NEW YORK — Kristen Johnson, leaning forward in a Manhattan coffee shop, isn’t entirely sure what to call her film.
“Cameraperson” is a meditative montage of outtakes from Johnson’s 25 years as a documentary cinematographer, mixed in with footage of Johnson’s own life, including her now 4-year-old twins and her mother while in the drift of Alzheimer’s. They are moments, stitched together, presented without commentary, in which we see intimacies — at home and in war zones — through Johnson’s eyes, or more to the point, through her camera.
“Memoir feels too centered on self,” says Johnson, leaning forward in a Manhattan coffee shop. “I almost would say it’s evidence. Evidence of relationships. I really do think that I’ve learned that in making this film that an image is always a relationship, and it’s not just a relationship in the moment that it’s taken in. It’s a relationship that moves on into the future and it creates more relationships.”
“Cameraperson,” which opens in New York on Friday before traveling elsewhere, has been hailed on the festival circuit as a wholly original, even transcendent documentary about life through a lens. It grew out of Johnson’s own questions about her work, about how a camera captures and frames reality, and what that means for its subjects, its filmmakers and an audience.
Johnson has been behind the camera for many award-winners (“Citizenfour,” ”Fahrenheit 9/11″), but most of the footage in “Cameraperson” doesn’t depend on the context of the source films. There are moments of awe; Johnson can be heard gasping when, filming a stormy Midwestern horizon, a lightning bolt flashes. There are moments of anguish; a young woman’s hands, in close up, as she painfully explains why she’s in an abortion clinic. And there are moments where the camera preserves something essential, like an elderly woman talking about her life in post-war Bosnia.
“Part of the way I remember is seeing,” says Johnson.
Johnson, who co-parents her children with the New York filmmaker Ira Sachs, was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist in Seattle. Movies were forbidden. Images were charged. The first films she saw were missionary films. “That was sort of my introduction to world cinema, as it were,” she says.
Her upbringing gave movies a transgressive quality that still remains for her. “It is always riding that edge of how much you’re asking another person to reveal, how much can I trust you?” Johnson says. “The camera has always given me permission, to ask questions I wouldn’t ask, physically be somewhere that I’m not necessarily supposed to be.”
Later in film school, she gravitated toward cinematography. “I realized if you’re the person that gets to touch the camera, you’re the person at the center of the film,” she recalls. “Being the person who pushed record felt really significant.”
As a cinematographer, Johnson is always working to serve the narrative of her directors. But as a filmmaker inclined to roam and discover, Johnson has always had her own narrative, too. That feeling eventually led to “Cameraperson.” ”At a certain point,” she says, “it started to accumulate: ‘Oh, my narrative is starting to be something in this.'”
Her initial edit of the film, which she calls “the trauma cut,” lent too heavily on her more searing experiences. (One frightful scene involves a midwife trying to save a newborn in a Nigerian clinic.) Shocked by how awful her accrued experiences really were, Johnson tried a new approach that expanded the film’s purview.
“I do feel like when you film, you have these moments of uncanny serendipity or connection that just cannot be explained in any way,” she says. “I love when that happens. I can’t explain it. I don’t know what it is.”
Disjoined from their original films, those moments take on their own fleeting beauty and tragedy in “Cameraperson.” Their capture on film, to Johnson, gives them a greater meaning. Glancing down at a reporter’s voice recorder, she says recording is generative and conversation-starting: “Like, you and I wouldn’t be having this conversation this quickly without this piece of machinery here between us.”
Or the footage Johnson took of that Bosnian woman. She later died without any photos left behind for her family. Johnson gave them one.
“I know that matters,” she says. “I don’t know much else.”
This story corrects to Seventh Day Adventist.
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP