Cameraperson: Life Itself, by David Bax
You’re likely to see Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson described as a documentary. That’s understandable, as it consists of nonfiction footage and will almost certainly compete in the documentary category in the upcoming awards season. In the texted prologue to the film, however, Johnson herself refers to it as her memoir. That’s more fitting but, to some extent, it still falls short of capturing this vital and intoxicating film. This is no mere journal or recounting of events. Johnson introspectively examines the very nature of her job, which consists of documenting real life, and then comes through the other side with a testament to life itself.
Cameraperson is assembled entirely from footage Johnson shot that was not initially intended for this film. Almost all of it comes from the various documentaries on which she has served as cinematographer and camera operator. Many of these you’ve likely seen or at least heard of, though the pieces of footage here are only identified by date and location, not by the name of the project for which they were recorded.
In essence, then, Cameraperson is a true “found footage” movie. But it’s not a collage built from samples of preexisting works. Many of the clips are actually outtakes. A number of them are home movies. Both give us the added insight of Johnson’s voice, often hushed, talking with her director and/or her subjects about what she’s shooting. In a way, this is the movie’s narration, though it would be more aptly described as a stream of consciousness or an inner dialogue.
Home movies aside, everything in Johnson’s film was originally shot under the administration of another director. In this sense, Cameraperson serves a secondary function as a rebuttal to the auteur theory, locating a common voice in the works of varied authors.
In every sense, of course, it’s Johnson who is the throughline here. On one level, her experiences serve as a rough narrative but, more importantly, there are themes and motifs that reoccur. Clearly something draws her to sites of past horrors, massacres, rapes and other such atrocities, from the hole in New York where the World Trade Center previously stood to the walls of a Bosnian city still pockmarked with bullet holes. Yet her fascination with such locations is not a morbid one. She seems preoccupied instead with the way these places have memories written into them, how the past powerfully yet indifferently informs the present. Her focus on memory is brought crushingly home when we see footage of Johnson’s own mother in the grips of Alzheimer’s.
There’s no cure for her mother, of course, but Johnson appears to find a therapeutic sort of poetry in the way her involuntary passivity is reflected in her vocation. During the making of one documentary, her camera locates two very young boys playing with a hatchet, with no other adults around. We the audience are on the edge of our seats with concern and, clearly, so is Johnson, as we hear her repeatedly, nervously mutter, “Oh, jeez.” Still, she does nothing to interfere. That’s not her role, in work or life. The act of documenting, Cameraperson argues, is as important as what’s being documented. Life carries on ever forward but, as long as we take note and remember, death does not have to be the end.