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.

M. Sicinski:

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.

Johnson:

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.

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With Poitras in the news so much, I’m getting around to watching her follow-up to My Country, My Country – supposed to be the second in a trilogy, but now that she’s embroiled in spy drama, I wonder if plans have changed for the third film. I kinda understood and kinda liked My Country, but The Oath is all-around incredible.

Two brothers-in-law worked for Osama bin Laden shortly before 2001, and now Osama’s bodyguard and Al Qaeda trainer Abu Jandal is free in Yemen, driving a cab, and Osama’s driver Salim Hamdan, who was much lower in the chain than Jandal, having never taken “the oath” or being trusted with insider info, has been in Guantanamo for most of a decade.

The movie follows Jandal, who holds jihadist meetings at home and discusses his history, and Hamdan’s lawyer, who’s refreshingly outspoken about his own military bosses’ injustices. Hamdan was “the first man with a personal connection to bin Laden captured after 9/11”, and his victorious 2006 case led to a new law being passed which was then used against him retroactively. His lawyer argued that you just can’t do that. They did anyway. Jandal was in prison during the 9/11 attacks and knew nothing of them. When he was told the details, he turned on his former comrades (he’d personally known all 19 hijackers) and told the FBI everything he knew about Al Qaeda’s operations. Unbelievably, Hamdan is released from Guantanamo and returns to his family in early 2009, but refused interview requests. Jandal: “He has become very quiet and introverted because he spent most of his time in solitary confinement. I no longer own a taxi. I had to sell my car because I was in so much debt. I am now in desperate need of income.”