Over the past 25 years, Kirsten Johnson has worked as a camera operator or cinematographer on more than 50 documentary films, including “Citizenfour,” “The Invisible War,” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” Now she’s directed “Cameraperson,” which she calls a visual “memoir.” It incorporates footage she shot for various documentaries over that quarter century. In an introductory note, Johnson says, “These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still.”
It’s an unusual and promising concept, a filmic hybrid, part anthology, part journal. Even as she’s recording the words and experiences of others, Johnson is recording her own life, too. Every once in a while we’ll hear her voice or see her. There’s a charming moment when, having just seen a lightning bolt hit the earth in rural Missouri, we hear Johnson sneeze — twice.
Throughout there is an awareness of a distinct sensibility behind the camera: humane, engaged, unfailingly curious. When an Afghan boy describes the rocket attack that robbed him of the sight in one eye, she tells him, “You’re making me cry, even though I don’t understand the language.” She doesn’t, except that in a far more important sense she does.
There are occasional moments from Johnson’s domestic life. We meet her twin toddlers, Viva and Felix; her elderly father; and her mother, a victim of Alzheimer’s.
“Cameraperson” is much more about outside than inside. Johnson could have justifiably called her film “Oh, the Places You’ll Go.” She takes us to Bosnia, Uganda, Rwanda, Liberia, Nigeria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Darfur, Guantanamo, and multiple places in the United States.
There are indelible moments. The literary critic Jacques Derrida, crossing a New York street, nods at Johnson, “She sees everything.” In the Jasper, Texas, courtroom where James Byrd Jr.’s murderers were tried, a prosecutor describes how they chained their victim, an African-American, to their pickup truck and dragged him to his death. The sight of the chains and Byrd’s horribly torn clothes is powerful beyond words.
The presence of a Ferris wheel in Kabul is incongruous. Even more so is hearing someone (Johnson?) tell a rider, “Don’t be scared.” That’s excellent advice for that particular place, if rarely for that particular reason. A young woman in Huntsville, Ala., tears at a rip in her jeans as she describes being a single mother.
“Cameraperson” has no voice-over. The only explanatory device is intertitles to identify the location we’re seeing. We’re not told the date or what film the footage is from. Sometimes that can be figured out. Michael Moore interviewing a Marine with the US Capitol in the background? Right, “Fahrenheit 9/11.”
The film shifts back and forth in time. It works like memory that way, but the memories are Johnson’s, not the viewer’s, which makes the absence of some discernible organizing principle a real drawback. “Cameraperson” is a kind of mosaic, but one we don’t have enough distance from to experience its larger shape. Clearly, Johnson has put great effort into structuring the film and making it flow. Yet the overall effect is more random than not. Maybe that’s fitting. Johnson’s life is a work in progress, so it make sense that a film reflecting that life should be that way, too. But that kind of logic isn’t the way art works.
★ ★ ½
Directed by Kirsten Johnson. At: Coolidge Corner. 102 minutes. Unrated (as PG-13: occasional descriptions of wartime atrocities and horrific crimes, occasional casual obscenity). In English, Arabic, Bosnian and Dari, with subtitles.