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In Conversation with Kirsten Johnson, Cameraperson

"These are the images that have marked me and keep me wondering still." 

The epigraph to Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson offers a momentary beat and silence which then tips us into haunting yet lovingly woven memoir of a cinematographer who has spent the last 25 years filming in Bosnian and Afghan conflict zones, hospitals in Nigeria, and the moral and political battlegrounds of Huntsville, Alabama and Washington, D.C. In intimate moments with her subjects, and quiet b-roll, which have become weighty and poetic with time, Johnson bring herself in and out of focus. A project that underwent many painful incarnations before reaching its final form, Cameraperson has been shortlisted for a 2017 Academy Award. I sat down with Kirsten in Toronto to discuss what it's like to creating space for work that asks more questions than it answers. 

Hot Docs: When you conceived of this project did you know you wanted to do such a conceptual and artistic piece?

Kirsten Johnson: No. I think early on, I was so lost in the questions themselves that I was grasping at forms that already existed. I was aspiring to films that other people had made: Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, Raoul Peck, Werner Herzog. I am none of those people. But I think that’s what we do when we're trying to figure out an aesthetic problem. You go towards solutions that other people have found, and then you realize they’re not relevant to what you’re making. 

HD: Cameraperson was almost born of necessity, because another project had fallen through. Were you inspired by pulling out particular moments that had always stuck with you or did you give all the material equal weight when you were reviewing it?

KJ:  It wasn't like I got an idea, it was more like a crisis of confidence. It was first a crisis of confidence around the fact that I thought I understood this young woman, for the film I shot in Afghanistan to which you are referring. I thought we were on the same page, and then we were radically not on the same page. That really made me question myself, and my own judgment, about other situations as well. I don’t really like to put things in terms of "the right thing" and "the wrong thing," but had we filmed in a way that we could live with it later? I know that I am haunted by certain things. There are things that I have filmed that I’m still questioning. To this day I question the choices we made in the Nigerian maternity ward; how it was used in the original film, and even used in this film. It's not settled, for me, in any way.

So when making Cameraperson, I would go in search of a question and then see what kind of evidence there was in the footage, and that would lead me to another question. And I think at a certain point, I didn’t understand why I was doing this but I was reaching for the most traumatic things that I had experienced to see them again and try to understand why those images kept coming into my mind, or why I couldn’t remember certain things I had shot. I was interrogating how my brain had compartmentalized all of that information.

HD: Were you surprised this was happening?

KJ: Oh yeah. I thought I understood what I was doing, and then we did this terrible first cut, which we called "the trauma cut,"in which I strung all the really traumatic material together. We watched 2.5 hours of it and it was literally shocking. It was as if I was a completely un-self-aware person. I just crammed all of these horrible incidents together, and was shoving them in my own face. That rocked me back on my heels and I thought: "Am I okay?" This was also in the context a period where we had been working on the film that was going to become Citizenfour, and I carried a lot of concern, paranoia and anxiety. It was also concurrent with the Arab Spring, and I had gone to Damascus in 2011 and met many young filmmakers from the region, so I was in contact with people who suddenly realized they couldn't live in their own countries anymore. Lynsey Addario went to Libya and got kidnapped. Tim Hetherington got killed. Bassel Shehadeh had come to the US on a Fulbright scholarship, decided he needed to go home to Syria, and filmed his own death by sniper. These were all people I loved and cared about, so I was dredging up all of the memories of other people's trauma simultaneously. There was a fragility to me in that moment in time, because so much was happening around me, and because I had opened up so much of myself.

HD: Is the current incarnation of the film a direct response to the trauma cut?

KJ: Yes, absolutely. That cut was unintelligible—you couldn't understand it or penetrate it, you just wanted to shut it out. It was like something spinning, as opposed to something that gave any kind of illumination. My producer, Marilyn Ness, said, "just stop." It was then eight months before I chose a new editor and, in search for editors, I spent a lot of time talking to people about the ideas in the film, and I even paid some people to sit down and just talk with me for a day. I think that was a way that I coped with all of that trauma: just sort of pulling it apart, putting it in different places, talking to another person about it. The search to find an editor was a kind of self-treatment around the traumatic material.

HD: There's one point in the film a Bosnian translator says of her own experience, "What is your channel to let things go of trauma?"

