Cameraperson Criterion Collection Blu-ray Review
In Bosnia, an aging sheepherder tends to his flock. In Brooklyn, a boxer mentally prepares for a bout. In Nigeria, a midwife readies her work. In Manhattan, a French philosopher moves through the city. In Uganda, a traditional celebration commences. In Texas, a district attorney displays evidence in a murder case.
There would appear to be no common ground between these moments. Yet there is, and her name is Kirsten Johnson. Johnson, who captured all of these images, is the unseen eye of such documentaries as Kirby Dick’s THIS FILM IS NOT YET RATED (2006), Michael Moore’s SLACKER UPRISING (2007), Dick’s THE INVISIBLE WAR (2012) and Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning CITIZENFOUR (2014), on which she served as cinematographer.
Johnson is rarely seen in CAMERAPERSON, but we are aware of her presence more than in in any other film she has worked on. This could be in part because we often hear her talking with her subjects and assistants, or because she takes us inside of her home to meet her twins. But, most importantly, we are most aware of her presence because it is clear from the beginning that CAMERAPERSON is primarily a documentary about the person behind the lens.
It’s so often that the cinematographer of a documentary goes unnoticed. In CAMERAPERSON, Johnson allows the viewer to be aware of not just what they’re seeing (which was previously captured for various features), but who shot it. We are still taken by the scenes and moments, sometimes charming and sometimes suspenseful, but we become much more aware of what goes into recording them.
This documentary may, on the surface, come off like a compilation of outtakes or a greatest hits highlight reel. (Outtake examples: Johnson sneezes while capturing silence; she cleans a windshield to better film her subjects—in their films, surely the sound was muted and the tissue moment shortened.) And while it has elements of both, it is, at its core, neither. Instead, it is a memoir, as highlighted in the opening text. There are children and men and women, professionals and amateurs, countries familiar and foreign. But CAMERAPERSON is titled so for a reason. This is Johnson’s story, and what a marvelously constructed one it is.
Documentaries can occasionally feel skewed, as if there was a spirited agenda set forth by the filmmakers to bring down or expose the subject. (Some do intentionally, of course.) If they are on camera or even behind yet heard, their movements and questions can be read as attacks, as if cornering the hopeful interviewee. One of the most commendable things CAMERAPERSON does is show the human element of the documentarian and even the journalist (a person so condemned by the current administration). Documentarians are people who want to open eyes and to bring the audience somewhere they cannot go. Perhaps it is that which is the ultimate agenda of the genre.
CAMERAPERSON is more complex than its surface suggests. It serves as an illustration of what goes through the filmmaker’s mind, how they construct sequences and why they choose their shots. It also serves as a revealing portrait of the passion within the filmmaker and how that can serve the subjects and enhance the film. Kirsten Johnson’s unique work is a testament not just to its subjects, but to the humanity of documentaries as a whole.
Video: 1.78:1 in 1080p with MPEG-4 AVC codec. “The footage in the film was shot on a wide array of video cameras, including the Panasonic AG-DVX100 and AG-DVX200, a Sony Betacam, a Panasonic VariCam, the Sony DSR-PD150, the Canon EOS C300, the Sony PXW-FS7, the JVC GY-HMU100U, and the JVC GY-HM-850. Final color correction was done using Digital Vision Nucoda Film Master. Approved by director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, the final color-corrected DPX files were output to Rec. 709 high-definition color space for Blu-ray and DVD release.”
As CAMERAPERSON was compiled from various sources/cameras, the quality does differ from footage to footage. That said, the picture is nice overall and rarely has noticeable issues.
Audio: English, Bosnian, Arabic, Dari, Hausa and Fur 5.1 Surround. Subtitles in English. “This film featured a fully digital soundtrack. The 5.1 surround audio for this release was mastered from the original digital audio master files using Pro Tools HD.”
Likewise, while the audio is obviously from different sources, it is clean throughout.
Editing CAMERAPERSON (36:31): Director Kirsten Johnson, producers Marilyn Ness and Danielle Varga, and editors Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws discuss the director’s work and career, as well as how CAMERAPERSON evolved.
In the Service of the Film (39:06): This roundtable discussion features Johnson, documentary filmmaker Gini Reticker, and sound recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp, who all previously collaborated with the director at some point.
Festival Talks: Included here are two: Traverse City Film Festival (21:48) and Sarajevo Film Festival (14:51)
THE ABOVE (8:35): Johnson’s 2015 short film, in which “a U.S. military surveillance balloon floats on a tether high above Kabul, Afghanistan.”
Also included with this Criterion Collection release is an essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and reprinted writings by Johnson.