2016’s Acacdemy Award nominations for Best Documentary Feature were the best in many years, possibly the best in a quarter century. Cameraperson didn’t make the final cut, but won enough praise to justify the Criterion treatment. Kirsten Johnson’s montage of sequences from many lands adds up to a fugue of transnational suffering. Somebody’s oppressed or about to be oppressed, whether by external forces like nation-states or unseen ones like a god very much like Thomas Hardy’s. Sketchy and often reductive, Cameraperson nevertheless is an affirmation of the filmmaker’s responsibility to contexualize what the eye sees; capturing reality is not the limit of a documentarian’s duty.
The Bosnian town of Foča serves as the pivot around which Johnson’s film turns, the center of some of the Bosnian War’s worst atrocities. Johnson interviews survivors of rape and the mothers and daughters whose men were lined up, shot, and tossed into open graves. Juxtaposed against these sequences are stills of Wounded Knee, Tahir Square, the Hotel Africa (a symbol of the Liberian civil war), Guantanamo, and Bibi Mahru. Although the locations have the sense of coiled energies often captured in nature photography, putting them together just long enough for their importance to resonate unleases that energy: in the desolaton of an abadoned swimming pool, the rapid chill of an American desert in twilight, the anonymity of a town square, Johnson draws arrows sixty years backward to Hannah Arendt, who understand how the blank stupidity of a public face can mask evil. Meanwhile a citizen of Kano, Nigeria, does her own kind of soldiering on: a midwife deliers a mother’s fourth baby.
“These are the images that have marked me,” Johnson announces at the start of her film, and she means it. Not for her the Flaubertian separation between creator and subject. Listening as an Indian boy describe how a rocket severed half of his brother’s face, Johnson confesses, “You’re making me cry even though I don’t udnerstand the language.” She smokes with her people, hangs out with them. The banter has a tinge of desperation when it involves the director’s mom Catherine Joy Johnson, her Alzheimer’s-ravaged mind figuring out what furniture in her living room was moved. Occasionally Johnson’s sympathy outpaces her ability to provide connective tissue commensurate with the emotions triggered by the title cards and images. I’m not sure how she wanted audiences to respond to a Catherine sequence followed by a teenaged black mother in the South, face hidden from view, explaining why she prefers aborting a pregnancy to placing the child up for adoption. And Michael Moore makes the kind of unexpected appearance that threw me out of the movie for a couple of minutes.
But caring too much is hardly a mortal sin in a filmmaker. At her best Johnson, who also shot Citizenfour and The Oath, has a way of seeing.