Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson begins with a voice on the sound track—a disembodied whisper of delight and discovery—as an image of wildflowers pops up, their heads bobbing in close-up beside a farmhouse’s barbed-wire fence. (The location, a title card informs you, is Bosnia.) A flock of sheep comes trotting up, driven along the hilly road by a shepherd on a white horse, and Johnson, still unseen behind her camera, impulsively runs after him, laughing and panting. Then, almost without transition, you see the panorama of a rural highway in Missouri. The road is deserted and silent, the horizon low, the clouds a vast twilight wash of purple and indigo. Suddenly, a distant bolt of lightning splits the left side of the frame, top to bottom, and from behind the camera comes the sound of Johnson’s gasp. After that, the stillness resumes for a moment, until you hear another sound—a sneeze—and the picture shakes.
With that, Cameraperson becomes one of those rare films that snap you wide awake as soon as you begin to watch, and listen. It’s this combination of eyes and ears that puts you on the alert: the act of contemplating things shown in absolute facticity but unexplained juxtaposition, and the feeling of being touched by the contingency of ambient sound, which would be scrubbed from most films but here is left intact, to give you a sense that the sneezer is immediately present. You seem to share her spot behind the camera; and so, joined imaginatively with Johnson, you don’t just take in the view but, like her, direct your eyes toward it.
Johnson has been intently paying attention for many years, having collaborated as a cinematographer with documentarians like Laura Poitras, Michael Moore, Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick, and Gini Reticker (who serves as executive producer on this film). Cameraperson is Johnson’s memoir of her life spent in the field, which means it’s a whirlwind tour of five continents. It’s also a deeply thoughtful essay about the ethics and purposes of filming people, especially those who have less money and power than the ones who are watching; and it’s an intimate self-portrait, in which an artist who ordinarily concentrates on connecting (however temporarily) with the subjects she documents now turns around to establish a bond with the audience.
And yet there’s a trick. The memoir has no chronological order; the essay leaves the author’s thoughts unspoken; and the self-portrait keeps the artist out of the frame until the end, when passing glimpses of Johnson appear in a couple of mirrors. With reticent ingenuity, she has composed Cameraperson as a collage, working with editor Nels Bangerter and coeditor Amanda Laws to piece the film together from material she’s recorded over the past 25 years. You, too, become a partner in this work of assemblage, as you trace recurring characters and situations and supply unstated thematic links—an activity that adds thinking to the functions of watching and listening, and keeps you caffeinated.
A review cannot do this thinking for you. (If it could, it would rob you of a wonderful experience.) But here, for the record, is a partial inventory of the subjects that Cameraperson touches upon: the rape, massacre, and forced exile of Muslims during the civil war in Bosnia, and the perseverance of Muslim peasants; the efforts of investigators to document war crimes in Bosnia, and of prosecutors to present evidence in the murder of James Byrd Jr., who was dragged to death in Jasper, Texas, by native-born terrorists; the repercussions of 9/11, as intimated by prison architecture in Sanaa and at Guantánamo Bay, or experienced by a half-blind young man in Kabul, or recorded on Edward Snowden’s thumb drive, which you see being buried in concrete at an undisclosed location.