A boxing match in Brooklyn; life in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina; the daily routine of a Nigerian midwife; an intimate family moment at home with the director: Kirsten Johnson weaves these scenes and others into her film Cameraperson, a tapestry of footage captured over her twenty-five-year career as a documentary cinematographer. 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 with crafted narrative. A work that combines documentary, autobiography, and ethical inquiry, Cameraperson is a moving glimpse into one filmmaker’s personal journey and a thoughtful examination of what it means to train a camera on the world.
'Cameraperson' is a rather unconventional documentary about the work of the director herself, Kirsten Johnson. She is an acclaimed cinematographer and filmmaker who is obviously passionate about her films and their subjects, yet conveys her politics and beliefs in a dignified and professional manner. 'Cameraperson' is composed of a series of excerpts from her past commercial work as well as private home movies. The subjects vary widely and include social strife in third world countries, religious events, medical issues suffered by close family members, high profile murder trials,and even superficial drama within sporting events.
However, there is no overall theme or storytelling structure as to what is assembled other than as an expression of what the director has captured and feels compelled to share. So images range from one-on-one interviews to scenic shots of foreign places, and even quiet footage of mundane activity. Despite the lack of a history, or any other obvious narrative for that matter, a subtle degree of drama is created by a juxtaposition of contrasting clips (solemn prayer at a hot and dry mosque in Afghanistan, is followed by carefree young girls dancing to a Christian pop song in Colorado), as well as the camera staying staunchly focused on its subjects without any "foreign" intereference (an older child swings an small axe playfully but carelessly around a younger child, and we can just feel Johnson on the verge of intervening). Some segments are filled with sadness and pity (including the birth of a Nigerian child who is under the care of an overworked midwife working in less than ideal conditions), and others are a mixture of curiosity and scorn (a boxer seems to display poor sportsmanship when he goes off into a rage after a losing a fight). There is an artistic structure which would not be apparent on casual viewing, but even the most attentive viewer may not fully understand the director's intent.
Even the transitions between segments deliberately lack any details. The screen simply names the location of the the upcoming scene against a black background, and environmental sounds and sometimes sparse dialogue give some hint as to what is going on. This approach is both fascinating and frustrating, since the audience is denied full context of a particular story or the surrounding events. Despite it's title, 'Cameraperson' isn't a movie about the making of a documentary, nor is it a technical look at cinematography and videography, although both topics are addressed in an indirect fashion.
I certainly appreciated the expressive approach, which not only reveals the director's political outlook but also her personal conflicts in capturing and displaying. However, as visually arresting and well-assembled the clips may be, the feature itself isn't especially impressive. There are some autobiographical reveals, particularly when the focus is on the final years of her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's and eventually leaves behind the grandfather of Johnson's children. While these moments are both life-affirming and sad, the overall presentation is a bit too pretentiously artistic for my tastes. I don't necessarily need exposition which spells out all the intimate details when it comes to biographies, but I do require more cohesion and less amibuity when it comes to capturing my full empathy. Understanding 'Cameraperson' by its assembly of different scenes was like trying to learn about the music of Prince simply by editing snippets of his music in a single mix. The breadth of styles and genres may be interesting, but does the mish-mash lead to a better appreciation?
I watched this movie once, went back to refresh my memory on certain segments, but feel no need to give 'Cameraperson' a second viewing. It would be unfair and superfical to characterize this movie as a "greatest hits" collection, but in the end that is pretty much how I felt. I would much rather spend my time checking out some of the actual, unabridged documentaries themselves than scenes without the full context.
As it turns out, the bonus materials provided by Criterion helped me appreciate the main feature much more. There are long interviews with the director as well the producers and editors which spell out the messages this movie was trying to convey, and I recommend that casual movie-goers watch these supplements beforehand. Perhaps this movie went over my head as my overall reaction is certainly not in line with other critics of the cultural elite who have rated this movie with the highest of accolades. But I have to call 'em as I see 'em: 'Cameraperson' is a fascinating movie, but on its own falls considerably short of greatness.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Cameraperson' is packaged in clear keep case which is a few milimeters thicker than your standard case, which is typical of most Criterion Collection products. The disc itself is a BD-50 which contains the main feature and all its supplements. A 24 page illustrated booklet accompanies the Blu-ray, with information and essays which enhance one's enjoyment of the main feature.
