Kirsten Johnson has been shooting documentary films for over twenty years, including highly-lauded films like Citizenfour, The Invisible War, and Fahrenheit 9/11. She’s traveled the world, and seen where all the best atrocities were committed. And now in Cameraperson, she’s compiled clips from many sources to provide a dark and powerful look at the world she’s experienced.
The subjects of the clips run the gamut. War, genocide, rape, and torture are prominently represented, both through stark images of the aftermath (e.g., the artillery-pocked wall of a mosque), and in interviews with those who lived through the ordeal. We hear the struggle of a single mother who’s facing a second unintended pregnancy, and we see a Nigerian midwife trying to keep babies alive in an under-equipped hospital. Occasionally, we’ll get something light, like children practicing ping-pong or an astrophysicist enthusiastically trying to explain quantum entanglement. And Johnson makes it personal by including footage of her own Alzheimer’s-stricken mother.
Some of the most polished footage feels like it has been rescued from the cutting room floor, where it just didn’t fit into the final version of the film for which it was originally shot. Some of it appears to be B-roll, meant to provide cutaways or background visuals for voiceovers. On a couple of occasions, we get a behind-the-scenes peek when the camera is left rolling while filmmakers decide how they want to set up a shot. And once, we’re treated to a shot of a blank wall in footage captured to overwrite a portion of a tape that someone in a position of authority deemed not suitable for public release.
It’s easy to see how a film of this type could have ended up feeling disjoint or unfocused, but somehow it all works, and the segments complement and amplify each other. It’s a heavy film and certainly could’ve been a real downer, but it seems to find the humanity when it needs to, and even occasionally feels a bit inspiring when we learn what people have overcome. And as you would expect from a longtime cinematographer of her caliber, the shots are gorgeous even when the camera is trained on something that is decidedly not. It’s unquestionably a documentary that’s worth your attention, even if you may need a little recovery time after it’s over.