Our Documentary Producer Nick Mastrini reviews Kirsten Johnson’s documentary – “a stunning exploration of personal experiences, piecing together a global adventure to contemplate the nature of memory and perspective.”
The beauty of documentary filmmaking comes through its serendipity — the moments when, by virtue of a filmmaker simply being present in a certain situation, the completely unexpected and inexplicable happens. The film Derrida, with cinematography by Kirsten Johnson, begins with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida outlining his views regarding the present and the future. He sees two types of future: that which can be anticipated and ‘will be’, and that which is impossible to anticipate.
Of the latter, he says: ‘For me, that is the real future. Derrida sees the present as the anticipation of the near future alongside the ‘retention’ of the recent past, continually unfolding relative to this balance between expectation and memory. Perhaps, having shadowed Derrida for weeks, tracking his errant thoughts, Johnson’s sense of time, so beautifully represented by Cameraperson, was spurred by the philosopher’s musings.
Cameraperson ebbs from nation to nation, experience to experience, all from the perspective of Johnson. The idea of retention is crucial to understanding the impact of every image; Johnson is in dialogue with her past self, returning to the instances of serendipity that stayed with her over the last 25 years. Every emotive moment accumulates into a narrative of a lifetime, using the benefit of hindsight to note the significance of individual experiences within the bigger picture of a career. In Johnson’s case, a career of using the camera allows for these experiences to be rewoven into an autobiographical narrative that recalls what was seen at first sight.
Meanwhile, the retrospection is also an exploration of the morality of documentary filmmaking, of the presence of the camera in a real situation. A stunning scene sees a boxer lose a tight decision at the Brooklyn Center. Johnson’s camera tilts from the jumbotron’s screen to the reality of the ring below, before the disgruntled fighter storms out of the ropes, past Johnson and into the changing rooms. Johnson follows, unafraid of the boxer’s aggression and unpredictability. Indeed, it is this unpredictability that Johnson desires to capture, even when risk is involved. The scene concludes with the young man finding solace in his mother’s arms, a stark counterpoint to his frenzy.
Johnson finds the themes at the core of each scene and connects memory to memory without any commentary aside from the impact of editing, allowing the audience to infer what it all meant to the cinematographer. The theme of familial love, particularly mothers, abounds, and the reason why becomes clearer as the film unfolds. Johnson intersperses footage of her mother as she copes with Alzheimer’s, causing viewers to interpret the images of motherly love with added significance. An incredible scene sees a midwife revive a newly-born child with limited oxygen in Nigeria. The camera lingers, depicting the quiet assurance of the nurse and the nervous utterances of the Johnson behind the camera, highlighting the tension between her role as a cameraperson and as a human being.
This tension finds an almost comic presence in a scene in Bosnia, as a young child plays with an axe with startling recklessness. This is part of another consistent thread that depicts Johnson’s experiences in post-war Bosnia. There, her relationship with a rural family proves the power of documentary film in capturing the impact of history on humble individuals and communities. Towards the film’s conclusion, she returns to the family to the family to show them footage of their younger selves, and its purpose in the documentary she helped to create. In response to this time capsule, the family’s gratitude is clear. It is gratitude for a career that has captured the inexhaustible variety of life, and Cameraperson captures one life with equal elegance.
Cameraperson is screening in select UK cinemas and is available now on Digital HD – for more info head to Dogwoof.com/Cameraperson. See the trailer below:
Check out more of Nick’s reviews on Within and Without.