DIR: Kirsten Johnson
In our age when almost everyone walks around with a camera in their pocket, it’s probable that everyone also has recordings of themselves as mementos through various stages in their life. A basic understanding of how cameras work would suggest that the machine acts in capturing an event, recording from an objective and detached perspective as the action unfolds. While this is undoubtedly axiomatic, it’s also a contentious remark. As an inanimate object, the camera has no personality but its user utilizes their subjectivity when determining what to capture for preservation. As such, it’s possible to argue that the act of recording itself is a personal action and reveals a person even if they never enter the frame.
This conception is at the heart of Kirsten Johnson’s documentary, Cameraperson. An established cinematographer, Kirsten has worked on documentaries such as Derrida (2002), Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), and the renowned Citizenfour (2014). Explaining her intention, Cameraperson begins by stating that the compiled personal footage and clips from the documentaries she’s worked on have a profound resonance for her. Due to this, Cameraperson feels less like a documentary and more of a visual memoir, which includes no voice over or explanation, and only one scene with Kirsten in front of the camera herself.
The central premise of Cameraperson might be too cerebral an idea to endure for an extensive period of time so it’s difficult to imagine its box office will be successful. From a cynical perspective, what Kirsten has done is simply made a clip show of her numerous works without context. Despite this and some minor incoherency, the film is edited superbly to allow a pattern of thought to emerge from recordings made time and countries apart from one another. Its use of thematic interconnections abets in making the film never delve into that cynical idea, and as a visual memoir, Johnson presents her life dexterously through every shot.
To even a semi-cinephile, the theory that what’s presented in the frame of the camera reflects the person who shoots it should ring alarm bells to those familiar with auteurism. However, Johnson isn’t attempting to showcase an established theory but questioning the authenticity of documentary filmmaking itself. During one of the opening scenes, a lawyer working on the murder of James Byrd Jr. discusses his decision to use booklets filled with images to present his case. As he explains, if the jury examine the selected images, they’re inevitably going to respond emotionally and become mad. In this regard, the subjectivity that Johnson illustrates through her recordings creates a dilemma in whether or not it’s possible to determine if a documentary’s subject is captured with complete objectivity in every frame.
Cameraperson is certainly a stimulating film to watch. Kirsten Johnson delivers a clever and thought-provoking examination of her own life by simply never personally addressing the viewer while creating her portrait. Although it’s certain that some may be disappointed and disengaged with its central premise, the documentary still presents an intriguing proposition to the value of documentary filmmaking itself and images in global media. At a time when the truth becomes questionable and dubious to the public at large, Cameraperson feels not only timely but relevant to the ongoing determination.
Cameraperson is released 27th January 2017