Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Reel life: "Cameraperson"

Kirsten Johnson has been beavering away behind the scenes as a camera-for-hire on a wide range of documentaries over the past quarter-century. Cameraperson, the first film to which she signs her name as director is, it turns out, rather closer to collage or tapestry, stitched together out of loose ends and short cuts from the films she's worked on over that period. Rather than an IMDb showreel or simple greatest hits package, however, what we have here comes to be framed by an opening title card as Johnson's attempt at a memoir. It is an unusual memoir, granted, mostly composed of footage of people the diarist met maybe once or twice, a decade or so ago, and whom she hasn't seen since. And yet it makes for an effective one: what we have here is the footage that has proven hard for Johnson to get rid of, that has stayed with her both literally and emotionally.

The bulk of the footage being presented is much as one might have observed in any number of human interest docs released since the millennium. There are interviews with Nigerian midwives and young American women visiting an abortion clinic; we travel to Bosnia to survey the aftermath of ethnic cleansing, and - back in the States - hear a prosecution lawyer unpick the grisly detail of a case involving an African-American man dragged along in the wake of a speeding car. Occasionally, a familiar face pops up: Johnson was a camera operator on Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, so we see that unmistakable figure marching on Washington in his pomp, and she also captured Jacques Derrida out and about in New York in one of the public appearances that made up Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick's 2002 portrait of the French theorist.

Much of these clips are presented raw, without score or explanatory voiceover, with camera wobbles, focus shifts and sound interference preserved. This way, we get to hear the gasp Johnson gave out as she serendipitously recorded a lightning strike while out collecting atmos and B-roll somewhere in the Midwest, and the sneezes that followed in its wake; we also overhear her consulting off-camera as to what her directors want her to show and frame - and Johnson is honest enough, in the course of this memoir, to admit to recreating footage because something happened during the set-up process that she (or her directorial paymasters) liked the look of. It takes a while to adjust to watching what at first seems no more than piecemeal, mere rushes, yet this scattered collection of odds and ends begin to add up to something much bigger - for these unfiltered, unprocessed moments provide a warts-and-all illustration of the way the world works, for better and worse. 

We see how Johnson was obliged by the authorities to record over some of the footage she took inside Guantanamo Bay; in Bosnia, she hears out rape survivors and tours the sites where mosques were razed to the ground. In the course of this deeply moral work, Johnson acknowledges that the humble cameraperson cannot bring the dead back to life, but that she can at least record the fact they were once there. The filmmaker seems happy watching those Bosnian women baking bread and chopping down trees, because she knows she's gathering further proof that wherever she goes, something or someone will survive: she even tosses in a curious, weirdly haunting incident involving a USB stick and a cement mixer, from which the viewer can gleam there was once a USB stick that was tossed into a cement mixer, albeit for reasons perhaps only known to the filmmakers. (One clue presents itself in the closing credits: Johnson was the cinematographer on 2014's Citizenfour.)

If you feel any weight being put behind any particular set of excerpts, it would be behind that footage taken closest to home, following Johnson's increasingly frail mother as she and her family attempted to come to terms with her Alzheimer's in the years, months and days before her death in 2007. These clips, you feel, are central to the whole project. It's just conceivable that Johnson began rummaging through those storage boxes we all keep at our parents' places upon her mother's passing, retrieving those reels of film and (yes!) memory sticks she'd tucked away within them, so that she didn't forget where she's been and what she'd seen there; that the need to remember became an inheritance, passed down from mother to daughter. By weaving this footage into what came before it, Johnson insists that her story is just one among many, no different from any other in the planet's daily litany of births, marriages and deaths, triumphs and tragedies. 

The resulting film bears some resemblance to those Koyaanisqatsi/Baraka-style kaleidoscopes, but it's less concerned with spectacle than lived emotional experience - what these images mean and represent, as opposed to what they merely show. Johnson's quilting approach means it's possible to drift in and out of the action: individual viewers will have their favourite strands and locations, and those that don't register so forcefully. Yet when Cameraperson connects, it connects hard, as in the electrifying sequence constructed around a young Italian-American boxer witnessed screaming blue murder in the locker room in the wake of a defeat, then seen storming back into the auditorium in search of his mom. Taken with some of Johnson's other footage, this potent offcut underlines that wherever we are in the world, and whatever it is we're doing, sometimes all we really need is a hug from our ma - and that when we're no longer fortunate to have a mother, a photograph may suffice.

Cameraperson opens in selected cinemas from Friday.    

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