Criterion Collection · United States

#853 Cameraperson (2016)

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#853 Cameraperson

2016 // USA // Kirsten Johnson

Criterion Collection (LINK)

Dziga Vertov, a Soviet filmmaker best know for the documentary A Man With A Movie Camera (1929), used the term “Kino-Eye” in a 1923 manifesto, “I am kino-eye, I am a mechanical eye. I, a machine, show you the world as only I can see it”. Most often than not, cinema is about voyeurism, of seeing, observing, capturing; but it’s also related to the discernment between showing and not showing. What “I” see doesn’t necessarily encompass completely in what “I” show. In Cameraperson, “I” is Kirsten Johnson, a renowned documentary film cinematographer career spanning over 25 years. She utilities the unused footage in her numerous projects and interspersed with her personal home video in an unobtrusive and oblique editing. She is the woman behind the camera, she is the “Kino-Eye” that shows us the world as she sees it.

Unlike the rigid standardized interviewing format, Cameraperson is flexible in its presentation. Johnson as the cameraperson is understandably rarely seen from the lenses. At most we saw her camera-on-shoulder shadow on the pavement, or her hand wiping the car windshield, or near the end of the film a glimpse of her selfie amidst a scene with her deteriorating mother with Alzheimer. Despite avoidance of monologue, her giggling, sneezing, cross or self-questioning are often heard off screen, Johnson’s presence is undeniably palpable and genuine. That allows us the spectators to put ourselves in Johnson’s shoes unrestrainedly as often the objective filmmaking eschewed. Yet on the same time the film raises the moral dilemma of seeing. Is it justifiable to show horror and death on camera? Is it right for Johnson to film her mother who was gradually losing her self-awareness due to the disease, or to film her toddler twins without their consents? Sometimes the face of the interviewees are hidden outside the frame, a patient of the Women’s Health Clinic for abortion is only seen by her flinching hands over her thighs. Despite we are unable to see her expression, but we can still hear her secrets, pain and agony and hence raise our empathy.

Death and atrocity, subjects unavoidable in human nature are often recurred in Cameraperson. There is a series of shots showing the location of massacre, torture, rape and mass killing happened in the recent history: Wounded Knee, Tahrir Square, Liberia, Rwanda, the World Trade Center, Sarajevo and Camp X-Ray Guantanamo Bay. Johnson brings the camera to record the account of individual out from these collective stories: a family of Muslim returning back to the farm in Bosnia after the genocide, a boy from Kabul Afghanistan with one-eye blinded by the blast of an explosion, the court case of a black man ruthlessly killed by being dragged with a truck. “How do we represent horror, represent death, whilst respecting the golden rule – dignity?” asked by a lecturer at one point in the film. I think Kirsten Johnson answers the question by producing a film that serves both a memoir, as the opening intertitle asserts, as well as a fragmented recollection of human existence.

The film is divided into numerous small sections preceded only by the location name. The time is unknown, sometimes the name of the interviewees are shown but not much information are given. One scene presumably came from the Oscar-winning documentary Citizenfour (2014) shows an encrypted USB drive being mixing with cement in an unknown address. The undisclosed part lies under the shadow, filtered out by the cameraperson as the non-seeing component, yet as important as the ones visible which leads us question what we saw formerly. There are joyous moment in the tribal dance in Uganda or horrific scene of a midwife nurse delivering an oxygen-deprived newborn in Nigeria. There are no picturesque photography but levelheaded spontaneous scene permeated with compassion. At the end Cameraperson is a film made out of beauty. The beauty radiated from the people, the characters and their respective stories encapsulates what “I” see more than simply a product from a machine.

Film Rating: 4.5/5

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