Cameraperson (2016)

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Described as a memoir, this documentary is a montage of footage taken by documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson over the 25 years (so far) of her career. Presented without narration, we see a patchwork of clips that pull us from Bosnia and Afghanistan to Brooklyn and Guantanamo Bay. Johnson only appears on screen once, a highly personal and emotional moment toward the end, but her quiet presence is often felt.

This isn’t the polished, edited footage that would have appeared in the films they were shot for (including Citizenfour, Darfur Now, Deadline and Fahrenheit 9/11) but the minutes before and after and around that signal Johnson’s presence, her decisions and reactions and uncertainty. It is a ‘behind-the-scenes’, both of the subjects we meet and the process of the documentation of lives and stories in film.

We see very little of some scenes, the context is obscured and there is only a title card with a location to give us a sense of place. Others we return to, building a picture often of tragedy and its aftermath. Of particular resonance are the visits to one of the few Muslim families still in Foča, Bosnia, the interviews with the defence lawyers for James Byrd Junior and the footage of Johnson’s mother and her unspoken battle with Alzheimer’s. It is easy to imagine the battle between objectivity and emotion that Johnson must face with every story.

In one clip, a Syrian dissident proposes that all media of tragedy is voyeurism and this statement contextualises our own experience as audience as well as the actions of Johnson. I was left with a strong feeling of the importance of documentarians as people willing to seek out and preserve the stories that no one wants to hear.

Screening at ACMI in Melbourne

Bechdel test – pass
4 stars

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