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Film

Cameraperson Puts You in the Shoes of a Documentarian

Still for Cameraperson (2017)

Written by Tristan Olav Torgersen
Originally posted on IndieEntertainmentMagazine.com
October 26, 2017

White text appears on a black screen. It reads, “For the past 25 years I’ve worked as a documentary cinematographer. I originally shot the following footage for other films, but here I asked you to see it as my Memoir. These are the images of marked me and leave me wondering still.”

So begins Cameraperson.

Kirsten Johnson is a producer, cinematographer, documentarian, and writer. Her 25 years of experience take center stage as the viewer gets to tag along through various homes, cities, countries, and landscapes through this documentary.

The film spans those 25 years and each set of scenes brings you someplace you may have
never heard of, never been to, and perhaps never even wondered about.

“In making Cameraperson, we decided to rely as much as possible on the evidence of my experience in the footage I shot in the moment,” [explained] Johnson. “We know that this fragmentary portrait is incomplete and are interested in the way it points to how stories are constructed.”

She continued, saying that her “hope is to convey the immediacy of finding oneself in new territory with a camera, as well as giving the audience a sense of how the accumulation of joys and dilemmas that a cameraperson must juggle builds over time. The film itself is an acknowledgement of how complex it is to film and be filmed.”

I, for one, will say that she succeeded in her pursuits.

Filming and being filmed is a complex and difficult process. Even beyond the nightmares that are lighting, framing a shot without bystanders or distractions, shooting controversial footage, dealing with government oversight and censorship, interviewees not being truthful out of fear, and not to mention the fact that you carry full camera equipment across rugged terrain and in dangerous circumstances.

You could say filmmaking is a difficult career to have. I sure would say so. That being said, I caught a glimpse of the joy and vision of filmmakers and camera people.

When the perfect shot comes into view and it is captured through the camera, it is a beautiful moment.

When seeing a collection of white crosses marking a graveyard becomes a spiritual
experience, you have something special.

When you are filming and pure emotion blossoms in front of your lens, you have captured
essence.

You have captured experience.

You have captured a portion of someone’s life, and you get to share that.

In what I like to call “The Golden Age of Documentaries,” due to streaming services and the increase of documentaries available for viewing on demand, Cameraperson truly sets itself apart.

It is a visual story and it is told as such. There is no driving script or narration. There is no explanation as to why the scene focuses on a certain individual or landscape.

Instead, Johnson allows the audience to meet her at the altar of interpretation and receive the message they wish to see. There is a requirement of the viewer to connect the scenes in whichever way they feel right. That is powerful editing and directing.

You take a journey from the huts and hovels of Foča and Sarajevo, Bosnia to a ranch in
Wyoming.
You arrive in a Texas courtroom pre-trial and examine items to be admitted as evidence.
You stop off at Wounded Knee.
You explore a little of Guantanamo Bay.
Next, Nyamata Church in Rwanda.
Wake up in Brooklyn.
Salivate over a fresh watermelon in Afghanistan.
Struggle to understand the strength of a couple women in Darfur.

These stories are told through scenery and shots. Nothing is complete, nothing is definite.

Camera people might be the closest thing to an unlicensed psychologist out there.

They see everyone’s facial expressions. Their scars. They capture their tears. Their anger. The dirt and dust. The pain. The hurt. True love. Longing. Serendipity. Misery. They see it all. Before a background score is added. Before commentary is given by the documentarian. Before the unbearable scenes are edited out. They witness life unfiltered and uncensored. One woman who was interviewed about her experience as a psychologist in Bosnia struck with me a comment she made.

“After you receive thousands of stories yourself, what is your channel to let it go?”

I felt almost as if Kirsten Johnson’s inclusion of that line was her own way of expressing how she felt. Her memoir could not be complete without the reality of the burden she must carry through her experiences.Through exploration and experience, we glimpse the diversity of circumstances and the reality of life far beyond our own.

Western Culture in general, is very unlike much of the world. We live in a very sanitized, organized, and prescribed world.
Sick? See a doctor get a pill.
Are you Poor? Apply for aid, beg on the streets, visit a shelter.
Angry? Get a lawyer and sue.
Do something stupid, get sued.
You are born with a certificate and a name, you die with a certificate and a name on a
headstone.

While I oversimplify for dramatic effect, it is not far from the truth.

Even the poorest group in the United States has never been subjected to mass genocide. No one is in fear of an invading army marching into their small Kansas town one day and raping and murdering its citizens. Our struggles are different, and not to be set aside as insignificant, but they are not the same trials and struggles.

Cameraperson tells unscripted stories through its curation and compilation. The beauty in weaving together extra clips and unused footage is that the scenery, people, and humanity tell a story of their own just through visuals.

I found myself wondering what story I would be telling through my visage and countenance
throughout my days, hours, and moments. I’m not suggesting we hire filmmakers to follow
us around every waking moment, but I do believe that such introspection and analysis would teach us much more about ourselves.

Johnson teaches us in a masterpiece that I doubt she planned on making at the start of her career. The diversity of those situations and peoples depicted in the documentary is
astonishing.

Yet, upon closer analysis and contemplation, I found myself setting aside the blatant
differences. I instead saw the unity of the human experience shine through their varied lives and situations.

We all experience worry and stress.

We all desire joy.

We all seek for connection.

We all want to be understood.

Through Cameraperson Kirsten Johnson helps the audience and those she has come in
contact with near those goals. Truly art in every sense of the word.

I chuckled, I teared up, I was intrigued, and my mind was opened.

Empathy and connection can be gained through the lens of that camera, and for that, I am
truly grateful.


Watch it here if your local PBS Station allows it. Or, find it online!

Visit the Official Website and IMDB page as well!