Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Cameraperson Finds Captivating Unity Across Disparate Pieces of Footage

Kirsten Johnson has been doing this for a long time. She's been a cinematographer for documentaries for a little over three decades now. Having worked on everything from Fahrenheit 9/11 to Derrida, Johnson's been everywhere and seen everything. Over this prolific career, Johnson's compiled piles of footage that didn't make the final cut of individual films she worked on. Instead of letting that footage gather dust in a drawer somewhere, Johnson's decided to do something audacious. Her 2016 directorial effort Cameraperson is a self-proclaimed cinematic memoir comprised entirely of disparate pieces of footage from assorted movies she's worked on.

Quite quickly, Cameraperson establishes its unique structure. A text-screen gives the viewer the location of what we're about to watch before a brief burst of footage (hailing primarily from documentaries and home videos) transpires. The locations and tone of these segments vary greatly. For instance, one of the first things we see is a boxer in his locker room preparing to be assessed by judges if he's fit to fight. The atmosphere here is upbeat and hopeful thanks to the apparent confidence of the boxer. Shortly after, we move to the Middle East where Johnson is following a guide around to a potential detaining facility. Now the mood has become intense as so many of the people around Johnson are trying to keep her from this facility.

The various places Johnson's camera travels to only get more disparate from there. It sounds like jumping between these varying backdrops should provide a jarring experience. In execution, though, Cameraperson proves to be utterly absorbing, the jumps between differing atmospheres and countries doesn't even cross one's mind. Partially this is because Johnson has managed to unearth some unifying themes across the various segments. Perhaps most importantly among these recurring elements is how Johnson constantly unearths raw humanity in the subjects she chronicles. Whether it's a disgruntled boxer or her own grandkids, her camera is able to push through any external facades to get at what people are truly feeling.

This is especially true in regards to the footage centered on survivors of genocide and other atrocities. Johnson's humanistic approach to camerawork really comes in hand in these sequences as she uses her talents to reaffirm the humanity of people that powerful forces tried to wipe off the face of the Earth. Another moving example of this trait of Johnson's filmmaking is a scene dedicated to a woman becoming frustrated with unpacking her deceased mother's endless collection of possessions. In this sequence, we follow a person running the entire gamut of emotions anyone would feel when coping with the loss of a loved one. Such feelings are captured viscerally through Johnson's camera, particularly the woman's feelings of rage as expressed by tossing her mom's papers clear across the room.

As cornball as it sounds, the title of Cameraperson is a fitting title for the project given how it's all about a camera underscoring that each person it chronicles is a complex human being. That quality can make certain scenes, like recurring segments showing investigators talking about a Texas murderer, unshakably eerie. But the richly and nonchalantly human spirit of Cameraperson makes much of the movie a captivatingly moving experience. This is especially apparent in a later sequence depicting Johnson just filming her interactions with her Alzheimer-stricken mother. It's such a simple scene in terms of their behavior but that elegant simplicity is what makes it so recognizably human.

It's thoroughly impressive how well put-together Cameraperson is on a thematic level as it channels the likes of Cloud Atlas in finding such riveting unity across storylines transpiring across different continents and eras. Similarly outstanding is the editing from Nels Bangerter, which ensures that the transitions between individual scenes are handled with grace. Through such polished editing, Cameraperson is able to juggle its cavalcade of footage with remarkable effortlessness. Despite hailing from a myriad of different film projects, both the editing and the thematic unity of Johnson's footage would make you think these individual pieces were always meant to come together in the cinematic puzzle that is Cameraperson.

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