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Kirsten Johnson Talks ‘Cameraperson,’ the Art of Interviewing, First-Person Cinema, and Selling a Movie

Written by on September 8, 2016 

Cameraperson 2

I’ve spoken to many accomplished artists, but there are perhaps none who bear the same extent of experience as Kirsten Johnson. Don’t worry if the name doesn’t ring any bells: she’s built her repertoire as a documentary cinematographer by working with and for the likes of Michael Moore, Laura Poitras, and Jacques Derrida, and the things she’s seen have been funneled into Cameraperson, a travelogue-of-sorts through Johnson’s subconscious.

Her time as an interviewer, or at least a companion to interviews, came through when we sat down together at Criterion’s offices in New York last month. Never have I been more directly forced to think about my work than when she turned the tables on me — all of which started with some complementary danishes left for us in the room. It’s a level of engagement that befits one of this year’s greatest films, documentary or otherwise.

The Film Stage: There are many places one could start, since this movie goes so many places and evokes so many things. I struggled to think of a good first question.

Kirsten Johnson: Aw!

The good thing is that I have a lot to ask — a lot I want to ask. While this may be a weird note on which to begin an interview, this is a movie that comes from such an internalized place and is dictated by a formidable internal logic — so is it strange to explain or clarify these things? How has the process been?

Well, that’s a really perceptive first question, because I think, for me, I didn’t initially trust that what was going on inside of me while I was filming could be seen in the footage, and I guess what we learned, making this film, is that my internal life is present in this footage. That was a huge revelation for me and, of course, somewhat obvious, on a certain level. But it’s interesting how much you think yourself to be hidden or not be present — even in a conversation with another person. You and I are here, talking; this is supposedly about me and my film. But, in fact, I would say this is a relationship between the two of us.

I gave you permission to eat during the interview. You want to eat, right? That changes the dynamic. If you were sitting here the whole time wishing you could eat and I made you so uncomfortable that you didn’t eat, you would get into the interview and be present, but there would be some part of you that’s disconnected. In some ways, it’s the body — you’re hungry — and, for me, what is so profound about camerawork is you can only do it if you’re present with your body. You can watch a movie and you’re present with your body, but you’re not in the place — your relationship to the physicality of the thing. You’re looking at a screen. You’re somewhere — you’re in a movie theater or in your bed at home — but when you’re shooting, you have to actually be physically present. I think, somehow, this question you have about my internal state… your internal state is that you’re hungry.

Sure.

So we know, because we are here — two bodies in a room — I know something about your internal state, and, in some ways, we connected on a more intimate level because I acknowledged your body. I acknowledged you’re hungry and need to eat. We can go new places because of that acknowledgement. So that’s this very weird idea, I think, of what a body is and does in the world. Sometimes it’s completely abstracted from its presence, but in filmmaking and camera work, you have to be physically present — and thus, on some level, interested in the insides of other people. You’re feeling your own insides and other people’s insides. Does that make sense?

Yes. That’s a very strong, profound note to start on.

[Laughs]

There was something I wanted to ask later, after “making our way through” a bit, but now I want to ask right away. After all, you’re probably as well-equipped as anybody to answer this. About a month ago, I talked to James Schamus, and he told me there are certain things you can use to represent subjective experiences, but that there isn’t really a first-person cinema — that, ultimately, forces make cinema more than an experience of one.

Hmm.

He cited Chris Marker and Jonas Mekas, the essay-film, as possible counterexamples, and you’ve made something that specifically brought Mekas to mind. What are your thoughts on first-person cinema? Do you think it exists? Do you even have an idea of what it might constitute?

Well, one, it’s really beautiful to me, the idea that first-person cinema sort of can’t exist, because it is always relational filmmaking. So I… Chris Marker, Mekas, there’s people with which they are engaged in the filmmaking, and I think that’s what James is talking about: in some ways, without the collective, you can’t make anything. You can get really crazy about it. You can say, “Okay, I can make something by myself, in a room, with a camera and still objects,” but somebody still made the camera. The way the camera can see as an object of technology in relation to the person who is holding it, that is already a relationship. I guess that’s what I’m really interested in acknowledging with Cameraperson, is how many people are involved in making anything.

Certainly, I feel like what happens between people… so somehow, what happened between us in the first question allowed you to go to the question that you thought you would have to build through a whole interview to get to. In fact, we can go right in. This is what I do when I do camerawork. You’re a person who’s lived through the Rwanda genocide; we’re only here for two hours. How is it possible that we can have a conversation where I’m respectful of you and we will film something that will be meaningful to people in that amount of time? We are skipping huge steps of human relationships, and, in some ways, it’s because of these technologies. Right?

