I bloody love a good documentary. While being often as entertaining as the big mainstream fiction works, they also enrich the mind and educate. In this year’s awards circuit, Ava DuVernay’s timely wake-up call 13th is sweeping all the big awards. Equally timely and equally stunning is Fire at Sea, which finds itself something of a favourite for big awards too. But one film that keeps on popping up on the ballots is Kirsten Johnson’s deceptively simple and utterly engrossing Cameraperson. Let’s take a closer look at it, shall we?
On the surface, Cameraperson is – like Seinfeld – ‘about nothing’. But it is also about everything. A very minimalist work, Cameraperson acts as an autobiographical collage using a great quantity of what initially appears to be unlinked footage. Director and titular cameraperson Kirsten Johnson has been filming life for years, for documentaries and personal projects. Here, she amasses a selection of unseen footage that has ‘marked’ her, and left her ‘wondering still’. Yes, Cameraperson is arguably a 90-minute montage of the world. From a day in the life of a hospital in Nigeria to a big New York City boxing match, Kirsten Johnson’s lens has seen it all. Putting all of this seemingly unrelated footage together in one film may seem choppy and disjointed. It isn’t. It could just be one of the most life-affirming things you’ll see. If you can see beyond the surface. I know a handful of people personally who wouldn’t have a clue what to make of this, because there are no explosions in it…I despair.
To call Cameraperson a ‘documentary’ rings false, for it doesn’t ‘document’ a particular moment, person or thing. To say it documents life would be too vague. It is a memoir for Johnson, sure, showing us the things she’s seen and the places she’s been. On that level, it works. But I see it more as a mirror, being held up to the world. It isn’t documenting the world, but rather is is showing us how the human race lives. From the heartbreak of unwanted pregnancy through the terror of murder to the joy of childbirth, Cameraperson’s large array of footage can easily be linked with one thing – people. Watching Cameraperson I was reminded of Koyaanisqatsi, an equally arresting creation with a purpose of showing us how we live and what we’ve done as a race. But while Koyaanisqatsi was clearly quite negative and focused on the shit we’ve done to nature, Cameraperson seems to have less focus – in a good way. But hey, this might not be what the message of the film is at all. But any film that makes you think is a good thing in my book!
Cameraperson isn’t the sort of film you can just stick on in the background and do other things while you watch it. That being said, it probably wouldn’t give you the chance. If you’re of the right frame of mind, Cameraperson will absorb you from the opening minute and keep you entranced by its unique delivery right up to the final frame. It’s the sort of film that challenges a genre’s conventions but also challenges the viewers themselves, as you seek to find the beautifully elusive messages and meanings behind each chosen segment of footage. I won’t say anything about the potential messages within the film because I’m sure it varies from viewer to viewer.
Cameraperson is a mesmerising and unforgettable piece of work, but most importantly, it’s unique. Here’s a film that is, to my knowledge, utterly unprecedented. There’s something about the style and delivery of this footage that is absorbing from the get-go, and it’s a film I know I’ll revisit sometime in the future.
Cameraperson is powerful, inspiring and innovative – exactly what cinema needs.
Cameraperson at CeX
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