Cameraperson: Not Just a Fly on the Wall

(USA, 102 min.)
Dir. Kirsten Johnston
Courtesy Films We Like
There’s a notion in documentary that positions a filmmaker to a fly on the wall. It comes up with observation and verité, and while the image offers a fair likeness for the vantage point with which a camera sees action, the phrase doesn’t do justice to the people behind the lens. Cameraperson offers an intimate personal odyssey as camera operator Kirsten Johnson proves that, unlike flies, cinematographers aren’t merely observers. They are a part of the action as much as they are a witness or recorder of it.

Johnson mines her personal archival of footage, which ranges from snippets of recognisable docs like Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour, to less familiar works such as an emotional series of interviews with survivors of sexual assault from the Bosnian War. With Moore, she records a master in his element and offers the footage that doesn’t make the final cut: Moore giving genuine advice and support to a soldier who may face jail. The quick glimpse of Citizenfour, which sees a USB from Edward Snowden sealed under cement in an undisclosed location, highlights the secrets a cameraperson is privy to and the risks she/he takes in the service of his/her art. In Bosnia, Johnson shares the value in using the camera as a tool for conversation as she gives both a voice and an ear to survivors.

The series of snippets eventually reveals a pattern of sorts as Johnson trots the globe with images of her archive. The inspired editing by Nels Bangerter evokes a Chris Marker-ish assemblage as Johnson’s reels reveal a profession of infinite views. She draws universal themes of hope and sadness between the tales, all the while emphasising the right to life through the positive filters of her camera and sunny personality.

Perhaps the best footage, though, comes with two segments of mothers and children. One sequence features Johnson’s own mother as she slips away with Alzheimer’s disease. These scenes share the filmmaker’s journey through her images. By showing these scenes of her family, Johnson exposes her vulnerabilities, joys, and pains, all the while giving life to a loved one long passed. In Nigeria, finally, Johnson watches a mother give birth to twins: one’s an easy delivery, but the other is not. Johnson records the second baby and its struggle for life. In this scene, Johnson becomes more than a recorder when she decides to intervene in the action when it seems as if the baby needs care.

Cameraperson shows the difficulty in being a passive observer when seeing subjects is one’s profession. Through the camera’s eye, a good artist sees a soul and not just a subject. This fascinating, moving, and thought-provoking essay film is one of the year’s best documentaries.