If you don’t like or are indifferent to documentaries, stay away from Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson – a scrapbook of jobs, personal life and growth, it isn’t not for the faint of heart., either. Winner of the Grand Jury Award at Sheffield this past year, and strangely ignored (or forgotten) by the heavy weight awards, this documentary will definitely be mentioned and cherished by anyone that cares about the ethical and personal dilemmas brought by the delicate job of filming harsh realities.
An emotional showreel of almost two hours, Cameraperson combines pieces of previous work by Johnson with outtakes and home videos. It starts light enough – she films a man and his sheep in Bosnia, lets an exclamation of surprise when lightning cuts her static establishing shot, only to sneeze a few seconds later, and her kids insist on putting the lens cap on the camera while she tries to film them; but as the film continues and she shoots victims of war crimes, her own mother’s struggle with Alzheimer and the aftermath of her death, and an old woman’s refusal in (or fear of) accepting the reality of ethnical genocide, we surrender completely to the spirit of the film, and stop looking for an overall plot.
Cameraperson would never have worked, wasn’t it for the editing work of Nels Bangerter (You See Me; Let the Fire Burn) – there may be no plot or narrative in the conventional sense, but there’s definitely an arch, and to that arch we owe our active attention. Choosing to leave the artifice in at points, while at others concentrating in what’s in front of the lens, we are never allowed to forget that the person behind the camera, photographing horrors, is a human being with loved ones and personal tragedies. It’s not just about the risks of the job (only once or twice we fear for Johnson) – it’s mostly about the relation she wants – and needs – to establish with the person on the other side of the lens, and the moral limits of said relation. If, as someone at a certain point in the film says, you should never show the corpses – as nothing can be done to save a dead body – Johnson has definitely delivered on that aspect: there are no strong images as such (the closest we come to a dead body are her own mother’s ashes, the ripped clothes of a murder victim, and a dead bird), but there are strong stories, and even shooting the natural beauty of what was found out to be a mass grave a few years before turns more effective than blood and guts. Images are all about context, after all.
Cameraperson, in its mixture of birth and death, every day life and once in a lifetime tragedy, can be seen as a modern, politically heavy Man with a Movie Camera, but its proximity to our times leaves an impact on us that Vertov would be envious of. In a time when what is in front of our very eyes is being questioned, watching documentaries may well be the ultimate defying act.
Cameraperson is on selected UK cinemas from 27th January 2017