Kirsten Johnson’s documentary cinematography has taken her swirling into the eddies of global human trauma. Her newest film, Cameraperson (2016), which revisits her earlier footage as memoir, headlined April’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC, as part of the fest’s programmatic tribute to Johnson, which included work from throughout her career. The first film she worked on, Derrida (2002), depicts the French philosopher obstinately and deliciously deconstructing the film as it is being made about him while the filmmakers respond in kind, with a loopy scenes-of-scenes-of-scenes result. Johnson’s later work has taken a more explicitly political turn, especially post-9/11, as she worked with Laura Poitras on The Oath (2010), following Osama Bin Laden’s ex-bodyguard, and Citizenfour (2014), following Edward Snowden and exposing the NSA’s mass surveillance program. I sat down with Johnson to discuss the catharsis of her filmic memoir and what it means to point a camera somewhere.
Samuel Feldblum (Rail): With this retrospective and this film, have you been doing a lot of thinking about your career?
Kirsten Johnson: It’s not so much that I’ve been working so long that it’s time to do a retrospective. It’s more about examining how it is that these stories get constructed. There are so many stories that are not being told when you make a film. You have to choose while you’re shooting particular storylines, and then the editor and director choose one of those. It’s a very odd place where you have all of these threads that you’ve experienced that don’t necessarily appear anywhere in the film.
Rail: You made an analogy to Alzheimer’s in the Q&A: how it’s a fault not of memory loss but of retrieval, and how this project helped you retrieve your own memories and understand them.
Johnson: That’s something I just learned recently, and it’s kind of blowing my mind, that it can all be there. I went to PBS looking for footage, and they had everything stored in thumbnails. I looked at this whole grid of thumbnails, and they were images that had been shot a decade before, and I recognized the images. There were other people’s things, and I would be like “I don’t think I shot that,” and I would pull it up, and I hadn’t. I started testing myself. Last night, watching those people in Deadline, suddenly everything was coming back to me: being in the courtroom, and hearing those families talk, being in the prison cell. And I wonder: where is that in me? You start piling this stuff on top, one after the other. As I started to make Cameraperson and choose footage, I started to really deal with some of the big ones—the Nigerian maternity ward was a huge one for me, that took a whole process to deal with—and come to terms with them, and I would remember something new. So I’m still right now remembering—“Oh, why didn’t I think of including that thing with that moment?” But it’s so buried underneath the pile of stuff. This vision of this midwife is blocking my mind, or the blueberries were really the stand-in for all the stuff in Bosnia, right? Once you look at the image and pull it aside, then other stuff comes up. I feel like more is coming, in a way.
Rail: Cameraperson 2! [Laughter.] In Cameraperson, you’re speaking with your Bosnian translator—
Rail: And she seems like she’s almost a stand-in for you. There’s one scene where she talks about the work you do, and she says, “We do so much that changes us emotionally, and what’s our outlet, where do we let go of this stuff?” That felt like a crystallization.
Johnson: A lot of places we go, where we come in, we do this really intense work, and then we leave, and the fixer or the translator or the driver meet the people that live in their town, and they’re sometimes trapped in that ongoing relationship. We went into this café and I said to them “Can we talk about what it’s meant to you to do this work?” And they just talked for two hours straight, in Bosnian. And this is just what me and Judy, the soundwoman, do: we’re always talking and processing what happened for years after a shoot. And you don’t talk to the director about it usually. They’re onto other projects, and part of our job is to make invisible that we are people, with all of these needs.
Rail: Which, of course, is what Cameraperson is about: asserting that in fact there is a person behind the camera, there is a person behind the mic. There’s a democratization of the film process in saying, “Look, everyone is here.” You spoke about how as you’re wrapping up an interview, you field questions for the interviewee from everyone, to make sure that everyone is part of the process
Johnson: Yeah, I think in some ways it’s this utopian wish. Because time is of the essence, they’re not equal relationships, we’re all interested in different things, so we can’t follow all our storylines. But if you do have a sense that everybody is thinking in service of the film, not in service of themselves, then that thought of “what’s the sound person thinking to ask” works! Just to acknowledge that everybody’s there feels really important. And I feel like in many ways the history of cinema is related to the history of military interest, of hierarchies. There’s a history of auteur cinema, a myth, that that person did that thing by themselves. Film involves so many people working to make it happen.
