Film Review: CAMERAPERSON (USA 2016)

cameraperson_movie_poster.jpgDirected by Kirsten Johnson

Writers: Doris Baizley (consulting writer), Lisa Freedman (consulting writer)

Star: Kirsten Johnson

The director’s vision is seen through the lens of the cinematographer’s camera. Oscar winning cinematographers? Who can forget Freddie Young’s sandstorm in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, Haskell Wexler’s locust invasion in BOUND FOR GLORY or Gordon Willis’ city silhouette in Woody Alllen’s MANHATTAN? In the new documentary CAMERAPERSON that premiered at Sundance this year, female cinematographer Kirsten Johnson delivers a uniquely insightful memoir-cum-critical-treatise on the nature and ethics of her craft.

At the film’s start, Johnson declares that she is a documentary cinematographer who for the past 25 years has shot footage for other films. She declares that this film is her memoir – images that have marked for life and many that have still kept her wondering. These are strong words – and sets up the audience for a documentary that will hopefully astound and mesmerize.

As for Johnson’s credit, she has worked behind the camera for well-known films like FAHRENHEIT 9/11- there is one shot of Michael Moore making a comment, DARFUR NOW and CITIZENFOUR among others. She has travelled around the globe in different continents uncovering hidden truths.

A boxing match in Brooklyn; life in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina; the daily routine of a Nigerian midwife; an intimate family moment at home: these scenes and others are woven into the film, a tapestry of footage captured over the twenty-five-year career of documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson. Through a series of episodic juxtapositions, Johnson explores the relationships between image makers and their subjects, the tension between the objectivity and intervention of the camera, and the complex interaction of unfiltered reality and crafted narrative.

Her documentary uses images to tell the story. There is little voiceover to put the audience into any perspective of the images or places or people on display. By looking at her images on screen, the audience is to make up their own minds on what is perceived. But each snippet is preceded with a title, mostly the name of the place where the images to be seen are taken – from as diverse locations as Foca, Bosnia, to Westport, New York. Certain placers are re-visited again in the film. Some snippets last no more than a minute while others longer.

There are plusses and negatives for this approach. The plusses include the audiences having a less biased opinion of the activities that take place – and some of these are political. A few teases the audience’s curiosity. One snippet for example traces a boxer’s activities just before he enters the ring and then ends. Other images are plain stunning and need no commentary. On the negative side, some feel out of place and difficult to follow – especially the reason for Johnson’s inclusion into her film. The short snippet of the outside of an airline as shot from inside that lasts about minute is a puzzling one. One would also like to know more about Johnson’s background, her influences and who she respects working for in the past or who she would like to wok with in the future. Her take on cinematography for fiction films would also be an insightful inclusion for this film. The closing credits list the details of all the films Kirsten has used in this doc.

Regardless, CAMERAPERSON is still a fascinating film for all those who love cinema. It is these pioneers that capture the stuff of dreams and translate it into celluloid for everyone’s benefit and pleasure.

CAMERAPERSON will have a limited run at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.


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