'Cameraperson' is presented in 1080p AVC encoded high definition video with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. Visual quality varies greatly on the original source and method of shooting, but the overall digital transfer is great and the footage is as clear as can be. Scenes which were shot in a 1.33:1 ratio and in standard definition are naturally less detailed and have paler colors, but that is the worst one can say. Because so much of the scenic footage was caputed in a moving car or even by plane, most scenes may appear fuzzy and undefined, or even downright blurry. Interviews and other static moments look much better with details which nakedly reveal age and life experience which become etched into the human face, as well as the natural colors of our surroundings when they have not been CGI-enhanced or altered in post-production.
'Cameraperson' offers a soundtrack which is presented 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. However, much of the movie is based on quiet exchanges of dialogue between director and subject, or interpreter and subject, so dynamics and ambient sound are kept to a minimum. Voices are heard clearly and distinctly in the center channel, even when people whisper or mumble to themselves. Some surround activity occurs during appropirate moments (the hallways of a boxing ring echo when a losing fighter throws a tantrum), but even those are subtle and hardly noticed. The intimacy of 'Cameraperson' is preserved without running any electrical power your muiti-channel amplifier.
The Blu-day advertises soundtrack in other languages including Bosnian, Arabic, Dari, Hasua, and Fur. However, I was only able to access the English track and could not detect any other when examining the disc on my player and on my personal computer.
Subtitles are provided English with very little paraphrasing.
As expected, the Criterion Collection supplements the main features with substantive and thoughtful material. Don't look for fluffy interviews and generic electronic press kits here, because what is offered steers away from Hollywood hype and into a more critical anaysis (even though the crtitques themeselves may be over-reaching and overrating). The 'Cameraperson' Blu-ray provides the following clips in high definition video and in two-channel audio except where noted:
Editing 'Cameraperson:' 25 Years of the Making (36:32) goes behind the scenes of the main feature, and offers detailed explanation as to the footage chosen for the movie as well the intent behind the assembly. The producers, editors and the director herself speak articulately and with high minded seriousness. While the interviews and exposition are often fascinating, there is a small degree of conceit and self-importance which might wear thin on more politically minded viewers. Again, I appreciated the main feature more as a result of this featurette, but remain nonplussed overall.
In the Service of the Film: A Roundtable Discussion (39:06) features a discussion with collaborators of Kirsten Johnson, including sound technicians and fellow directors. For fans of the film, this detailed analysis of the movie and on Johnson's methods should be endlessly fasinating. Excerpts are provided to illustrate the conversation as if we were listening to a commentary track.
Kirsten Johnson and Michael Moore in Conversation (21:48) is taken from an audience presentation at the Traverse City Film Festival from July 30, 2016. Moore looks particularly slovenly during their conversation, but remains articulate and thoughtful as he keeps the majority of the focus on Ms. Johnson.
Kirsten Johnson at the Sarajevo Film Festival (14:15) is a recorded presentation from the August 15, 2016 screening of 'Cameraperson.' Hosted by Mike Goodridge, the featurette spotlights the director who is appreciative and gracious to her audience, even though the overall attendance appears to be awkwardly sparse.
The Above (8:35) is a 2015 short film directed by Johnson and presented in mono audio. The narrative follows a U.S. military surveillance blimp which floats over Kabul, and its paranoid effects on the people below. Like anything else, viewer reaction may depend on their political stance.
Trailer (2;06) is an effective trailer, presented in 5.1 surround sound, which sells the movie effectively and trufthfully (no false drama, no misleading narrative).
The Blu-ray packaging also contains a 24 page booklet, fully illustrated with still photos and containing a detailed essay by fellow documenatary filmmaker Michael Almereyda, a "Director's Statement" by Ms. Johnson herself, and credits regarding the film and it's sources. Overall, it's a classy presentation and a refreshing change from the advertisements which typically litter most Blu-rays.
'Cameraperson' straddles that fine line between art versus craft. In one of the behind the scenes segment, producer Danielle Varga basically boasts that this movie is presented as a challenge to the audience. Whether one sees this movie as being a grand achievement or a mere muddle will depend on your reaction to Ms. Johnson as a personality, as well as the final cut of the movie itself. There is no doubt that she's an accomplished and important filmmaker, but whether 'Cameraperson' succeeds equally is still unresolved in my mind. This Blu-ray is definitely recommended for its Criterion Collection treatment, but with great reservation over its own merits.