For a quarter of a century, cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has hauled her camera through global danger zones, abortion-clinic doctor’s offices and the District of Columbia. She’s filmed graveyards in Sarajevo, boxers in Brooklyn and her own mother lost in the haze of Alzheimer’s disease. You may not know her name, but if you’ve watched a documentary in the past 25 years — Citizenfour, Fahrenheit 9/11, The Oath, Derrida — you’ve definitely seen her work. And as this cinememoir, described by Johnson as a collection of “images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” can attest, all those tours as a vérité eye-for-hire reflects a deep sympathy for her fellow human beings and left her scarred. There’s little to no information about Johnson herself, how she fell into this line of work or why she took these gigs; other than occasional glimpses of her twins, her nonprofessional life is left on the cutting-room floor. But you will not find a more moving, personal testament to the importance of bearing witness 24 frames per second, one digitized shot at a time.
Assembled like a scrapbook of snippets, outtakes and snapshots taken in various nomadic, far-flung locations — the film could have easily been called No Home Movie had the late, great Chantal Akerman not already used the title — Cameraperson doesn’t distinguish between the mundane, the majestic and the more dangerous aspects of Johnson’s day job. (One tense sequence, in which a quick drive-by shot of a prison in Yemen finds the crew being pulled to the side by soldiers, cuts out just as things get hairy.) Instead, it offers a fragmented, cut-up picture of a life lived in front of the lens, one that’s big enough to encompass the heartbreak of seeing a parent disappear before her eyes and the quiet devastation of hearing Bosnian survivors discuss the reality of ethnic cleansing. It’s significant that the title doesn’t separate the two words; watching this film, you get the sense that for Johnson, there’s no clear point where “camera” ends and “person” begins.
“We put these stories inside of ourselves,” says a slightly traumatized field producer, which doubles as a sort of buried lede for the whole project. It’s what keeps a montage of banal places associated with various atrocities from feeling like killing-fields tourism, or Johnson’s return to a Serbian community long after she’s filmed their testimonials from feeling self-congratulatory. The cumulative effect of such random back-and-forthness is her way of sharing the agony and the ecstasy of being a documentarian, and you leave feeling like you’ve walked several thousands of miles in her dusty, frayed shoes. The movie is an extraordinary self-portrait and an existential statement: I shoot, therefore I am. It deserves your eyes, too.