finds herself as the witness to beauty and tranquillity in places shrouded in dark historical moments. Compiled from footage throughout her body of work, KJ builds a collection of moments that create a thematic through line in how her lens perceives the world.
Two young brothers are playing in the front yard of their farm stead. The older boy, who looks about eight years of age, lodges his hatchet into a block of wood and walks back to the house. His younger a brother, a toddler, wanders over to the hatchet and attempts to wrestle it free from the block. I imagine in the film that you’ve shot this footage for; the editor would remove the audible gasps and occasional muttered words from behind the lens, as the cinematographer, true to her craft, wills the young man away from the tool that is very much not a toy. This is one of the kinds of frames or vignettes of KJ becoming absorbed with the lives of her subjects. The deep sigh of relief as the little boy’s brother returns, readjusts the axe and walks away, shows the turmoil of baring witness to acts, injustices and subjects that coax you into intervening.
In the beginning of “Cameraperson” it’s hard to see what the different settings have in common. As this visual scrap book begins to form, you see what KJ has been drawn to, there’s a deep interconnection. Guantanamo Bay, Bosnia (sites integral to genocide, repurposed to everyday function), Washington D.C (with Michael Moore during Fahrenheit 9/11), Penn State University (in the wake of the discovery of institutional paedophilia), New York City (the World Trade Centre site), Tahir Square in Egypt and ‘Wounded Knee.’ There’s a political charge in KJ’s work; an interest in subjects and filming locations of institutional humanity, where life is or has been cheap, and yet as she casts the gaze of her camera lens over these spaces she captures light. There is humour (Darfur women collecting firewood and calling their oppressors bastards), joy (Penn State Football mania on the field and in the stadium - when the bowels of the stadium is where their coach molested under-privileged children), love and warmth either to her as an individual and her collaborators attempting to illuminate the world surrounding these events.
When you see glimpses back to KJ’s home - her beautiful twins or her sweet old parents - you can see a fortune in love that drives her. Once you discover that her mother is suffering from Alzheimer’s, it completely reframes the entire film. Up until these moments, you’re being held at a distance. KJ is omnipresent behind the lens, directing what we see and hearing her voice; but in the moments that she addresses her mother and brings herself ever so briefly into the frame that you’re completely embraced by the film. KJ’s compassion pours through the lens.
In one staggering moment in a Nigerian Hospital, you see the shocking conditions that their locals and medical staff face every day. In an under supplied, barely sanitised hospital, where midwifes wear open toed shoes, tread pools of blood through the corridors and press buttons on machines that don’t work, the audience and K.J bear witness to a birth of a twin. He’s the second child and he’s not making his way along in time and the midwife intervenes. The power of the images that we are spectator to, are riveting and KJ’s restraint behind is mind blowing. It’s a thrilling puzzle of a lifetime’s worth of work and you don’t know if it’s going to form a coherent picture. “Cameraperson” is astounding.
Directed by: Kirsten Johnson
Cinematography by: Kirsten Johnson
Written by: Doris Baizely and Lisa Freedman (Consulting writers)