You have a recorder here. You have a job to do. We have a limited amount of time. So we’re going in as deep as we can in this moment, and there’s trust between us. It was established very quickly in this back-and-forth that happened between us. I can do a first-person interview in which I say what I want to say at you, and you would feel like I had never seen you, but I would answer your questions. But I still think it wouldn’t be first-person. It’s about the two of us together. Does that make sense?

Cameraperson 3

Yes. Maybe you can’t answer this because of your own experience, but I nevertheless wonder if you’re more conscious of the interviewing process than most other filmmakers who speak with press.

Definitely. Definitely. Yeah. I can feel what is to be you. I’m much more familiar with what it is to be you than it is to be me in this situation. And I think because, in some ways, doing the camera demands that you be silent — you’re listening to interviews and filming them — and I know how much is going on inside my head while that process is happening, that I’m really interested in who the interviewer is and what’s going on in your head. What’s the subtext running through your head in this moment? You’re sort of wishing, “Ugh! I wish her sentences were shorter and we could get to the —

No, no.

But, you know, there’s some subtext, and I’m curious about that, as well as being curious about this, and I also think that’s what camerawork enables: you can process on these multiple levels simultaneously.

We wrote a very positive review of this movie out of Sundance, a review I edited, and I knew this was “a movie to see,” but I avoided knowing anything over six months. Going in, I had no idea what the movie was.

Mmm.

Even though I’ve seen movies to which your name is attached, I have to admit that I didn’t know, specifically, who you were.

Mmm!

I wonder about the question of discovery, because it’s kind of a hard thing, where the movie has to be sold: the company bought it and they want to make money, so you have to make a trailer and do these things of telling people what the film is and why it should be seen. So I wonder how you feel about people going in and knowing what they’re getting.

It’s something I discovered — which I didn’t know would be true — about this film: you can’t write a spoiler for it. We actually just made a trailer, and I don’t think the trailer tells you what the experience of the movie is at all, because it’s very specific to its duration and the accumulation of scenes. Even though we can say, “Oh, there’s a scene in a hospital and a scene in a boxing match,” that cannot convey what it is to be in each moment of the film.

I think, for me, that’s what was so thrilling about discovering this idea of doing it without voiceover, so that people were actually in my experience, as opposed to a mediated form, so you have to stay in the moment — or you maybe want to stay in the moment as it’s unfolding, because I’m experiencing it unfolding, and you can feel my searching as you, a viewer, search to understand. That’s both in the interior of each shot and each scene, and that’s also in the way it’s constructed — that we’re attempting to give you access to what it is to be me.

That leads me to wonder, then, if you’ve had a direct hand in the marketing — what the trailer should contain, watching cuts, and so on.

Yeah. I mean, I have, and yet we all really raise the question: what could the trailer of this movie be? In the making of the film, you make many short trailers attempting to get money from foundations, and we never made a trailer that could make sense to anybody. In attempting to fund and create the film, we couldn’t find a way to communicate what the film is because you have to be in it, and now we’re benefitting from the reviews that have come out and this accumulation of material around it, where people say, “Yes, I enjoyed this experience.”

The trailer that they’ve cut — and, I thought, they did a fantastic job of cutting — is very fast, which is very funny, because that’s not what the film is at all. It shows you the multiplicity of things in the film, and it indicates that there are visual connections between things. But it, in no way, is a spoiler for the film. So I’ve been advising but haven’t, I would say, been “directing” the marketing of the film.

It’s interesting how the movie’s been given a certain “anointment” because of its associations with Janus and Criterion. I mean, we’re sitting in Criterion’s office.

Hallowed halls!

So I don’t think its home-video treatment is much of a secret. A film that’s been picked up by Criterion becomes part of a certain canon that people have access to, and they can compare it to other movies that the company’s released. I mentioned Mekas because I was watching the movie and asking, “What does this remind me of?”

Mmm.

My mind went to Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania and Walden. I don’t know if you’re familiar with them.

Yeah!

Cameraperson 1

That doesn’t surprise me, because it feels so present here. Anyway, that’s a very long way of asking if you see this movie as fitting into a certain kind of tradition and being in sync with anything in particular.

