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Published September 9, 2016

ABOVE: KIRSTEN JOHNSON. PHOTO COURTESY OF LYNSEY ADDARIO/JANUS FILMS.

Kirsten Johnson’s CV (Fahrenheit 9/11; The Invisible War; Citizenfour) reads like a best-of list for the past 25 years of documentary film. During that time, the prolific cinematographer’s travels have taken her from Liberia and Yemen, to Sarajevo and Guantánamo, documenting the after-effects of war and political strife, often working with the likes of Laura Poitras and Michael Moore. But Johnson’s newest effort, the Sundance Prize-winning Cameraperson, in theaters today, is an entirely personal work: Assembled from footage from over thirty of the filmmaker’s past and yet-to-be-released projects, as well as her own home movies, Johnson’s affecting and cerebral tone poem of a movie memoir also becomes a probing investigation of the slippery ethics of what it means to bear witness.

Interview recently spoke to Johnson in New York.

COLLEEN KELSEY: How often do you carry a camera with you when yo­­­u’re not officially working?

KIRSTEN JOHNSON: Actually not very much. I think because I get so compelled by carrying the camera, I actually have a hard time doing anything else then. I, like everyone, have a phone in my pocket and can take photos or film with the phone, but not a big camera I don’t carry around with me.

KELSEY: So there’s something about premeditation when you bring it out in your personal life or…

JOHNSON: Yeah, I think that’s right. I think when I am filming, I am both in the present and in the future imagination of what the film will be. And I get really involved in that, so I start thinking of situations as scenes, or, really wanting to pursue an idea that comes up.

KELSEY: How did the idea of making this film come about?

JOHNSON: This is one of the strangest experiences of my creative life. It didn’t come as an idea. It came in response to this other film [The Blind Eye, which followed two teenagers in Afghanistan] falling apart. That really threw me for a loop, because I had been very complicit with this young woman. We communicated well, and so for her suddenly, after three years of interaction, to see what I had made and then say, “Oh my god, I can’t be in this,” just filled me with this line of questioning around, “What do we know about other people? What’s in our blind spot?” Especially when you’re filming someone, you’re so focused, I mean, it’s like you’re doing an interview with someone. All you’re doing right now is trying to understand me, and thinking about what to ask me next. You probably have a few things in the back of your head, but you’re giving me as much as you can. Then for me to suddenly do something that you didn’t see coming, after having had this relationship going for years, was really bewildering.

I did experience it as a loss, and I started to let myself think and feel this odd life of creating intense intimacy with people that we all walk away from. You and I are here, we’re doing this conversation, we are going to go somewhere we would never go as quickly if there wasn’t a recording device between us. Then we’ll separate, and maybe we’ll see each other again, and maybe we won’t. Over the years of our careers, we end up doing that with thousands of people. What is that? So I just started to interrogate that fact of what we do, and little by little, I started to realize when I reached out to directors, there were things in the footage that I didn’t realize were there. Then I got very intrigued with, what else is there? It was one question leading to another question leading to another, but I thought of it as trying to find a way to still get to make this other film. Eventually it became clear I was making a completely different film.

KELSEY: At the beginning of the film, you say as a preface, “These are the images that have marked me,” over the course of your career. How do you even go about drawing out what those were, working so prolifically, and comparing which experiences are more important than others?

JOHNSON: It honestly continues to fascinate me, why certain things lodged themselves in my mind. Some are obvious. The filming in the maternity ward in Nigeria was a brutal experience, but I have had many of those. I think it was something about the amount of time we spent with the father of the baby, who you don’t see in the footage. I, in many ways, really wanted to share him with the audience. I didn’t choose to do that. And with the midwife, just the time waiting with her while she waited to see if a doctor would come, they really needed a doctor and no doctor came, but we just filmed her as she waited. It was really one of those experiences [mimes a clock ticking] for all of us, because we knew the longer she waited, the less chance the baby would survive. Then we proceeded to film the struggle of the life of the baby for hours afterwards.

