One of the most striking and original documentary works of 2016, Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson takes short sections from documentary films that Johnson worked on either as cinematographer or director and collects them in a fractious collage, serving as her memoir. Johnson’s work as a cinematographer, which includes Oscar and Palme d’Or winners (Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour and Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11, respectively), spans decades and continents, and what emerges in Cameraperson is nothing short of a marvel of documentary storytelling.
Cameraperson is screening at ACMI in Melbourne from February 23rd to March 15th.
I was rewatching Cameraperson last night, I think for the third time, and it’s interesting to see what stands out on each viewing. This time around I was really fixated on how some of your interview subjects pretty clearly state the concerns of your film, years and continents apart. There’s the sequence taken from The Oath where you attempt to film the outside of an Al Qaeda prison and your driver says that to film in the area that entertainment or cinema is okay but journalism needs permission. In footage from Two Towns of Jasper, the James Byrd Jr. documentary, one of the district attorneys in the case, when remarking on the gruesome photo evidence, says that to hear the story is very different from actually seeing it. Your film doesn’t clearly take a side in terms of those binaries, leaving room for us to make up our mind.
I’m interested in both the subject having space as well as the audience. That’s what fascinates me when people watch it multiple times because there’s enough space in it and enough things going on that there are new relationships that form when you watch it again. It’s the function of a piece of music more than a film in some ways because it really depends upon the space that you are in when you see it, [as] to what it does to you.
That’s got a lot of do with how initially varied the film is in terms of its clip selection but then how your presence becoming more pronounced draws everything together. How important was it for you to establish early on that sense that you are present in every shot?
Nels Bangerter, the fabulous editor that I worked with, and I really wanted to make a movie as complex as possible but we wanted it to be accessible to people. We had to think about what were the tools we would need and in what order to understand what it is to be me and what I experience as a cameraperson. Even the title gets work done before you’ve even seen the film. We really wanted that first shot to very clearly evoke my physicality—I am there, I am a body. We went back and forth a lot on what order we needed to place things in in order for the film to allow the viewer to experience things as I experience them.
I really love the framing in that sequence, changing how you view the sheep every few seconds and then where you’re lying on the ground filming the road and pull a twig out of the way so the frame is cleaner. That’s also the case in the next shot, where you hold your sneeze to capture the lightning strike. All of this being at the very start of the film is almost startling, in a way, consistently reminding us of the process of documentary filming.
My experience is that when you make a documentary you decide on one story, when in fact in the making of that you’re experiencing many, many, many stories. That’s a part of what I wanted to evoke and, you know, the fact that it is fragmentary indicates how many more stories could have been told.
There’s a lot in Cameraperson about the aftermath of things. There’s that striking landscape sequence in the middle which visits the locations of horrific events. It only lasts maybe two minutes but the implication of it echoes throughout the film as a whole. The political nature of space, where we live and how we use it.
I think for me the question is sort of absence, what has been in a place and what evidence can you find and it’s often what I’ve been charged to do, to go to a place where something has happened and try to find a way to visually evoke what can’t be seen. Understanding the political systems and history that exist in landscape is part of what fascinates me about the work.
I know you’ve often spoken about your interest in post-colonialism and that seems to really emerge in the films you chose to work on over the years.
Yes, absolutely. It’s so interesting that way that all of these interests of ours then feed over time into our capacity to look and so what I am showing is the evidence of a person who is thinking about certain issues and systems and history. How do I try to translate that intellectual information into visual information?
You can sense that process not just in your physicality but, again, through the act of framing itself. Throughout the film there’s a lot of reframing and slight adjustments that wouldn’t have been kept in the final cut of a documentary because it’s a reminder of the process of production but by keeping them in here you’re constantly reminding us of the myriad of ways to represent any one thing.
You are so on my page. This is absolutely the case. The choices of the frame—how do you see? That is always just so active as a question and you’re making these really huge choices around representation that are deeply meaning and affecting; they represent history but then they affect history in return.
In terms of representation, I wonder how you feel about the ethics involved in presenting someone else’s story or, more broadly, these political, social and regional narratives. I know that this came up as an issue that halted production on the feature you were directing in Afghanistan around 2013.1
That project in Afghanistan really made me think about my blind spot in a way I never have before. I think of myself as this incredibly conscious person who thinks about ethics and representation but in fact I find that I’m not on top of it all in this moment in Afghanistan. That was such a shock to my system that it really made me want to go back and revisit other situations and think about other situations. That’s why I reached out to these different directors to look for evidence of what had happened, what was in the footage.
I imagine a significant part of this realisation came from the fact that you weren’t just shooting this project in Afghanistan but you were directing as well. The move from cinematography to solo directorship, having to make every major decision in this film’s production.
There’s no doubt about it. It was also this idea of accumulation, of how many films I had worked on, the accumulation of how many stories I’d heard, the accumulation of how many places I had been to. I just think that I hit a point where it was overflowing in some kind of way.
There’s something Chris Marker said to Nora Alter, that he could make an entire film without ever leaving his house and I think with Cameraperson it feels like you reached that same point.2
[Laughs] Yeah, well I think there was enough accumulated inside that there was no need to go anywhere else but it did feel like time travel, time and space travel, to go back into the footage because I was both seeing things that I recognised and seeing things for the first time when I rewatched the footage. For me it was really also an inquiry into how memory works. I was and still am fascinated with memory because of my mother’s Alzheimer’s but my own memory started to really fascinate me.
