It takes several, relatively short scenes passing before the viewer settles into the filmmaker’s proposed arrangement — that footage shot for more than 20 films, cut and compiled into Cameraperson, be viewed as a journal or memoir about the woman behind the lens. Bouncing from rural Bosnia to lightning striking on a vast Missouri landscape to a boxer in New York and then a Nigerian hospital, hanging in with filmmaker Kirsten Johnson’s request requires a little bit of initial patience. But once the viewer accepts this pattern featuring brief windows to view people dancing in Uganda or Derrida crossing a street and teasing her, the piece starts to become fascinating.
What, exactly, will she show us next?
The footage comes from several big-name films Johnson worked on, including CitizenFour, Pray the Devil Back to Hell and Fahrenheit 9/11. These documentaries, like others Johnson has worked on, deal with horrific, tragic and heartbreaking events including mass rape in Bosnia, the War on Terror, various execution and atrocity sites in Africa and the Middle East and specific appalling cases in the United States.
There are still light moments in Cameraperson, but the mood is undoubtedly dark, including when Johnson herself finally appears on camera in the second to last scene. At another point, about partway through, Johnson can be heard crying during an interview.
But amidst the sadness, the undergirding humanity of the filmmaker and her subjects — including a laughing police officer eating watermelon on a picnic or women joking as they chop firewood — carries the day.
Cameraperson screens on April 14 at 4:30 p.m. at A/perture 2, April 16 at 1 p.m. at UNCSA Main, and April 17 at 2:30 p.m. at A/perture 1.
— Eric Ginsburg