As a visually radical memoir, Cameraperson draws on the remarkable footage that filmmaker Kirsten Johnson has shot and reframes it in ways that illuminate moments and situations that have personally affected her. What emerges is an elegant meditation on the relationship between truth and the camera frame, as Johnson transforms scenes that have been presented on Festival screens as one kind of truth into another kind of story—one about personal journey, craft, and direct human connection.
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★★★★★ review by Lucy on Letterboxd
this is genuinely one of the most interesting and engulfing films i've ever seen
★★★★ review by Michael Sicinski on Letterboxd
"The Laura Poitras / Dani Leventhal mash-up you didn't know you'd been waiting for," a called this on Twitter, only somewhat glibly. But the fact is, Cameraperson is a rare viewing experience. Not only does Kirsten Johnson bring together two forms of filmmaking (nonfiction advocacy cinema and poetic / associative diary) that typically have nothing to do with one another. She finds that the two modes can strengthen each other, making something vital and unique, rather than watering each other down into middlebrow pabulum.
As Johnson explains in her opening title, these are the fragments from her own work as a nonfiction cinematographer that have stayed with her. Cameraperson, then, is a compilation of puncta (to borrow Roland Barthes' terminology from Camera Lucida), the moments, images, people and conversations that assert themselves in her mind. This is a twofold effect, since the productions from which these fragments are excerpts and outtakes, represent studia in the most direct sense. For Barthes, a photograph contains the studium, the denotative, direct meaning that anyone would derive -- "here is a hungry child in a desert;" "here is a body in a battlefield" -- and the punctum, the piercing individual detail that jumps out from the image and makes the image connect with the viewer's emotional core -- a sad dog in the corner, a quality of light, a fugitive ironic smile in a tragic scene, a loose button on a soldier's uniform. The punctum is so individual that it is hardly worth remarking on, and yet it is what makes the image a living concern, above and beyond the cliché of reportage.
When I say "twofold," I mean not only that these are emotional fragments that jump out from an overall schema of informational sound / image relationships. There's also the fact that Johnson created these images not as a director but as a cinematographer. In every respect, Johnson was on assignment, and the excerpts she has made her own are taken not from the margins of production, but from somewhere other than the center. In editing these moments together, Johnson provides a compendium that resembles the working of memory, linking them through association and texture.
Many of them retain the informational tenor of the original source material, but shed the objectivity of traditional documentary in favor of direct human connection. (A scene where Johnson and her director comfort a young woman who is ashamed of her unplanned pregnancy is a crucial moment in the film, because it shows proper documentary distance, and its formal language, breaking down.) Cameraperson has affinities with more esoteric essay-films like Sans Soleil, or the recent nonfiction works of Agnès Varda. But like the avant-garde filmmaking of Leventhal or Abigail Child, there is an implicit focus on how these elements tend to signify, through editing choices and juxtaposition. The power of Cameraperson is a cumulative one, because we have seen these building blocks before, but they are usually arranged into a very different kind of edifice, one far less idiosyncratic and alive.
★★★★½ review by SilentDawn on Letterboxd
Still reeling from this so scattered thoughts will have to do for now:
- Kristen Johnson shows great empathy in her images at a base level. If all of the footage is seen as remnants of other projects and a culmination of a particular artistic work ethic, then the composition and immediacy of framing disregards the initial scrambled nature of the edit. Each shot is just another aspiration for capturing truth; look at the moment where Johnson's hands pull weeds out of a low-angle shot in order to make for a more aesthetically pleasing makeup.
- Of course, then this idea of a certain level of truth is combated by moments which confront our comfort in what we're seeing. Should Johnson be filming this? Should she become involved in some way? Or is the act of a spectator enough when it comes to capturing life as seen through the lens of a camera? Will active participation tarnish the lucidity of the evocation? These are questions which are probed segment by segment, each rising in action as Johnson doubles back to satisfying ends or opaque resolutions depending on the particulars.
- Its cohesiveness as an essay pales in comparison to its effectiveness as a construct of one perspective's encounters in a variety of landscapes and situations. It's personal in the way that our home movies are personal; they weren't explicitly created for nostalgia or fond dissection of ourselves, but in-the-moment motion stills for our remembrance. When you film a birthday party or a family event, you aren't reaching towards artistic excellence, but grounded evidence of the world around you (although Johnson melds the two together). The lens of a camera makes the opaque clear and the fragmented close-knit, and Johnson just happened to edit a career (and a life) of it into a singular feature.
★★★★ review by matt lynch on Letterboxd
"Maybe she should just help you cut the tree."
★★★★ review by Josh Larsen on Letterboxd
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.
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