The premise of ‘Cameraperson’ does not necessarily sound like it will make an engrossing film: a collection of footage shot over the career of cinematographer Kristen Johnson compiled into a visual memoir. What could have been an overly long showreel is a brilliantly insightful documentary, revealing the factual filmmaking process, and warmly observing a variety of people from Johnson’s past projects, taking us all over the world. Johnson has worked as a cinematographer for twenty years on documentaries such as Fahrenheit 9/11, The Invisible War, and Citizenfour, and ‘Cameraperson’ perfectly explores her creative role, from her process to the stories, subjects, and issues she has been involved with over her career, as well as intertwining footage from her personal life.
The film opens with an explanation that these are the images that have stayed with Johnson, have marked her, and have left her wondering, and she asks the audience to see the film as her memoir. Watching the collage of footage as it glides from project to project and place to place, we gain a strong insight into her filmmaking process. It’s fascinating to see how she frames each story and individual, as well as to think about the person behind the camera, observing and capturing it all, and what they must be thinking and feeling. Hearing her responses and conversations with both her subjects and the crew are some of the best moments of the film, from amazed gasps as she captures lightning strikes, to an emotional conversation with a boy who has been almost completely blinded in one eye.
Although the focus in the variety of clips in ‘Cameraperson’ is often on the mundane or everyday, the film is completely captivating, capturing little moments of beauty and celebrating what we can learn from simply observing different lives, as a documentary cinematographer primarily does. However, the film also collects moments from reality that are far from ordinary, and a lot of the footage is shocking and painful, particularly the material shot in Bosnia, Rwanda, Afghanistan, and Yemen, with their focus on abuse, sexual assault, war, and survival. Importantly, the film reminds reminds us that sometimes this is the reality and everyday for some people.
Johnson’s connection to her subjects and the way each of her projects has shaped her is key to the film. We see snippets of lives and stories, people’s struggles and experiences, and can really feel the impact they have had on her. She is there to observe and hear often heart-wrenching topics as various subjects completely open up on camera. Various parallels between the less painful subject matter and Johnson’s own life are also drawn, with a midwife in Nigeria delivering twins, and later seeing the filmmaker’s own twins. This is a passionate documentary, candidly revealing on Johnson’s filmmaking process and experimentally piecing together her work to explore how it has formed and moved her. Absorbing and affecting, ‘Cameraperson’ is a stunning observational collage that provides a powerful insight into human experiences across the world.
Watch the trailer below:
‘Cameraperson’ is out in UK cinemas today, 27th January.