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What a Documentary DP Does: Kirsten Johnson on Cameraperson


Documentary DP Kirsten Johnson is probably best known for her work with Laura Poitras (The OathCitizenfour), but she’s been shooting for years. Out of her experience comes Cameraperson, an essay film assembled from mostly unused footage shot for many projects. Each segment is labeled by place rather than the project it came from. In eschewing voiceover, the chain of argumentation can be a little heavy-handed for my taste — i.e., cutting from someone talking about death to someone giving birth in a hospital — but the overall effect is constantly surprising and stimulating. The film begins by reminding us that even the most basic establishing shot is a judgment call: early on, we see a static landscape shot, interrupted by a lighting strike and thunderclap. “Wow,” Johnson exclaims from behind the camera. Cameraperson foregrounds the role of the documentary DP, which isn’t something you see a lot, and it made me think hard about how docs are actually made. I was going to write a review, but everything I had to say is in the questions I ask. The only additional context you need: the film is anchored by Johnson’s time in Foča, filming one of the only Muslim families to return to the area following the Bosnian war; revisiting the footage reminded her how much she’d forgotten.

Filmmaker: You’ve obviously been shooting for a long time, but when did you realize that your footage could become this project?

Johnson: I’m pretty sure it was 2013. I was trying to make a film set in Afghanistan and couldn’t make any forward progress on that, because this young woman I’d shot didn’t want to be in the film anymore. I started thinking about all these different projects that I’d worked on, and people who stayed in my mind or stories that had turned out differently over time. I originally thought that I was going to use that Afghanistan footage and do voiceover over it. I did an attempt at that, and it wasn’t making sense. I only wanted to cram in more information, and there was no space for the viewer. I then spent about eight months looking for editors. During that time, I was collecting footage that had really marked me. So I saw, again, the footage in the maternity ward in Nigeria [a midwife births an infant endangered by the lack of available oxygen]. I had this very vague memory of this midwife, and then I rewatched the footage and was like “Oh, no wonder this marked me.” It was a process of going through and finding footage that would remind me of something else, so it was kind of an uncovering process.

Filmmaker: What was the indexing and archiving process?

Johnson: I didn’t archive any of it. I’m a cameraperson who works for hire, and all of the footage I’d shot  [was in other people’s possession], with the exception of things I’d shot for myself, which is obviously the family footage, and a couple of films I’d shot. I started reaching out to different filmmakers. Some had the footage on easily accessible, well-stored hard drives, and other people had tapes deep in storage units unbeknownst to them. At a certain point, we consulted with Final Frame, and they said, “You absolutely have to do this project on Avid, and you have to work with an assistant editor who brings in the footage in in a way that the formats can all be transferred.” Once we had that system in place, then whatever format we would get things in, we would move it straight into Avid.

Filmmaker: When I looked at the list of the movies the footage came from, they’re pretty heavily tipped towards the last few years, with a lot of projects that haven’t come out yet. Was part of the reason that you became more mindful of this project: “Oh, I should shoot more?” Or was it just easier to access this footage?

Johnson: I think it was in the front of my mind. I think if I’d had more years to work on this film I might have gone deeper. As time went on in the edit room, I kept remembering things. Part of this for me is this exploration of how compartmentalization works, how the storage of images works, how the storage of emotionally powerful material happens. Camera work demands that you be completely focused in the present. There are enough things going on that you can do that. It’s a function of age, I just turned 50, but it’s more about how intensely I need to be in the present — I would not be able to remember where I was the week before, even if I was on a shoot in Myanmar. So those transitions between places, it’s part of the job to be so locked into it, but then I started thinking “What’s going on in me, that I can pull up this footage that I shot ten years ago, and as soon as I see the images I’m immediately there?” Whereas otherwise I can’t remember it at all, or I remember one detail. So I was super interested in that, and obviously because my mom had Alzheimer’s I was super interested in memory and forgetting, and where the emotional stuff stays. Many of the people I’ve filmed have had very powerful experiences. How do they manage trauma? Early on in my career, I worked with the Shoah Foundation, filming Holocaust survivors. I went all over Paris, Brooklyn and Manhattan filming people. I did over 217 interviews, I think, and over half of those had never spoken about any of it. But once they got into it, they could really talk about what happened to them.

