Cameraperson Points Its Lens at Both Death and Life

A review of Cameraperson, directed by Kirsten Johnson.

For 20 years, Kirsten Johnson has shot memorable documentary features about human suffering and the ravages of war (Pray the Devil Back to Hell, The Invisible War). Her new film, Cameraperson, collects snippets from her work on many of those features to weave a challenging tapestry—an odd hybrid of autobiography and catalog of infamy and human suffering—that threatens to become morose but which provide moments of transcendence and deep human connection.

CAMERAPERSONThe early portion of Cameraperson cuts jarringly from Bosnia to Brooklyn, Nigeria to Sarajevo, Manhattan to Uganda, and Queens to Yemen. The focus of these regional clips include a baby’s birth (one of two twins), a boxing match, philosopher Jacques Derrida and the prosecution of the killers of James Byrd, who was dragged to his death behind a pickup truck in Texas. Despite a brief inserted clip from the Johnson-shot documentary Very Semi Serious (my favorite documentary from last year, reviewed here) about New Yorker cartoonists, Cameraperson’s concentration on some of the grimmest crimes against humanity threatens to overwhelm viewers with sorrow.

The film’s unflinching look at the taking of human life extends, in one instance, to a woman convincing herself to have an abortion. (Johnson shot the film Trapped, about abortion laws.) With Johnson filming only the hands of a woman as she speaks—a tactic we’ll see more than once in Cameraperson—we hear her tell a counselor of her reluctance to have the child only to have to give it up for adoption. Once she holds her baby, she knows “that’s love,” and so she sobs, having resigned herself—with the counselor’s reassurance—that abortion is the preferable choice.

Johnson’s approach to the scene in nonjudgmental, but the fact that it stops short of cheerleading the woman’s decision feels remarkable in an age where that choice is so often championed. There is nothing to feel good about in the scene, which soon gives way to images of Johnson’s own aged mother, three years after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. In that transition, Cameraperson shows that even a life that isn’t war-torn or afflicted by outward strife and trauma (as far as we know) can bring its own share of pain and suffering, especially to those who are witness of the feebleness and frailty of a woman once vibrant and strong (again, as far as we know; Johnson doesn’t delve deeply in Cameraperson into her upbringing).

The film also addresses the lingering trauma of sexual assault (internationally and within the United States), but in the midst of all this darkness, Johnson also mixes in brief nods to church life and the Golden Rule. Those moments are fleeting, but they provide a hint of hope during a film that carries an overriding sense of Ecclesiastes 1:9. And when one of the film’s on-camera subjects launches an angry torrent of invective, Cameraperson shows how of the gentle words of a mother to her son (a defeated boxer) can turn away wrath (Proverbs 15:1).

Cameraperson may be grim for much of its running time, but it’s never less than truthful, nor is its integration of disparate footage ever dull. One leaves the theater more encouraged than dispirited, thanks to the captivating collection of images and impressions created by a career’s worth of insightful filmmaking. After working on so many essential films, Johnson has given us with Cameraperson her most memorable creation yet.

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