That experience is then even more compounded when you’re a documentarian, because you’re going into a country that you may know nothing about and you’re getting your deep knowledge from a person there who’s hired to help you understand things. That, for me, taps into all of my worries and concerns and thoughts about racism and colonialism and imperialism—these outsiders coming in and telling the story that serves their audience and has nothing to do with what’s actually happening in a place.
But that can be surprisingly challenging, because sometimes being an outsider is what allows you to do the work. The fixer is living with: “Here’s the whole history of Rwandan genocide.” And you’re like “Yes, but we’re doing this.” So that’s this interesting tension in the narrativization of a complex situation. Who guides that?
Rail: Derrida, in that film, talks about how hard it is to improvise. You spoke during the festival about how every time you shoot you end up using some intuition and bopping around, but even in doing that you end up capturing some of the same things again and again, almost subconsciously.
Johnson: That’s so interesting. And that’s where I can see, last night in Deadline, me filming the sky and those lights in the parking lot was a precursor to what I did in The Oath. I could see myself working out what interests me for reasons I can’t explain or don’t see.
Rail: Hands, for example.
Johnson: When I was sitting there last night I was like “How does Deadline begin?” I couldn’t remember. And then it opened with a shot of his hands on his lap and I was like “How many times have I done that shot in my life?” It’s simple—it’s one of the few shots other than a face that you can get when you’re doing an interview with a tripod.
Rail: That film did seem more interview-heavy, straightforward. The Oath was the film of yours that I saw right before, where everything is destabilized, and you don’t know what to believe.
Johnson: Exactly. But getting to The Above (2015) or Cameraperson, where I feel confident enough to rely only on images, is a whole new dimension for me. And feels more my medium. I like to think and I like to talk and I like to listen to people talk. And a lot of films I’ve done are really interview-heavy. Because it’s faster—people articulate through words much more quickly something that really matters. But I’m much more interested if I can tell through images. Here we are, we can go pretty deep pretty fast, but it would take more time maybe if we were kicking a soccer ball around or trying to cook something. It would be a different relationship to each other. I would probably learn a few profound things about you differently than I am able to learn through words.
Rail: Was this a chance for you to examine the ethics of documentary filmmaking?
Johnson: I would say that from the time I started holding a camera I have been in a constant state of struggle with whether it’s okay to film people or not. I’m always struggling with that, on every shoot, in a new type of way. And I wanted this film to be explicit about all of those things, but the impossibility of that is so vast—the amount of politics that you need to actually understand the explicit ethical challenges of a particular situation is outrageous. So then I had to trust that whatever was in the footage would implicitly speak to the fact that I have these questions, which are always present—they take different forms and mutate constantly. So that now feels like a representation that is somewhat accurate of my experience, which is that it’s always messing with me. And if it’s not, I question that.
Rail: I do feel like it comes across, especially the Bosnian kids with the ax, and you saying “Oh, jeez!”
Johnson: And it’s funny, yesterday somebody asked me, “Why did you not stop filming?” And I was like, “That’s the point!” I don’t know if I’m filming a baby dying, or filming a baby about to triumphantly live! Am I filming this kid before he punches someone in the face, or punches me? I don’t know!
Rail: My dad is an epidemiologist, and I’m reminded of the ethics of health studies, where, presumably, you think you’ve found something to help people, but in order to find out, you have to risk some people having the experimental treatment and some people not being helped.
Johnson: It’s this idea that I always get so suspicious of: the “greater good.” Because I think I came from that world where the Adventists were so certain about what the greater good was, and I was like [Grimaces]. But I do believe in missions. That’s a perfect example: we have a mission to try to figure out this disease, how it functions, and we have to do it at scale. But then to acknowledge that maybe this one person’s life is in the balance for a greater good that may or may not help them. I’m the person in this moment asking a woman in Darfur to tell this terrible story so maybe someone will pay attention to Darfur. And I’m not sure anyone will.
Rail: As you’re filming, you’re both present in the place and moment of the filming and you’re also present in this larger, nebulous web of people who will see this, and you’re not exactly sure of who or where or when. But you’re responsible to both.
Johnson: Exactly. So sometimes I will stop filming or continue filming thinking about what it will mean to that other nebulous place.
Rail: In your more recent work, especially Citizenfour, you think a lot about surveillance. I’m curious about the relationship between mass surveillance and what you do, which is also filming people’s lives.