KJ: When I went to Bosnia again, I reached out to my translator and the driver, and on our way to visiting the family I had shot for the film five years prior, they spent the whole time talking about that experience. I realized, "Oh my goodness, it's not just me." I thought I was going to be interrupting the footage too much, just saying, "Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh…" because she really was speaking my experience, and that made me really happy, because so much of this film is about the invisible people whose experience doesn't get recognized in filmmaking. I've always thought the drivers are the people the most tuned in: nobody sees them, in the way that people don't see sound people or translators, so I was really excited on a formal, political level that that's who got to speak for me in the film.

HD: In revisiting years of footage, other than the trauma that you hadn't dealt with, I imagine you learned a lot about yourself.

KJ: I don’t think I'd ever seen actual evidence of my own way of being and seeing in the world. I really got to see myself and the way that I work. I deal with trauma by having fun, by enjoying people, I am full of curiosity, I'm refreshed by people's delicious blueberry juice (the gifts people give). I could see myself dealing with the intensity by enjoying the light, enjoying the aesthetics of a situation. I could see evidence of how turned on I am by the world. I saw evidence of me as a woman in different phases of my life in that footage. Here, I’m obsessed with looking at babies; there, I'm thinking about my mom and paying special attention to old people; there, I'm looking at whoever I think is hot. I could see myself in different stages of me, and different chapters of my femaleness. That was super interesting and fun; I didn’t realize there was as much evidence as there is.

HD: Did you feel like you achieved what you wanted in the end, and in learning so much of yourself in the process?

KJ: I always say to people to be kind to themselves. People say I'm an empathetic person, but the impulse is how I notice how hard people are on themselves and how challenging their situations are. I'm interested in racism, misrepresentation, and the history of filmmaking is so fraught with the ways that we make terrible mistakes in the stories we tell about people. I was so self-flagellating about that; I felt so much failure around what I was doing and what we had made, and whether things may change in the world or not, that I think I had stopped being kind to myself. Making the film allowed me to be kind to myself again. I think, from that space, you can more honestly face your blind spots, and say, "sure, I'm an empathetic person," but the structure of film still honours one person over another, still puts one person in the foreground and turns others into caricatures or stereotypes. So, you still see your empathy, but you realize that is not enough, as opposed to hiding and pretending I can be ethical all the time, or empathetic all the time, and all those rigid ways of holding on to how desperately we want to be decent. Because who knows the experience of another person? None of us, and yet we're trying to represent another person's experience, and sometimes in very extreme situations. That is a struggle; we should acknowledge it as a struggle and acknowledge its inadequacies.

HD: When you saw decades old footage that you had shot, did you have a different relationship to it?

KJ: Absolutely. I discovered that where I thought I remembered nothing, I would recognize the eyes of almost, literally, every person I have ever filmed. I recognize them as soon as I saw them again. So somewhere that presence of the other person remains inside of me, even though I can't access it most of the time. When you film so much, you're taking in so much, you can't hold on to it, but it is marking you in some very deep way. So, that was a revelation. I look at this film and I don't recognize it; it doesn't look like my idea of me, which I find completely thrilling. It made itself, but it's different from me. It sort of asked itself to be made over and over, until we got to something that was coherent and accessible to other people. I did not see this film coming in the form that it is in; it is wholly unrecognizable to me.

HD: Every time you watch it?

KJ: Yeah, it's a very strange experience, but super cool, which makes me want to be braver in the things that I make next. The search is not to make something you already know; the search is to make something that you don't recognize.

HD: When you were developing the project, you worked with a dramaturge to explore experimentation with structure. How did that influence the film?

KJ: Yes, I worked with a filmmaker named Dorie Baizley, and she'd been recommended by a great editor, Mary Lampson, and what she does is she takes transcripts of people's actual conversations, and cuts them up and tries to understand the thread. I spent ten days with her, and the editor, Amanda Laws, and I had recorded many, many stories and many thoughts, and it was like a puzzle; we cut them out, and we would put them on boards, and we would label them. This board was about visibility and invisibility, and we tried to find a way to structure the through-line of what my questions where, and that’s what became the trauma cut. I think that was a critical phase in the process, where I recognized how many different ideas were in my desire. So, I made this really overloaded, impossible to watch thing, but the process of working with Dorie really made me realize I wanted to ask all of these questions. I can't just talk about ethics, I can't just talk about representation, I can't just talk about the violence to people's bodies, I can't just talk about trauma, on and on, I wouldn't give up; I wanted all of it.

