It’s exciting to see Shyamalan on such confident footing once more, all these years later.
The collage film “Cameraperson” is one of the most original, challenging, sometimes infuriating documentaries of recent times. It’s well worth seeing and arguing about, but only if you can give it your full attention and glean the internal logic that went into its construction. And once you’ve done that, you will never forget what the movie showed you, or you own guesses about why it showed it to you, and how, and why.
It’s an extraordinary feeling, meeting a film in this way. The director of “Cameraperson,” veteran nonfiction camerawoman Kirsten Johnson, always errs on the side of subtlety, which means the movie never comes to you; you always have to go to it. Compounding the difficulty is the reality of moviegoing as most viewers (critics included) typically experience it. Anyone who sees “Cameraperson” is going to have to set aside a lifetime’s worth of conditioning by word-driven features that make sure to tell you what’s happening and why it’s important every few minutes, in case the images and sounds aren’t making things clear. Even though I tend to seek out films like “Cameraperson” and give them the benefit of the doubt early on, this film’s first twenty minutes still struck me as opaque to the point of impenetrability, perhaps even a case of the Emperor’s (Empress’s?) New Clothes. The questions that popped into my head aren’t ones that most filmmakers want to hear: What am I looking at? Why this moment, and why now? And why are we suddenly done with this moment and moving on to something completely different? Would all of these dazzlingly observed and often flat-out beautiful images have been better served by remaining in their original contexts—projects on which Johnson served as a camera operator? Is this whole thing just a glorified clip reel?
Nope. It’s all going somewhere. And the destination is worth any effort the journey may require. This is the kind of film that makes you see other movies through fresh eyes and ask questions that might not normally occur to you during films that try to hide their storytelling seams.
The film begins with footage of Johnson trying to get just the right shot of a shepherd on horseback in rural Bosnia, then continues on to show us scene after scene that seems on first glance to be only tangentially connected to everything around it: an old Bosnian woman coyly accepting a compliment on her stylish clothes and indicating that she’s lived a very happy, mostly uneventful life; a young African-American woman in an abortion clinic talking about her decision to terminate her pregnancy; Jacques Derrida, the father of deconstruction, crossing a New York street while telling the camera crew about “the image of the philosopher who falls in the well while looking at the stars”; a passenger jet’s shadow gliding along the tarmac, as seen through a passenger’s window; Johnson and a director trying to observe the exterior of an Al Qaeda detention facility in Yemen without arousing police suspicion. (“I’ll tell them it’s cinema, it’s a movie,” says the driver’s offscreen voice.)