Well, as you can imagine, I’m sort of stupefied that we are now part of this Janus-Criterion family, because, in many ways, it is the family of films that have mattered to me as I desired to become a filmmaker, as I enjoyed being a filmgoer. I do love Man with a Movie Camera. I do love films that are deep in cinema history, that somehow translate this experience of being a body, alive, making a movie, and so, in some ways, this incredible range of the personality present in the work. Ousmane Sembène is present in the work. Ozu is present in the work. Those are the films that have mattered to me over time, and I certainly feel saved by films. I feel saved, as a human being — given back my joy of living and given my desire. It gets reopened by films over and over again, and I feel like Janus and Criterion have loved and supported films that I have loved and supported. So, in many ways, it’s mind-blowing to me that I get to join the stream of all of these things that have fed me so much.

But it’s the multiplicity of ways in which we are fed, so I don’t… there are several things that inspired me in the making of this film that are not Janus-Criterion films. Tim Hetherington’s Diary was a really important film for me, as an experience, and then there are obviously films like Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil. That film has mattered to me for 25 years, and so, somehow, this idea of staring and “who stares back” has been a preoccupation for me my entire life. Those connections are real.

Have you thought about yourself differently since making this film, now having credits as both a cinematographer and director?

Well, honestly, what mattered more was to indicate the way in which all people who are making a film are thinking — not just the director. Obviously, a director has a vision and a big picture and the “direction” [Laughs] that they’re bringing to it, but I can’t even tell you… I’ve worked with sound people whose insights into what we’re experiencing are so incredibly on-point and profound because they’ve worked on hundreds of projects. They’ve seen systems of human relationships at scale, and they can triage and connect ideas in ways that, if you’ve only made three or four films, you can’t.

That is the same for translators and the drivers of cars. A driver in Darfur driving us to a location knows so much more about the conflict we’re in the middle of than the director, me, anybody else on the crew. That’s what I’m really interested in as a person, as a filmmaker: tapping into all of that insight and knowledge and, in some ways, revealing that that’s what it takes to make films — this complexity of human presence and interaction. It’s funny to me that people are surprised that the cameraperson has been thinking. Of course I have. Right? And so is the sound person. And so is the driver. And so is the PA. We’re all thinking in order to make a film.

Then I wonder if there’s a creative selflessness in giving over so much. You make a movie, and, when people see it, they’ll be talking about what you and others do, yet you’re still giving someone — for instance, a driver — the platform to do something. You also have these segments that are, one might say, “more personal,” since they concern your children and parents. I imagine that they’d come to feel separate, in terms of experiences.

It’s funny, because it’s not separate. All of my life is sort of happening simultaneously, and I’m sort of experiencing my mother dying when I’m in Sudan. There was an incredible moment when a group of refuges just came in from having their village burned, and there was only one translator. He was a man and the director was a man, and a whole group of men gathered to tell them what happened. So the translator was translating to the director, and I got surrounded by a group of women — I was the only woman on the crew — and we couldn’t communicate to each other, but they were trying to gesture what had happened. It was pretty obvious: men on horseback came, set fire to villages.

But one woman kept sitting down and getting another woman to pull her arm, and standing up and sitting down. She really wanted to communicate this thing to me. So I went and got the translator and said, “What is she trying to tell me?” I did her hand motions because I’d seen them so many times, and I said, “This is what she’s trying to tell me.” I communicated to him, and basically she said, “My best friend is experiencing this thing where she doesn’t understand time anymore and she has no memory.” I was trying to explain to her that we had to run away, that people were coming to kill us, and she kept sitting down. I couldn’t get her to stand up and leave. She’s crying and I realized, “This woman’s best friend has Alzheimer’s and is in a village in Darfur, and her friend’s trying to get her to go.”

Just by difference in fate — the difference in what I’m trying to get my mom to do by sitting her down in a chair — but I know exactly what she’s experienced on the level of, “You can’t be rational with her. It can’t happen.” So I get the translator to say the same thing: “I’ve done the same thing. I’m here, filming you, but I abandoned my mother, who has the same loss of memory, and I’m not with her, either.” We just hugged each other and cried. It was… this kind of moment that’ll never be in the film. It’s only between the two of us. I don’t know what it means to anybody else, but we comforted each other in this moment of both of us failing to help those people that we loved. That’s, for me, what filmmaking is.

Later that night, I got home to the compound where we were staying. I called my mom on a satellite phone and said, “Mom, I was thinking about you today.” She said, “Well, what I’m just really worried about is, are they getting ice cream to you there.” [Laughs] I was like, “They aren’t, but I’m going to work on it.” In that sort of weird connection, that entanglement of the world, that feels like my life all the time. So to have all of these strands together feels like the most honest thing I could do.

Cameraperson will begin its theatrical run at the IFC Center on Friday, September 9.


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