Thursday, September 8, 2016

Stick with Kirsten Johnson's unusual memoir/ doc, CAMERAPERSON, for its cumulative power

At the beginning of CAMERAPERSON, a strange -- and not immediately accessible -- documentary by Kirsten Johnson, we are faced with the following short paragraph of explanation:

"For the past 25 years I've worked as a documentary cinematographer.
I originally shot the following footage for other films, 
but here I ask you to see it as my memoir.
These are the images that have marked me
and leave me wondering still."

Fair enough, TrustMovies thought to himself, as he settled back to watch. Ms Johnson goes first to Bosnia and a sheepherder (below) along the road; to Nigeria where a midwife tends a newborn; back to Bosnia and then to New York, where a young boxer is in training. Locations are initially identified, but then for a time, they are not. (People are just people, anywhere, everywhere, right?) But then the identification begins again. Ms Johnson, shown at left, often seems to build to an important moment and then simply cut to elsewhere, leaving us wondering about what happens next. Then we also begin to wonder: Whose memoir is this, exactly? It certainly does not seem particularly "personal."

And then we see a pair of cute toddlers identified as the filmmaker's twins, and from there we go immediately to an interview with a young black woman (below) whose face is not shown but who appears to be in a some kind of clinic, where she may be about to have, or has previously undergone... an abortion? (I wished at this moment for English subtitles so that I could better understand what was being said.) In any case, a connection has been made: children who exist and those who don't.

We also meet the filmmaker's parents, and especially spend some time with her mom, who has, a few years previous, received a diagnosis of Alzheimer's. We return again to various places we've already seen, and each time we do, further connection is made. I must admit that it took me perhaps one-third to a full half of this film before I began to feel and understand what was going on. Initially I felt that the film was anything but personal, and yet, overtime, it became so, and fiercely.

By the time we are back in that Nigerian clinic, watching the midwife (below) succeed in bringing to life a newborn (I wish I knew what happened to this infant: Did he survive without the oxygen he needed?), then seeing a Bosnian grandmother making bread (Why is it that bread-making always seems so primal and wondrous?), we are thoroughly hooked -- even when we're not quite sure what we're watching. (Is that some kind of Christian ballet being performed in Colorado Springs? Swan Lake it sure ain't.)

Remember that young boxer we saw toward the film's beginning? Expect to meet him again near the finale and witness what may be the biggest "sore loser" of all time. This is frightening stuff, and one wonders at Johnson's fearlessness. We often don't know the details of what went on previously (or after), and even when we do (the tree-cutting women of Darfar), we hear and see only one side of the equation, though that does seem enough to make a judgment call. Yet part of what Ms Johnson is doing forces us to realize that documentary film, even in the best of hands-guiding-cameras, still gives us only one perspective. And how that camera (and microphone) are wielded can make a huge difference.

Johnson is not a "war" cinematographer, but you might call her a post-war one, as she shows us people in places like Bosnia, Darfar, Rwanda and the locales of our current mid-eastern wars -- where genocides have happened and the results are there to be seen. Or not. Listen as the Bosnian grandmother -- such a stylish dresser! -- tells us that nothing bad has happened here. Really? But then we recall another woman who had earlier explained what happened in the camp where women were held prisoner and raped, telling us the story of the young girls who did say aloud that bad things were happening. The moral here would seem to turn a current slogan, much expressed in America, on its ear: If you see something, don't say anything.

Truth in documentary cinema can be as difficult to find as can fairness and kindness in how one approaches the subject of an interview (Johnson's with a young mid-eastern boy, above, who has lost vision in one eye is a fine example of both, I think). The filmmaker spends quite a bit of time in Texas, too, covering the case of that man, James Byrd, Jr., who was chained to a truck and then dragged to his death. We may remember the details that came out at the time -- much prior to the Black Lives Matter movement -- yet what we see and hear here is still something else.

At the end, Ms Johnson offers a long list of films from which this footage has come. You may be surprised to realize that you've seen a number of these. Yet how the footage fits together in this "memoir" proves an entirely different kettle of fish. It may take some patience and faith to fully experience and appreciate Cameraperson, but the cumulative effect is powerful and thought-provoking -- and most definitely worth one's time and effort.

From Janus Films and running 102 minutes, the documentary opens tomorrow, Friday, September 9, in New York City (at the IFC Center), and on Friday September 23 in Los Angeles (at Laemmle's Royal).

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