What I had in my mind was just this blurry image of her, until I went back to the footage. Similarly the images that I saw in the book about James Byrd just come into my mind, and I wish that they would go, but they are indelible images. I think that is another category of experience. The film raises questions about that. There are things that you have seen that you wish you could unsee. You can’t, and what is that? It’s something specific to the image. Memory is so interesting because even as I’ve made the film and processed looking at some of these things, I’m remembering new stories that are buried deeper than the ones I excavated with this film. So, there’s more. [laughs]

KELSEY: This is Susan Sontag 101, but you have that mediated image of the experience as a viewer. There is so much more contextualized in just that image. As someone who has captured images through brutality, genocide … how do you as an artist go about trying to capture everything in a way that ends up being informative, or transcendent, to whoever ends up looking at these objects?

JOHNSON: It’s a search. It’s a quest that you’re on and you feel, while you are doing it, mostly you feel inadequate. It’s beyond your capacity. I remember one of the first documentaries I worked on took me to Brazil. We went to São Paulo. It’s a city of 22 million people and I had never been in such a big city. I was so completely overwhelmed that all I did was film everybody in close-up. You literally can’t even tell what city the movie is shot in. Like, I didn’t yet have the capacity to translate scale. Visually, I couldn’t do it. Over time, I learned some ways that you can translate your experience of scale, but I think what happens when you film is you’re struggling, you’re searching, you’re feeling, “I’m not doing enough, I can’t do it,” and then all of a sudden, for whatever reason, in your effort to be in sync with another person, some incredible detail will reveal itself while you’re filming. This is a rare experience for me, but there are absolutely moments where I’m filming and all of a sudden it’s like I’m watching a movie, and it’s unfolding in front of me, and I’m having a revelation, and sometimes the person who I’m filming is having the exact same revelation.

Something new emerges from this thing we’re doing together. That is when your feelings of inadequacy shift into wonder. You’re like, “How is this possible, that this moment happened and we recorded it?” Early in our careers we look at people that have done things we respect and love, but it’s aspirational, and as the work happens, suddenly you realize, “Oh, I actually have specific ways of doing things, and because I have practiced this craft enough, that’s a shot that looks like me, and yet it is expressing this thing about this story, and I don’t even quite recognize it, because it’s what I bring.” It’s not the confidence to say, “I’ve done it,” it’s the confidence to be like, “Something is happening. Let’s do some more.” It’s very propulsive.

KELSEY: You studied critical theory, but how did that bring you towards working in film?

JOHNSON: That’s so funny, because I’m so interested in the way in which we categorize identity politics as happening in a certain period of history. But in fact, it’s always happening when young people are making the shift between the world of their family into the world of their own independence. It’s this navigation of what was my identity, what will be my identity. Sometimes it ends up being really loaded. I went to college in a moment in time like that. I was super interested in it because it was giving language to things I had experienced in my childhood, which was sort of the dissonance around race, and now, even retrospectively, dissonance around gender, but I didn’t get it, right, because I was taking so much for granted and not even really seeing myself as female. It’s such a messy subject. [laughs] I think what happened was on an emotional gut level, I was feeling lots of confusion in my childhood around what I was being told and what I was seeing. Then, in college, suddenly that’s what everyone was talking about, and it was all in this very constructed, careful language. It was very loaded and there were high stakes. I loved that and was also overwhelmed by it. I was trying to make these paintings that had words in them, and then someone said to me, “Why are you trying to jam all that into a painting? Why don’t you make movies?” And I remember being like, “Oh, that’s smart.”

I discovered filmmakers from other worlds and in particular West African filmmakers. It was so different than anything I had seen. I was really excited by it, and curious about it. I was naive enough to imagine I could just go to West Africa and meet Ousmane Sembène. I did that because that’s what you do when you’re 20 years old, right? The next step of my relationship to critical theory and thought was then. I lost language. I couldn’t speak French. I couldn’t speak Wolof.  I literally couldn’t speak anymore after four intensive years of academia and “uhh…” It was just gone. I was far away from my parents, far away from my culture, and I had to find different ways to communicate and to show who I was to other people. It was an extraordinary expansion of my humanity [laughs] basically, right? People were open to me and some people weren’t, but I found a way to exist without language. Little by little, like a toddler or something, I learned to speak again. Then I went to France [to Le Fémis] and re-encountered the heavy academic intellectual.

