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SPECIFICATIONS
  • 1.85:1 Widescreen
  • Wolof PCM Mono
  • English subtitles
  • 1 Disc
FEATURES
  • Making “Cameraperson,” a new program featuring director Kirsten Johnson, producers Marilyn Ness and Danielle Varga, and editors Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws
  • In the Service of the Film, a roundtable conversation with Kirsten Johnson, producer Gini Reticker, and sound recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp
  • Excerpts from two 2016 film festival talks with Kirsten Johnson, including one between her and filmmaker Michael Moore
  • The Above, a 2015 short film by Johnson
  • Trailer
  • An essay by filmmaker Michael Almereyda and reprinted writings by Kirsten Johnson

Cameraperson

Blu-ray
Reviewed by: Chris Galloway

Directed By: Kirsten Johnson
2016 | 102 Minutes | Licensor: Janus Films

Release Information
Blu-ray | MSRP: $39.95 | Series: The Criterion Collection | Edition: #853
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Release Date: February 7, 2017
Review Date: February 7, 2017

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SYNOPSIS

A boxing match in Brooklyn; life in postwar Bosnia and Herzegovina; the daily routine of a Nigerian midwife; an intimate family moment at home with the director: Kirsten Johnson weaves these scenes and others into her film Cameraperson, a tapestry of footage captured over her twenty-five-year career as a documentary cinematographer. Through a series of episodic juxtapositions, Johnson explores the relationships between image makers and their subjects, the tension between the objectivity and intervention of the camera, and the complex interaction of unfiltered reality with crafted narrative. A work that combines documentary, autobiography, and ethical inquiry, Cameraperson is a moving glimpse into one filmmaker’s personal journey and a thoughtful examination of what it means to train a camera on the world.


PICTURE

Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson comes to Blu-ray via the Criterion Collection, who present the film on a dual-layer disc. The 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation comes in a couple of aspect ratios: it’s primarily presented in the ratio of 1.78:1 but some sequences are presented in the ratio of about 1.33:1.

The film is essentially made up of outtakes from films Johnson has worked on accompanied by some personal footage, and because of this and the fact different equipment was used for each project the quality of the image varies from scene to scene. Some of the footage was shot in high-definition, some in standard-definition, and some of it even looks to come from video tape. The video tape sequence are the weakest looking segments but still not too shabby all things considered: the sequences are fuzzy and lack detail, but colours are fine and there weren’t any off-putting artifacts, they just have that expected fuzzy, analog look. The standard definition footage features obvious compression and can sometimes look a little blocky with obvious ringing effects at time, but likewise this is expected.

The footage shot in high-definition looks quite good, very crisp and clean, delivering high details in both close-ups and long shots. There is some beautiful, vivid looking photography, very colourful and wonderful. On the whole I wouldn’t say artifacts a real concern but during the moments where compression or noise can creep in it looks more like it’s caused by a limitation of the equipment used for filming and nothing to do with the encode; most of the high-definition looks about as crystal clear as you would hope.

Ultimately, it’s probably fairly useless to even comment too much on how the presentation looks considering how the film has been put together, but when all is said and done I feel this is a very accurate representation in how the film should look.

(As a note, subtitles for translations or hard-to-hear portions are burned in and cannot be turned off.)

8/10

All Blu-ray screen captures come from the source disc and have been shrunk from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed to conserve space. While they are not exact representations they should offer a general idea of overall video quality.

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AUDIO

Accompanying the film is a surprisingly dynamic 5.1 surround presentation, provided here in DTS-HD MA. I wasn’t expecting much from this considering the nature of how the film was put together from various outtakes of other work Johnson has done, but there are some really wonderful little moments scattered about. Admittedly most of the film’s audio is dialogue and is directed to the front, primarily the center channel (I assume in a lot of cases the audio was recorded using the built-in microphones on the cameras). The audio is at least clear and easy to hear for the most part, but when dialogue is a little muffled and hard to determine burned-in subtitles are provided.

But there are some terrific little surround effects that make their way into the film. Music is spread out not too surprisingly, and it sounds very crisp and clear, with wide range. But there are some unexpected little bits, like a sudden, strong gust of wind or a surprising thunder crack, which comes with some wonderful, deep bass.

