Interview: Kirsten Johnson on Life as a “Cameraperson”

As I attempt to get a quote right for a certain question, Kirsten Johnson leans over to take a look at my notes.

“I want to take a photo because I’ve never seen anything like it, and it tells me so much about you,” the longtime cinematographer says of my notoriously tiny handwriting. “I don’t want to forget it, so I’m literally distracted by my desire to take a photo of that.”

After seeing her directorial debut “Cameraperson,” I should be so lucky. Incidentally, this came as I was asking about a scene in which Johnson can be heard saying, “In some ways, we’ll move through the banal stuff and I’ll find something interesting” as she’s surveying the Sarajevo cityscape. While the situations that Johnson has encountered over the years have been far from banal, as she’s been behind the camera for such films as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Kirby Dick’s “The Invisible War,” and Laura Poitras’ “Citizenfour,” among others, her gift has long been to intrigue by finding the humanity of her subjects no matter how extraordinary the scenario she finds herself in.

With “Cameraperson,” Johnson extends that treatment to herself, reflecting on a remarkable life in which she’s travelled to war zones both abroad where military strife abounds such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Afghanistan and Liberia and domestically in places like Jasper, Texas, covering the dragging death of James Byrd Jr. for the film “Two Towns of Jasper,” or Huntsville, Alabama for “Trapped,” where the battle over a woman’s right to choose rages on. But she hardly does it in a traditional way, enlisting “Let the Fire Burn” editor Nels Bangerter to help piece together outtakes from her previous films that at once make it feel as if you’re experiencing the same wonder as Johnson does in stepping onto new and unknown territory and yet questioning the right to be there with her camera.

Told in short, vivid bursts resembling the embers of a fire, the film gracefully moves between the professional and personal for Johnson, allowing in the murmurs of off-camera observations that would never make a final cut yet suggest the constructs of making documentaries as well as the intimacy of it. Scenes of the only Muslim family to return home to Foča, Bosnia after ethnic cleansing wiped out the rest of the population, the acrobatics of Elizabeth Streb’s contemporary dance ensemble in Brooklyn, and a premature baby’s struggle to survive in its first hours of life in Nigeria all live alongside each other in stream of consciousness fashion, folding in footage from Johnson’s time away from work with glimpses of her young twins and her mother battling Alzheimer’s. The images are arresting individually, but taken as a whole, “Cameraperson” offers a chance to step inside different cultures and ways of thinking while never losing its grip on the experience that connects us all.

It’s a tremendously moving film in any sense of the word – after “Cameraperson”’s debut earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, Johnson has been on a whistle-stop tour around the country that will continue well into the fall, and during a recent sojourn in Los Angeles, she spoke about how an earlier project about Afghanistan led to the cinematic memoir, how she first gravitated towards filmmaking and her growing appreciation for sound.

Kirsten Johnson in "Cameraperson"Why was this the right time for this?

[laughs] It led me. We keep shifting the origin story because I keep finding new evidence – like I [recently] found this thing I wrote 12 years ago saying I wanted to make a film out of all the footage from different films that didn’t get used. But I really needed to do this in this moment in time [because] I’d hit a saturation point and I also think we’re in a real moment historically that compels me to go beyond the fears I’ve had. It feels more urgent than it has felt before.

You were working on another film as a director called “The Blind Eye,” which was centered on Afghanistan but would’ve incorporated footage collected from other films you had been involved in – were you actually looking to do something that was comprehensive in terms of your career?

It was really only centered in Afghanistan, but it was around the dilemmas of visibility and invisibility [like “Cameraperson”]. I’d gone and seen Ian Olds’ film “The Fixer,” which I loved, and someone in a Q & A said, “Where are the women in the film?” And he said, “We couldn’t film anyone.” Then I got this invitation to go to Afghanistan and I thought, “I’m allowed to film women in Afghanistan [because I’m a woman].” But then immediately, I knew I was in this conundrum of “Okay, so you’re allowed to film, but then can it be seen?” So I was in these really elaborate conversations with women in burkhas who would be taking off their burkhas to talk to me as a woman and I would say, “Are you sure that you can let yourself be filmed?” And all of a sudden, a woman would say, “No, I can’t” and would put the burkha back on and we’d film that way.

