Disclaimer – a lot of the concepts here are half-remembered from film school, which was a few years ago. I did try to go back to some of the things I read at that time to make sure I wasn’t misunderstanding or misrepresenting them, but I’m happy to hear about anything I’ve got wrong!
There's a fantastic essay by Roland Barthes, collected in Mythologies, about an exhibition of photographs called The Family of Man (translated, when it came to France, as The Great Family of Man). It can be read here, but will be quoted extensively below too.
In it, he describes how the myth of a global human community functions:
"first the difference between human morphologies is asserted, exoticism is insistently stressed, the infinite variations of the species, the diversity in skins, skulls and customs are made manifest, the image of Babel is complacently projected over that of the world. Then, from this pluralism, a type of unity is magically produced: man is born, works, laughs and dies everywhere in the same way; and if there still remains in these actions some ethnic peculiarity, at least one hints that there is underlying each one an identical 'nature', that their diversity is only formal and does not belie the existence of a common mould."
Barthes concludes that this mythmaking strips these facts of nature (birth, death) from their history, making them useless. At the same time, it places work on the same level, turning it into a neutral, natural, universal fact, one that likewise goes unchallenged.
I rather fear that the final justification of all this Adamism is to give to the immobility of the world the alibi of a 'wisdom' and a 'lyricism' which only make the gestures of man look eternal the better to defuse them.
Barthes could have equally been writing about Life in a Day, the 2011 crowd-sourced documentary. Structured around one day (24th July, 2010), it follows the same pattern Barthes identifies in The Great Family of Man: despite the different lives of its subjects, the sun rises and sets in the same way for everyone.
I didn’t want it to be a clip show. We always wanted to have a number of structures, so it’s not just midnight to midnight, but it’s also from light to dark and from birth to death. That’s the kind of thing that turns me on as an editor — bashing things together and making them resonate against each other and provoking thought.
As well as inviting participants to submit their footage, the production sent cameras to the “developing world” in an attempt to broaden the film's focus. However, the director Kevin Macdonald later expressed regret at his approach to this aspect of the production:
My biggest regret is that we didn't send out fewer cameras – maybe 50. With them, we could have sent along film-makers who could have taught people how to use the equipment and, more crucially, how to make what we wanted. Too many contributions from the developing world showed a stiff interviewee reciting what he thought we (or local figures of authority) wanted. Naively, I hadn't realised how alien not only the concept of a documentary is to a lot of people, but also the idea that your own opinions are worth sharing (a lesson we sometimes prayed could be learned by narcissistic, bedroom-bound western teenagers).
Implicit is the assumption that this personal, confessional mode of filmmaking is a universal rather than specifically Western tradition; unsurprisingly, the majority of participants in the finished film are from the USA. (The Family of Man exhibition was toured by the United States Information Society.)
(Of course, the politics and ethics of crowd-sourcing are complicated to begin with, regardless of country, and it's not clear if Macdonald and his producers considered how their entry requirements would lead to participants self-selecting from certain more privileged cross-sections of society. As much as they can crow about digital tools democratising filmmaking, very on brand for a film sponsored by YouTube, there’s always the opportunity cost.)
Ultimately, Life in a Day becomes exactly the kind of banal exercise that, in Barthes’ words, "tells us, literally, nothing."
Cameraperson serves as a direct, if likely inadvertent, furthering of Barthes' argument and a counterpart to Life in a Day.
Kristen Johnson, remaining behind the camera, turns herself into the film's unifying thread, the eponymous cameraperson.
An opening title card, signed with her initials, describes the film as
my memoir. These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.
By framing her film in this intensely personal way, Johnson not only resists the mythmaking Barthes describes but profoundly acknowledges the limitations of the camera and of cinema. Because of the nature of the film, the audience are never allowed to forget the complex power dynamics at play between camera crew and subject.
Outside of one or two short sequences, Cameraperson eschews the kind of facile montages that Life in a Day trades in. Each subject, each country, each experience is discrete, separated by title cards giving their location. Returning to them over time, sometimes years apart, builds up a more nuanced, complex portrait of each group of subjects.
Several sequences in particular are reminiscent of Barthes’ examples.
Barthes talks about one of the most common "universal facts" - birth.
True, children are always born, but in the whole mass of the human problem, what does the 'essence' of this process matter to us, compared to its modes which, as for them, are perfectly historical? Whether or not the child is born with ease or difficulty, whether or not his birth causes suffering to his mother, whether or not he is threatened by a high mortality rate, whether or not such and such a type of future is open to him: this is what your Exhibitions should be telling people, instead of an eternal lyricism of birth.
