Filming Death and Living to Tell the Tale: Interview With Documentarian Kirsten Johnson

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Director Kirsten Johnson during the filming of the documentary 'Cameraperson.'
Director Kirsten Johnson during the filming of the documentary 'Cameraperson.'Credit: Janus Films via AP
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

“She sees everything around me, but she is totally blind. That’s the image of the philosopher who falls in the well, while looking at the stars.”

– Jacques Derrida on Kirsten Johnson, from “Cameraperson” 

NEW YORK – At the age of 46, when cinematographer and documentarian Kirsten Johnson was pregnant with twins, the filmmaker Laura Poitras forbade her to travel to Tunisia for a film shoot.

“We’ve been working on a series of documentaries exploring American surveillance at home and abroad since 2009,” Johnson told me recently in New York. “She didn’t want me to come with her to Tunisia when I was pregnant, and I was really angry because I really wanted to make that decision for myself. I felt disempowered, which of course was a bit crazy, since I was five months pregnant and not in a position to board planes and travel across the world. We faced a similar dilemma after I gave birth to the twins [in 2012]. Being a mother and watching Laura going to shoot Edward Snowden in Hong Kong [for the film “Citizenfour”] without me was extremely painful... I was also incredibly curious. I knew she was about to be in history, and I wanted to be in history with her.”  

And be in history she must. A lifelong fascination with documenting ethnic and racial conflicts has made Johnson, who recently turned 51, a prolific award-winning cinematographer and filmmaker. Her unwavering optimism and her willingness to risk her freedom, well-being and, in some cases, her life, have also been instrumental to her success. Over the past three decades, she has shot more than 25 documentaries, among them Kirby Dick’s “Derrida” (2002), about the renowned French philosopher; Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the highest-grossing documentary of all time; the Oscar-nominated “The Invisible War,” from 2012, about rape in the U.S. military; and Poitras’ last three films, “The Oath” (2010); “Citizenfour” (2014), which won her an Oscar for best documentary last year; and this year’s “Risk” – a portrait of Julian Assange.

Johnson’s latest film as director, “Cameraperson,” has already garnered critical acclaim in festivals around the world. This unconventional documentary takes viewers on a two-hour trip through abandoned cities that were once killing fields, a hospital without equipment in Nigeria, pastoral villages in Bosnia to which victims of ethnic cleansing fled – and also through the streets of New York and to the charming apartment where Johnson and her twins, Viva and Felix (now 4), live. She is raising them with their two fathers, the Indie film director Ira Sachs and his partner, the painter Boris Torres.

Unusually, Johnson’s latest effort consists entirely of footage that was previously left on the cutting-room floor – scenes which, for any number of reasons, didn’t make it into the movies for which they were shot. Perhaps the camera shook when the photographer suddenly sneezed, or the microphone or the lens could be seen reflected in a mirror, or the footage – of an infant fighting for its life seconds after being born – was unbearable to watch, at the time. There’s no narration in the film, though Johnson’s voice is occasionally heard behind the camera.

'When I sat down with the editor and the producers, everyone but me was holding their hands over their eyes. That was the first time I realized that maybe I was not completely aware of what was going on inside me in relation to trauma.'

In the course of Johnson’s career, the question of when to turn the camera on – and off – has become less a technical matter than a moral, philosophical and ethical dilemma. For her, footage that’s often considered so much cinematic dross – because it’s too depressing, too boring, too personal – becomes pure gold. Indeed, this is the stuff of which the weighty issues she’s been grappling with for decades is made: What is the role of the documentary cinematographer? What are the consequences of “secondary trauma” caused by prolonged exposure to human suffering? And is it possible – or necessary – to depict visually abstract, intangible subjects such as pain, mental illness, post-trauma or death?

“I found the idea that we don’t really know ourselves to be so profound,” she observes when asked about her fascination with documenting conflict zones. “I did not know or recognize the ways in which secondary trauma was in my consciousness and my body until we made a cut of ‘Cameraperson’ in which we included a huge amount of horrific footage from a maternity ward in Nigeria, where I unintentionally documented another child dying. We included all of these heartbreaking stories in the first cut. But when I sat down with the editor and the producers, everyone but me was holding their hands over their eyes. It was so profoundly disturbing they weren’t able to watch it. That was the first time I realized that maybe I was not completely aware of what was going on inside me in relation to trauma, and that came as a huge shock.”

