Kirsten Johnson has been a documentary cinematographer for 25 years, and “Cameraperson” is the memoir she created from unused footage and an occasional blooper from her body of work.
Small and experimental, but engrossing and enlightening, it’s truly a one-of-a-kind documentary. (It won an award for best documentary feature at the 2016 San Francisco International Film Festival.)
A stream of cinematic snapshots, the film explores the kinds of artistic and ethical decisions Johnson regularly makes, and how she balances objectivity with empathy in her craft.
“Images that marked me” is how Johnson (“Citizenfour,” “Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Darfur Now”), in her opening onscreen text, describes the footage to come.
Eschewing voiceover, she makes use of offhand and background talk to convey her concerns about shooting a given scene. Her international journey contains situations ranging from mundane to harrowing.
In Foca, Bosnia, site of horrific war crimes in the 1990s, Johnson films an elderly shepherd. Before shooting, she removes some blades of unwanted grass from the picture.
In New York City, she converses with boxers and philosopher Jacques Derrida.
In Texas, we meet the prosecutor preparing for the trial of the men accused of the truck-dragging murder of James Byrd.
Later, in a scene with a Syrian activist, the question of whether it is constructive or exploitive to show gory material on camera comes up.
Near an al-Qaeda prison in Yemen, Johnson and her group have a scary encounter with soldiers.
In Nigeria, a midwife tries to save the life of a newborn.
Johnson weaves personal material into the mix. She shows herself interacting with her twin toddlers and her mother, Catherine, three years after Catherine’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis.
At first, it’s hard to determine where Johnson is heading. The film seems to lack cohesiveness and central ideas.
But soon, substantial themes, along with Johnson’s driving human focus, become evident. The film is an illuminating look at what documentary cinematographers do and how personal elements, essential to the process, affect what winds up onscreen.
In her repeated visits to Bosnia, where she films a rape survivor, the relationship Johnson has built with residents proves crucial.
At an Alabama clinic, Johnson and her director contradict a young woman when she describes herself as a bad person for having accidentally become pregnant.
In Afghanistan, Johnson becomes emotional when filming a boy as he matter-of-factly recounts the rocket attack that blinded him in one eye and killed his brother.
A powerful montage features sites where genocide, torture and terrorist acts have occurred.
In a precious moment that perhaps sums up both the private emotions and the professional detachments that characterize Johnson’s line of work, Johnson blurts out “Oh Jesus” when the hands of a playful Bosnian toddler get scarily close to an ax. She keeps filming, though.
Filmed, produced and directed by Kirsten Johnson
Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes
Note Johnson is slated to appear at the 7 p.m. Sept. 30 screening at the Opera Plaza in The City and the 7:20 p.m. Oct. 1 screening at the Shattuck in Berkeley.