It always rankles a little when someone draws a direct comparison between film (particularly documentary film) and memory. Memory is by its nature mutable and fluid. It changes with time, reshaped by its attached emotional context. Film, on the other hand, is static. While it can never be fully objective, its images cannot change once captured. Your experience with a film may change over time, but the film itself never can. Memory, though, is never a solid thing.
On the other hand, I think about the phenomenon of false memories. Our brain can concoct recollections of things that never happened, but which may represent some greater emotional or historical truth. I have a distinct memory of my mother insisting that I could no longer drink soy milk because it contained estrogen. She now insists this never happened. Did she simply forget? Or did my brain create this event as a metaphor for my dysphoria, and the at-the-time terrifying prospect of transition? It doesn’t matter if the memory really happened, ultimately. What matters is what it represents about that point in my life. Memory is not a historical record, but it is useful in how it suggests historical truth. This, I think, is much closer to how cinema operates.
It’s something I thought about a lot while watching Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson. The film introduces itself as a sort of memoir of Johnson’s life and career, made up of unused footage from nearly twenty documentary films on which she served as cinematographer. Johnson is a constant presence in these clips, far from the typically invisible DP role. Her physical presence in a scene is always felt. She reclaims her first-person perspective from the directors who would typically assume it, which feels especially radical in clips from films made by documentary titans like Michael Moore and Laura Poitras. These clips, removed from the directorial intents and political contexts with which they would have been presented, take on the shape of Johnson’s personal memory fragments.
I think of one lengthy tracking shot following a young boxer who has just lost a match. He furiously storms out of the ring and back to the locker room, swearing and punching every inanimate object in sight. Johnson follows him there, and then back out into the stadium, where he finds and embraces his mother. In a documentary about this athlete, Johnson’s presence would be totally anonymous. The camera would almost act as surveillance, an intangible object. Here, though, all we can think about is the way Johnson takes up space in those tight backstage corridors, how dangerously close she gets to the young man’s rampage. This is not an objective capture of this event, it is one person’s memory of it. We occupy the space behind her eyes.
The editing, too, is deliriously freeform. It’s a stream-of-consciousness film, with one bit recalling the next recalling the next, until you can’t remember where you started. Recollections of Johnson’s late mother give way to a scene about one of her friends going through the belongings of her own mother, who took her own life. Cameraperson calls itself a memoir, but it has none of the rigidity of the form. It really does feel like a 100-minute sequence of continual remembrance. To watch it is to feel like you’re remembering along with Johnson. Its flow is totally natural and unpretentious. It does feels less like a deliberate construction and more like it streamed directly out of Johnson’s brain. This is, of course, a testament to how brilliantly and deliberately Johnson did construct it. I’m in awe of her accomplishment here.