- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 13, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

“Cameraperson” is unlike any film I have ever seen. It is neither a documentary nor a narrative — nor is it precisely a hybrid of those forms, even though it toys with both. Even to describe it is to take away from its singular magic as what so many films about superheroes and explosions aspire but never achieve: an experience of pure cinema.

For one hour and 40 minutes, director/writer/producer Kirsten Johnson takes viewers on a tour of humanity as seen through her 25-year career as a documentary cinematographer. From pieces of unused footage from dozens of films, Ms. Johnson has fashioned a work that is about nothing less than our species itself. Its aspirations are on par with filmmaker Ron Fricke, whose “Baraka” and “Samsara” are experiential masterpieces about what is like to be alive and be present in our world and its cultures.

But whereas Mr. Fricke’s works divine from a single purpose of observing and presenting the awesome beauty of the diversity of mankind’s cultures, works and art, “Cameraperson” is something entirely new. It is a revelation of the awesome power of cinema to find ever new ways of expressing itself.

This may sound haughty praise (it is), and my description likely leaves you with little to go on. And that is perhaps the point. Try to explain to someone who has never been to an amusement park what it is like to ride a roller-coaster — the description adds nothing that can be vicariously experienced, and thus a third-hand experience of a roller-coaster will never been as thrilling as riding it yourself. This is opposed to such daily, universal experiences as dining, making love, watching a loved one die and empathizing with the suffering of others.

So while there is, in theory anyway, no “plot” of “Cameraperson,” this does not to say it does not have a story. As mentioned, the film is fashioned of outtakes and B-roll matter Ms. Johnson has recorded in her years operating a camera for documentarians. Some of it will be familiar, such as Michael Moore speaking with a young soldier in front of the Capitol from “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and the military man’s admission that he will risk jail rather than return to the horrors of Iraq. (Recall that in Mr. Moore’s documentary, this was followed by the notorious montage of Mr. Moore and the soldier attempting to convince Congress members to sign their children up for the military.)

Ms. Johnson captures the awkwardness of Mr. Moore and the soldier not precisely sure where to stand in the shot, and the unpracticed, nonrehearsed speakings of the soldier rather than the tired soundbites of press conferences.

Ms. Johnson’s intercut footage travels the world: Bosnia, Darfur, Kabul, back home in America. It’s hard to choose from the most painfully beautiful moments she has captured, be it the old lady in Bosnia who cheerily — and almost certainly self-deludedly — claims there is no danger from the Serbs who have fostered a campaign of rape in the former Yugoslavia, or the African midwife who delivers babies with few supplies and an overworked staff in harrowing, subhuman conditions.

There are also the outright horrors, including many shots of where so much massacre was inflicted in the former Yugoslavia, and footage for “The Two Towns of Jasper,” chronicling the case of a black man who was butchered by white supremacists. A Texas official even produces the chain that was used to drag victim James Byrd Jr. behind the murderers’ truck. We are told, in grim forensics, that wounds to Byrd’s elbows were almost certainly made while he was still alive and his body bounced against the asphalt, perhaps as he tried desperately to free himself.

And then there is the morbid beauty. And the smiles. Ms. Johnson turns her camera on her own twins, whom we see grow from toddlers with few words into children producing full sentences and containing budding personalities.

Ms. Johnson also travels to Wyoming to film her mother, who is decaying from the ravages of Alzheimer’s. How this process plays out over the length of footage taken by the filmmaker is almost too painful to describe, but it must be said that, despite its agony, it is, in some perverse way, strangely beautiful.

And that’s perhaps the ultimate point of art anyway: making pain seem somehow elegant, yet necessary to life.

One of the year’s best films, and its most revolutionary.

No rating. Contains some profanity and upsetting images.

Opens Friday at Landmark E Street Cinema.

 

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