As Kirsten Johnson films Jacques Derrida, the subject of a film she’s working on, she nearly gets hit by an oncoming car. “She sees everything around me, but she’s totally blind,” says Derrida. Johnson’s career as a documentary cinematographer requires her to constantly capture the subtle and often nuanced intricacies of everyday life. Yet, unbeknown to Derrida, what Johnson chooses to capture creates an impressionistic reflection of herself and an inherently unifying presentation of her life’s work.
Johnson’s directorial debut “Cameraperson” is comprised of various behind-the-scenes looks at the different movies she has worked on during her career as a cinematographer. Like those films, “Cameraperson” is a documentary, but Johnson’s production is in a league of its own in terms of producing a resonant cinematic vehicle for catharsis.
Rather than focusing on the more autobiographical aspects of her life, Johnson’s film instead deals with the people, injustices and tragedies that she’s encountered, which have substantiated her prolific career. But this compilation of the culturally eclectic men, women and children never feels akin to appropriation. Johnson doesn’t simply use these people to bring gravity to her project. Instead, throughout the course of the film, it becomes clear that she envisions this group as the physical representation of her life — bringing a sense of purpose to what ostensibly views as a montage of video clips left on the cutting room floor.
Johnson weaves an incredibly stirring narrative by coupling recurring feminist motifs with the diverse company of people whom she displays on screen. While one American teen discusses her own fear and perseverance when confronted by an unintended pregnancy in one instance, in another a midwife in Nigeria relays her happiness in delivering a baby despite the lack of medical professionals in the hospital. The two women, though unknown to each other other, are paralleled via Johnson’s filmmaking technique. They are united in their underlying strength, and Johnson continually uncovers these moments of resilience in the face of adversity in each and every person she films.
Despite the often somber nature of the subjects which Johnson portrays, the film is not devoid of happiness. Laughter can be heard from a boy left partially blind due to an explosion, a street vendor cracks jokes before preparing to fight with an armed militia and Johnson intertwines these scenes of levity with those of misfortune to skillfully paint an unprecedentedly real picture of humanity. She juxtaposes the serious with the lighthearted, and in doing so she exemplifies the multifaceted complexity of human emotion — never fully succumbing to an overly negative, nor positive, atmosphere.
Johnson’s choice of the middle ground of understanding is the documentary’s best feature and is also what propels it into cinematic greatness. By removing her own personal commentary on the stories, occurrences and histories described in the movie, Johnson allows for her audience to form an empathetic perspective towards the participants documented in the movie. There are no outside forces influencing how any of these people on screen should be thought of — no unseen “voice of God” attempting to forward a preconceived line of thinking. This results in an earnest portrayal of their lives, and the director elicits the sincerest emotion when she lets her subject matter speak for itself.
“Cameraperson” is an unfailingly personal retelling of its director’s life that doesn’t actually reveal its director’s background. By forgoing the more specific details of her own life, Kirsten Johnson produces a movie that captures the intersection between personal hardship and communal fortitude on a global scale. She transcends the societal barriers constructed by religion, ethnicity, sex and socioeconomic status to present a type of video history of the universality of the human experience. Johnson has made a career out of sharing these experiences through the medium of film, and with “Cameraperson” she makes it clear that while she may have given a platform for people to speak, their lives have defined her voice.