Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson on life, work and 5 documentaries that changed the world

Kirsten Johnson is coming to the IFI Documentary Festival next week. Picture: Malick Johnson

Kirsten Johnson tells Richard Fitzpatrick about working with the likes of Edward Snowden on some of the most important documentaries of our time

KIRSTEN Johnson has enjoyed a garlanded career making documentaries, working as a cinematographer on some of the most important films of recent times, including Citizenfour about the whistle-blower Edward Snowden, Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 and The Invisible War.

In Cameraperson, which premiered earlier in the year to acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, the American sits in the director’s chair and gazes back over her 25-year career. When it came to reviewing an early, 150-minute cut of the documentary, she was taken aback.

“I had gathered all this footage that was so troubling to me. We worked on it for many months. We put it together and we watched it. It was shockingly horrific. I had no awareness that it would be as awful as it was. It was five genocides, two rapes, a baby dying, and I had put them altogether, with voiceover, unmitigated.

Edward Snowden in Citizenfour.
Edward Snowden in Citizenfour.

“The fact that I had put it together without realising that it would be unwatchable really shocked me. It made me think I didn’t know my own mind. It made me question do I have post-traumatic stress. How do I compartmentalise? What does this mean? I was only putting the enormous injustices of the world in the film, and it was unbearable. It was almost a diagnosis of my state.”

With some canny editing by her editor Nels Bangerter, and a decision to take out the narration, Johnson and her production team managed to draw out “the beauty and the joy and the complexity of the world”, in addition to some of its horrors.

The spark for Cameraperson, a memoir that acts as a meditation on the practice of making documentaries, came from a documentary Johnson worked on in Afghanistan, starting in 2009. She spent three years filming two teenagers.

At the end of filming, one of the interviewees withdrew permission to screen footage taken of her because of fears for her safety. She was, says Johnson, “too afraid”.

Johnson didn’t see it coming. It got her thinking about her trade, and the promises documentary filmmakers make to their subjects, parachuting into their lives for intense periods of filming, and then disappearing, without being able to fully control the impact their films might have on the community they leave behind.

“It’s not that I wasn’t aware of problems of representation and ethical conundrums my entire career, but we’re in a new moment in history,” says Johnson. “It’s a game-changer that we all have cell phones and can record images anywhere and distribute them anywhere.

“A lot of the films I’ve worked on have been post-conflict stories. Money and often time, too, is limited in making films. So here you go walking into someone’s life who has lived through something extraordinarily horrific like a genocide. You go, say, to Rwanda and you have maybe two hours to meet someone and talk to them about what they experienced during the genocide.

“First, it’s incredibly presumptuous – even though they might be desperate for people to hear their story – and second it puts you in this position of going straight to the tough stuff and in many ways treating people only as victims in the topics you bring up.”

Johnson has worked in some of the most trying political environments around the globe. Being a woman hasn’t been an impediment, she stresses. “Sometimes, it’s like I’ve landed out of space. I’m a white woman with a camera. In some ways, it can be an invasion, but other times I represent the idea of another possibility. I remember filming in this separatist Christian community in Alaska where girls could only do certain things. I could see the girls watching me go, ‘Oh, girls can do other things.’

“And on the level of experiencing sexism, it’s funny, one of the effects of sexism is being underestimated. People patronise you or are unable to imagine you can do something powerful. That was always one of our greatest assets – working on films with Laura Poitras like The Oath or Citizenfour. Many people, including the US military, underestimated our capacity. That was fine by us.”

Edward Snowden, a former National Security Agency intelligence analyst, reached out to Poitras, the film director, and Johnson to make Citizenfour after he fled the US, setting in train a clandestine operation that culminated in eight days of secret filming in his hotel room in Hong Kong in 2013.

The film won an Oscar. Johnson remembers how frightening the project was at the beginning.

“When the first emails came through from Snowden, which were anonymous, asking for us to go to Hong Kong — that was utterly terrifying, trying to determine if he was a credible person. I remember we put our phones in my freezer and we went down to the laundry room of my building and talked about it with the dryers going.”

  • Cameraperson will screen as part of the IFI Documentary Festival, on Sept 23, at the Irish Film Institute, Dublin

1. Man With a Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov): “It helped me figure out how to see.”

2. Sans Soleil (1983, Chris Marker): “It gave me the possibility to question perspective.”

3. Dial H-I-S-T-O-R-Y (1997, Johan Grimonprez): “Because of its freedom and its not-literalness.”

4. Nostalgia for the Light (2012, Patricio Guzmán): “He succeeded in examining this question that he’s been trying to cope with for the last 40 years since the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile — how can he speak in a film about what his country and himself have experienced emotionally because of the coup.”

5. Diary (2010, Tim Hetherington): “Tim succeeded in expressing visually the state of going in and out of worlds — the experience of being the kind of people we [documentary makers] are.”


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