Cameraperson review: humour, pain and pathos

26th January 2017

Cameraperson by Kirstin Johnson“These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still” – Kirstin Johnson

Cameraperson’s stream of experience filmmaking builds a poetry somewhere almost outside narrative, mixing the rare transcendent quality of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, the enticing personal revelations of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation, the kinetic joy of Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera and the haunted poetry of Alain Resnais’ Nuit et Brouillard. Part documentary, part memoir, Cameraperson is crafted from the collective camerawork of Kirstin Johnson's twenty five year long career as a roving cameraperson and international documentary filmmaker.

Consciously picked moments of beauty, disquiet, importance, humour, pain or pure pathos; blend together talking heads documentary style and scene-stealing, far-flung landscape shots. Sometimes we're moved forward or back in time and often we doggedly return to the same subject again and again. One moment we’re in Yemen, as Johnson asks a taxi driver to covertly drive by a detention facility for Al-Qaeda prisoners. Next, we’re brought inside a Nigerian maternity hospital where a brusquely efficient midwife struggles to keep a newborn infant alive without the necessary medical resources. Then, we meet a forlorn, anonymised young American woman as she attends a women's health clinic and makes the difficult decision of terminating an unwanted pregnancy. It doesn't stop: Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kirstin's American homelife, her twin children Viva and Alex, her mother's experience of Alzheimer's.

Cameraperson doesn’t work just because of its sheer inventiveness of form, it works because of what we know about human beings and how Johnson interacts with them. Sometimes a gesture alone exposes this; an outtake, shaky camerawork, a hurried removal of a single blade of grass from the frame. The visible exposure of the mechanics of documentary production revealed, all combine to let in a little more awe than our usual  measure of carefully constructed documentary film allows. It doesn’t always do so precisely but it does so without fear and finds far gentler form than most documentary can muster.

In one scene, Jacques Derrida makes a wry joke likening Kirstin to the old adage of a philosopher falling into a well while staring at the stars. He’s crossing a busy Parisian street, as Kirstin, camera focused on her subject, stumbles over the pavement. It’s a funny quip but when considering Cameraperson doesn’t land, Johnson may have the bigger picture within her grasp but not so much that she fails to see the important minutiae of the everyday, that's almost her obsessive focus here. Cameraperson might even be the documentary equivalent of the backstage musical, like Singing in the Rain when Gene Kelly serenades Debbie Reynolds on a movie set, moving in studio lights, putting on the wind machine and standing in front of a painted backdrop as he announces his love. The deconstruction of the movie set doesn’t detract from the emotion of the scene, instead it adds to the audience's understanding of how film is constructed. The assurance offered by this breaks down some indistinct final barrier and gives way to a cinema of pure immediacy.

Johnson has worked as a cinematographer with everyone from Michael Moore (Slacker Uprising) to Kirby Dick (The Hunting Ground) to Laura Poitras (Citizen Four, The Oath) but it's Cameraperson‘s dual sensitivity and grandiosity that makes its cinéma-vérité enterprise so mesmerising.  At times, documentary’s most practical application even ceases to have meaning, the camera’s movement becoming just another aspect of Kirstin’s journey from anywhere to anywhere. Along the way we find a bit of truth in the film reels. Not that objective truth exists, but Cameraperson might be close?

Words by Cormac O'Brien

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