“Everything interested him.” These words are spoken by the unseen narrator early on in Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. The “him” of the sentence is essentially Marker, though the speaker always refers to a fictional cinematographer as a deflection from the film’s heavily autobiographical content. Marker, the pioneering film essayist, also supplied music and visual effects work to Sans Soleil, also under pseudonyms. The film is composed of old footage from Marker’s travels, as well as borrowed images from various media, reconstituted into something new. Likewise, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is constructed from previously unused footage collected in her years of experience as a documentary cinematographer. Johnson isn’t at all coy about her personal relationship with the images, admitting it at the outset with onscreen text. She only appears on camera once, but her voice is often heard, talking either to an assistant or an interviewee. No less than Marker, Johnson displays a wide-ranging curiosity about the world, its people and its ideas.
Neither of these films can comfortably be described as a “documentary,” unless the word is used as a an encompassing synonym for nonfiction film. “Essay film” comes closer, though the precise nature of these films combines argument with travelogue and diary. Most of all, these films exult in the tools of cinema itself, its capacity for contorting the passage of time and flashing between far-flung locations. Sans Soleil opens with a frank discussion about images and editing, as the filmmaker struggles to coax an idea out of an impression. Cameraperson‘s just-out-of-frame dialogue will often touch on decisions about framing and focus. These metatextual touches don’t dominate the narratives by any means, but they add a layer to the general rush of cinematic thoughts; namely, that you can’t be interested in everything without also being interested in the tools for expressing that interest.
The two films have very little overlap in subject matter, and while each spans multiple continents, they never cover the same locations either. One could draw vague connections between them concerning the limits of human memory and the violence of history. But Sans Soleil is generally more forward-thinking and abstract, musing on the nature of dreams, culture, technology and sex. When it touches on political demonstrations, injustice and revolution, it does so at something of a remove, pondering the endless reprisals and general inertia. Cameraperson is more somber and indignant, as per Johnson’s work with advocacy documentarians like Michael Moore and Laura Poitras. Much of her footage relates to war, ethnic cleansing, terrorism, torture and sexual abuse. The focus is never on the perpetrators, though, but on the survivors and their memories. At other times, Johnson highlights the work of those brave people who choose to shine a light in the world, even in places of poverty and hardship. Both films sometimes pause from their philosophical ideas simply to observe people in their everyday behavior — dancing, traveling, praying.
The bulk of Sans Soleil is essentially a travelogue of Japan in the late 70s. Marker, through the endlessly evocative narration (voiced, in the English-language version, by Alexandra Stewart), demonstrates curiosity and respect about the Japanese culture. It’s only every now and then that his conception of Japan feels touristy, and even then often in a benign way. At one point, the camera settles on a bag with a cartoon rendition of Jean Gabin’s face on it, the most blatant reminder of the filmmaker’s nationality. Marker is awed by the pulsing society of Tokyo. As evidenced by the quote at the top, it awakened within him a desire to learn everything about everything. So not only does he devote a great deal of time to the art and entertainment of the metropolis (manga, television, video games, etc.), but he also lets it launch him into various digressions. Marker studies the dying indigenous culture of Okinawa, the postcolonial upheavals of Guinea-Bissau, volcanic devastation in Iceland, and the San Francisco shooting locations of one of his favorite films, Hitchcock’s Vertigo. The connective tissue between these places is sometimes sparse. Often, there’s little more to tie them together than the well-worn topic of the relationship between cinema, memory and dreams. But the ride itself is always fascinating, whether the footage was shot by Marker or not. (Some of the Guinea-Bissau and Iceland scenes were borrowed, with acknowledgment, from other filmmakers, as was a graphic scene depicting a giraffe being hunted and killed.)
Cameraperson is even more diffuse in its locations, visiting several places each in the Middle East, Africa and the United States. Though to a lesser extent than Marker’s focus on Japan, Johnson does spend a significant amount of time in Bosnia, tracking the aftereffects of the genocide and mass rape perpetrated against Muslims during the Bosnian War. A detailed representation of the history of this time would not be within the purview of this film. Instead, Johnson simply observes people, one of them remaining anonymous. There’s a particular emphasis on the very old and the very young, groups separated by the unimaginable. Elsewhere, the film will look at the work of midwives in Nigeria, and the slowly dwindling life of Johnson’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s on her wind-swept Wyoming ranch. Unlike in Sans Soleil, there’s no narration to direct us from place to place. We’re left with graphic matches — Bosnian kids playing with an ax and a Sudanese woman balancing an ax on her head; the folded hands of two different anonymous subjects. The editing (by Nels Bangerter and Amanda Laws) seeks, for the most part, to keep each location distinct, with only one early montage sequence. The deliberate pace of many of the segments gives the powerfully emotional content room to breathe.
At heart, Sans Soleil and Cameraperson are among the purest manifestations of the nonfiction filmmaker’s great desire: to record something that has happened in the world, to get to the bottom of it, before it’s too late. The logical conclusion of this desire, the impossible ideal, is to be everywhere and find out everything. In this way, these movies are also love letters to cinephiles, those strange sorts who want to see as many movies as they can, from as many places as they can. For some, these films can be seen as disappointing insofar as they only whet the appetite about any given place and subject, and often from a foreigner’s perspective. But in their totality, they make ambitious statements about the human race and all the wonder and horror we’ve produced. They each wrap up at about the 100-minute mark, but each could have easily continued forever.