Filmmaker: Every production, fiction or non-fiction, is different in terms of the division of labor between the director and DP. That’s a given, but I’d never really thought about how documentary cinematography works. In some of the footage you’re the primary DP, other times it seems like you’re collecting B-roll out on your own, making judgment calls about what to do. At the beginning when you’re following a guy herding a flock of sheep, I realized “Oh, you had to get ahead of him so you could put the camera down to film him approaching you.” You put the camera down and pull a blade of grass out to improve the composition. A lot of the first part of the film foregrounds your process, especially moments when you’re working by yourself.

Johnson: Part of what me and my editor Nels Bangerter thought about is, how do we give people the language to understand what I do, and to remember that I’m there? So some of the early scenes are about building that vocabulary. As a cameraperson, you have this cinematic language, and you know you have to get, quote, “coverage,” but that’s just the beginning of the story anytime you’re filming. In some ways, the beginning of this story is, “Let’s talk about how do you get coverage,” but almost immediately it’s about how you follow story, and what is story.

Filmmaker: Another thing I thought about was that in a lot of this footage you shoot for B-roll is that you could very conceivably turn it in to the editor, and then these long shots would be cut down to three seconds in the final film. So the duration of the shot or whatever other effects you were working on are just grist to the larger narrative mill.

Johnson: That makes me so happy that you felt that. I think part of the impetus to make the film is something that happens every time I see a film that I’ve shot: I’m completely surprised. It’s a different film, and usually something that I’m excited about, but I think about all of the things that aren’t in the movie. There are some things that aren’t in the movies that are a real loss for me. I know it can’t all be in the movie, because it’s not part of the story, but you have this feeling sometimes when you do a shot. When I first went to Guantanamo for Laura Poitras, I hadn’t met her. She was in Yemen. This thing happens when I’m shooting, where I see something and it just moves me for whatever reason. Like if you look out there right now [points outside the window to the building opposite, where the setting sun is distortedly shining off its windows] and what’s happening with the light, I might just decide, “Oh, I’ll frame that shot with the reflection of the sun.” I can’t help myself, I’ll do it for me. It’s not that it has nothing to do with the film, but it has meaning to me. So I’ll do those shots knowing that they probably won’t be in the film. What was so great is that when Laura got back to me, she named every single one of the shots that I’d shot for myself and said, “Do more shooting like this.” That gave me this freedom to go as far as I could go into what was aesthetically interesting to me. Sometimes that fits in the story and sometimes it doesn’t.

Filmmaker: The throughline you keep coming back to is your time in Foča.

Johnson: My brain was blocking more information than I realized. Literally my only memory of that place was blueberries and sunshine, but in fact we had filmed with countless victims of rape and been in many war crime sites. As a crew, we experienced a lot of low-grade harassment. People didn’t want us to be there, and it was creepy. We went to film this site where this woman’s family had been killed, and there were boys singing Serbian nationalist songs in the woods around us while we were filming. But all of those things are not what I remembered, but I didn’t realize that.

I looked into going back to several places. Political situations have changed in places, so that, for example, to go back [to Nigeria] and film the family who’d lost the baby, that was always a question in my mind, but what would it mean to this family to go back and talk to them about how I had filmed their child in this moment? Then I learned that the place that they are is under threat from Boko Haram, and that [the father] has become a centrist imam. So the political dimensions could potentially cause more harm than any good. With Foča, I was mentoring young documentarians in this workshop in Sarajevo, and called a fixer and driver we had worked with before, and asked if they wanted to come with me and visit this family. That was intentionally for Cameraperson. I shot several things for this that were too obviously for this that it didn’t make sense to include. I did an interview with my dad, who’s a psychiatrist, and talked literally about a lot of these things. That was interesting to me, but if you get too direct about this stuff it becomes less interesting.

Filmmaker: Once you had winnowed down the footage to what was most interesting to you, did you leave the editing room to let someone else sort through it?