This sense of personal memory is exacerbated by the fact that the clips you select from your older film work seem to be discards, b-roll, small moments. I was reading an interview you did back in 2014 where you lamented that the footage you shot of young girls playing ping-pong in the Partizan Sports Hall in Foča didn’t appear in the final cut of I Came to Testify.3
Yeah. You know you discover these things and then they are lost to you and so you’re sort of operating with this particular sense of loss. There’s so much pressure in filmmaking where you discover things and you can’t believe the resonances of them and to see in that ping-pong hall and see those little girls playing ping-pong and know that was the place where a mass rape had happened and then to film those little girls who had no… how could they know what had happened there and should they know what had happened there and all of those things are at some point in my brain when I’m filming.
Your own history, particularly with regards to your filmmaking background, is quite strange. You went to Senegal in the 1980s to work with Ousmane Sembène, then to France to study at La Fémis under Raoul Coutard.4 That’s a very roundabout and pretty incredible way to become a documentary cinematographer.
[Laughs] It is, isn’t it? I definitely feel like I have been obsessed with my obsessions my whole life and that filmmaking has driven me away to explore them and to deepen them.
Did your peculiar training help you to hone those obsessions?
Oh, yeah. When you referred earlier to an awareness of colonial history, I think as an American you are or should be obsessed by race and we have such a peculiar history, both in relation to the original people who were here and in relation to African Americans in particular. So you start out with this very specific understanding of how race functions and what blackness is, then as you open up into the world as a person that becomes more complicated. So you have this sort of immersive American version of racism and then you go into the world and discover its many other manifestations. This became a thing that fascinated me and every place that I went I was looking with that lens and then little by little I started to understand who I am. Much to many people’s humour, in a certain way, I discovered much more about gender and one’s relationship to gender in the making of this film than I had ever actually thought about in my life. There’s very much evidence of me in different stages of being a woman in the footage that I was completely unaware of, I would say.
The structure of the film seems to reflect that sense of learning through collapsing time. You need that broader look to see these throughlines.
Yes. You can’t reflect when you’re shooting. You can think really actively but it’s demanding that you be in the moment and be imagining what the picture will be because you’re concerned about how this will cut together and will the edit work but you cannot reflect and that has been really remarkable about this work on Cameraperson.
Were you concerned at all about the aesthetics of Cameraperson as a whole, what with cutting between aspect ratios and formats?
At a certain point I had all kinds of fears and feelings of inadequacy and even, to the end, I very much fought with Nels about whether we would use the blurry, out-of-focus shot of dirt as the opening shot of the movie [laughs]. A great way to start a film about cinematography. In fact, you know, that became so clear to me that we needed to do certain things in the film and that I had to give up… every form of vanity that I could give up I wanted to. At a certain point I would say I was being so hard on myself and I was beating myself so much that I wasn’t allowing any of the information in that expressed my kindness or my tenderness or my sense of humour because I felt, you know, ‘I haven’t done enough, I haven’t done enough’. So it was really fabulous to have Nels there and be able to give me a chance to see myself with more kindness through the footage.
It is really interesting when these moments of your direct influence over or engagement with the subjects being filmed spills out. Only on rewatch I understood how important the clip from 1971 is, where you ask the interview subject a question rather than the director (Johanna Hamilton) because you noticed something change in his eyes when he was demonstrating lockpicking.
Well, it’s so interesting because we looked and we looked at that footage and I think I’m noticing it in his eyes but what we believe is that in fact I heard it, I heard a difference in his breath, which is so fascinating to me.
I want to ask about documentary distribution because you’re in a unique position where your work has been disseminated in so many different ways. Your 1999 film Innocent Until Proven Guilty did the educational circuit, you’ve been involved in a documentary series for PBS, you’ve had films that never leave the festival circuit, like Laura Poitras’ recent Risk only playing at Cannes and then you have your work with the Field of Vision series, which is primarily distributed online for free.
It’s just been incredible to live through this period of documentary history. I remember seeing Hoop Dreams in the theatre and thinking ‘wow, I didn’t know you could see movies like this in the theater’ and then being part of making Fahrenheit 9/11; I don’t know if it’s literally the most seen documentary ever but it certainly I think is the highest grossing documentary, though I could be wrong about that too—maybe [March of the] Penguins is. [laughs]
To live through these waves of feeling, you know—How do we get these films out? No one is ever gonna see them—to now, where people can say “Oh no, it’s streaming, you can find it.” I’ve been fascinated travelling around the world to find documentary screenings in every country in the world and people have an incredibly sophisticated understanding of documentary history; they’ve been able to see things that we weren’t able to see for a whole period of history. I do love the explosion of formats and places in which people can access documentary.
There seems to be some renewed commercial or popular interest in documentary as well. If you look at the Oscars nominees this year there’s Raoul Peck, who I know you worked with in 2001 on Profit And Nothing But!, with his James Baldwin film, alongside a seven-hour film about O.J. Simpson.5 There’s no longer these constraints in terms of reception as to what makes an acceptable documentary film.
I think all of us in the documentary community, we are aware that so many forms have existed before us and it’s not as if we’re inventing hybrid forms, I mean Kiarostami was making hybrid documentaries since before anybody coined that term. You can call them narrative films, you can call them hybrid documentaries. All these sorts of labels go through waves but, in fact, you could always see incredible formal innovation in documentary if you look wide enough, if you look internationally and if you consider experimental films documentary et cetera. I do feel like what’s exciting now is you have this sophistication of the audience that’s expanding, so people have seen more material from more places in the world and are starting to be more open.
I’ve been incredibly encouraged by how many teenagers love Cameraperson. I just got an email from a 14-year-old who really got it and to think about that level of understanding visual language that is happening now around the world is profound and exciting.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
Thank you so much for watching it all with so much attention, I totally appreciate it.