Johnson: Well, The Above is a lot about that for me. What makes me different from the Big White Blimp? I think it’s the fact that I can move, that I can come to eye level and talk to people and that they can say “no” to me, that they can ask me why I’m filming—but those things don’t often happen. There is such an implicit power imbalance—you’re an American, and you have a camera in Kabul, nobody’s going to ask you why you’re filming. They’ll just make assumptions about why you’re filming that don’t make them very happy.
All of that, I think, means that you are projected upon in the way that the Blimp is projected upon. What is it doing, what is it seeing, what is it filming? People in Kabul think it can see into burkas, it can see underground, it can see terrorists, or it doesn’t work at all. Everyone has all these ideas about what it does that are completely personal, and you realize that must be true of how they feel about you as a person filming.
Rail: I wonder if, besides the ability to say “No I don’t want to be filmed,” part of the difference between what you do and what the U.S. government does more shadily is that one is for this specific cabal of people, and one is put into the world—surveillance for the masses. If people know, if people see this, it could be good. Nobody in particular necessarily, but people will know more, and then we can act.
Johnson: I’m certainly filming in the service of a certain transparency. I’m also not filming out of fear. I’m not interested in perpetuating fear. And I would say that the surveillance systems that we set up are built upon using fear against people. And keeping certain knowledge away from people. That gives power, to hold onto that knowledge. That is truly the opposite of what I’m interested in, which is the sharing of information, the opening up of what is guarded, and the breaking apart of fear.
I love what Trevor Paglen says about the difference between eyes that are made of meat filming as opposed to machines filming. There is a lack of humanness in the surveillance camera, as opposed to the humanness in the looking and watching—it’s qualitatively different. I love that: the eyeball as meat. It’s actually a physical human thing. All that is us and animal and empathy, all the things that we are—
Rail: By distancing people, and putting them behind machines, it’s okay to be watching them in this way, with this machinery.
Johnson: Or killing them from the air with drones. It’s a lot easier.
Rail: At the trial you and Hamdan had—
Johnson: [Laughter.] A moment. Yeah. One morning he nodded at me, and I nodded back, because he was looking at everybody—we had a relationship from that moment forth. And then I couldn’t show up in the morning and not nod at him—it was just on. It’s a recognition: I’m a human, you’re a human, I see you, we’re going to be here together one more day in this courtroom, and that’s still happening. So I was like “what’s my problem with that, I can show that to the U.S. government, that I’m saying hello to someone in the morning.” But it’s amazing how, when you’re being surveilled, you question your behavior. You go to the place of “I’m not going to respond to him because he’s an accused terrorist.” No, he’s a person! If I had stopped saying good morning to him, that’s just a place of fear about taking care of myself in some future that may never happen. And it’s the presence of the camera that makes that happen.
Rail: I wonder also about the camera almost as an occasion for things to happen. I was thinking of it during Here One Day (Kathy Leichter, 2012), it’s like the camera carries with it the possibility of drama unfolding.
Johnson: Something has to happen.
Rail: And then people just do it! They fall into place.
Johnson: I think that the acute and perverse version of that is reality shows. Where people are like “Let me be a diva now, because there’s a camera.” You feel the performative aspect of that, but I do think that something very real and odd happens in these moments. I filmed a lot for the Shoah Foundation of Holocaust Survivors—there was a moment when a woman was talking about her son’s suicide, and she said basically you just need to look at the pain of this and stared into the camera, and she wouldn’t stop looking. And I just thought, well, I’m not going to turn away, so we just shut up and filmed her. And she did it for—I really think it was twenty minutes.
Rail: And in that case the camera seems almost like a character that she is interacting with?
Johnson: Totally. She looked straight at the lens like she was looking through the lens; she wasn’t looking at any of us.
Rail: Cameraperson is this obvious unpacking of your own biases, but then an editor comes in and edits your footage and a director makes certain decisions. And suddenly you’re forced to reconcile the fact that you thought you were putting a narrative together that said one thing, and now they’re saying something else. So your same footage serves many narratives. You can’t even pretend to be a reliable narrator, and maybe the important thing is to recognize that you’re not. You’re semi-reliable. It’s Socratic.
Johnson: Which is a little bit what Cameraperson is: look, here’s this mess. What do we make of it. And we’ll make different things of it in different moments in time.
Cameraperson opens September 9.