The film Cameraperson is a memoir by documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, perhaps most famous for the documentary Citizenfour. The film, which is comprised of footage she has shot over the years for different documentaries, ran the risk of being a “clips movie,” and in fact it does take the viewer a few minutes to cotton on to the running themes. The film opens with a request, Johnson asks viewers to see the film as memoir and not documentary, which at first seemed easy enough because of the way the clips jumped from place to place, but as the film went on, it returned to the same places enough that stories did emerge.
There seem to be two running themes throughout the movie. The first was pointed out by my friend and cinema studies expert, Pedro Cabello, who saw the film with me. There are a number of scenes that approach death, but that seem to consistently assert, ultimately, that the mystery of death cannot solved with documentary — that there is something about dying that is unknowable. These scenes — a little boy who talks about discovering his brother with his face blown off, a baby who is delivered needing oxygen but there is none, a woman at an abortion clinic who says she feels like a bad person and a ‘bad female’ for allowing herself to have a second unexpected pregnancy, and the many war zones where displaced persons talk about the life lost — are gripping but also difficult to fully understand. We can see the horror, but we see Johnson’s question — what does it all mean? What is death, and what is unjust death?
The second theme, following directly from the first, is how a receiver of true and terrible stories — such as a documentary film maker, but also doctors, and activists, writers and artists, etc — learn to live with those stories. Interspersed in the scenes that ask about death, there are moments of brightness. Berry picking in Bosnia; a boxing match where a young and angry loser storms back into the arena swearing only to find his mother in the audience and let her hold him while he calms down; small children laughing and playing; sheep storming down a path; maybe even the moment in the abortion clinic when Johnson tells the woman that every single person in that room — Johnson and her staff — have all had unwanted pregnancies, that this girl is not alone, and that she is not a bad person. These all represent moments — small smaller within a larger, sadder framework — of overcoming. But the film does not decide one way or the other about whether these moments of brightness say anything about the dark.
Ultimately, the film is meditative, graceful, and moving. It holds together both as a memoir, a commentary on what it means to hear and tell true stories, and a question about what how we understand the world. Feature length, this one sticks with you. I encourage you to spend an afternoon with the film, and good friends to talk about it with afterward.