Scenes and pieces from decades of filmmaking. In the first scene you hear her breathing and whispering behind the camera, making little gleeful sounds whenever the shot works out, then a gasp and sneezing right before the title, so immediately drawing attention to the filmmaker, making you see the rest of the movie as moments shared, not just captured.
She returns to some people and locations over the course of the film: memories of her alzheimer’s-afflicted mother, conversations with Muslim Bosnian survivors (some with inconsistent stories), a boxing match that doesn’t go well, and it’s punctuated with one-offs: a stray Michael Moore interview with a defecting soldier, post-Citizenfour evidence destruction, Jacques Derrida trying to keep Kirsten from running into traffic while filming him. The blu extras discussing the production and editing process are essential, and rewatching some of the scenes really brings back what a wonderful (meta-)documentary this turned out to be.
Not only does Kirsten Johnson bring together two forms of filmmaking (nonfiction advocacy cinema and poetic / associative diary) that typically have nothing to do with one another. She finds that the two modes can strengthen each other, making something vital and unique, rather than watering each other down… The power of Cameraperson is a cumulative one, because we have seen these building blocks before, but they are usually arranged into a very different kind of edifice, one far less idiosyncratic and alive.
My experience is that when you make a documentary you decide on one story, when in fact in the making of that you’re experiencing many, many, many stories. That’s a part of what I wanted to evoke and, you know, the fact that it is fragmentary indicates how many more stories could have been told.
M. Almereyda in the Criterion essay:
Johnson studied painting and literature in the late 1980s at Brown University, where she had a political awakening, stirred by the anti-apartheid movement roiling the campus. Upon graduation, making an uncommon move, she transplanted herself to Senegal and interned there on a film written by the great Ousmane Sembène. In 1991, she was the first American to enroll at La Fémis, the French national film school, where she entered the camera department and discovered a vocation.
The Above (2015, Kirsten Johnson)
Nice photography of the US surveillance blimp above Kabul, Afghanistan, and then the similar one over Maryland, ending with a terrible quote from officials saying that whether the blimps have cameras or not, people behave differently when they’re visible. This is where the ferris wheel shots in Cameraperson come from.
Project X (2016, Laura Poitras & Henrik Moltke)
Kirsten didn’t shoot this, but she’s worked with Poitras, and we just missed this short playing at True/False, so I thought I’d catch it online. Sinister shots of an AT&T building where the NSA camps out to collect all our communications, explained by titles and celebrity voiceover. Blueprints and guidelines for covert travel to collection sites in unmarked cars. Pairs very well with The Above.