Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson” was one of several notable documentary films I unfortunately missed in 2016. Although I bought its Criterion blu-ray edition which was released shortly after its modest theatrical release in US, I somehow kept postponing watching it during next several years, and now I belatedly dug up that purchased Criterion blu-ray edition as getting ready for Johnson’s latest documentary “Dick Johnson Is Dead” (2020), which was incidentally released on Netflix a few days ago.
The documentary consists of a bunch of archival footage clips which were shot by Johnson herself throughout many years of her long documentary filmmaking career. For many different documentary filmmakers ranging from Laura Poitras to Michael Moore, Johnson served as a cinematographer, and many parts of the documentary actually come from numerous additional video clips which were eventually deleted during the editing stage of those documentaries she worked on.
At first, the narrative flow of the documentary feels rather random as it freely hops among a number of different locations and people. There is a somber moment focusing on Bosnia during its post-war era, and then there soon comes a galvanizing scene showing a young professional boxer preparing himself for his upcoming match, and then there is a raw moment unfolded at a shabby local hospital located somewhere in an African country, and then there later comes a dry scene where a local prosecutor of some rural town of Texas shows and tells some graphic details of a horrific murder case.
This will surely make you wonder about what exactly the documentary is doing, but Johnson slowly lets us accustomed to her emerging stream-of-conscious narrative approach, and then we gradually come to sense what her artistic mind often revolves around. For example, one of the most prominent recurring elements in the documentary is Bosnia and its citizens after the Bosnian War, and her camera often looks at the remnants of the war such as the remains of a destroyed mosque, which still seems to be haunted by the dark past of war atrocities despite the considerable passage of time.
As participating in the production of the documentaries on the Bosnian War, Laura approached to many different local people and locations and then recorded them with her camera, and the documentary gives us several haunting moments to remember. At one point, the camera simply focuses on the lower body of a woman without showing her face at all, but what she tells in front of the camera is harrowing to say the least, and that resonates with the following shots showing several local spots where terrible war crimes including murder and rape were repeatedly committed during the war.
However, Johnson also shot lyrical moments of beauty and hope when she happened to stay around a Muslim family who returned to their hometown and made a new beginning for their life despite what they suffered during the war. They now live together in a shabby but cozy cabin, and Johnson’s camera captures some lovely moments as watching young children having some innocent fun outside the cabin.
And we continue to behold what Johnson’s camera observed and recorded as she moved around here and there in the world for those documentary filmmakers she collaborated with. When she was in Afghanistan, she happened to get a chance to interview a young boy who lost not only his left eye but also his older brother, and we see that Johnson cannot help but become emotional when the boy phlegmatically describes what he saw at the time of a tragedy inflicted upon him and her older brother. At the aforementioned hospital in an African country, the mood becomes a little intense when a baby does not seem to breathe shortly after being pulled out from the mother’s womb, but, to our relief as well as Johnson’s, the baby begins to make sounds in the end.
While Johnson’s camera mostly stays calm and objective as required, we become more aware of her presence behind the camera, and that leads us to the deep reflection on the usual artistic ethics which all documentary filmmakers in the world come to face at every moment of their shooting process. When that young professional boxer becomes quite furious after losing his match, Johnson’s camera stubbornly follows him without any intervention until he eventually finds some control and consolation via his mother, and you may wonder whether Johnson should have done more than merely shooting her human subject.
In the meantime, Johnson also presents a bit of her personal life, which is effortlessly mixed into the whole picture without any jarring impression. There are a couple of poignant moments involved with the last several years of her mother who was unfortunately diagnosed to have Alzheimer’s disease not long before her eventual death, and we also observe some brighter moments involved with Johnson’s two children and her widower father, who would be, yes, the main subject of “Dick Johnson Is Dead”.
Since it came out, “Cameraperson” has been regarded by many critics as one of the best documentaries of the last decade. Although I may not be as enthusiastic about it as them, I admire a lot its artistic and personal qualities, and its plain but unforgettable collage will probably keep growing on me during next several days.