Kirsten Johnson’s career as a documentary cinematographer is a long and distinguished one, with highlights including Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and the Oscar winning Citizenfour. Her self-curated compendium, Cameraperson, is often searing, but it’s very format prevents it from ever sustaining the power to compel.
There’s an added edge to watching scenes that you know are real. As the opening credits appear, we watch traffic pass from a camera parked by the side of the road. A bolt of lightning strikes and it’s a bit thrilling because we know we caught it by chance. We were there at the right place at the right time.
We experience this again later, during an interview. A loud rumbling suddenly occurs overhead, momentarily disorientated, the noise is explained when, through a window, we see a pile of snow pound down from the roof onto the ground outside.
For a long time, the snippets of footage we see have little coherence. There’s not much in the way of a cumulative effect. Then it becomes clear that a lot of the stories presented are about people being the victims of terrible violence. There’s a sobering montage of locations which were home to large scale killings, from the mass genocide in Rwanda to the site of the World Trade Centre in New York City.
The silent montage is one of the film’s most powerful moments, as is the scene where a translator in Bosnia eloquently expresses the impact of listening to so many stories of people being tortured or raped. She describes the effect of bearing witness to these experiences, absorbing them and having no outlet to release them. She’s talking about her job, but she could easily be talking about the cinematographer, or even us. The horrors described enter our consciousness and they stay with us.
There are a lot of these raw moments in the film, but then there are stretches that are extremely banal. Johnson mixes excerpts from home movies in with the documentary footage. This gives us an insight into her personal life, but it proves detrimental to the film’s dramatic impetus. Every time the film starts to build up a head of steam, she loses us again.
It’s interesting to note that as well as being behind the camera, Johnson is often interviewing her subjects. In these scenes we’re struck by how brave her subjects are, to have survived so much and to be willing to share their experiences.
It’s impossible to watch parts of Cameraperson and not feel lucky to be living in such relative safety and comfort. We have so much to be grateful for. As the Bosnian translator says, we don’t choose where we are born.
Cameraperson is a frustrating experience. It contains many powerful moments, but by its nature, it’s a very patchy viewing experience.
Cameraperson is currently screening exclusively at ACMI
Richard Leathem @dickiegee