A documentary filmmaker doesn’t get involved lightly

Film | by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

RPL Film Theatre
February 2–5
3.5 out of 5

Kristen Johnson is widely considered one of the best documentary cinematographers in the business. Johnson captured some of the visuals that made The Invisible War, Citizenfour, Darfur Now, Slacker Uprising and Fahrenheit 9/11 such searing experiences. Her knack for minimizing the distance between lens and subject creates an intimacy that’s unusual for a genre that encourages detachment.

Johnson’s skills are on full display in Cameraperson, her autobiographical collection of her work over the years.

Cameraperson could pass for an overachiever’s reel. Selected clips from Johnson’s filmography come at you relentlessly, without an overarching narrative. Johnson’s superpower is her nerves of steel. She relates to what she’s observing but that doesn’t prevent her from doing her job. Toddlers could be playing catch with axes and she wouldn’t lose focus.

Cameraperson also gives us a glimpse of Johnson’s family life, which she approaches in a similar, even-keeled fashion. We meet her children and her Alzheimer’s-riddled mother, encounters that shed light on how she undertakes her job (compassionately) and the risks she is willing to take (calculated).

The audience is clued in on how Kristin’s decisions behind the camera enhance a doc’s narrative. A charming ballet piece is revealed to have a whole different meaning as Johnson goes from a tighter to a wider shot.

The film risks being too “inside baseball” but many segments have a raw connection for balance — none more than the scene with a Nigerian baby struggling to breathe.

It’s the only time we see Johnson’s cool demeanor break, and she leaves her camera to ask for help.