SXSW Film Festival
Towards the outset of Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson,” we see a beautiful shot of a raging storm in Missouri – and then hear a sneeze out of frame. This is a clip repurposed from the raw footage of another documentary for which Johnson shot footage, though it’s the kind of moment that never makes the final cut of a documentary. Non-fiction films might reference the presence of a director hovering outside the scene, molding our perceptions after the fact, but they rarely acknowledge the cameraperson who makes innumerable important decisions in the moment that contribute to our notion of reality.
When writers describe cinema, we often filter it through the lens of auteur theory – that pie-in-the-sky idea which puts faith in the genius and willpower of a single visionary artist whose indelible stamp appears in every aspect of the film. But if the director is the brain of a given project, they need hands to execute their vision in a collaborative medium. Johnson, in her role as cameraperson and director of photography for nearly a quarter-century in documentary filmmaking, serves as those hands. This boundary-defying filmic memoir achieves the impossible by both isolating her technical contributions and illuminating her own artistry as the authoritative presence capturing moments as they unfold.
Johnson’s impeccable non-fiction Rolodex features Laura Poitras, Kirby Dick and more, all of which granted her permission to reshape the raw footage from their completed documentaries into this new, living interrogation of the role of the cameraperson. On occasion, the scenes reflect back on the directors themselves, showing who views her as an artist and who sees her as a mere technician (*COUGH* Michael Moore). But the majority of “Cameraperson” shows how we can apply to Johnson the language traditionally reserved to describe the body of work of a director.
Through the gentle flow of scenes edited to a thematic rhythm, we come to learn how Johnson’s subject position as a woman, a mother weighs on what she shoots and doesn’t. We begin to notice emerging themes, such as the placid and straightforward presentation of sites where atrocities occurred. We see, through the juxtaposition of her own childhood prayers with prayers at a mosque, how she relates to subjects on different continents. We witness her evolution as an artist, observing how she comes to makes the call on how to portray a subject – impressionistically, or with standard establishing shots.
In reclaiming the previously shot footage to tell her own story, Johnson also comes in control of sound and montage. While we come to know her by the images she captures, we also come to realize that no craftsman or artist on a film works in a vacuum. Any great work of filmed art represents the sum of the efforts of its many collaborative elements. “Cameraperson” is more than just an autobiography. It’s an ontological document of the cinema itself. A- /