The process of filmmaking can be mysterious; the creation of images that are far removed from an audience through time and space can stir emotions within those audience members, but how does it all happen? There are, of course, technical elements that are part of filmmaking such as framing, lighting, audio and soundtracks. In documentaries, these considerations can include concerns with fairness and accuracy. Nonetheless, the question of how to tap into deep human emotions and convey them through images remains a puzzling, yet enduring feature of filmmaking.
In Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson takes us through a mesmerizing journey that showcases the magic behind filmmaking. It’s a documentary that defies quick summary or explanation. Through Johnson’s lens, we encounter an assembly of footage she has shot over the years that includes outtakes and even private video of her own domestic life. The amalgamation of all this footage tells a personal and universal story. It’s like reading a personal diary with some free-flowing narrative that includes images and people from all over the world rather than specific words.
Cameraperson is a memoir that includes powerful moments, like an experience in Sarajevo that shows a translator describing her experience while coming to terms with the civil war and the sexual violence it entailed. As she talks to the camera, she later turns away and says, “We don’t get to choose where we live.” It is an offhand remark that, taken within the context of the rest of the footage, stirs deep contemplation and empathy for all people struggling to come to terms with their lot in life.
Throughout the film you get glimpses of Johnson whispering to the rest of the crew, deciding how to frame a shot or complaining on the lack of ideal natural lighting. She talks to her documentary subjects or moves through the frame to arrange all the elements of a shot. Woven through these moments, there are also the more affecting moments that involve Johnson connecting with the people she is aiming the camera at. Long thought to be a refuge, Johnson shows that even when there is a language barrier, she is able to empathize and find that deep connection to her fellow human beings from behind the camera. The message here is profound, challenging deeply held beliefs of objectivity and truth versus fiction in documentary filmmaking.
In Cameraperson, the sublime is not only within reach but the demystified process of filmmaking exposes how deeply human it is to connect with other faces and other stories. The cinematic representation of other troubled parts of the world is not a disconnection. Johnson shows through this assembly of evocative images that there are themes that rise to the surface through these seemingly disjointed images that are not even organized in a linear fashion.
The faces and stories we see and hear tell a story of human resilience in the face of brutal atrocities and injustices. There are also losses through the film, both in the subjects she captures around the world but also personal losses, as she shows the death of her own mother. There is beauty in that personal tragedy as well. The spectacular landscapes shown demonstrate the need for connection and place and how nature resonates and endures. You may not be aware of how complex Cameraperson is, as the shots include the mundane and simple details of life, but the entire composition of this film will tap into something deep within, unlocking that mysterious process as something underpinned with empathy and impact.
Cameraperson runs 102 minutes and is not rated. It will be playing in our South Florida area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque starting Oct. 21. For nationwide screenings please click here. Images and a screener link was provided by Janus Films for the purposes of this review.