I still thought or believed that we were in some territory where there was a way to control the images [because we’d be] in this village and I could say, “Don’t worry. No one’s ever going to see this.” Because that still felt true in Afghanistan in 2009. But by the time I finished the project, it was not true anymore. I would be there with the smartphone [and see] the neighbor looking at YouTube, so what [became] interesting to me is this place of the possible and impossible. I really wondered if I could hold all of these different elements in this film together — could I speak abortion and Islam and all these different things simultaneously. I just showed it to the very Catholic family of the boxer [in Brooklyn that’s in the film] and the abortion moment was so meaningful to them. It was just so interesting because I’ve had fears around those juxtapositions — like can you do that? — knowing how much is at stake for everybody in all of this.

Was it an obvious decision to put this through such a personal lens?

It was not happening until the young Afghan woman pulled herself out [of the previous project “The Blind Eye”] and then it felt necessary to explain that, but I did it in the second and third person. I did this very pretentious voiceover, Chris Marker-inspired, and it was all “You look at this” and “You see this…” There was no “I” at all. So I resisted it deeply.

As you’ve said, since a lot of this footage was for other directors on other films, did retrieving it from them actually influence the film since you’d likely reminisce about it?

Totally, and obviously loss is a huge part of this, but [also the idea of] is there the possibility of recovering lost things or [from] what got left, is it still something that needed to be contended with? That was something that was very true of the directors of the most fraught footage. With Whitney [Dow] and Marco [Williams, who directed “Two Towns of Jasper” about the dragging death of James Byrd Jr.], we had really long conversations about whether I could use the footage or not, which makes so much sense. It [raises] the most profound questions around representation and what’s okay to do and not do with someone else’s horror.

Re-encountering the actual footage, I really discovered a lot of things like I recognized the eyes of every person that I had filmed. The way I’d been going for the past 10 years, I would [often] say, “I can’t remember what I did last week.” But in fact, I do know it all and have it all inside of me, which was a revelation. To go back to certain sets of footage, I would [also] realize time expanded. We were there forever [on these shoots around the world], and to drop back into that — I have 12 hours of the baby’s struggle for life in Nigeria [for Dawn Sinclair Shapiro’s “The Edge of Joy”] and we watched all of it, and to expand that past back into the present, there’s a lot of time travel stuff in this for me.

Kirsten Johnson in "Cameraperson"How did you actually gravitate towards cinematography or filmmaking in general in the first place?

Two different things, right? Because I didn’t realize I was gravitating towards cinematography — once again, it happened to me, but going towards cinema did happen consciously. There’s so many ways we could talk about how much we love cinema and what it does for us, but it’s the way, on really big levels, it expands our humanity. It expands time. It gives us the capacity to imagine what might be on the inside of someone else. We imagine a different life for ourselves.

The big thing for me was I was a kid who was really perplexed by racism in the United States. I was also deeply perplexed by this religious world that I was a part of that felt dissonant with the world as I could perceive it, and I was so caught up in that that when I discovered the West African cinema, it just blew my mind because I was so deeply American in the way that I thought about whiteness and blackness. It was this reveal of other dimensions of blackness that were so outside the construct in which I lived, it made anything seem possible.

I wanted to know who were the people who did that and how did they do that, so I had this crazy proposal when I was going to go away from college that I was going to go to Brazil, West Africa, London and Paris and look at what black filmmakers in all of those places were doing around blackness because I knew those would all be different things and I wanted to see what they were. Suddenly, the multiplication of that really got me thinking that cinema [was the way forward], but I thought of it from an exterior point of view, like I was going to write about it or think about it. I was too afraid to do it.

That idea of finding a common ground with the other, to the point where “the other” is no longer an apt description, can be seen in the Krso family in Foča, Bosnia that comes to serve as the backbone of the film in some sense. Were they an obvious spine?

No, they weren’t. Once we had decided there would be no voiceover, it pushed certain materials forward because there were certain things implicit in the material. [There’s] this experience of going to places and somehow coping with the horribleness that’s underneath the surface, [where the locals are] doing it and you’re doing it in the way you copy someone’s accent while you’re talking to them in certain ways – like you tap into denial or you tap into soldiering on through something. All of those things start happening to you as a person coming into a situation, and that’s happened to me in many places, but I don’t always have the evidence of it in the footage.