At Full Frame they showed many of the films that I excerpted for Cameraperson. I re-saw Derrida [2002] and it was pretty uncanny how relevant what he was thinking and talking about to Cameraperson and to me as a person. I think what’s interesting about him is he was an outsider to a very powerful society, and he found a way to build another thing and to critique that more powerful society. Lots of the tools that he found continued to be relevant, even though he’s sort of out of fashion now as a thinker. I kind of love that you say “Sontag 101” because that’s now such a given for you. I remember reading Regarding the Pain of Others and having it blow my mind. It was this formative text for me. Then I remember reading her New Yorker piece during the Iraq War and feeling like I needed her insight in that moment in time. I realized that she doesn’t do the work, so she doesn’t know some of the things that I know. In some ways I have found myself in this space where I need to formulate these questions because I’m not just a theoretician. These are not just ideas. These are actual experiences that I have and I have had them in many different places.

KELSEY: Negotiating the responsibility to your subjects is a huge component of your work, but also at the same time, you’re making a movie with some sort of end goal. Do you ever have a moral imperative that’s different than your directors? How does your personal empathy come into play?

JOHNSON: What’s exciting about this moment in history is because more people can recognize the construction of what is made, we as viewers, as an audience, are becoming increasingly sophisticated. There is more capacity for us to speak in images and let the complexity of the situation exist, which is what we were trying to do with Cameraperson. We trust the audience. They know what the deal is and if we give them a situation that you can see I didn’t know what to do, and the audience can watch it and say, “I don’t know what to do, but we can have those questions together.” What are these conversations that the film generates? Where does that take us next? All of that for me feels very alive.

KELSEY: I wanted to talk a bit about your experience working with an editor to create the structure of Cameraperson. It’s a very composed film, but as viewer you’re just taken away by the streaming sensation of memory.

JOHNSON: What I do know from experience is the way we get carried away, right? I know that’s what happens when I film, so that’s what the evidence of the footage is. On a certain level, we knew that’s what’s cool about no voiceover and not having it be really cut. Having it be raw, you’re just with me and me in that moment, I’m really present. The construction was really about, how do we let those things build on each other and give enough information so you, the viewer, gets what’s going on for me and what I’m doing. But in some ways we wanted to replicate some of the experience of being me, which was dropping into one place, going to another place, and these really acute contrasts, like I’m in Yemen, now I’m with my toddlers. Also, this accumulation of how much pain hits you after it’s happened to you.

KELSEY: I read in another interview that you’ve called the first cut of the film “the trauma cut.”

JOHNSON: Yes, totally. I was completely shocked myself. It was a total revelation of self that I did not understand. I once went to Haiti on a shoot and the journalist who picked us up at the airport, instead of saying, “Hi,” the first thing she did was she had an image of a dead, mutilated body, and she put it right in front of my face and she said, “We need to go photocopy these right now.” And I was like, “Hi!” She was so in her thing and she desperately needed to communicate with me, but she had no idea how out of sync she was. Seeing the “trauma cut,” I was like, “That’s what I just did. I just held up two and a half hours of dead, mutilated bodies in your face and didn’t realize I was doing it.”

KELSEY: Is there a de-sensitivity that comes with viewing these images over and over again?

JOHNSON: I would like to reject that. I think it’s a heightened sensitivity that comes, a heightened awareness and a heightened connection, but I do think the evidence for me of making the “trauma cut” was that it starts to warp your capacity to think quite sanely. It’s not like Cameraperson is a light movie. Most of that content is back in the film, but it doesn’t go on for 30 minutes. You don’t watch the baby struggle to live for 30 minutes, which was the kind of thing that was in the “trauma cut,” being there for the duration. I think that’s where it starts to get really complicated emotionally. When you have been there for the duration, how do you manage that?

KELSEY: Is it difficult for you to compress the full testimonies, the full experiences into just five representative minutes? Do you feel like you’re losing things?

JOHNSON: You are. Sometimes it makes you weep because it feels so irresponsible. Then other times, you feel the majesty of craft that it is possible to distill something huge and unspeakable into something that translates in just a few moments. People have done it. That’s the quest to find a way to do it. Sometimes a person doesn’t realize what this relationship is and it’s not until the very last moment that they’re saying something lucid about an experience they’ve never talked about before, and all you have is this record of them searching. You go into a prison and you’re going to talk with a person who hasn’t seen anyone else but other inmates and guards for years, and you have a half an hour with them. You know, yes that’s inadequate, inevitably, but something happens in the intensity of that exchange.

CAMERAPERSON IS OUT IN LIMITED RELEASE TODAY.