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Cameraperson is a movie, a memoir, and a confession

With stitched-together footage shot for other projects, Kirsten Johnson entangles us in an Augustinian web of memory.

Kirsten Johnson shooting Cameraperson.
Majlinda Hoxha / Janus Films
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Some call St. Augustine's Confessions the first Western autobiography, but it's really the first Western memoir. The distinction is important. An autobiography informs interested parties about the writer's life. Famous people, generally, write autobiographies. Memoirs, on the other hand, are not really about what happened, but rather about the meaning of what happened. Memoirists detect a rhythm in the scattered beats of their own life, then invite others in to work out a harmony.

Kirsten Johnson’s stunning cinematic memoir Cameraperson (which premiered at Sundance in 2016 and will receive a prestigious Criterion Collection release on February 7) does just that: mine her life’s experience for meaning, and ask the audience to live alongside her for a while.

Johnson has spent her career working as a cameraperson for documentarians including Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Kirby Dick, and has worked on some of the most important documentaries of our time. Cameraperson is composed of unused footage from those films and others, stitched together based not on chronology or topic, but on more elusive connections personal to Johnson.

That’s why calling the film a documentary isn’t quite sufficient. It’s a document, for sure, but it’s also a journey — not just a record of what Johnson sees with her eyes, but also a visual exploration of how she infuses those images with meaning.

Kirsten Johnson shooting Cameraperson
Kirsten Johnson shooting Cameraperson.
Lynsey Addario/Janus Films

Points of connection between Cameraperson and The Confessions are easy to detect, because the impetus is the same. The Confessions isn't a definitive history of Augustine's life; it is the excavation of Augustine's soul. He calls up his memories, renarrates them as a quest for his heart's longing, and addresses the story to its goal, God. When Augustine used the Latin word confessio, he meant “acknowledgement”: confirming, declaring, avowing the path that he can trace through his life to that point, and the meaning embedded in it. It's for his benefit, but also ours. Augustine wishes to make space in his journey for us to revisit our own story.

We continue to read The Confessions centuries after its composition not to discover a set of facts about an ancient North African bishop's life, but because across time and space, we encounter a life and a voice and a set of memories that seem connected, somehow, with our own. And we’ll keep watching Cameraperson, because it gives us the same experience — this time, into the memories and misgivings of a 21st-century cinematographer. Reading and watching, we sit at the feet of the artists, feeling a tug from a different world that we yet inhabit.

Cameraperson is a record of quantum memory entanglement

About halfway through Cameraperson, the astrophysicist Erik W. Davis explains to the camera — or to Johnson, who is behind the camera — the strange behavior of quantum entanglement. Two pieces of quantum matter entangled with each other are each affected by actions performed on the other, even if the entanglement occurs across light years, or across time. Johnson's voice from off camera remarks that she already feels entangled with her subject.

This scene is the linchpin of the film, and the rest bends around it. Speaking to Vogue, Johnson noted that in putting Cameraperson together, she noticed an uncanny link between her and her subjects, many of which she hadn't personally seen in years. “I was also just blown away by the fact that I recognized everybody's eyes,” Johnson said. “Literally every person I'd filmed, I knew their eyes. That made me think: Wow, where does that go inside of us?”

Kirsten Johnson/Janus Films

What made it into Cameraperson is bits of quantum matter, stretched across time and great distance. The instrument of entanglement is Johnson herself, and the links, we sense, are mysterious, even to Johnson.

In Book X of his Confessions, Augustine turns philosophical, musing about the nature of memory itself. “Memory's huge cavern, with its mysterious, secret, and indescribable nooks and crannies, receives all these perceptions, to be recalled when needed and reconsidered,” he writes. “Every one of them enters into memory, each by its own gate, and is put on deposit there.”

Johnson is present in each frame of Cameraperson — though she shows her face only once

In the film's epigraph, Johnson addresses the viewer directly, asking that we consider the film her memoir. “These are the images that have marked me and leave me wondering still,” she writes, then signs the epigraph in her own handwriting. From the start, she makes us aware that this is her story, a deeply personal one, constructed of images that she can't shake. She only notes the location of the footage she shares, and never the specific date. She shows her face only once.

Some reviewers took Cameraperson to be an exceptional clips reel or navel-gazing “this is your life” sequence, but that’s a category mistake, and may reveal more about the critic than the filmmaker. To Vogue, Johnson explained, “When people ask me where this idea came from, I push back and say it’s a series of questions that are really real for me. We hope that the film embodies the questions. There are all these ethical concerns, but there's also this incredible dynamic of being a human, meeting another human, being impacted by them, how that stays with you. One of the real revelations for me in working on this film is around consciousness and memory.”

The construction of Cameraperson, and the deliberate exclusion of nearly all chronology, signals that this is self-excavation. The act of discerning links between what Johnson has seen, and how she has seen it, reveals to us not just her conscious but her conscience — a deep and genuine humanism laced with ambivalence about some of the ethical issues of documentary filmmaking.

We can never forget Johnson's presence in each of Cameraperson's frames — we hear her speaking, murmuring, chuckling, breathing, gasping — but we only see her face briefly, and so, in a way that audiences are rarely conscious of, we're invited to step into her shoes and experience her emotions, to try on her skin for a while. Cameraperson leads its audience to contemplate several themes: the startling cruelty of which humans are capable and the ways it imprints itself on the world; the beliefs we hold and abandon that never quite leave us; the startling and inexplicable activity of the natural world; the cost of resistance.

Kirsten Johnson/Janus Films

But though you can detect a throughline in these themes, their entanglement comes from Johnson. So the overriding arc of Cameraperson as memoir is what she says from the start, in the epigraph: a quest to sort out why these particular images, left on the cutting room floor, have stuck with her motivates the discovery. A recurring encounter with lost memories emerges (in her mother, in a person explaining that PTSD tends to suppress memory) precisely for this reason.

In Cameraperson, we’re gently led into becoming entangled with the images, too

“Out of the same abundance in store,” Augustine writes, meaning the sense-memories stored up within him, “I combine with past events images of various things, whether experienced directly or believed on the basis of what I have experienced; and on this basis I reason about future actions and events and hopes, and again think of all these things in the present. 'I shall do this and that,' I say to myself within that vast recess of my mind which is full of many, rich images, and this act or that follows.”

Dropped into Johnson's shoes, we tread her path and ask her questions and come to conclusions more felt than seen. We are implicated in her acts of seeing, and we feel what she is after. We sense that this is, in effect, her own confession: that she has seen and heard and pondered all these things, and is still wondering what it means.

Watching Cameraperson, we take Johnson's rich images into ourselves. Having watched them, experienced them, they become entangled with us, too. We are invited into the confessio, to recognize sets of eyes we never saw. We become entangled, challenged by what we see, uneasy in the knowledge of everything we suppress or forget. Johnson's film is the contemporary confessions of a keen observer, but for those with eyes to see, it’s ours, too.

Cameraperson is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from the Criterion Collection. It is also available to stream on Amazon Prime or rent digitally from Amazon, YouTube, Google Play, Vudu, and iTunes.