It wasn’t a mistake that [the Krso family] got on film, but we all on the crew [of the documentary “Women, War & Peace”] had been filming so many really difficult, horrible interviews in these cramped, horrible apartments in Sarajevo with all these people that had been driven out of Foča and couldn’t return that when we decided we’re going to go back and we got to go up this mountain and be with these shepherds, we were all like, “This feels good.” And we hadn’t felt good for days and days. So we stayed and we were filming things. The director [Pamela Hogan] didn’t even translate any of that material because she’s like, “It’s never going to be in the film.” But we wouldn’t leave and I kept being like, “No, no, I just need another half-hour.” I literally needed another half-hour, not for the film, but for myself. And that’s how it came into the film.

Sound is such a crucial element of this – I’m thinking particularly of the sequence of dancers from Elizabeth Streb’s dance company flinging themselves to the ground from “Born to Fly,” but you use the thumps to create a beat before revealing the image or in Foča, where shortly after meeting the Krso family, there’s a short burst of classical music. Does that work different muscles for you or when you’re capturing images, is that something you’re conscious of?

It’s definitely different muscles, but I have learned over time to listen more. And I’ve worked with these great sound people whose insights to what’s going on has always been a revelation to me. I feel like there’s a hierarchy that exists where the camera is considered to be more important. I get hired and then I’ll say, “I would like to work with this sound person” and often directors don’t even know sound people. There was a moment where I was appalled that sound people were so underestimated because every time we would talk after the end of a shooting day, I would realize how much more they understood about what had happened than I did, so that’s been this process of the growing respect for the least seen person on the crew is actually the person who understands the most.

Over years, my appreciation of sound [has grown], and at a certain point you say we are celebrating cinema with this film and its construction, so when we’re filming it, when we’re editing it and also when we’re designing the sound, so [we needed] to transgress and do it different ways, very purposefully and very emotionally without it being explicative. The Bosnian moment – there’s only a couple moments like that in the film where there’s soundtrack – and then the moment with the bodies is so deep because I learned to shoot that way of looking straight down from working on Kathy Leichter’s film about her mother’s suicide. Her mother jumped out of the 11th floor window of her apartment building in New York that [Kathy] still lives in, and she is still terrified to go onto the roof. So I went onto the roof searching visually [for] how to tell this and when I started shooting, I realized you never look straight down in New York.

I never have really contemplated suicide and yet I’ve spent years working on several projects about suicide. I lived through 9/11 in New York, and the horror of that – those bodies falling – is a part of me as a person and a part of Elizabeth Streb as well, but when we made “Born to Fly,” it’s all about flying. Nels [Bangerter, the editor] starting putting these pieces together and in the sound design, [re-recording mixer] Pete Horner was like, “I have the sound of bodies hitting the ground – not just these bodies hitting the ground on the mat, but the sound of bodies hitting concrete. He added that to the track, which is why I think we take that scene in such a bodily way. It’s like it’s really hitting us literally. That capacity of cinema to go there, where I wouldn’t go as a human being — like I wouldn’t say I’m so saturated with all of this that I’m going to throw myself out a window — in some ways, the film lets me say that.

Kirsten Johnson in "Cameraperson"Was it interesting to find thematic connections in your work that you may not have been aware of until piecing this together?

That’s the pleasure of the work that we do is to say, “Oh, that works as a connection.” But it was also the challenge for me of making the film because I kept going down rabbit holes where I would make a connection, but it wouldn’t be part of a structural whole. That’s what’s so deeply satisfying about getting to this place with this film is it is built, but it allows for these incredible [interpretations] – going as deep as we can into certain territory and coming back out again.

Did you see Charlie Lyne’s Filmmaker Magazine piece about the emotionality of the fonts?

Oh my God. I was so moved by that and it was like he was reading our minds. We were incredibly intentional and had all those conversations [about those details] and it mattered that much to us, but then he could see it? That’s where I get really thrilled, like we can communicate in these kinds of ways as human beings — that it’s not all verbal and it happens through sound, it happens through image…it happens through font. Like how cool is that?

“Cameraperson” is currently opening in theaters across the country. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.

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