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Kirsten Johnson turns the camera around to focus on those behind the scenes in Cameraperson.

Majlinda Hoxha/Janus Films

4 out of 4 stars

Title
Cameraperson
Directed by
Kirsten Johnson
Country
USA
Language
English

Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson recalls, in however an abstract and sidewinding fashion, the thesis statement of Donald Barthelme's influential short story A Film. "The idea of the film," Barthelme writes, "is that it not be like other films."

Barthelme's story is about a film production beset by vandals, who abduct its young child star, and the effort of the movie's producer to fold this real-life drama into the production. Johnson's film is a documentary/essay/scrapbook hybrid that assembles footage from documentaries she has served on as camera operator or director of photography.

The two works share little in common beyond their central, overlapping concern. And it is an ontological concern. At what point does a film become something that is no longer a film? How far must a thing deviate from the category of like things to which it belongs until it subverts that category? Or transcends it? Or just doesn't belong inside said category's parameters? When is a film not a film?

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Of course, there are plenty of films that aren't like other films. As with those art films where the filmmakers eschew photography altogether and scratch images directly to the celluloid. Or Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's 2011 masterwork This Is Not A Film, which, like Cameraperson, is its own sort of singular ontological curiosity.

Cameraperson is assembled as a diaristic behind-the-scenes collage of various films Johnson has shot, from Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 to Laura Poitras's Oscar-winning Edward Snowden doc Citizenfour to smaller films about Bosnian shepherds, teenage prizefighters, and French philosopher Jacques Derrida. We hear Johnson mumble and audibly gasp, follow along as she attempts to keep pace with her subjects, watch the frame rock and jiggle as she sneezes.

In this way, the film places at the centre what most documentaries – and, indeed, most films – render invisible. Cameraperson foregrounds both the apparatus of the cinema (that is, the camera) and its engineer. In this way, Johnson essentially inverts the dynamic of a traditional documentary movie.

Instead of the focus being the subject, the subject becomes the camera operator: her decisions, her emotions. In one particularly arresting sequence, Johnson watches uncomfortably as a young child futzes around with an axe. She's audibly unsettled, but hangs back, dithering on whether to intervene. The viewer becomes similarly paralyzed by indecision, pinned down by the helplessness of not being able to do anything. (Spoiler alert: the kid escapes unscathed.)

Cameraperson is not merely a grab bag of images. It pulls double duty as a theoretical essay on the cinematic apparatus itself. Johnson breaks down the ludicrous cinéma vérité ideal of documentaries as ambivalent and purely observational. ("The documentarian should be as a cat on a windowsill," acclaimed documentarian D.A. Pennebaker once said.)

As the film theorist André Bazin wrote, the myth of cinema is that it constitutes a "recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist." Cameraperson explodes this myth, calling constant attention to the distinct humanity animating even the most mechanical modes of artistic (re)production.

Film, not film, whatever it is, Cameraperson plays like a study not only of cinema itself, but a warm, welcome reminder that there is (ideally) an intelligence, and maybe even a bit of grace, behind the moving images that wedge themselves in our memory; that they are the handiwork of a living, thinking, feeling, sneezing human being, someone who is both camera and person.

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