Emmy, Sundance Winner Kirsten Johnson on Cinema as a Collective Endeavor

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Opening her masterclass at doc film festival Visions du Réel in Switzerland, cinematographer and filmmaker Kirsten Johnson – an Emmy and Sundance award winner for “Dick Johnson Is Dead” – started by naming each and every member of the technical crew on set.

“What I often find upsetting with cinema is that we forget to acknowledge all the people it takes to make these moments together. I learnt that through being a cameraperson, and I’m interested in understanding why we want to reduce it to just one person, because there’s something beautiful about the fact that all of these humans, collectively, help us be here today,” she said, employing her favorite word to describe her work, “Cameraperson,” which is also the title of second feature film.

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Over three decades, Johnson has worked on some 60 films as a cinematographer, for the likes of Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11,” Palme d’Or winner in 2004) and Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour,” 2015 Academy Award winner for Best Documentary Feature), made a couple of shorts and two feature films: the above-mentioned “Cameraperson” in 2016, and 2020’s “Dick Johnson Is Dead.”

“Dick Johnson Is Dead” - Credit: Courtesy of Visions du Reel
“Dick Johnson Is Dead” - Credit: Courtesy of Visions du Reel

Courtesy of Visions du Reel

“I’m very glad to be the ‘one’ today,” she continued with characteristic self-deprecating humor, “but I’m throwing it back out to the collectivity to say that we are making this moment together.”

Johnson had set the tone for the masterclass. Dressed in a flamboyant multi-colored outfit, she went on to talk about her obsession with color, which she said is rivaled only by her obsession for death – a fixation which prompted her to make her second feature film “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” in which she repeatedly stages her own father’s death in inventive and comical ways to help them both face the inevitable.

She proceeded to share a slide-show featuring images that have inspired her – ranging from works by Saul Steinberg – “one of my favorite artists” – to a self-portrait she made aged five in which she drew herself in a bright multi-colored outfit similar to the one she was wearing on stage – “I’m basically this person and always have been, nothing has changed!” – to the audience’s amusement.

On a more serious note, as the festival’s artistic director Emilie Bujès encouraged Johnson to talk about her career, the cinematographer confided, “What I would say, and this is true for any one of us, is we all have an extensive list of things we care about, and as life goes on it gets longer and longer.

“But there are threads in my work – the history of American anti-Blackness, white supremacy, the color orange, my own relationship to my parents, and hence my relationship to femaleness.”

Johnson explains how her curiosity turned into a form of travel bulimia, taking her to 87 countries in 25 years. This is where she drew the material for “Cameraperson.” But it was a lengthy process before she allowed herself to make the film she did – a montage of scenes from her previous films as a cinematographer, with all its imperfections, one that lays bare the dilemmas and contradictions that filmmaking entails, and which, in the title sequence, she asks viewers to see as her memoir.

As the editing process evolved, it turned into what she described as “a very slow psychological excavation of material.”

“I didn’t just choose 25 years worth of material. It was one situation after another, almost like geological sedimentation. The great thing about [my editor] Nels Bangerter is he said ‘You can ask all of your questions – if the footage can ask the questions, then you can ask the questions.’ He didn’t put any limit on me,” said Johnson, adding: “One of the things I do with ‘Cameraperson’ is say, ‘I don’t know if this is okay.’

“I’m trying to figure out how to give you clues, as an audience, to understand that you’re about to encounter something that might disturb you – it disturbed me. I don’t want to remain in my isolation around the fact that when I shoot films I’ve got a world of ethical questions. Let us not pretend that it’s not happening.”

This same desire to acknowledge the reality of the world around her is what motivated her to make her second film, “Dick Johnson Is Dead.” It came after her mother’s death following years of dementia as her father started to show the first signs of the syndrome.

“People thought I was crazy,” said Johnson. “I knew that time was limited. They kept saying: ‘Why do you want your dad to die again and again?’ It took me a long time to figure out: because I want to resurrect him, I want him to never die, and cinema can help me keep him. Cinema allowed me to do this and it is happiness: Dick Johnson is still alive, and the movie gave us a way to be together and enjoy.”

Asked about her current projects, Johnson said she was working on a hybrid documentary-fiction about American writer and political activist Susan Sontag – “I’m going to try and do a funny film about Susan Sontag, good luck to me!,” she joked.

She also talked about her desire to address “a set of questions about camerapeople of the 21st century.”

“Ten years ago, I thought we were going to have an explosion of cinema languages, but it doesn’t feel like that’s happening,” she said.

“Machines are starting to film us, surveillance cameras are filming us, drones are filming us, and much of the entertainment that is being produced – the big superhero movies, franchise movies for studios – are increasingly being filmed without bodies, without a physical space or camera operators: we’re heading into a world of virtual production,” she said, where machines “are coming for us in the form of algorithms.”

“The system is not set up to support certain kinds of inquiry, and the machines are going to block us out increasingly. So the question is: what are we doing with that,” she concluded.

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