Framing the shot

Kirsten Johnson on Cameraperson and the importance of contradictions.

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Cameraperson's Kirsten Johnson on Jacques Derrida: "He is present."
Cameraperson's Kirsten Johnson on Jacques Derrida: "He is present." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Abigail Disney, director of The Armor Of Light and executive producer of Cameraperson with Gini Reticker, director of Pray The Devil Back To Hell, hosted an intimate, cosy and warm reception for Kirsten Johnson. Kirsten as cinematographer has filmed Laura Poitras's Citizenfour, Risk, and The Oath; Dawn Porter's Trapped; Kirby Dick's The Invisible War and This Film Is Not Yet Rated; Linda Hoaglund's The Wound And The Gift with Vanessa Redgrave; Amy Ziering and Dick's Derrida; Leah Wolchok's Very Semi-Serious; Johanna Hamilton's 1971; Christy Turlington's No Woman, No Cry; Catherine Gund's Born To Fly: Elizabeth Streb Vs. Gravity; Katy Chevigny's Election Day and Deadline co-directed by Kirsten.

Election Day director Katy Chevigny and Deadline co-director with Kirsten Johnson
Election Day director Katy Chevigny and Deadline co-director with Kirsten Johnson Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Cameraperson, which was featured in DOC NYC's Short List programme, has been selected as one of the nine on the Oscar Best Documentary shortlist for the 89th Academy Awards.

A midwife in Nigeria (the need for oxygen), a pregnant girl in Huntsville, Alabama (her voice, her jeans, her hands - not her face), Michael Moore in Washington, DC with a marine (who is not going back to war), a boy testing his eyes in Kabul, Afghanistan (almost blind in one, from a bomb) - the people encountered while working as a cameraperson for different documentarians, shooting all over the globe, are woven into a fascinating, irregular net of meaning.

Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson masterly catches it all, and especially the sneezes, the perceived imperfections, that make us human. There is Jacques Derrida crossing the street while being filmed. He tells Kirsten to be careful and calls it the "image of philosophers" - someone "who falls in the well while looking at the stars."

Rarely has a second viewing of a film (first seen at New Directors/New Films) made such an immense impact on me. Following the invitation from Amir Bar-lev, Patricia Clarkson, Peter Davis, Matthew Heineman, Barbara Kopple, Sam Green, Ed Lachman, Marisa Tomei, Oren Moverman, and Ira Sachs to see Cameraperson at the Janus Films Screening Room, Kirsten sat down with me for a conversation at the reception.

Kirsten Johnson at DOC NYC
Kirsten Johnson at DOC NYC Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: It was fascinating to see your film tonight for the second time. Before the screening, the scene that came to mind was the one with the Bosnian grandmother and you commenting about her style and what a fabulous dresser she is. All the trauma and the deeply disturbing aspects I had put aside.

Kirsten Johnson: You did a bit of denial yourself!

AKT: Yes. In order to remember …

KJ: In order to remember that moment of pleasure.

AKT: Precisely that moment of pleasure.

KJ: That for me … The story that I told the Bosnian family of how I had completely forgotten the terrible stories that had been told and only remembered their blueberries and their blueberry juice. I was so shocked by that! And it was recently after I had been there. We had been there for many many days.

I couldn't believe that my mind had obliterated all of these terrible stories of rape with some delicious blueberries. So I became very caught up in those questions around how do people manage trauma or the experience of violence. Or how do countries deal with that?

AKT: And this was one of the core points for your film?

KJ: It was one of the core … memory, I think. I'm completely obsessed by memory in general. Why do we have it? How does it function? How does it protect us? What do we lose when we lose it? How is it related to our identity? Those questions have always been really interesting to me but once my mother got Alzheimer's I became even more fascinated by discovering facets of her personality that I had not encountered before. I have always been obsessed by racism.

Linda Hoaglund's The Wound And The Gift narrator Vanessa Redgrave
Linda Hoaglund's The Wound And The Gift narrator Vanessa Redgrave Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

And my mother had traveled to Haiti as a young woman in the late 1950s and she didn't know that black people lived there. She had been very frightened by the experience and always talked about the extreme poverty and had a very negative idea of Haiti. And I have traveled many times to Haiti and I see all of the extreme poverty but it's a place that I love very dearly.

When my mother got Alzheimer she started talking about all of the wonderful things in Haiti. The big wide ribbons in little girls' hair and how their shoes were shined when they went to church. I became so fascinated in how certain ideologies or ideas - how does racism for example obliterate certain memories or certain aspects of things and then continue to stay like a broken record on other ideas? So I saw that play out with my mother and I think about that in terms of representation. How do we represent the lives of others?

