Filming a lonely road stretching diagonally towards the horizon, a lighting bolt sears through the pewter sky. Kirsten Johnson gasps in amazement. Moments later, thunder returns the favor with a heavy constitution. Observing the stillness of a graveyard in Bosnia, Johnson and her director discuss the merits of having no bystander walking into the frame; the tombstones stand on their own. In Alabama, evidence is being laid out in a trial involving a man who was dragged to death from behind a car, the lawyer speaking in some detail seems to be restraining a sadness and fear of the atrocity. Moments, captured and embalmed in film, float together with a disregard for chronology as memories sort of flood into the retrieving mind unexpectedly. These moments are possessions of Kirsten Johnson, captured through the many projects she participated in as a documentary cinematographer. Cameraperson is her visual memoir of these delicate, but powerful moments. Like almost a stream of consciousness or a series of dreams emerging and fading, we are transported through space and time almost arbitrarily, with a figment of a theme or symbolic motif binding these moving images with brief, but bold, slivers of the human condition. Alas, it amounts to a visceral experience, where we are allowed a moment of entrance to the extremely personal, finding respite in the many instances, sympathizing and binding with the images.
Its reflexive construction, anchored by such recollections, opens Johnson up to ways of expressing such memorial journeying through editing, in which shots and scenes are placed together either motivated by a specific emotion or a certain intellectualism. One sequence early on in the film suggests hectic movement a documentary filmmaker must adapt when following a moving subject with no knowledge of where they are going. The cuts quicken as the motion within the shots quicken, resulting in a hilarious moment where Johnson makes a surprising misstep. Later on, a montage of mostly still shots quietly observes the variety of locations where some form of atrocity against humanity occurred: genocide, execution, or mass rape. One location was a deserted motel. Another was an empty pool. Such a montage was prompted by the emphasis Johnson upholds of her time in Bosnia, where she recounts the stories of several women during the ethnic cleansing in the 90s. It is as if a painful memory of one atrocity reminded her of all the times she has come across such remnants of tragedy. To us, with only some reference cue from title cards, we contemplate in sadness. Not all sequences carry such aesthetic or thematic adhesion, expressing maybe a freestyle recollection, but when things are adhesive with some core concept, it buries into our imagination.
As an outsider of such memories, there is a clarity of discerning the bravery, courage, and maybe even recklessness of Johnson and the slew of directors she works with, capturing moments that are dangerous, to say the least. Yet, such bravery is not always aligned with how dangerous a moment is but also how personal and vulnerable it can be. Aside from Bosnia, another prominent memory thread are the scenes captured of Johnson's mother, shown devolving tragically into the void of Alzheimer's. Indeed, it is not difficult to see Johnson ruminate on these moments where she actively participates in remembering and preserving her past as she captures her mother whose memories are gradually withering away.
If memory and the emotional and intellectual impressions that unearth themselves through remembering finds itself as the more ethereal theme hovering among the visual moments, then on a more practical level, yet just as intriguing, is the sense that Cameraperson is also an expose of the ethics and responsibilities of documentary filmmakers. Many moments are indications where Johnson not only grew as a human being understanding the world around her, but as a filmmaker who begins to understand maybe the social or cultural obligations and complexities involved when representing actuality. When Johnson and her director film a birth to a boy who is lacking of oxygen, there is an uneasy instance where the doctor has left, searching for oxygen to give, leaving only the filmmakers in the room with the struggling infant. I will not reveal more, but place faith in the idea that what is exhibited is immeasurably gripping.
As the visual memoir shapes our perception, the lens from which we see this world ultimately is shaped through Kirsten's imagination, where the camera is an extension of her own perception of the world, how not only she wants to see it but how she wants others to see it. Although the disjointed collection may contribute to a risk of detachment from scenes only to be seen as sensationalized, it is also an effective mechanism illustrating the difficulty of providing a summation of your memories and experiences. In spite of such risk, these moments, assembled in some mysteriously personal manner, may be the conclusion of Kirsten's attempt to step back from her experiences, marking points on her journey for which she changed direction in her walk of life. And a most wholesome life it has been.
So I am more than content to watch this film under an aura of mystery, a personal mystery that is both being presented bravely by Johnson but restrained just the same. All that can really be shared are the cornucopia of feelings jutting prominently out of the images we see.