Rates: * * * * *
Why Did I Watch It? Watching the films on Indiewire’s 100 Greatest Films of the Decade list, I’ve not seen
Kirsten Johnson has spent her professional career behind a camera. A cinematographer who specialises in documentary film, she has worked on projects large and small, in many different locations across America and round the world. But this documentary, is different.
It’s a visual memoir, combining outtakes from different movies Johnson has worked on, assembled into a colllage to tell us something personal. The clips are mostly very short, and at first I was a little frustrated with this: you only just start to get interested in the elderly baker in Bosnia, or the chidhood bombing victim in Darfur, before; ‘Cut!’, and you are off somewhere else.
But, patience is rewarded. This is just the film getting into its stride. And once its rhythm is established, whole worlds of emotional experience open up. There are a handful of main stories that Johnson focusses on, and she returns to these several times; in actual fact, they ARE longer snippets, they are just being told in fragments.
It is like how your memory works. If I think back on something that happened to me, my recollection of it is not like a video file where I press play and watch a full version of events unfold in chronological order. What I have instead is impressionistic; snapshots, soundbites, the most vivid moments. The bits that ‘marked me’, as Johnson puts it, in a title card introduction.
And just like this random assemblage of audio-visual experience combines in your mind to shape your personality, so the clips Johnson has selected here tell us something about her. And she is compassionate, curious, adventurous, emotional, tough as nails, and warm and loving to her kids and parents. It is a portrait of real depth, and all with her only appearing onscreen herself for one minute.
Some of the selected moments are very powerful in their own right. You hear Johnson crying as the boy from Darfur speaks of his brother’s death, and again as a young single mother faces her difficult options for an unwanted second pregnancy (It’s an all female crew: ‘Everyone in this room has faced what you’re facing’). There is an amazing scene as Johnson’s mother, suffering from Alzheimers, stands in a field and a sudden violent gust of wind whips around her; just why this scene is amazing is beyond my ability to articulate, but it truly is.
And then there are the sunsets, the empty back country roads, the Afghan soldier who gives her watermelon, the dead bird in her parent’s garden, the aggro young boxer who is comforted by his mother, the women who survived Serbian rape camps, the kneading of a traditional loaf of bread, the horror-story murder case in the deep south, a crowded market street on a very unremarkable day in Monrovia, the unflappable midwife in a rundown African hospital; a million things, each one abundent with fascinating details. It really made me think how rich our everyday environments are (and at the same time: how terrible everything is).
Probably not for every taste, but I was fully absorbed; I felt the hair on my arms stand up at times, and I feel quite emotional thinking back on it now. I mean, this film really got to me. Was I just having a bad brain day? No. I don’t think so. This is just a very unusual masterpiece.
Can’t wait to see it again.