Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 12, 2016 3:44 pm 
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A politically-conscious, left-leaning cinematographer's visual "memoir" is just a hodgepodge of clips

"How much of one’s self can be captured in the images shot of and for others?" So begins a festival blurb for this film. Well, as it turns, out, not very much, when your visual "memoir" is a tacked-together hodgepodge of one unrelated short film clip outtake after another from Darfur, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and other high-profile photojournalist venues plus scenes here at home. Such is the nature of cinematographer Kirsten Johnson's film Cameraperson. It is difficult to carry away any impression other than a shaky camera, an out-of-focus lens, and a succession of victims. These range from good-natured African ladies, who've been made homeless by marauding Arabs in Darfour (a subtitle giving the location precedes each clip), hacking off pieces of tree for firewood; to an Afghan boy with a blinded eye; to the photographer's own mother, in, a subtitle tells us, the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. In the background, Johnson can be heard pacifying, prodding, or cajoling her subjects. Her murmured words suggest a pleasant personality and the diplomatic skills to safely point a camera in many a tricky place. But not much of a personality emerges, just an awareness that this is a cinematographer with a background in hot spots.

In the scattershot series, one or two may land in the viewer's brain. I remember the smiling boy asked to say what he sees with his good, then his bad, eye; a grizzled, lean old woman in -- was it Bosnia? -- who's held up as stylish; an overwrought American woman a subtitle says has made a film about her mother's suicide, throwing a file of papers across a room in what appears to be angry frustration. What these have in common, or what they have to do with the photographer, is anybody's guess.

Kirsten Johnson indeed has a resume in which documentaries of a provocative or political nature predominate. Her work includes contributions to the "Frontline," "Wide Angle," "P.O.V." and "Independent Lens" TV documentary series. Individual films include ones about the French philosopher Derrida; the Hollywood rating system; a Teamsters strike; a departing governor pardoning death row prisoners; a banjo player touring Africa in search of his instrument's roots; New Yorker cartoons; abortion rights; women raped in the US military; hunger in America. She shot a little known documentary by Michael Moore, the 2007 Slacker Uprising. Moore is shown standing near a bunch of Marines jogging and chanting. Moore declares that it's hard to talk while running. (This would be true for him; not so much for good runners going at an easy pace.) An outtake of Derrida is equally trivial. But these are criticisms of snippets encountered in this grab bag film, not of Johnson's professional work. Her most productive and high profile partnership may be the recent one with filmmaker Laura Poitras, with whom she collaborated on the Oscar-winning Citizenfour, about NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, and the upcoming Asyum, about the ongoing problems of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange. The information in this paragraph, if linked together by a searching interview with Kirsten Johnson, might make a good documentary. But none of it is in Cameraperson: I found it on IMDb.

Cameraperson,102 mins., debuted at Sundance, where it was reviewed for Variety by Nick Schrager; also showing at the True/False and SXSW festivals, and as the closing night film of the Film Society of Lincoln Center-Museum of Modern Art's March 2016 New York New Directors/New Films series, where it was screened for this review. Public ND/NF showings 26 Mar. 6:30 p.m. at Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center, and 27 Mar. 1:30 p.m. at MoMA. Limited theatrical release 9 Sept. 2016.

US theatrical release by Janus Films 9 Sept. 2016 (NYC). Opens 30 Sept. 2016 Opera Plaza, San Francisco and Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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