She adds, “It seems to me obscene at a certain level to consider oneself a victim when faced by people who have actually experienced atrocities. This is what makes the idea of secondary trauma so problematic.”

Documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson.Credit: Natan Dvir.

Triple malaise

Johnson’s engagement with trauma and war has taken her to surprising places. For “The Oath” (2010), one of the most controversial films she has shot, she and Poitras spent months in Yemen documenting a former jihadist named Abu Jandal, who was Osama Bin Laden’s bodyguard from 1997 to 2000, during which time he recruited people for Al-Qaida. Over the course of 90 minutes, the viewer is confronted with a complex, fascinating, contradiction-rife figure. Abu Jandal was a taxi driver in Sana’a when the filmmakers met him, and when a relative of his, Salim Hamdan, was arrested, interrogated and at times tortured at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. As Abu Jandal tells his story before Johnson’s camera, he regrets having recruited Hamdan to serve as Bin Laden’s driver. He is also trying to cope with guilt feelings for having sworn loyalty to Al-Qaida before he knew about the organization’s intention to attack the Twin Towers in New York (an operation he vehemently opposes).

Why did you and Poitras choose to depict a Bin Laden jihadist in a way that makes people identify with him?

“This film was an act of courage. It was such a bold film to make so close to 9/11. Laura asked me to go to Guantanamo, and I very much wanted to go because it was so unrepresented. No one was allowed to see it, and so I wanted to see it with my own eyes. I myself have been involved with a Moroccan man who had to leave the U.S. under a terrorism investigation, and I was curious about representation of the ‘bad guy’ in the light of racism and imperialism. I thought that Laura was allowing herself to make a complicated film and I admired her for that.”

Watching your work, I feel that you are trying to map and unpack the three existential malaises from which America suffers: sexism, racism and imperialism. Which of these three seems to you most urgent?  

“I’ve been obsessed with racism since I was a child; I think it has been very meaningful for me because I’m positioned as the perpetrator. I didn’t want to think about sexism, because I didn’t want to cast myself as the victim. I grew up in a very religious family of Seventh-day Adventists who believed in the apocalypse. It bewildered me that certain ‘good’ people will survive while others will suffer. I gradually gave up pieces of my belief. I was supposed to be baptized when I was 11, but refused to do it on principle. There was God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit, and I thought: How come there can be three entities and they are all men? I remember thinking, ‘This must be made up by a man, because it is just impossible.’

“The idea that God or someone else knows my thoughts and is watching me continued deep into my twenties. I remember being in my thirties and riding in the back of a truck in Tanzania, surrounded by people, and feeling a deep sense of relief stemming from the realization that I no longer had to convert anyone.”  

So your feminism generated a crisis of faith?

“I think in some ways, as I age, I realize that the oppressive nature of misogyny is jaw-dropping. Film taught me that I was sexist in my mind about how one has value or the meaning of doing noble and honorable things. I was often self-denigrating about the fact that I’m not a combat cameraperson and lack the bravery to film war zones during hostilities.

“What I do ask myself today is why don’t we consider a maternity ward a war zone. Young, beautiful people die there. It’s a battle over limited resources that could be allocated to maternal health. That to me feels fundamentally about racism, sexism and imperialism. To put that in the film as the ‘ultimate war zone’ is very meaningful to me politically and philosophically.”  

From 'Cameraperson.'Credit: Courtesy

Still, as a white American woman with a camera, you are in a position of privilege in terms of the people you document, and in a way that creates a connection between your work and the long and vexing history of colonialism and the cultural representation of the Other.

“I always think about whose body gets shown in what way. One of the most powerful things for me, looking at my footage, was to think how often – despite my trying to address subjects of racial injustice – in some ways, I’m part of the problem of how brown, black, non-American bodies get framed. Because of what documentary [film] has been, and what it is trying to address, the majority of things that have been filmed represent white and nonwhite bodies in different ways.    

“At the same time, I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be privileged. But over time, I’ve learned that, perhaps one of the greatest privileges as a human being, is to not experience violence until later in life. I didn’t experience violence as a child, and that in itself is a huge privilege.”

‘Push and pull’

“Cameraperson” is fraught with violence in its manifold manifestations. Even the domestic scenes, which are ostensibly meant to afford viewers breathing space between brutal images, are rife with a disturbing sense of morbidity. For example, Johnson films her own children discovering the body of a dead bird in the yard of her father’s home in Seattle. He wants to get rid of it immediately, but Viva and Felix insist on holding a funeral and arranging a dignified burial. Though they were only 3 at the time, the toddlers’ attraction to death seems natural, almost expectable. In other scenes, Johnson documents her elderly mother’s deterioration due to Alzheimer’s disease.

