Q&A: ‘Cameraperson’ Director Kirsten Johnson on Bending Stereotypes, Depicting Violence & Immortalizing Loved Ones

Kirsten Johnson Miami Film Festival
Courtesy of Miami Film Festival

Kirsten Johnson, the critically-acclaimed cinematographer behind some of the most impactful and revealing documentaries in recent history — from “Fahrenheit 9/11″ to “Darfur Now,””Citizenfour” and “The Invisible War” — struck a chord with “Cameraperson,” an unconventional, enlightening and utterly personal documentary featuring raw footage captured by Johnson over decades spent traveling the globe.

Without resorting to a voice over or a linear narration, “Cameraperson” sheds light on injustices, racial crimes and genocides, bends stereotypes and gives us a glimpse into her inner world and the ethical dilemmas inherent to her profession.

Shortlisted for an Oscar nomination, “Cameraperson” has already earned unanimous praise and a flurry of awards and nominations for Johnson and her editor Nels Bangerter since premiering at Sundance. “Cameraperson” has so far nabbed prizes at the Boston Society of Film Critics Awards, Cinema Eye Honors Awards, Critics Choice Documentary Awards, International Documentary Association, National Board of Review, as well as prizes at Toronto, San Francisco and Sheffield festivals. It was also nominated for Gotham and Independent Spirit Awards.

Produced by Marilyn Ness at Big Mouth Productions and sold by Catherine Le Clef at Paris-based Cat & Docs,”Cameraperson” will be launching on VOD including iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and Amazon video starting Jan. 10.

“Cameraperson” marks Johnson’s third documentary features, following “Deadline” (co-directed with Katy Chevigny) which played at Sundance and “Innocent Until Proven Guilty” which premiered at Berlin Film Festival and examined the prevalence of African-American men in the U.S. criminal justice system.

Johnson, who was the first American student to graduate from France’s prestigious La Femis Film School in 1994, is currently working with “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway and her sister on a pilot and is developing an observational documentary about her father.

What is the genesis of “Cameraperson”? Why was it important for you to make this film at this point in your career?

I had the idea of making “Cameraperson” after working on a documentary which fell apart because its protagonist, a young Afghan girl who had initially accepted to be filmed, changed her mind after three years when she saw the almost-completed film and she feared it would put her life in danger.

The extent of the ethical conflict that we face as filmmakers at this moment in history, now that the Internet exists, really dawned on me in that moment. In this new territory we’re in, we can’t control where images go. This has an impact on people being filmed and the people making images as well: we can all be traced. It used to be that when you filmed someone in a foreign country who needed protection, you could tell people that footage would never be seen in their country. Today we can’t. In many ways, “Camerperson” is about representation and misrepresentation, about political, ethical questions, as much as it is about trauma, love and tenderness.

How personal, if not autobiographical, is “Cameraperson”? It seems that you are showing us sequences that shaped who you’ve become.

I’m haunted by how much I’ve seen and how much people affected me when I filmed them. I didn’t realize how much it did. We all have blind spots and making this film revealed some of these blind spots. When my mother started suffering from Alzheimer, I questioned my own memory and wanted to revisit the footage that I had filmed to see if it was true. The idea behind this film was also to immortalize these memories.

How does the footage of your mother, father and children fits into the narrative of “Cameraperson”?

We’re always faced with some type of ethical conflict when we’re filming. Even in the way I filmed my mother. I felt that I betrayed her because I know she wouldn’t have wanted to be seen in that state. And my children, I couldn’t ask for their their permission, but I filmed them and I show the footage.

Why do you think “Cameraperson” has garnered such unanimous praise? How universal are the themes that you weave through the film?

I’ve been so happy to see how much the film resonated with young people. I think they are responding in this way because they understand this cinematic language. They all have cameras on their phones, as we all do. We’re all facing these ethical decisions about what we’re filming and we’re questioning the impulse. That’s universal. Even during the attacks in Paris, a friend of mine who was there, caught in one of the assaults, said he endangered himself trying to film the scene. Afterwards, he was troubled to have gone that far and wondered why he had the urge to film instead of to leave.

What is the reasoning behind selecting and assembling the non-linear footage? And did you consider including some commentaries on each location?

I respect the audience and want to leave them space. When we were editing, we realized we needed to give them tools to unpack the film. We wanted to make it as close as the experience of a camera person who is very excited to travel to fairway places and then, little by little, witnesses terrible things happening. There is a sense of accumulation and commonality which we feel, and there is also the haunting; when images and testimonies resurface in our minds, like this Afghan boy who lost an eye. I wanted to give a sense of how films can break the fourth wall. Showing how many different perspectives there are to each issue and how perspectives can change once you get new insight. It’s complicated, as life is.

Even if there’s no voice-over and commentary, “Cameraperson” says a lot about our world. In what way to you think the film can broaden people’s worldview?

Talking about representation and perspective, very few people picked up on the fact that so many people in the film are Muslim because they are so used to seeing Muslims being portrayed in a one-dimensional stereotypical way in films. And in this film they are seen as complex people who come from Nigeria, Afghanistan and Bosnia… We’re pushing against simplified stereotypes and questioning how representation works.

Most of the recurring faces in your film are women. Do you consider “Cameraperson” a feminist documentary?

When I watched all the footage, I realized that many of the women whom I filmed are heroes in their own way. They were filmed all in very different contexts, at different stages in their lives. What I learned is that maternity wards are like war zones. Women who are midwives are fighting and losing battles. We’re not looking at women enough. When we’re talking about war we should be looking beyond the battlefields. That woman we see in Nigeria in the maternity ward is very important and the work she is doing as a midwife in an under-resourced hospital is heroic. What we’re showing there is the violence of poverty.

And speaking of my field of work, there are too few women cinematographers. Almost on a daily basis I’m mistakenly called a cameraman.

Although “Cameraperson” distills unsettling images evoking genocides and crimes, the film doesn’t involve graphic violence and none of it seems exploitive.

It comes down to the depiction of violence. Many of my Syrian filmmaker friends who make documentaries are in a debate with each other about how much violence they must show or not show and how it affects political consciousness. Showing so much overt violence can be revelatory, informative, exploitive or even a form of visual terrorism. The depiction of violence can be exploited in powerful ways to manipulate the perception of events.

That’s what ISIS does in its propaganda videos which now often use elements of Hollywood film language with really high production values. Syrian human rights activists, citizen journalists, and filmmakers are faced with real dilemmas around which images to bring out into the world, often at risk to their own lives. Even if they are no longer in their own country, because of the new ways image-makers can be traced and cyber-targeted, people who search to create honest and compelling evidence of abuses of power face more challenges and risks than ever before.

How did the concerned filmmakers react when you told them you were making “Cameraperson” and using footage shot for their movies?

The directors I worked with were incredibly generous, especially Michael Moore who said I could use whatever I needed!

What are you working on now?

I’m working with Jill Soloway and her sister on the pilot of a hybrid project. And aside from that I’m beginning to work with my father (who is featured in “Cameraperson”) on another hybrid project, an observational documentary which I hope will be an hilarious heartbreaker. You know “Groundhog Day,” Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati and “Jackass”? That will be the spirit of it. Before I lose my dad, I want to keep him for the future. You can’t keep people from dying but you can keep them alive through films.