SXSW FILM 2016
By Don Simpson | March 14, 2016
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Kirsten Johnson is the titular cameraperson behind some of the most critically acclaimed documentaries of the last couple of decades, including Citizenfour, The Invisible War, Darfour Now, Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Oath. With Cameraperson, Johnson utilizes footage shot throughout her career to deconstruct and reevaluate the documentary filmmaking process. Cameraperson is an incredibly profound treatise on the art of seeing, as Johnson teaches the audience how to watch and consume documentary films, making us more acutely aware of tools and tricks of the trade.
While documentaries present themselves as non-fiction, reality or Truth, it has historically been difficult to reconcile the presence of the inherent perspective of the filmmaker(s) and subject(s). By no means malicious, Johnson does not want to criticize the medium in which she works; rather, the purpose of Cameraperson is to be purely self-reflexive, giving us a behind-the-curtain perspective of what we did not see in the final cut.
Comprised solely of archival footage, Johnson never explicitly tells us why she chooses this specific assemblage of clips. That is left to the viewer to decipher. A more active viewer will pick up on Johnson’s coded messages, specifically how the organization of the clips suggests meaning/intention and establishes relationships between the content of her various projects.
Cameraperson highlights the pervasive influence that the camera and cameraperson have on the subject. One obvious example is the subject’s awareness of the camera, which becomes obvious whenever the subject makes eye contact with the camera’s lens (even a newborn baby stares straight down the barrel of the camera). The studiously curated footage also accentuates the fact that the subject always knows that the camera is present, whether they make eye contact or not. Directorial guidance, such as choreographing the subject or cameraperson’s movements, is also revealed as a fairly standard tactic, as too is the overt framing of the subject to purposefully include or exclude aspects of the natural backdrop.
But Johnson’s revelations are not always intended to deconstruct the medium. In some cases, she shows the softer side of the directors she has worked alongside. One example is found in post-interview footage from Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, which reveals Moore to be honestly concerned about the safety of his interviewee. Some may commend this softer side of Moore, while others may see this as a morally questionable interaction with his subject.
Brimming with self-consciousness, this film is just as much about Johnson as it is about the medium itself. Cameraperson is a visual memoir of what Johnson has witnessed and endured. The film highlights the subjects with whom she has developed profound connections, as well as the moral issues of fully immersing oneself into the life of a subject (and their family), then disappearing once the film is over. It also becomes bone-chillingly obvious that Johnson has witnessed more pain and suffering than most soldiers on the front lines of wars — her resume is saturated with harrowing stories. Johnson really gets personal when her focus turns to footage of her Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother. Juxtaposed with footage from Bosnia, Nigeria, and Afghanistan, Johnson reminds us that stories we can relate directly to (Alzheimer’s, aging parents) are often more affecting than stories that are totally foreign to us.