Lauded cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has worked on some incredible films during the course of her 25-year-long career, from “Citizenfour” to “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” “Derrida” to “Lioness,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell” to “The Invisible War,” and many more in between, but she’s long rejected the idea of putting her own life on the big screen.
Until, that is, she decided to make “Cameraperson,” a bold documentary that functions as both an overview of Johnson’s professional life and a probing look inside her own personal experiences. Partially a cinematic collage of some of Johnson’s most essential pieces of work, the film uses both old and new material to provide a touching and complex look at the person behind the camera, before finally pulling her clearly into frame.
Indiewire sat down with Johnson at the festival to talk about how she finally decided that she had all the material to make a film about her own life, and the remarkable way she set about doing it.
At what point did you realize you wanted to make, maybe not this exact movie, but a movie about your own life and experience?
It didn’t start that way, that’s for sure. I went to Afghanistan in 2009 and was trying to make a film set in Afghanistan and I’d filmed with this young woman. And the fact that after 3 years of working together, she was too legitimately afraid to have her image in my film, it just raised all of these questions for me about promotion, complicity, access, what we do as filmmakers and how it’s changed in the world.
25 years ago, it was different. You could promise someone that no one will ever see this movie in your town. No one will ever know. And now we live in a world where everyone in the world is imagining what might happen to them if they were filmed.
And how quickly it can spread.
And we are seeing it in multiple dimensions. Many of the films in this festival this year are addressing this very issue, and we are also all really thinking about what we look at. What imagery do we want to see? What imagery do we want to film of our own lives? Do we record our dying parents? Do we record our children playing?
There’s no question in my mind that I think we, as a film community, as a documentary community, as journalists, we always think about these questions. Every shoot we go on, we’re filled with questions about the ethical dilemmas, about access, about what it means to get so close to people and leave.
And what your place within that system ultimately is.
Absolutely. We all have a place in it. That was part of making this film for me too, was to just acknowledge how much is going on behind the image that you see on the screen and how it’s the recording of that present moment but there’s a lot behind it. And there will be a lot that happens to that image moving forward that no one completely understands or controls. So there’s some magic in that.
A dead person can come back to life in film. I get to have my mother alive forever in this film, which is the best. But another part of me know this isn’t the image of herself that she wanted to last forever. So the complexity of that, the pain of that, the loss of that, the love in that, that was all that I was searching to explore in making this and it really was a quest for me to understand what it means to take in so much over time.
The film is so beautifully edited together, that’s such a huge part of its storytelling power, how did decide it was going to be assembled in this fashion?
All credit to Nels Bangerter, my incredible editor, and Amanda Laws, who did the original Afghanistan film, who really shepherded me through the process of imagining myself in the film.
You can imagine I had no desire, ever, to be in this film. So I had a lot of resistance to that that Amanda helped me work through so, by the time I started working with Nels, I was more open to the inevitability of that idea.
I think one thing that’s so interesting is that we often quest to do the things we are not doing, but don’t acknowledge the things we have done and do. I realized I’ve been filming for 25 years. There are things to be learned from looking at things the way I see. And what really blew me is when Nels cut with the footage, he really allowed me to see myself in a way I’d never seen myself. It really worked as a mirror. What’s so fascinating is that I’m not in the film, yet I’m everywhere in the film. And certainly for me, it gave me this way to see what I do that I haven’t felt in a long time.
I was feeling this accumulation of failed responsibility, of things I had missed, of people that I’d left. A lot of beating myself up about what I hadn’t done, and then there was all this evidence of what I have done. I had this thought, where I was like, “I don’t want my children to have that in the future.” I want my children to have something that is “this is why I was and what I did.” I can imagine my children seeing this film when they are adults.
When you’ve finished projects in the past, did you go through periods of mourning?
There has never been time to go through a mourning period. So you do something incredibly intense, like filming with babies in Nigeria, and you leave the next day for Myanmar, and then you’re in the world of young nuns. At a certain point, it’s like I can only be the present. I can’t remember what happened to me the week before. Is this what camerawork does to me?
What’s been fascinating and great about this process is opening up the space to examine the material to see what the evidence is. And obviously there’s tons missing that didn’t get filmed. But just to spend the time with it has really helped me to acknowledge the loss, and I think I’m in the process of processing it, and bringing this film out into the world and having conversations about it is another step in that. But making this film created a space to begin that in a way that my life as a cameraperson did not allow.
What surprised you about this process?
Everything. Everything surprised me. I mean, truly everything. I was hit by a two-by-four by the fact that it was too dangerous for this girl to be in this film. Then we had to start over. Then when I finally said, “Okay, I’ll let myself be in it. I’ll go search for this footage that has troubled or marked me.”