So here I am, I have been thinking about the issues of post-colonialism, racism and imperialism and whiteness, misrepresentation - all these things, my entire career. When you go back into footage you find even despite your best efforts, in some ways, you've only filmed certain people in situations of violence, in situations of poverty. And as much as you're trying to search for people's humanity, you're still repeating certain tropes.

The Armor Of Light director and executive producer of Cameraperson Abigail Disney
The Armor Of Light director and executive producer of Cameraperson Abigail Disney Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

How can we escape these sort of systems that frame the way we think? The way we treat people and how do cameras help us do that or how do they reactivate old wounds in certain ways? It's all very rich to me, very alive to me.

AKT: Your film is also very much about places and objects holding memories. I was at the Short List Pro Day at DOC NYC. I remember you making a comment about hair. That your mother always commented about your messy hair. And you said that you noticed when you watched your own film, you saw how messy your daughter's hair looked. I didn't believe you - until tonight. It's really bad.

KJ: A total mess! It's funny, someone said, the film is structured like Alzheimer's. Which I thought was so fascinating, not something that we thought of while we were doing it but I do think that it works as an analysis. The emotional resonances pop up out of chronological order, the things that you are obsessed by keep coming back. I think about how do we all organise the narratives of our lives?

And we are doing that every day in certain kinds of ways. Certainly, when one has the lucky life that I've had, to experience so much of the world and so much contrast, so much difference, then how does my brain work with that?

Cameraperson executive producer Gini Reticker introduces Kirsten Johnson
Cameraperson executive producer Gini Reticker introduces Kirsten Johnson Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Well, you've been saved by Jacques Derrida, crossing Houston Street!

KJ: Exactly! You know, I re-watched the Derrida film only recently. So many of the questions he was asking us at that time are present in Cameraperson still. Someone who really imprints your mind or really makes you see the world in a new way - then you see and think and question that way. I can find evidence of Derrida's thinking in the way I film now and in the way this film is constructed or deconstructed. There's a way in which I'm involved in his philosophy. He is present.

AKT: He is present not just in the clip of him. It is one of the unforgettable moments of my life, shaking Derrida's hand. He was so warm as a person, together with everything else.

KJ: Absolutely.

AKT: The footage from Trapped is something I noticed seeing your film tonight. I don't remember it.

KJ: It's a cutaway and her voice is not present in Dawn's [Porter] film. Because in many ways what she says is impossible in the context of Dawn's film. Because she says when Dawn says "What would you do if there were no abortion clinics?", she says "I would give the child up for adoption." And that is not a thing that can be said ...

Cameraperson US poster
Cameraperson US poster

AKT: … in that film.

KJ: In that film! In the fraught political context.

AKT: Less than ever.

KJ: Right? And yet, that's the kind of thing that I discover so often in filming is that we are all these incredible balls of contradiction. And when we trust each other, we share the conundrums and the contradictions. But in many ways, we are rarely allowed the space for all of those things to be public. It doesn't work, right?

AKT: True, we can't.

KJ: Only with the most trusted, only in the most intimate of situations. And often we do it in fighting! With our lovers or our family we are expressing these profound contradictions. That's what I wanted to let into the film. This moment with Kathy Leichter when she is throwing the papers across the room - she is such an emotionally brave person. She really wanted that footage in her film [Here One Day] but she couldn't do it because in some ways it made her too troubling as a narrator. You didn't know how to trust her anymore once you saw that scene.

AKT: Very similar to the moment out of Trapped. Things that couldn't be in it. You were going for the too-muchness?

KJ: And going for the contradiction and for the things that cannot be said. That's what's really interesting to me. Sometimes when things get too tightly built, when ideologies get too tightly built or films get too tightly built then we are ceasing to allow for the complexity of humanity.

So when we depict certain people only as victims or certain people only as perpetrators or like these really huge conflicts as clear? They are not clear! Why poverty continues is not clear. So, I wanted that mess and those questions in the film in a certain kind of way.

AKT: Another thing I want to mention about my experience of re-watching your film. When the box with the chain [which is not visible until much later] is first brought in. I had a physical reaction to the box. I did not think about it since the New Directors/New Films screening. I recoiled although I did not remember consciously what was in the box.

KJ: Wow! Wow!

AKT: All I knew in that moment was that there was something horrible in the box.

KJ: Isn't that amazing how the brain does it? And then that it's a physical response I think is very beautiful. I think a lot about this idea of indelible moments. We know the moments that mark us and they come suddenly. But in many ways the responsibility and the job of a cameraperson is to search for the indelible images. But then you realise they have imprinted on you in such powerful ways that they are physical in your body.

Cameraperson will open in the UK on January 27.

The nominations for the 89th Academy Awards will be known on January 24, 2017.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences celebration takes place on February 26, 2017.

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