By no means is it the most active track I’ve ever heard, and again most activity is limited to the fronts, but there are some very effective moments and the sound mix manages to deliver a few surprises that aid in the film’s impact.

8/10

SUPPLEMENTS

For a newer film I wasn’t expecting to find the supplements on this release overly involving but much to my surprise the material on here proves to be fascinating, not only on the grounds of covering the film’s production, but also looking into the very nature of documentary filmmaking.

Editing Cameraperson offers a look into the film’s inception and creation through new interviews with Johnson, producers Marilyn Ness and Danielle Varga, and editors Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws. Johnson starts by explaining how she came up with the idea to make this film and the long, somewhat agonizing (at least by the sounds of it) process she went through to make it. She talks about an initial cut (that we get some samples of here) that includes her own voice over, which was basically trashed by others as being too pretentious. This, of course, nearly destroyed her but it made her rethink the process and go at it from a different route. From here Johnson and the other participants (the two producers were filmed together but everyone else was filmed on their own) talk about the task of collecting all of this footage and then putting it together. Interestingly Johnson would just take the footage to her editors, tell them how much the footage meant to her, and then leave them with it to construct the film. It is here that the editors talk about the attention and though that went into the film’s construction. I was surprised by this feature quite a bit, as it not only gives a very thorough amount of detail into its construction, but it ends up also being a rather personal and reflective segment as well. It runs about 36-minutes.

Criterion then provides a new round table discussion featuring Johnson, documentary filmmaker Gini Reticker, and sound recordists Wellington Bowler and Judy Karp. Entitled In the Service of the Film this 39-minute discussion has the four talk about their duties working on documentary films, the difficulty in finding the right subject to follow, and the relationships they (sometimes inadvertently) build with their subjects. Though they always intend to not influence the subject they’re covering in any way, there is the problem that the very fact they are there does influence things, and how making the film and covering the subject does “mark” the filmmakers as well. The conversation and back-and-forth between the four is quite engaging, and was admittedly not at all what I expected. It turns into a very frank and insightful examination at everyone’s (from director to cameraperson to sound recordist) role and responsibility in making documentary films.

This ends up leading fairly nicely into the next additions to the release, the first being a discussion between directors Michael Moore and Kirsten Johnson filmed after a screening of Cameraperson at the Traverse City Film Festival. Here the two really get into the effects making documentary films can have on them, to the point where Moore has received death threats. There is also footage from a discussion following a screening at the Sarajevo Festival, where Johnson talks about her time there when filming and how changes in technology (like the addition of screens to video cameras) allow her to get a bit more intimate with her subjects for better or worse. The pieces each run 22-minutes and 15-minutes respectively.

Criterion then includes Johnson’s 8-minute short film, The Above, which centers primarily on a U.S. military surveillance balloon that floats above Kabul, Afghanistan. Johnson doesn’t offer any narration and instead just offers various shots around the balloon, showing how life carries on despite its presence, though there is still the question of whether its presence influences those below out of fear of being seen. The film then cuts to a similar balloon that hovers over Aberdeen, Maryland, drawing some interesting parallels to the one in Kabul, despite the fact this balloon apparently doesn’t have and video equipment on it. It’s very short but the film makes a fairly big impact simply through these observations.

The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer. Criterion also includes an actual booklet (yes, a booklet, with staples and everything) with a terrific essay by Michael Almereyda on this “unorthodox biography,” which is then followed by a director’s statement covering the film’s intentions.

Overall the features were a very pleasant surprise. I was expecting some simple features about the film’s making and so forth, but we also get some wonderful firsthand insights into that fragile relationship between documentary filmmakers and their subjects, and the conflicts that come up. A nicely thought out set of features.

8/10

CLOSING

This release proves to be the first pleasant surprise of 2017. It’s a fascinating film, but I’m really intrigued with what Criterion has put together here. The presentation for the film suits its unorthodox nature, but I was most pleased with the features that have been put together here: not only does Criterion thoroughly cover the film’s production but the features also offer some great material on the relationship between documentary filmmakers and their subjects. It’s a really well put together edition.


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