Cameraperson Intrigues, but Often Lacks Context

Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Big Mouth Productions, 102 minutes, Not-Rated
* * *

Kirsten Johnson is a documentary filmmaker best known for her work on productions such as Citizenfour (2014), her look at Edward Snowden; Darfur Now (2007); and This Film is Not Yet Rated (2006), a takedown of the politics of Hollywood ratings codes. Her newest project, Trapped, has been making its way across college campuses this spring, as its topic—the backdoor efforts to limit access to abortion services—is a hot-button issue.

Like most documentarians, though, the few things for which Johnson is known are but the iceberg’s tip of her career. Much of the larger body of work has been behind the camera, either for her own small films or as a hired lens crafter for projects directed by others. She has done camera work, for instance, on several Michael Moore films. Cameraperson is a pastiche of her resume, with an intriguing twist. Its major point is to see subjects as if you are the eye of the lens. The approach is both personal and voyeuristic; in essence, it’s both revelatory and sometimes faintly unsettling. The idea intrigues, though sometimes the final product is stronger in conception than in execution.

To say that Johnson’s past oeuvre is catholic in an understatement. In addition to the subjects mentioned above, Johnson’s cameras have probed topics such as military women and rape, genital mutilation in Ghana, midwives in Nigeria, the relationship of humans and thinking animals, gay Jews, the philosopher Jacques Derrida, Mormons, and Chinese medicine. She made films in France, but has spent a lot of time in Africa and in the Balkans. If there are any constant themes in her work, they are: social activism, the roles of women across the globe, the effects of war on women, the dangers of militarism, and power relations. How, exactly, does one summarize such eclecticism?

There is, of course, no imperative that films have a strict narrative structure. Johnson opts for a bathing-in-images approach akin to that of Koyaanisqatsi (1982) or Baraka (1992), except her film eschews quick-cuts and has more dialogue. It’s a sampler approach with culls that stand independently of each other, yet are incomplete in and of themselves. We watch a Nigerian midwife impassively deliver two children, one of which is healthy and the other of which appears unlikely to survive; listen to an old Muslim woman with wrecked teeth and posture tell us of her former beauty and her current optimism; follow Derrida across a street while holding court; notice Michael Moore ambushing an interviewee; and witness war’s devastation in numerous locales. We can only infer how any of these things end.

I’d like to say that all of this works as well as Koyaanisqatsi or Baraka, but that’s not the case. In the former, the image is the story; in Johnson’s films, the story is the story but we must infer it from the images. When it works, it’s spot on, but I often found myself struggling for enough context to understand why Johnson picked a particular slice of film over another. Cameraperson is under two hours in length, yet it feels longer because of the amount of intellectual energy needed to stay engaged. Should you see it? Yes—the virtues are worth it—but be prepared for an uneven journey that could use a tough editor to sort. I’d also say that if individual clips fail to resonate, just let that be the case. There is no grand theme other than seeing things from the POV of the lens, so you’ll be just fine if you tune in and out.  --Rob Weir

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