Kirsten Johnson opens “Cameraperson” with a note describing the project as “my memoir,” but it’s safe to say there’s never been a memoir quite like this one. Cobbling together footage from her 25 years of experience as a documentary cinematographer, “Cameraperson” offers a freewheeling overview of the people and places Johnson has captured over the course of a diverse career. More than that, the two dozen projects showcased here alongside original footage confront the process of creation. This is a collage-like guide to a life of looking.
Johnson’s credits range from risky exposés such as “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” and “Citizenfour” to lighter fare like last year’s New Yorker cartoon portrait “Very Semi Serious,” all of which surface in this dense global survey. But the disparate subject matter congeals around her implied presence in every scene. In a charming opening bit, Johnson frames a far-off storm in Missouri, and suddenly emits an audible sneeze that shakes the frame; from that point forward, “Cameraperson” develops a sense of intrigue around the way its montage of excerpts represent a cohesive point of view.
Soviet film theorist Dziga Vertov would surely approve of Johnson’s approach — an alternate title could be “Woman With a Movie Camera” — since it turns the idea of the camera into a vessel for studying the world. A critical moment arrives early on in a scene from a documentary about Jacques Derrida, when the French philosopher looks past the camera and nails the central motif. “She sees everything,” he exclaims. “We are blind.”
With this perspective in place, “Cameraperson” invites viewers to look closer at each moment through Johnson’s focused gaze. In one scene shot on a Bosnian countryside, her director envisions a sequence of images of the nearby town in which “we move through the banal stuff and finally find something interesting.” That description easily fits “Cameraperson” as well.
Johnson combines distinct moments into a unifying whole with a largely agreeable rhythm. From a boxing gym in Brooklyn, she cuts to a birthing center in Nigeria and a detainment center for Al Qaida members in Afghanistan. During the latter sequence, Johnson only reveals the context after the fact, showing the power of images to transcend story. Rather than recounting the highlights of these documentaries, Johnson refashions them into a unique filmic essay on ways of being a proactive viewer.
Yet “Cameraperson” is also about the nature of the filmmaking process. In an outtake from “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Michael Moore talks with a soldier planing on deflecting from his duties as he grows disgruntled with the war in Iraq. As the scene drags on, it begins to feel less like a DVD bonus feature than a pure expression of grief. Despite Moore’s political intentions, the camera here becomes an apolitical entity more in tune with emotions than ideology.
So it goes in numerous sequences, some more engaging than others. Recurring scenes of a district attorney in Jasper, Texas discussing the grisly details of a murder tend to drag. But footage from “Happy Valley” of Penn State’s first football game after its sex abuse scandal personalizes the story even more than the original movie. The scattershot approach doesn’t always lead to illuminating results, but just as often it hits on poignant and surprising moments, including a brilliant section in which a newly born baby struggles to survive. As the scene continues, the suspense builds to such an extraordinary degree that when Johnson and her collaborator finally breathe a sigh of relief, it lands like a punchline.
Nothing in “Cameraperson” develops an intimate quality better than a handful of new footage, particularly scenes of her late mother suffering from Alzheimer’s. As the movie flips through scene after scene like a book of living memories, Johnson’s mother is a testament to their ephemeral quality, and one more compelling reminder to look closer. Though much of the material in “Cameraperson” is old, Johnson has undeniably created something new.
“Cameraperson” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.