By: Daniel Reynolds
There’s a brief scene somewhere in Cameraperson where a wild-eyed, bespectacled astrophysicist explains quantum entanglements. The basics of it are fairly simple: consider two linked particles; now move one far away. Experiments performed on the nearby particle can and will eventually be felt by the distant other — it’ll just take light years for the effects to reach it. We know the particles are entangled, in space and time, but the mystery — to astrophysicists and us — is understanding why and how this happens the way it does.
Cameraperson is, as the opening text blurb describes, a memoir. The footage we see has been edited together by the cinematographer Kristen Johnson over a 25 year period in which she has worked on documentary films. But the scenes within are also personal, detailing moments with her young children, her playful elderly father, and her mother, lost in the fog of Alzheimer’s disease. Those specific moments, ones in which we can see the light go in and out of Johnson’s mother’s eyes, are keenly felt — by the woman holding the camera, and by us. But they are just one piece of a fascinating mosaic of images and scenes that takes us across America, into Africa, the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay, post-war Bosnia and more.
That said, Cameraperson is not a travelogue. It is not Johnson merely showing the various places in which she’s worked and the colourful people to which she’s talked (though both are present). There is investigative work being done here. Johnson’s time in rural Bosnia for example is spent detailing the detention and rape of Muslim women during the brutal war there. Elsewhere, she attempts to film outside a prison in Afghanistan before being stopped by unseen security. (We hear her guide say a camera for entertainment is OK, but for journalism it’s bad.) At an undisclosed location, there’s a brief disquieting scene — filmed during the making of Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour — of someone tossing (hiding?) a USB drive into a cement mixer; and then said concrete being poured. And, lest we believe all the evils of the world are being perpetrated elsewhere, Johnson’s camera watches the Texan lawyer of James Byrd Jr. as he lays out the case for the prosecution. The lawyer shows some of his exhibits, including the chain that was used to drag Byrd to his death. Most powerfully however, is a booklet of photographs that detail the injuries Byrd suffered. The lawyer believes they’ll win him his case; we’re left to imagine what those photos look like.
While Cameraperson plays with this kind of structuring absence — showing spaces and faces usually long after some event — Johnson’s camera is unflinching when it wants to be. What makes her film unique is not what it chooses to show, but in how it decides to juxtapose those images. That’s a basic tenet of filmmaking, sure, but here, free of narrative constraints or chronology, Cameraperson creates an indelible effect, one of transference and perspective. Case in point, the flipping back and forth between scenes of her own children and that of a nurse in a Nigerian hospital, one tasked with bringing a new baby into the world without the proper resources. Or, watch two Muslim kids, survivors of genocide, as they play with an axe, and then see two African women elsewhere forced to slowly hack down solitary dying trees after being chased from the forest by angry Arabs. Another example: two interviews done with women, an American and a Bosnian whose identities remain undisclosed, cover two very different situations of unwanted sex and the aftermath. Sometimes these callbacks are split up by other scenes, moments that are beautiful or funny or that we forget for a time only to be reminded later. This effect is sometimes painful to watch — the aforementioned scene with that Nigerian baby is… I don’t even know what to say about it — but this is also humanity.
So much of this past year has been about empathy — understanding its presence, acknowledging it, or noticing the lack thereof. We’ve watched noxious sentiments worm their way back into prominence, born witness to some truly terrible events, experienced loss across a broad and minute scale. A feeling of despair has permeated. Movies don’t really solve these problems, but they do help us to understand. I don’t want to trot out Roger Ebert’s old adage here, but I must: movies are a machine for empathy. A film like Cameraperson, documenting as it does small moments across time and space, shows how these instances are, or feel, connected — one could almost say, wild-eyed, entangled. The agony of a people here dealing with death or trauma, is the same as over there; just as the joys of birth, life, family, are relished in one place as much as in another. Danger, dread, and sadness are unavoidable. But then: a soldier in Kabul slices a watermelon before hopping into the back of a truck to do who knows what. (Will he even return?) As he drives off, the soldier yells out to Johnson, a complete stranger, offering the entire melon to her with a broad smile on his face. Life is a terrible, funny, beautiful thing.
At the end of Cameraperson, after most of the credits, there is a large list of thanks to the many people in Johnson’s world who helped shape her career and life. The last of these reads something like this: “Thank you to the people whose names I never learned.” It could almost be read in a callous way, as if Johnson didn’t have the time for these people. But having seen the images she saved, and the love and care with which Cameraperson was so obviously made, this can’t be true. It’s a mystery as to how their feelings are tied to Johnson’s or ours, but there is no denying they are there. Those people go on, as Johnson goes on, and just as we go on. We see, we saw, the end.