“The idea of loss permeates the film in a profound way,” she notes. “As a cameraperson... there is a terrible sense of loss that accumulates over time of having to leave the place and to give up the footage [to other hands]; of seeing the film get made and thinking about all the other films that could have been made. As I started to look through the footage, I realized that I could make a film that would evoke all these discoveries and losses. It was also about memory because, of the way I identify with my mom, who had Alzheimer’s. I was curious about what happens to my own memory, as someone who always lives in the present. Making the film was an exercise in remembering.”

Due to the fragmented editing, “Cameraperson” is often confusing and even disorienting. We’re not sure where we are and how we got there.

“That’s true, because there is a huge amount of context missing, and in some ways this is my attempt to share with you, the viewer, my experience as a cameraperson being thrown into unfamiliar territory. My knowledge is thin when I go into a situation, in the same way that our knowledge of another person is always thin.”

'Why don’t we consider a maternity ward a war zone? Young, beautiful people die there.'

In that case, there’s always the danger of pigeonholing people into sound bites and taglines: “cancer survivor,” “rape victim,” “terrorist.” How do you avoid reinforcing these stereotypes?

“That’s part of my obligation and responsibility as a cameraperson. I do rebel against the ways in which certain people are always and only seen as victims. An example of that is the grandmother in Bosnia, where it is very clear that she does not want to talk about the war, and she is trying to address the ways in which she survived by denying what happened. And that’s when I tell her, ‘Look at your fabulous fashion sense,’ meaning: You are more than a person who survived a war; you are a person with agency. And so this is a constant battle: knowing that there is an imperative for the narrative that I am serving and a desire in me to find ways to show the complications of being a person. That’s definitely the push and pull in my head.”

Documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson.Credit: Natan Dvir

Johnson, who as a young woman moved to Paris to study cinema, found it difficult to stay in any place for more than a few months and spent most of her life traveling. She made the decision to become a mother in her 40s, after separating from her male partner. In a profile published in The New York Times in September, she spoke with openness about her triangular family model – the two fathers live next door to her in an apartment building in the Village in Manhattan. In light of the fact that Johnson and Sachs are often on the road shooting projects for weeks on end, Torres described himself as an “island of stability.”

Why did you decide not to show the two fathers in your new movie?

“The story of how I had my children is a deeply complicated one to explain. You could argue that any of the situations in the film is deeply complicated to explain, but in truth I haven’t filmed the children with their fathers. I was thinking about my own mother, my father and myself as a mother. Documenting my mother and my children helped me raise questions of permission and consent: She had Alzheimer’s, and the children were too young to give consent. And yet I used them anyhow. I mention my co-parents in the credits, so I don’t think their story has been excluded, but it was not investigated. This was not a conscious decision, but I think it reflects my experience, when I am alone with the parenting of the children once they are with me. This is not a diary, but a very partial depiction of my life as a cameraperson.”

As always, Johnson is currently juggling several projects. There is “Risk,” Poitras’ forthcoming portrait of Assange (“I had very mixed feelings about him as a person,” Johnson says. “I disputed his own sense of his justification”). She is also involved, as cinematographer, in film written and directed by sisters Jill and Faith Soloway (known for the TV series “Transparent”), which she describes as “a hybrid project about how the experience of family relates to creativity. It’s a musical-documentary-fiction film.” And, last but not least, “something comedic with my 84-year-old father about his death. It’s a crazy idea that came to me in a dream.”  

So you are still somewhat obsessed with death

“Yes, I am,” she replies, smiling. “I thought I was only making the film [“Cameraperson”] for the past – so I could deal with the loss of my mother. But when the mother in Bosnia says, ‘Your children will see where you have been,’ I suddenly realized that I might be making a film for the future, when I will no longer exist. So there’s a way in which the film can acknowledge everyone’s eventual death, including my own. There is so much death in this film – all these dead bodies – but not yet mine. Since this is cinema, and it will live, eventually mine will be in the film too, but not just yet. It was really powerful to realize, because we are all in denial that we will die. In that sense, this film is a gift to the future, so my children won’t have to go through all the footage. But of course they will need to find their own stories and their own answers, so they will have their own search to make.”