Shake a bunch of “leftover” footage from a dozen documentaries onto one screen and what do you get? An intensely moving and provocatively personal consideration of what it means to carry a camera, especially in a world that has seen great suffering.
Kirsten Johnson, a veteran documentary cinematographer, pulls together past footage from her 25-year career and presents what she describes in the opening titles as a “memoir” of the “images that have marked me.” The challenge for Cameraperson is to find a way to have them mark us too, even though they are shown out of context. The miracle of Cameraperson is that they do.
This has less to do with the power of any individual image or scene than with the cumulative effect of watching seemingly disparate moments form a cohesive whole. In this sense, Cameraperson is more an achievement of direction and editing than cinematography. (Johnson is credited as the director, while the editors are Nels Bangerter and David Teague.)
The footage is drawn from locations all over the world: a maternity ward in Nigeria; a boxing match in Brooklyn; a village in postwar Bosnia; Johnson’s childhood home in Washington state; a refugee settlement in Darfur; a courtroom in Texas. Sometimes these are woven together in lovely montages, such as a globe-hopping sequence in which the same camera movement—following a person through a crowd—is repeated in different spots worldwide. But eventually the locations and people in them are united by a guiding question, one expressed by a member of a Syrian film collective at one point and represented by another montage, this time of buildings around the world that were once places of systematic rape and torture: how can horror and death be represented with dignity?
Cameraperson keeps returning to Foča, Bosnia, where Johnson’s footage captures both the astounding beauty (the film’s first image is of wildflowers) and the testimony of those who survived unimaginable terror during the Bosnian War. She also includes a casual conversation between two Bosnians who work with victims of war crimes, in which they talk about the secondhand trauma they themselves experience by absorbing countless narratives of atrocity. How can they, too, process and present such stories with dignity?
Johnson brings this question back home to the United States, not only to Texas—where the camera captures a prosecutor struck dumbfounded as he unpacks an evidence box for a heinous murder case—but also to her own backyard, or at least the one where she grew up. Another recurring figure in Cameraperson is Johnson’s mother, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s the first time we see her and has died by the time we reach the film’s second half. You can feel Johnson’s struggle with how to give her mother dignity on camera, especially in her increasing confusion.
We remember these “home movie” sections later, when the film returns to a scene from that boxing match, which at first seems unrelated to everything else we’ve seen. A young boxer has just lost, and he prowls the halls of the arena enraged, potentially a threat to Johnson and her camera. But she follows him nonetheless, until he finds his own mother in the stands and melts into her consoling arms. A violent world has been momentarily quieted, a child connects with his mother, and Cameraperson—far from a random collection of throwaway footage—makes perfect sense.