By Sidney Butler, Staff Writer
In 2014, the world was struck by Richard Linklater’s visceral and fictional portrait of a young boy navigating adolescence in the groundbreaking “Boyhood.” It was unfathomable that a director could film one subject over the course of twelve years while maintaining a storyline. There was purity to this type of filmmaking, something that felt real and untouched. Premiering at this year’s New Directors’ New Films Festival was a similar cinematic triumph: Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson.” It’s an intimate visualization of the emotional toll taken upon a documentary cinematographer.
Unlike the narrative filmmaking process, documentary inserts itself into the lives of real people for years at a time in order to share their story with the world. After twenty-five years, Johnson had acquired a mass of footage showcasing personal stories from all around the world. This never-before-seen footage enlightens the viewer and demonstrates the power of the camera. We see Johnson’s subjects cry, laugh, express anger and even pure rage. From a boxer who loses a match to a subject who explains the difficulty in getting an abortion, each character brings their own story to Johnson’s diverse narrative.
As much as the film is a peak inside the many narratives of people around the world, it is more the story of Johnston as the observer. The filmmaker illuminates pieces of herself as she talks with her subjects and discusses which shots she wishes to film. The emotional challenges she faces behind the camera are present and tangible. She witnesses a newborn baby gasping for air in Nigeria, a young boy crying from blindness in Myanmar. In her director’s statement Johnson says, “The dilemmas I face while holding my camera are formidable.”
Unlike your typical documentary, “Cameraperson” isn’t filled with interviews that follow one person or narrative but instead presents multiple narratives that unexpectedly intertwine. The film, which is cut into miniature clips spaced between spaces of black, holds a message: after a lifetime of dissecting others, Johnson is still trying to discover herself. Each narrative is inevitably a part of her life and her life’s work. Ultimately in telling the stories of others, she is telling the story of herself. In some instances we see her two children talking with their grandfather, or Johnson’s Alzheimer’s-stricken mother with walking around the house pointing out things that puzzle her.
With deepening silences, “Cameraperson” embraces the power of the mundane, taking full force of the emptiness of sounds with the pauses in speech and elongated shots. It even feels as if the cuts to black between subjects are the skipping of a tape, showcasing memories caught through the eyes of Johnson herself. “Cameraperson” highlights the beauty in the ordinary and reflects back to the audience exactly what the camera sees, which after over two decades, is life.