In compelling Cameraperson, she explores ethical dimensions of her art: 'I needed this film, to understand what I've been doing'
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Lock eyes with Kirsten Johnson and you feel a sudden reckoning -- with who you are and what you understand about the world.
Her gaze is arresting: the look is not one of entreaty but of searching -- assessing how willing you are to go deep, to explore the possibilities of the moment.
Like other great cinematographers she's got the ability to frame a scene, compose a shot, detect a telling detail that others would miss. But with Johnson there's something more: her eyes give you the unexpected urge to share your story, to explore the meaning of your experience.
You're here, the microphone is here. I'm here and what's happening is in between us -- and that's what happens when you film. It's happening in between the people who are making it together.
Those qualities have made Johnson one of the most sought after documentary cinematographers of her time. She's shot with Laura Poitras on The Oath , citizenfour  and Risk ; with Michael Moore on Fahrenheit 9/11 , and with Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering on Derrida , and The Invisible War .
Now she has directed her first film, Cameraperson, currently playing in Los Angeles [Laemmle Royal]. It opens in Seattle and San Francisco on September 30 and expands to more cities in October including Houston and Washington, DC.
There is a hypnotic quality to the film, produced by the succession of compelling scenes, drawn from the work Johnson has done on assignments around the world -- but that didn't make it into the documentaries for which the material was originally shot.
"I was specifically interested in what is the story of me as a cameraperson. We experience -- as people doing this work -- these moments that we love, that we know never get used, having these moments where we left something that we want to recover," Johnson told Nonfictionfilm.com over coffee in Los Angeles. "Someone said to me the other day, 'Your film is just saying to all the people that you've filmed, "You mattered to me."' And that almost made me burst into tears. That is really what I am saying, this mattered to me."
The scenes range from a maternity ward in Nigeria, where midwives struggle to keep newborns alive with insufficient life-saving equipment, to an intense young boxer who explodes after losing a tight match; life after war in Bosnia and Herzegovina; an American woman anguished by the suicide of her mother; "Happy Valley" at its unhappiest time -- in the midst of the Penn State-Jerry Sandusky scandal.
"I'm certainly interested in the conversations that [the film] is generating because I needed this film. I needed this film to understand what I've been doing and what I'm going to try to do next," she said. "So it really is a personal taking the time to dig into stuff I've experienced with the people I make the films with but sharing it in a larger way and spending more time reflecting on it, which has been glorious."
Talented documentary cinematographers are just as much storytellers as the directors who hire them. Their subjectivity and creativity is constantly in play -- in what they choose to shoot and how they shoot in. Yet their contribution to a documentary is not well understood by much of the public.
Underscoring that, Johnson related the story of a time she and Laura Poitras were pulled aside at customs while traveling back to the United States.
"There was one moment that I was detained without Laura and the border official said to me, 'So are you the one who does the research and finds the people to talk to and does the interviews or do you just hold the camera?' I said, 'I just hold the camera,'" Johnson recalled with a laugh. "There was a moment where that was going to be the title of this film: 'I just Hold the Camera' and then we're like, 'That's a little too snarky.' I do think that there is very much this misunderstanding that [you're] just holding the camera -- that you are absent, as if the camera could hold itself."
You realize, 'I've opened them up and they're exposed and I who have exposed them am not able to protect them.'
Directing the film gave Johnson final say over editorial decisions in contrast to her previous role. As a cinematographer her work has been circumscribed by the interests and priorities of the director. Johnson said that's been tough to deal with at times, given her approach to her work.
"When I'm shooting I want to know you, I want to talk to you more and whatever we've set up in the relationship of this moment -- I want more. I'm curious and I'm engaged in this way that I think people [I'm shooting] feel and they want to stay too, and so we're in something together," Johnson said. "What I'm interested in is how deep can we go? And yet there are these exterior forces that limit that. That feeling of the confusion around that and in some ways the loss of that or the letting go of that -- sometimes it can be very abrupt. You can be very abruptly taken out of something or get an indication that [the material] is going to be used in a way -- you sort of feel protective of the person and then you realize, 'I've opened them up and they're exposed and I who have exposed them am not able to protect them.'"
Related coverage: Laura Poitras takes 'Risk' to Cannes
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.