WHAT: Cameraperson, a documentary self-portrait on the work of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson now available on TVOD platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Video, and Google Play, after picking up awards on the festival circuit and being screened theatrically in 2016.
WHO: Johnson, who has shot documentaries such as The Oath, Citizenfour, Happy Valley, The Invisible War, and Darfur Now, directed. Editor Nels Bangerter cut Cameraperson.
WHY WE CARE: When I started watching Cameraperson, which is made up of footage that Johnson has shot for documentaries over the last 25 years, I didn’t quite know what was going on for a few minutes. The film felt to me, at first, like a random assembly of outtakes as I observed a man herding goats in Bosnia, cars zipping down a rural road in Missouri, a boxer getting ready for a fight in Brooklyn and a nurse washing her hands after delivering a baby in a Nigerian hospital. There is also personal family footage shot by Johnson in the movie, including interactions she filmed with her late mom, who had Alzheimer’s.
But as Cameraperson progresses, what initially seems like a string of unrelated scenes quickly gels to form an aptly visual memoir of a cinematographer, who invites us to join her behind the camera and watch as she sets up shots and listen as she interviews people and interacts with fellow crew members. It’s a brave move. A lot of filmmakers wouldn’t be at all comfortable with the idea of giving us that kind of behind-the-scenes access for fear of being judged. But given that Johnson teaches filmmaking courses at New York University and the School of Visual Arts when she isn’t shooting films, it’s not surprising that she would be open to sharing her process. And she does that by simply letting us observe—there is no narration in this documentary.
While we see that Johnson is a skilled practitioner when it comes to framing a shot and working with whatever light she has, this documentary is really about using cinematography as a storytelling tool and as a way to connect with people, and what’s most interesting about Cameraperson is seeing how Johnson, while not always vocalizing it, is constantly making on the spot judgments on a variety of matters for which there are no easy answers.
To wit: Johnson has to decide how much personal risk she should take during a quietly unnerving sequence that finds her sitting in a car shooting footage of the exterior of a prison in Sana’a, Yemen, that holds Al Qaeda fighters. During another nail-biting sequence, the cinematographer has to determine whether she should intervene while filming two young brothers—one a mere toddler—playing with an ax left sitting in the wood pile just outside their family home in the mountains of Foča, Bosnia.