Sunday, June 23, 2019

Cameraperson (2016) directed by Kirsten Johnson

Kirsten Johnston is a cinematographer with an extensive IMDB page. Cameraperson, she says at the beginning of the film, should be considered her visual memoir. She’s taken footage from the many documentaries on which she operated a camera in various capacities, along with footage of her family. These are the images that have stuck with her.

In Bosnia she worked on a documentary about the abuse of women during the war in the 90’s. She also caught some glimpses of bucolic life there in the aftermath. She films midwives and nurses in a birthing clinic in Nigeria. There’s a clip from Throw Down Your Heart, the only documentary that she pulled from that I’d seen, of music and dancing. Interspersed are bits about her mother’s decline and death due to Alzheimer's and her kids.

It all adds up to a really fascinating whole. Her job has been to hold an eye up to various aspects of her world. Annie Dillard, who I thought of early on in the documentary (likely because I’ve recently reread some of her work) said, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” Kirsten’s days allowed her to reconstruct a look at her life.

The documentary brings up some vital questions. If you are constantly documenting the horrors of the world, what does that do to your psyche? That raises the further question of how to approach documenting pain that is not your own. What responsibility does the documentarian have to intervene? A birth in the Nigerian clinic was going poorly. It is unclear whether the child lived. They needed oxygen, but they had none in the clinic. In another clip, the documentarian Michael Moore (who I have mixed, but largely negative feelings toward) offers the interviewee legal help if he gets in trouble for his revelations in the documentary. Is that a good faith offer? Did he follow through? Was he obliged to make that offer given the subject could be facing jail time?

The film does a masterful job of giving insight to a cinematographer’s life, and the value and quandaries of choosing such a life.

Highly Recommended

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