Captured over the course of twenty-five years working as a documentary cinematographer, Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson is a fascinating collection of moments, people, places, and things that were left out of the projects she initially captured them for. Articulating what makes the movie great without simply rattling off nearly every single piece of footage in the film is a challenge, but there are a couple of pieces in particular that provide keys for unlocking the movie as a whole.
The first of these clips is placed near the front of the movie. Johnson and another woman, probably a producer or director, peer through the camera as they observe a hillside in Bosnia, while having a quiet conversation about the methodology behind Johnson's technique. As the footage unfolds, she notes details, such as finding a place to focus on with no people in it, almost like landscape photography. The viewer doesn't have to know anything about filmmaking to then watch the film looking for these kinds of moments, or any other shot or bit that give the viewer a deeper sense of what Johnson is looking for through her viewfinder.
Through this footage, Cameraperson asks the viewer to approach the material in the opposite way a normal documentary would: consider, at all times, the perspective and intent of the person recording the footage, including how it's been selected and whether or not it's been manipulated. The film's title card appears over footage from alongside a road on an overcast day, and Johnson's gasp at the sight of lightning (and her camera-rattling sneeze a few moments later) create a connection between the viewer and unseen host. We hear her voice from off-camera, expressing those sorts of insights about the qualities she's looking for in a location or a shot, and asking questions of her subjects that help direct the film she's making. At one point, we even see, in footage that appears to have been filmed for personal reasons, Johnson rearranging the personal trinkets on a table to help create a better and more concise shot. As the opening caption card explains, this is a memoir, a document not necessarily of the sights and sounds on display, but a document of Johnson's journeys, as she travels from from country to country, subject to subject.
Of course, although the purpose of the movie may be to document Johnson's personality and technique, the device it uses is the footage itself, and my, what footage it is. Again, a complete rundown of all of the funny, exhilarating, frightening, strange, and sweet things on display would do nothing but spoil those surprises for the viewer, but a few choice snippets stand out. In one, a deleted scene from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, Moore talks to a soldier who is helping him attempt to draft the sons and daughters of those who supported the war in Iraq. Johnson watches as Moore interviews the soldier on his opinion on the war. The resulting two minutes are arguably more compelling than Moore's entire movie (and that's not intended as a F9/11 slam). A pregnant girl in what seems to be a Planned Parenthood discusses her need for an abortion, fighting through complex emotions, which we see through her hands, which Johnson films instead of showing her face. There's footage that tells us what we don't see and don't know, of a flash drive containing some sort of confidential information being cemented into the ground, and Johnson talking to an unidentified military personnel member of some sort as the camera points at an empty wall, which is recorded over something deemed top secret. People: a young boy from Afghanistan who talks about losing his eye in a war zone; a happy soldier or officer who leaves Johnson his watermelon when he's called away; a tired Nigerian midwife who has more babies to deliver; a carefree Bosnian grandmother talking as she bakes.
The format of Cameraperson, which is to present the footage in snippets in a pattern that is not entirely evident but can be felt, will potentially be a sticking point for the kind of people who need commentary, who need for a person to explain how a visual or an idea makes them feel rather than simply intuiting it or allowing the footage to affect them rather than wondering how they were intended to be affected. Those with an affection for Godfrey Reggio's landmark Koyaanisqatsi may get a similar vibe, but Johnson's work is more personal, more rooted on the ground. There is a found beauty, humor, and drama in each segment, pulled out of who knows how many hours of additional footage, that captures a philosophy about Johnson as a documentarian rather than the strictly biographical -- when, where, how. At the same time, there is also a dose of the personal: footage of Johnson's mother, suffering from Alzheimer's, trying to remember the people and places around her, and footage of her own children, exploring the area around her house with her father in tow. The most important takeaway may be just that Johnson is passionate and compassionate about the world around her, and watching Cameraperson may help renew viewers' sense of curiosity about the world around them.
Criterion has selected one of Johnson's images, taken through the front windshield of a car about to go through a series of road tunnels, as the cover art for their Blu-ray. Not sure that this image has any real significance compared to any other in the film (the brief shot capturing Johnson's shadow on the ground would strike me as a more fitting pull, or the shot of Johnson filming used on the poster), but what do I know. The one-disc release comes in Criterion's usual Scanavo Blu-ray case, and there is a booklet (an actual booklet, not one of the fold-out pamphlets that are more common for current Criterion releases) featuring an essay by director Michael Almereyda and writings by Johnson.
The Video and Audio
Presented in 1080p AVC with an overall aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with pillarboxing where the footage dictates it, Cameraperson is naturally a mixed bag when it comes to the quality of the footage. Some of it looks crisp and modern, some of it looks a bit softer and more digital, captured on a previous generation of HD video, and some of it looks downright old-fashioned -- the footage from the courtroom, involving the various exhibits from a crime scene, features completely crushed, blinding whites, moire patterns on a man's suit jacket, and distinct loss of fine detail. All of this is to be expected, and none of it detracts from the presentation of the film. The same is true of the movie's 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, the quality of which fluctuates based on the era in which the material was recorded, although there is some score, and as Johnson notes in the making-of featurette, some of the audio has been enhanced in post-production. Occasionally, burnt-in on-screen subtitles will appear to capture key comments that are not intentionally being recorded or are delivered by subjects who are hard to understand, and optional English subtitles are also available to cover the rest of the footage.
"Editing Cameraperson" (36:31) is a fascinating behind-the-scenes documentary that charts the genesis and development of the movie, including pieces with narration by Johnson that represent a first draft of what would be the final movie. The piece is mostly anchored by an interview with Johnson (who is wonderfully candid and honest), but some of her collaborators are involved as well, including editor Nels Bangerter, who was instrumental in breaking and developing the structure of the final film after a startling initial "trauma cut". It's an emotional journey, with Johnson getting choked up.
"In the Service of the Film" (39:04) is a roundtable with Johnson, sound designers Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp, and producer Gini Reticker that focuses on the technique and process of documentary filmmaking, including behind-the-scenes information on footage that ended up in Cameraperson. Less about the movie and more about filmmaking in general, but no less interesting. At times, it also feels like group therapy, with the participants discussing the intense emotional experience of making tough films.
The menu selection "Festival Talks" leads to two clips, one from the Traverse City Film Festival (21:48), where Johnson is interviewed by Michael Moore, and another from the Sarajevo Film Festival (14:51). It would be understandable to worry that these Q&A segments might cover the same ground covered in the other supplements, but these edited panels may contain some of the most impactful and startling footage of all the extras. In the panel with Moore, Johnson reveals two incredible stories, one about talking to a woman after a particularly harrowing event and what the woman confessed to her later, and another about the events that happened after Johnson visited the Nigerian hospital and how her perception of it was different than reality. Moore is a delightful host, and they have fantastic rapport together. In the second, Johnson brings up the family of the grandmother who appears in the film, and explains the bittersweet story about her passing before she could see the finished film, and there is plenty of talk about that section of the movie and her relationship with the family and her collaborators, some of whom are at the screening.
The final extra is a short film by Johnson called The Above (8:35), about a surveillance balloon the military has tethered over Kabul, Afghanistan. Through a simple structure mounted entirely by editing and cinematography, the short makes a strong point very simply.
An original theatrical trailer for Cameraperson is also included.
Cameraperson is beautiful, unique, and personal. It's one of the best movies of 2016, and Criterion's Blu-ray presentation of it is loaded with wonderful content that deepens and enriches the emotional experience of an already moving film. DVDTalk Collector's Series.
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