"Remember to be human," Ross McElwee said to me. "When you are behind the camera, you have to remember to be human." We were at Cinefamily and had just witnessed two of his rarely-screened shorts play - beautifully - before a full and appreciative audience. This sentiment - a conscious resistance to how easy it can be to hide behind a lens - has become something of a mantra for me with respect to non-fiction and video essay filmmaking. The filmmaker must play an active role in the filmmaking act; what Chris Marker meant when he titled his 2007 book Staring Back. This sentiment came to mind when viewing Kirsten Johnson's revelatory CAMERAPERSON.
CAMERAPERSON self-identifies from its first moments as a memoir, thanks to a succinct director's note title card. What follows is a mesmerizing hopscotch travelogue - equal parts personal and political - spanning the globe and the cinematographer-turned-director's two-and-a-half decade career in moviemaking. Its component parts are the footage fragments from movies she has photographed - some forthcoming - but this is beyond outtakes. Often, the excerpted clips are carefully integrated into the overall feature to show how a shot is set-up, reframed, composed - a hand sneaks into the shot to pull out some weeds too close to the lens; a clandestinely-obtained shot of a prison zoomed wide to capture its full ominous presence; the filmmaker's voice explaining her vantage point and what she expects to get from a high vista. At other times, a clip shows how no amount of preparation or experience could ready you for what you are about to see - a sudden bolt of lighting in the distance interrupting an otherwise unremarkable perspective shot of a stretch of road (during which the filmmaker audibly gasps) or a newborn baby gasping helplessly for air, no oxygen tank to be found, the filmmaking team being unable to aid it. These are the little moments - littler even than the jewels and moments that make the final edit - that end up on the cutting room floor or, nowadays, consigned to obscurity - or, worse yet, decay - on a hard drive somewhere.
These are the moments that we - as viewers - do not normally see. But these are the memories - and for Kirsten Johnson, a career's worth of them - that define the filmmaking experience: the human exchange that ostensibly happens in the margins, but which for the filmmaker is primary. Remember to be human and you capture people, places, and things that you love. You connect with fellow human beings and lay the groundwork for relationships that can potentially last a lifetime. Not exactly friendship, but some undeniable connection. Kirsten Johnson has assembled a film that highlights the joy, sorrow, and complexity of what it means to wield a camera. The weight accumulated over more than twenty years spent working behind the camera is not simply the mechanism itself, but the weight that comes from experience - from empathy, compassion, and - that needling tendency - memory.
Made up of disparate - if thematically unified and frequently compelling - detritus, CAMERAPERSON is given to a certain kind of aesthetic imperfection. It is - in the truest sense - constructed in retrospect and as an afterthought (however thoughtful it may be) from the numerous primary works with which it shares a history. However, it is by way of this imperfection that CAMERAPERSON achieves its success. It wrangles with rare, deep, unseen topics - where others fear to tread. And nothing can - or will - change the utterly perfect experience I had watching it.
- Samuel B. Prime
Founder, LA Ciné Salon