Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has shot for many of the big names in documentary, from Michael Moore to Laura Poitras in a career spanning 25 years. In Cameraperson, she assembles footage from her archive to create a highly personal exploration of the process of looking, and being looked at, filming and being filmed. I tracked her down at Sheffield Doc Fest and got myself a masterclass in film making.
There is no voice over in Cameraperson, and apart from a small piece of text at the beginning, outlining your plan for the film, and then text cards explaining the places and dates of the footage, there is no other information given to the viewer. We look to the footage itself for everything, as well as to the placing of the footage. We return to stories – among them a midwife in Nigeria; a family in Bosnia-Herzegovina; a boxing match in Brooklyn, watching them develop throughout the film, and as we do so, we create connections between them. It is therefore a film that is very open to interpretation. I felt it was a film about relationships, but what is it primarily about for you?
One of the things that I have taken to saying is that filming is an ongoing series of relationships. So the filmed image only happens through relationships and then it only exists in the watching, through a series of relationships. So thinking about it in those terms makes it as vibrant in the past, present and future tense, as our lives are, so that is sort of what I’m interested in exploring in this film. And I’m experiencing it in that every time the film is screened I have a new understanding and new experience of it, because it is so personal, but also because it concerns these issues that I deeply care about: How do we negotiate why people are letting themselves be filmed and why we are filming?
I was surprised at how present you are in the film. We hear you gasp, talk to yourself and to the people you are filming, and at one point you destroy a beautiful wide shot of a lightening strike on a summer’s evening with a sneeze that shakes the frame. Is that presence something that you are struggling to censor or is it integral to the process of filming?
Usually the camera is off in the moments in which I am really present, asking questions of people or telling them about myself or setting up things, so in some ways it was difficult to find in the footage evidence of myself. When I started making this film, I started leaving the camera on more often than I had in the past. In the very beginning, I would frame a shot, turn the camera on, end the shot, turn the camera off and move it, and part of that was about an early desire for perfectionism or a controlling of the frame. I remember I had an editor who just said ‘Please let the camera run in between the takes’ and as I become more confident as a person, I am less worried about showing the messiness of what it takes to make films. So in a certain way, the revealing of the process of how the film is constructed, is a way of acknowledging the complexity of what this work is.
Do you try to build relationships with the people you are filming before you turn the camera on or do you do it through the process of filming?
I think it is always different and you want to be able to do it before you start filming but often there is not the opportunity to in terms of time and sometimes there is the barrier of language. And it’s only once you start filming a person that you learn the things about them that inform how you relate to them. So, it may be that I am being very blithe with a person and then I realize that they are handling a lot of damage and they actually don’t like to be touched, and I have been touching their arm the whole time. You get new information and you readjust, and so I feel like that’s part of what I wanted to show in Cameraperson: this constant need for readjustment in the ways in which we relate. I also find that making physical adjustments helps me find new perspectives. If you change position, you learn something new, you see a new perspective. I will often shoot with one lens for a while and then change to another, and that change will let me see things afresh and I will re-engage with the situation and find new elements to it.
We see your mother and your children in the film. Do you approach them any differently to the other people you film? Does filming them change your relationship to them?
Some people say the way I film my children is so different to the way I film other people, and I hadn’t seen that. I was prioritizing the relationship when I was filming with my kids, I wasn’t doing it for a film. I happened to have the camera that day, the first time you see them, when they are there just in their diapers and I thought ‘Let me just see what this is, see what happens’. The second time that I filmed with them I was very aware that I was making this film. And what is remarkable to me is that I was thinking about my mother and her death and then this bird had run into the window at my father’s house and I filmed the bird, and then I had the camera with me the next morning and my daughter said ‘Shall we go see the bird?’ And it was one of those things I just thought ‘How does she know that I want to film that?’ as I hadn’t said to her ‘I want to film the dead bird’. That kind of unspoken communication that exists between people, between mothers and children, between cameraperson and subject, is a very interesting back and forth dynamic.
You have chosen to have a career and children and often we talk about the compromises that have to be made when one has both, but has having children brought anything new to the way in which you film or do you feel you would film the way you do irrespective of that experience?
I am profoundly changed by being a mother and I am also absolutely the same person so it’s a very strange and beautiful experience, in which you start to think differently about your responsibility and connection in the world. I think I feel a new sense of responsibility to other people beside myself, so, I know that I will think about the risk taking I do slightly differently in certain situations. It does not mean that I will stop taking risks altogether, and I very much desire to continue to follow my creative and political life with the the kind of integrity that I have tried to have in the past before having children. It’s not going to be easy or not messy or not conflicted but it feels very important to me, for the sake of both of my children, that I am in the pursuit of that, that that pursuit continues throughout their life and that that will be meaningful to them as people. I made this film, in many ways, as a means of trying to cope with what I had been through in the past, but when I finished making it, I realized that it would impact on my children in the future. It would give them something in the future.
It’s remarkable how unafraid you are to get really close to people, but you also know when to stand back to get the wider context. What informs you in making those decisions?
One of the things I love about the camera is that it allows you to get closer than you might as a human being. And over time I have learned that allowing other people some emotion and not judging their choices or where they are going emotionally, creates more. I really love being in that, and sort of not knowing what’s going to come, and then seeing it come. So part of it is my deep curiosity of where a person will go. Finding a way so that it feels to them that I am complicit with them, often involves me being close to them. You can’t ever walk in someone’s shoes, but if you happen to be very close to them, you are getting close to what it is to be them in a particular physical situation. And they feel that, if you allow that space between you, it’s interesting.
So are you trying as much as possible to feel what it might be like to be them and to make guesses about where they might go?
Well I know I can’t be them, but I’m trying to gain information about what it is to be them in any way I can. So it might be from far away zooming in, using a long lens to see into their eyes, in a way in which very few people can look into their eyes in a moment that is a critical moment of their life, or it might be trying to be physically close to them, or it might be spending hours and hours with them in a situation where no one is able to be there but me, or it is creating a space where they could say things that they couldn’t say to their family. All of those things are part of it.
And as that process is going on are you trying to work out what the possibilities are for where this shot is going?
Yeah you are trying to see where it’s going. And there are many stories unfolding in front of you simultaneously and you are trying to understand what is the story that this film is hoping to tell. What is the trajectory of this person, and it might be a physical trajectory or it might be an emotional trajectory, and you are trying to understand it as it is happening and anticipate where it might be going. And sometimes you completely miss it and other times it’s so shocking, like you stand up a second before they stand up and start walking backwards as they start rushing down a hallway, like you know, with the boxer. There is a way in which I cared about his loss and I think in a certain moment he wanted to hit me, and in another moment he was like ‘Is she still there?’ He needed me as he needed his mother. But that was changing all the time. I was hurtling down that hall with him, wherever he went, whatever he was going to do, I was going with him, unless he stopped me.
It felt incredibly tense. I thought he might hit you.
Yes, yes, I think he might have. I think he might have kept himself from doing it. Though, when I showed him the film he said “I would never hit a female!”
But at that point, though, you had already made the decision to commit, or . . ?
Yes, I was committed. I was completely committed.
And it paid off as we see that beautiful moment with his mother, when he goes to her after he has lost the match and is comforted by her.
Yes, and that is when you are really in the zone, where you feel as if the film is unfolding in front of you and you are almost watching it rather than creating it. And that happens rarely. A lot of times it has to be in physical movement for it to feel like that. I was just hurtling down that hallway, wherever it would take me.
Cameraperson is out in UK cinemas on Friday 27th January. Thoroughly recommended.