The images that make up Cameraperson were collected by cinematographer/editor/director Kirsten Johnson absent any intention of assembling them together into a unified whole. Johnson has spent the past twenty-five years working behind the camera for other directors shooting their films. Cameraperson is a carefully ordered collection of the images that stuck with her. Almost all of them weren’t used in the films for which they were originally captured.
This begs the question – what makes a movie? Fundamentally, a movie is a moving image. Cinema happens when that moving image is graced with intention by an intelligence. That intention can be in the capturing of the image – the infamous cell phone video of the shooting of Oscar Grant at Fruitvale Station is cinema; it can be in the assembling of multiple images with each other in sequence – Rogue One is cinema; and it can be in the presentation of the images or images – security camera footage presented in court to win a case becomes cinema. Cameraperson features images gathered for one purpose but never used and now gathered together and sequenced for a new purpose. Cameraperson is cinema.
And the intending intelligence behind the assembly is Kirsten Johnson. There is a questing quality to the way she has arranged these images, as if she’s trying to figure out why these moments of all the millions of moments she’s captured on camera over the years stick with her the most. Reasons emerge amidst the editing. Thematic resonance echo shot to shot. A kind of moral narrative takes shape. These disparate lives caught on camera across space and time begin to meld into one perspective – that of Johnson. She is the cameraperson. Her view of the world is what we see.
That view is concerned with innocence and goodness and justice; with the terrible things that assail what is good; with the ways what is good persists in the presence of injustice. Cameraperson searches for what to call that persistence. An epigraph leads into Cameraperson. Johnson signs it, “With love, KJ.” It could be considered a spoiler to say this, but in each circumstance, Johnson finds love showing up in a variety of ways, and it is love that carries her and us and the people she films through.
Love is camera lens turned upon a suffering soul in a way that grants that soul dignity. This does not happen automatically. Camera lenses can be weapons of indignity, of exploitation, of mere voyeurism, as well. A central moment in Cameraperson features Charif Kiwan of the Abounaddara film collective addressing a group of students at MIT. Kiwan is critiquing the kind of news photography that would capture images of dead and dying persons simply for shock effect. He says we have a responsibility to capture death in a way that grants the dead dignity.
When I heard that, I thought about, of all things, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a movie I’d seen the day before. Both Cameraperson and Rogue One are concerned with death and the futility of just action in the face of immense physical and political power. But Rogue One dooms its characters from the beginning. It rushes from action scene to action scene without taking the time to get to know its characters, because it accepts their doom as an irredeemable matter of fact. Jyn Erso and the rest do something essential, and I suppose one could argue that the mere existence of Rogue One is a credit to their sacrifice, but it would have been much more a credit if the film has spent time letting us get to know them as persons and not just as “costs of war.”
Cameraperson sits with its “characters.” It dignifies them by gracing them with presence. Johnson’s compassion for these people is expressed by the presence of her camera’s lens. She spends time with them. She gives the time of her life for them. Movies mimic life in this way – essentially, both are matters of attention and time allotment. Our lives are treasure chests of time. Each moment spent doing anything is an expenditure. And where our treasure is, there our hearts are also.
Kirsten Johnson’s heart is with these people. They are her treasure, and in Cameraperson, she shares that treasure with us. Her film is one of the great jewels of this year in movies. If you have the presence to sit with her and explore this footage, these people and situations, you’ll find yourself greatly enriched by what you see and hear.