When we put the rough cut of that together, we now affectionately call it the “trauma cut,” was a two-and-a-half-hour long cut. And it had literally like five genocides, rape stories, baby dying and I didn’t know, even though we had worked on it for months, how horrible it would be because it was the tip of the iceberg for me. And that was shocking. How do I compartmentalize? How do I engage with this level of empathy with this many people that I’ve never seen again? That really knocked me flat. That really surprised me.
When we decided with Nels to try it without voiceover, it totally shocked me that it totally worked. I really didn’t think you would be able to understand so much. And that was thrilling. So then all of a sudden, it was like we can make this film.
When Nels suggested doing it without the voiceover, did you feel like you had certain ideas about the film that you needed to let go of?
I wasn’t interested in that. I was interested in the process of collaboration with all the people I worked with. I was also super-curious about where it would lead me. And it also completely renewed by love of filmmaking.
For example, I had gone to the Sundance Labs at Skywalker Ranch and worked with this incredible sound mixer, Pete Horner. And when we found the form of the film we knew we were gonna do without voiceover. I was like, “Oh, my God, I wanna work with Peter Horner.” I called him in August and he said he was booked for a year. I was disappointed, because the collaboration with him had been exceptional. I remember, on December 29, he called me and said, “Can you come in two days? I have five days open.” We had already mixed, [but] I went.
He elevated the four scenes we hadn’t yet figured out and with sound, he made them work. This baby scene, he pulled out the sounds of the baby crying, so you feel the life or death, which is something that had stretched over multiple hours of me filming. The fiction of that life or death struggle being compressed into three minutes, he was able to give the audience the emotional intensity.
He did the same thing with my mom in the scene where she gets blown over by the wind. He put a subwoofer into her. So it hits you in the chest, right? My mom died seven years ago, I’ve done a lot of grieving about it. I’ve in many ways made some kind of peace with it, and yet I sat there just watching her get blown over and blown over by the wind. Just to be there with this person searching to find the perfect wind that would simulate the death of my mother, and then to hear it in the giant theater, it was the most unimaginable personal and creative experience possible.
This is this gift that we have to be in this world, where people explore emotion in the most intimate ways and are trying to allow other people to feel. It allows you to think about all the people you love and death in your life, what it is to be human. This is what we love about cinema.
You seem so touched and moved by the work you’ve done, how have you kept doing this for 25 years?
In some ways, I haven’t realized how much it has demanded, but the accumulation of it suddenly, I think I hit a place of saturation, where I really need to look at this.
We have fun when we travel, we have a great time in these conversations, but people I’ve worked with, their families have collapsed and fallen apart because the family at home perceives it as, “Oh, you went on a trip to a fabulous place” and we’re there listening to women telling us about being raped. That disconnect is for a very small set of people.
It’s like I laughed out loud last year when I saw “Cartel Land” and I saw Matt Heineman adjusting the F-stop in the middle of a gunfight. That’s how you manage it. You go, “I’m making a movie.” And you have hope. You have a baby that is struggling to live and die. I hope that if I film, somehow that baby will live. That’s how things are supposed to turn out. You hope for this kind of magic.
Sometimes that really happens, like “Pray the Devil Back to Hell.” Leymah’s story would not have been told, and now she’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner, empowered to do extraordinary work all around the world. That’s the difference between those two things. I’ve worked on films that really change peoples’ lives in positive ways. Many films I’ve worked on, I have no idea how it’s changed their lives and I can’t know.
It’s so interesting, because when you are young and making things, you aspire to make something important and trying to make something new. I was trying to do neither of those things in making this. I was really trying to explore questions that are profound for me as an individual or urgent for me as an individual.
I’ve had so many fears, even in the last moment, I was trying to cram some footage into it that was about me making sure you could understand I’m a decent person and being explicit in some kind of way. And there was just this beautiful moment when Nels was like, “We can put it in if you really want to, but think about why you want to put it in. Are you putting it in for yourself?” And I said, “No, I think I’m putting it in for other people and I don’t need to do that.” I swear, I think that was the first time in my life in some ways that I could completely own I just did this for me.
Sometimes the world is so complex, there is no way to be good. You can’t be good all the time.
So much of your career has been about telling other people’s stories and allowing them to be seen, and now that you finally feel empowered by your own story, that’s very touching.
I think what it means is that we can mirror each other. There is this mirroring that happens that gives possibility. Look at us looking at each other.
I see your eyes, I’m feeling you and I want to know you more. All those things happen and when that happens, you don’t know. You give it up to the universe, maybe we will know each other better over time, maybe we won’t. We know we connected in this moment. That’s what I’m always trying to do when I film and when I talk about film.
“Cameraperson” premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.
READ MORE: The 2016 Indiewire Sundance Bible: All the Reviews, Interviews and News Posted During The Festival