Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson is deeply poetic, drawing on the remarkable and varied footage that she has shot for other film projects and reframing it in ways that illuminate moments and situations that have personally affected her. What emerges is an elegant meditation on the relationship between story-telling and the camera frame, as Johnson transforms scenes that have been presented in so many other directors’ films as one reflection of truth into another kind of story—one about personal journey, craft, and direct human connection.
Rooftop Films: How did you get started as a filmmaker?
Kirsten Johnson: I went to Dakar, Senegal to live in order to meet some of my film heroes like Djibril Diop Mambéty and Ousmane Sembène and had my mind blown.
What inspired you to make the film?
Cameraperson grew out of a deep need. I didn’t think of making it. It happened to me. I had been working for three years with the extraordinary editor Amanda Laws on a completely different film set in Afghanistan that we were unable to complete because one of the young women no longer felt safe appearing in a film. The impossibility of showing her face got me thinking about dilemmas that I had encountered while filming in many different situations over the years that remained unresolved for me, but that I had never let myself really dig into.
How did you select the footage you used for Cameraperson? Were these segments you always knew you wanted to use in this or some similar capacity? Did you rediscover any in the curating process?
I first went back to footage that really haunted me – like the Nigerian maternity ward. What I couldn’t believe when I saw the footage again was how explicitly I recognized each moment with each person I had filmed, despite the fact that over the years since I had filmed it, all I had seen in my mind’s eye was a blurry image of the midwife’s face. I became completely fascinated with the difference between what I remembered and what I had shot and the ways in which my brain compartmentalized my experiences. It felt like being on an archeological dig. As I coped with re-encountering footage and processed what it meant to me, I would suddenly remember another experience I had forgotten, sending me off to look for that set of footage to see what it would reveal to me.
How do you deal with consent and other ethical issues that rise when you’re filming people and the more intimate details of their lives?
This is one of the many subjects of the film! You can see me struggling to deal with it in the footage. What I find so interesting is that consent means one thing at the moment of filming, another in the edit, and many, many things as the film continues into the future and is seen by different people at changing points in history.
Has filmmaking changed you as a person? If so, how?
Utterly and completely. It changes me and how I understand myself every day I film. Last night until it got dark, I was filming at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. There were so many people there to pay their respects to those killed, that I decided to return at dawn in order to film the emptiness. When I got there this morning, I realized that why I had returned and what I had hoped last night without realizing it, was that the new day would restore some feeling of hope in me. As the sun came up, it became clear that daybreak wasn’t going to comfort me – despite the beautiful apricot light the horribleness of all the killing was still there. It was such an odd thing to discover about myself, something about my relation to light itself and the way I rely on it to help me.
Do you plan on returning to any of the places you’ve filmed and showing them the film?
In a few weeks, I am headed back to Bosnia for the Sarajevo Film Festival. I will meet Velma and Sejo from the film who’ve already seen the it on a link, but we haven’t had a chance to really talk about yet. We will drive up to the mountains to pick up the “blueberry” family to bring them to the screening. The anonymous Witness 99 will also see it for the first time. Velma and Sejo and I have been having conversations about how they all will first encounter the film. There are no easy answers, problems of translation, complicated relationships across generations and identities, quandaries of the private and the public, and all kinds of unfinished feelings connected to the war. I am deeply curious about what the experience will be for all of us, and of course, torn about what, if any of it, I might film. The stakes are as high as ever and Cameraperson feels alive in all of the relationships that it is.