Longtime cinematographer and camera operator Kirsten Johnson makes a movie comprisJanus Films

Kirsten Johnson
Genre: Documentary
Rating: NR
5 (out of 5) Globes

In the documentary “Cameraperson,” we’re jetted from Bosnia to Missouri to Brooklyn to Nigeria to Sarajevo — and that’s just in the first five minutes. There must be something images of war, boxing and cars driving by at dusk have in common. And there is: They were all shot by Kirsten Johnson, who’s spent the last 20-plus years as a cinematographer and camera operator, exclusively for documentaries. Some of them are big (“Citizenfour,” “Fahrenheit 9/11”), many are harrowing. And most of them appear, in some fashion, in her new film — an unusual and quietly rich movie made entirely from outtakes and loose ends and random miscellany she’s logged over her long career.

But to what end? Johnson doesn’t tell us what to think, what to see between these disparate (and often brief) scenes. A text card states up front that what we’re about to see are simply “images that have marked me.” Most of the time “Cameraperson” seems like Johnson uploaded video clips and then hit shuffle. One minute we’re in Kabul watching unused snippets from an interview with an Afghan boy with a messed-up eye; the next we’re in a health clinic in Alabama, or watching home footage of her baby twins in New York. Sometimes on-screen text fills in a bit of context. But we’re mostly left adrift, forced to see something that might look half-familiar — be it a well-reported global hotspot or the sight of Michael Moore — in an obscure and strangely freeing light.

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Slowly, very slowly, two stories start to come into a kind of focus, sort of. We see footage of her mother, who died in 2007 after struggling with Alzheimer’s. We also repeatedly visit the town of Foca in Bosnia, where we meet an enclave of Muslim refugees who’ve returned there after the ethnic cleansing during the war. But neither strand dominates, and Johnson lets the abstraction and dearth of intel work for her film, rather than against it. We’re free to watch and to ruminate on big ideas: the ethics of photographing strangers, especially in times of strife; the way “proper” documentaries tend to make life look too clean and simple; the possibility that speaking about trauma to noble reporters and filmmakers can prolong it.

Many times we see survivors of some horror, but we don’t see them mid-interview; we see moments between talking, when they seem nervous or are sometimes even chuckling — when they seem human. It’s not dissimilar from what Chantal Akerman would do in her own topical documentaries, like “Sud” or “From the Other Side,” which feature unpolished interviews where subjects ramble or fidget in their chairs — the things filmmakers cut out to make the footage more “watchable.” At one point she shows an interview with a D.A. in Jasper, Texas as he talks about the murder of James Byrd, Jr. We learn a fair amount about the incident, even get a quotable that seems germane to the film we’re watching. (“Hearing somebody talking about it and actually looking at it is quite different.”) But we also see all the “messy” parts in between. He’s amiable, even charming, even when he’s talking passionately about a heinous act. And through it we get an understanding of human behavior and how people who have to police the worst of humankind deal with it.

We can suss out a bigger, more personal story in “Cameraperson”: that of the experiences of a for-hire talent, someone who takes jobs that take her all over the world, covering whatever subjects come her way. This is the life of a freelancer, though Johnson wisely keeps herself out of the picture, literally, only appearing towards the end in a scene with her mother, where it’s impossible to miss what the footage means to her. Like Robert Greene’s “Kate Plays Christine,” it’s a doc about docs that tacitly raises important questions about what we get from non-fiction films. But it can even work on a simple level: as something you watch to just to see the world and other people you may never meet.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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