HD: When I watched the film, I had so much to say about it, but I also felt I couldn't articulate myself at all. Have you been getting this reaction from others?

KJ: I think this film is addressing things that don't get expressed in words. It's expressing things that we understand through sound, that we understand through images, and it communicates in that language. So, those reactions are really profoundly gratifying to me, because that's what I know from being a cameraperson: very complicated things get expressed in images and sound, that words will never be adequate. I also love how different people pick up different threads and go deeper with them than even I have on a certain level. Two nights ago, a man who was a Vietnam vet saw the film and he was telling me about knowing immediately upon seeing the eyes of Keith Forsyth, who broke into the FBI office, his post-traumatic stress. Someone else said to me, "You've structured the film the way Alzheimer's functions," and we didn't do that purposely, but in fact, it does function the way Alzheimer’s functions—it does function the way memory functions.

HD: How does it feel that your memoir is essentially a mirror for other people?

KJ: It couldn't make me happier, because in many ways, that's what we are. I am only discovering these answers because you are asking your questions, and then, because there is a recording device here, it's even more intensified. If we were just having a conversation, I would be asking you questions, and listening to you, but instead, I am listening to myself more actively because of this configuration. And it’s also philosophically, ethically, politically what I believe to be true about the world in terms of ego. I'm much more interested in what happens when we see each other, and then how we see ourselves reflected in the other person. All of those things are more compelling than saying, "This is me." For a long time, I resisted being the thread that connected things together in the film, but this particular set of images together is only possible because I am the thread that connects them. I realized that I needed to include as much complexity of me as possible to have any of this make any sense. So I had to bring that element in, I had to reveal, and then I had to show that I can't reveal everything, too. If I become too present, the audience rejects me, if I become too absent, the audience gets lost, so there's a very fine line.

HD: Did you feel a different ownership of the material, because you were primarily the cinematographer for a lot of these films, but not the director?

KJ: Right, there's no question that, in seeing the original films that were made, I always had the feeling of exhilaration, that someone else took all that footage and made something remarkable out of it, but I also had feelings of loss, knowing I had filmed something I really cared about and it wasn't in the film. To bring out certain moments that were on the cutting room floor of other films, that just felt great. Somebody said to me, "You’re basically saying,'You matter to me, this mattered to me, what I experienced mattered to me.'" And it really did. So to have it get seen, to have my mother be in this film, is a way of saying as clearly as I can how much she mattered to me.

HD: When you pitched at the Hot Docs Forum in 2014, you were in development, so pitching an idea and a desire. Because this is such a conceptual film, I imagine that looks a lot like: "You have to just trust that I can pull this off." How did you prepare for that?

KJ: At the Forum pitch, I was not terribly confident about what the film would be, and then I felt like the response at the pitch was similar. People were curious, but doubting. I think we were hoping that, as a series of ideas, it would resonate with people, but we didn't feel super confident in that moment at all, because I was in such a process of questioning.

No one had come forward from the audience sayin: "We want to support this financially." But who did come forward during Hot Docs was a lot of young women who told me they really wanted to see the film, to the point where I started counting, and by the end of the week, I think I was up to thirty-seven young women, who I didn’t know, who wanted this to get made. And that was the clue for me.

I had also realized that all of the men around the table responded to me with a response of, "I don’t know if you can pull it off." It didn't register for me, that people didn't quite think I was capable, and that was a total shock. I think if I had been a fifty-year-old man who had shot all of this material, no one would tell me that they didn't know if I could do it. You go back and forth on how much you see or feel the obstacles that face you. Whether they're race or gender or class or your outsiderness, and sometimes you focus on them, and sometimes you don't, and it's always been my experience that I have worked with great people, and don't focus on it. But that was a real moment, here, where I was like, "There’s no one waiting for me to make this film. I have to create the space for it," and that motivated me.

HD: Do you feel like the blessing from the industry now is something that is important to you?

KJ: It's actually deeply meaningful, because I feel like there was nothing formulaic about this film—there's not an easy structure to see or understand from the outside. If I pitched the film to you, I still would be incapable of doing it quickly. To say what the film is about, we could talk for hours. There are so much in it that is about searching, which is something that I think we can all embrace.

Learn more about Cameraperson:



Interview conducted by Madelaine Russo.

Categories: Director's Notebook


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