In a sequence in a hospital in Nigeria, Johnson shows a new-born baby, struggling to breathe, likely to die without oxygen. Rather than cross-cutting to her own (healthy, American) children, she introduces them later and at an older age, leaving the audience to draw any parallels themselves.
Barthes rhetorically wonders what the family of Emmit Till, a black teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955, would make of The Family of Man. Johnson returns to the court case of a Texas racist hate crime several times.
Even the potential awkwardness of the title serves a purpose, a reminder of how many of the film's subjects' experiences are determined and shaped by gender - rape as a weapon of war, the social stigma surrounding rape victims in a small town, childbirth, Johnson's mother and her own motherhood.
Whether deliberate or not, this becomes a common thread of the films Johnson has worked on, although it’s employed not to flatten the subjects’ experiences into one generic statement but to enrich them.
Documentary aesthetics and ethics are also touched on, but in an immediate and practical rather than academic way. The footage here is repurposed essentially from outtakes, what a more polished documentary would have left on the cutting room floor.
It's in these gaps that the filmmaking reveals itself and the filmmaker reveals herself, from small moments of emotional vulnerability (gasping at capturing a bolt of lightning) to more serious dilemmas.
Johnson pulls a stray blade of grass out of the frame in order to get a better shot of a herd of sheep. Later, she keeps filming when she sees two temporarily unsupervised young children playing with a hatchet and a woodpile (occasionally muttering "oh geez").
The contrast between these two moments is fascinating. Ideological and theoretical debates about the aesthetic and moral responsibilities of documentary filmmakers, about intervention and non-intervention, can easily grow thin and dry; here is a practical, immediate example.
In the moment, these are the decisions Johnson made, rightly or wrongly. She presents them and herself openly, reserving judgment.
More "gaps" between the rushes and the edited, finished product ask the audience to consider how image is constructed in documentary film. Johnson zooms in on a book of graphic photos of the victim of a hate crime as a prosecutor flips through it. When he says he'll have to discuss with the victim's family before he can release the photos, the camera respectfully draws back. Another subject is shown being directed to use Farsi rather than the English that more readily comes to him. Michael Moore slumps, his usual energy and bravado dissipated, talking to a subject who knows he'll likely go to prison for dodging his redeployment.
Johnson herself articulates this in her statement on the film’s website:
the dilemmas I face while holding my camera are formidable. There are the concrete challenges I must face in the moment - how to frame, find focus, choose the direction to follow. The other troubles are implicit and often also unseen by the audiences of films I shoot:
The people I film are in immediate and often desperate material need, but I offer little to nothing material.
I can and will leave a place I film (a war, a refugee camp, etc.) when the people I film cannot.
I traffic in hope without the ability to know what will happen in the future.
I ask for trust, cooperation and permission without knowing where the filming experience will lead the subject.
I alter the balance of power by my presence and act on behalf of one side or another in a conflict.
My work requires trust, demands intimacy and entails total attention. To both me and the people I film, it often feels like a friendship or family, but it is something different.
I know little about how the images I shoot will be used in the future and can not control their distribution or use.
My work can change the way my subject is perceived by the people who surround him/her and can impact reputation or safety for years into the future.
I follow stories the director I work for does not need and/or want me to follow.
I fail to see or follow stories the director I work for hopes I will follow.
I’ve been aware of these dimensions for most of my career, as are most documentarians, and have longed discussed them with colleagues. What I didn’t know is how the accumulation of these dilemmas over time would begin to impact me.
In making CAMERAPERSON, we decided to rely as much as possible on the evidence of my experience in the footage I shot in the moment. We know that this fragmentary portrait is incomplete and are interested in the way it points to how stories are constructed. Our hope is to convey the immediacy of finding oneself in new territory with a camera as well as giving the audience a sense of how the accumulation of joys and dilemmas a cameraperson must juggle builds over time. Like in the film, this is an invitation to you and an acknowledgement of how complex it is to film and be filmed.”
Finally, Johnson comes to death - often mythologised as the great leveller, not least through religion.
Rather than drawing its subjects together, using death to create a common humanity between them, the film becomes increasingly personal.
Johnson turns her camera on her family and even herself (via mirror): her mother, three years after being diagnosed with Alzheimer's; her ageing father; her twins, who find a dead bird and help bury it in the garden. (She described her decision to show her late mother’s decline as a “profound act of betrayal.")
Ultimately, death is experienced individually.
Cameraperson is possibly the best film of 2016. While it raises fascinating issues around documentary filmmaking, this shouldn't limit the film's appeal to filmmakers and cinephiles. It's also a personal, provisional guide for beginning to interpret the fractured, media-saturated world we live in.