Cinematic Memoir, “Cameraperson,” Entangles Viewers In an Augustinian Web of Memory

Kirsten Johnson shooting Cameraperson. (Majlinda Hoxha / Janus Films)
Kirsten Johnson shooting Cameraperson. (Majlinda Hoxha / Janus Films)

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.

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.

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