Johnson: No. Nels is in Oakland, so we were working long-distance. I asked him, “How do you like to work?” He said, “I really love to talk about as many ideas as you have, and then I want to look at the footage by myself.” I said, “That’s funny, that’s in some ways how I like to work as a DP. I like to talk as much as possible with the director about all the themes and what they’re looking for, but when I’m in the situation I want to be free to follow and pursue it.” When he said that, I thought, “This is the editor I want to work with.” I went out there for five days and we talked non-stop. Then I left him and he worked with this set of footage, knowing what were the main zones for me, and came out with a rough cut. That was the first time we implemented the idea of doing it with no voiceover, instead just dropping people in these places. From that moment, I knew that one, we could do it, and two, I was really moved by what he did. I was in this self-flagellating place where I was thinking of all these failures and all of the ways I’d let people down and all of the ethical conundrums. What he cut together reminded me how I try to be in the world. I’m loving when I’m in the world, and even if I’m in difficult situations there’s a lot of love that’s present, in the form of landscapes or food or tenderness with people. So that helped me see that that’s the way I shoot.

Filmmaker: Obviously there aren’t movies coming to mind that foreground the experience of female documentary cinematographers. The title of the movie is non-gendered. Do you want to talk about that a little bit?

Johnson: Any day I’m shooting, someone will accidentally call me a cameraman. That’s just the default name. People say, “What do you call yourself?” I say, “I’m a cameraperson.” That just feels to me like it says very clearly, “Anyone can do this.”

Filmmaker: If you removed yourself for the film, because so much of the work you’ve shot has been political in nature, Cameraperson could function as an index of geopolitical trouble of the last 15 years. Would you like it to function that way?

Johnson: Unless we live as a child in the midst of a war, or our parents are in the middle of a very charged political situation, it takes any of us a while to understand that we are actually in history. I feel like that is increasingly true for me. Many of us lived through 9/11 in New York. It felt like “Whoa, we’re really in history in this moment,” and then we watched this incredible shift go on, and we were trying to keep track of it. Before that, I was super-interested in post-colonial history, especially in African countries. I wanted to move to Brazil, and then there was this whole shift in the American landscape. I guess there’s a sense of wanting to engage with things as they’re unfolding.

Filmmaker: Did you think about labeling each segment with which project it came from?

Johnson: We tried that, and what it would do was send your brain off trying to figure out what information you needed to know, so it became deeply distracting. That’s one thing I discovered working on the Afghanistan project: if you make a film about a very charged subject people have a relationship to, they feel they should know more than I do, and you tap into all these feelings of guilt people have. “Ugh, I’m not really following the Syrian crisis, I don’t know what’s going on.” So then they spend all this time thinking about what they should know about. Whereas with place it’s different.

Filmmaker: How did you balance working on this film with all your other projects? What was the timeline like?

Johnson: That’s the life of a freelancer, where you’re juggling all these different things. When you really need brain space, how do you do it? So during the process of gathering footage and looking for an editor, I was working full-time shooting. Once the edit started, I tried to block out big chunks of time. I did do some shoots, but in the last three months I haven’t worked on anything else. And whenever I’d go on a shoot, I’d think “Oh, I have some more footage to add. Stop going on shoots!”

Filmmaker: When did you finish?

Johnson: We just finished. I went to WNET and stayed up all night looking for this one last shot I wanted in the film. I was convinced I had this shot of General Petraeus telling me to turn off the camera so he could talk to some people. I was convinced that would be in the film, and then I saw that it wasn’t that good. I feel like a number of the people that I haven’t been able to find, who I reached out to, or the filmmakers who I worked with are all going to reemerge in my life once this film is out in the world.

Filmmaker: Was there therapeutic value in this?

Johnson: Oh yeah.

Filmmaker: Is that process closed now that the movie’s done?

Johnson: No. It feels like breaking open. I work with a lot of young filmmakers internationally. I work with the Air Garden culture fund, with a lot of filmmakers from the Middle Eastern region, and I’m at NYU and SVA. I’ve got a lot of students from China, I’ve got a lot of students from countries where there’s a lot of pressure on people in terms of how they film and what they film. I feel like we’re all in this space together, and we are moving into this new future where filming people is charged with all kinds of responsibilities and risks that it never has been before. So I’m super-interested in the dialogue that our film opens up. It feels like a piece of this is resolved for me in certain ways; I’ve gone back and addressed things that were blocked and closed inside of me. But I’m really interested in how this opens up into the future, in terms of how I shoot and how other people shoot.

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