'Cameraperson': Sundance Review

Cameraperson still 1 - H 2016
Courtesy of Sundance Institute
An enigmatic self-portrait in which the subject barely appears.

A veteran cinematographer constructs a memoir out of high-profile documentaries.

Veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson views herself through her subjects in Cameraperson, a collection of clips from a quarter-century of doc projects she has refashioned into a self-described memoir. Moviegoers will recognize material from attention-getting films made in the aftermath of outrages around the world, sometimes wondering what the scenes have to say about the woman behind the camera. But personal footage interacts intriguingly with reportage here, sometimes making it more than the greatest-hits montage it initially seems. Fest auds should show respect for this fairly unusual essay film, though it will attract far less attention than the hot-button docs it draws from.

Such recent U.S.-centric titles as Citizenfour, Very Semi-Serious and Happy Valley pop up here, but Johnson pays more attention to older projects shot in Darfur, Rwanda, Nigeria and Bosnia, following calmly in the wake of atrocities or observing those, like a Nigerian midwife, who are making do under very difficult circumstances. Despite Johnson's many trips to recent war zones, the most upsetting material here comes from small-town America: In clips from The Two Towns of Jasper, we listen as a prosecutor describes how the body of James Byrd, Jr. was destroyed as tormentors dragged him with a chain behind a pickup truck.

This interviewee shies away from showing photos of the gore, a sensitivity we will recall later in the film as a Syrian activist complains about the media's insistence on showing the bodies of the dead. How, one wonders, do we decide where human decency is trumped by the need to bear witness to violence? Does seeing a picture sear our consciences and stir us to action, or convey a subconscious sense of finality that inhibits change?

The kind of questions about memory and documentation that one might encounter in a nonfiction filmmaking course grow more personal as Johnson introduces footage she shot with her family in the years after her mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Observing as her mom tries and often fails to engage in ordinary storytelling, she cuts poignantly to scenes with her own young children, whose mother makes her living capturing others' memories.

Though the people Johnson met in Bosnia have experiences relevant to these concerns, the film returns too often to this footage, which with a few exceptions is some of the least compelling material on offer.

Production company: Big Mouth Productions
Director-director of photography: Kirsten Johnson
Producers: Kirsten Johnson, Marilyn Ness
Executive producers: Abigail Disney, Gini Reticker
Editor: Nels Bangerter
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (New Frontier)
Sales: Josh Braun, Submarine

In English, Bosnian, Arabic, Dari, Hausa, Fur

Not rated, 101 minutes