Cinematographer and filmmaker Kirsten Johnson — an Emmy and Sundance Award-winner for Dick Johnson Is Dead — opened her masterclass at Doc Film Festival Visions du Réel in Switzerland, beginning by naming each and every member of the technical crew on set.
“What often bothers me about cinema is that we forget to acknowledge all the people it takes to create those moments together. I learned that as a cinematographer and I’m interested in understanding why we want to narrow it down to just one person, because there’s something beautiful about the fact that all of those people together help us to be here today,” he said she, who uses her favorite word to describe her work, “cameraperson”, which is also the title of her second feature film.
Johnson has worked as a cinematographer on around 60 films over three decades, including for Michael Moore (“Fahrenheit 9/11”, 2004 Palme d’Or winner) and Laura Poitras (“Citizenfour”, Oscar winner 2015). Best Documentary) directed a couple of short films and two feature films: the aforementioned Cameraperson in 2016 and Dick Johnson Is Dead in 2020.
“I’m very happy to be the ‘One’ today,” she continued with trademark self-deprecating humor, “but I’m throwing it back to the community to say we’re making this moment together.”
Johnson had set the tone for the master class. Clad in an extravagant, multicolored outfit, she continued to talk about her obsession with color, which she says is second only to her obsession with death – an obsession that led her to direct her sophomore feature film, Dick Johnson Is Dead rotate. in which she repeatedly orchestrates her own father’s death in inventive and comical ways to help both of them face the inevitable.
She went on to share a slideshow of images that have inspired her – from works by Saul Steinberg – “one of my favorite artists” – to a self-portrait she took when she was five, of herself in brightly colored outfit similar to the one she wore on stage – “I’m basically that person and always have been, nothing’s changed!” – to the amusement of the audience.
More seriously: When the festival’s artistic director Emilie Bujès encouraged Johnson to talk about her career, the cinematographer confided: ‘What I would say, and this goes for any of us, is that we all have an extensive list of things are important to us, and the longer life lasts, the longer it gets.
“But there are threads in my work — the history of American anti-blackness, white supremacy, the color orange, my own relationship with my parents and therefore my relationship with femininity.”
Johnson explains how her curiosity became a form of travel bulimia, taking her to 87 countries in 25 years. Here she drew the material for “Cameraperson”. But it was a long process before she allowed herself to make the film she made – a montage of scenes from her previous films as a cinematographer with all their imperfections that exposes the dilemmas and contradictions that filmmaking brings and the one in the title sequence, she asks viewers to see it as her memoir.
As the editing process evolved, it became what she described as “a very slow psychological excavation of material.”
“I didn’t just select material from 25 years. It was one situation after another, almost like geological sedimentation. The great thing about it [my editor] Nels Bangerter said, “You can ask all your questions — if the footage can ask the questions, then you can ask the questions.” Doing ‘cameraperson’ is like saying, ‘I don’t know if that’s okay.’
“I’m trying to figure out how to give you, as an audience, hints so you understand you’re going to come across something that might worry you – it worried me. I don’t want to remain in my isolation, when I’m making films I have a world of ethical issues. Let’s not pretend it’s not going to happen.”
That same desire to acknowledge the reality of the world around her is what motivated her to direct her second film, Dick Johnson Is Dead. It came after her mother died after years of dementia when her father was showing the first signs of the syndrome.
“People thought I was crazy,” Johnson said. “I knew that time was limited. They kept saying, ‘Why do you want your father to keep dying?’ It took me a long time to figure out: because I want to revive him, I want him never to die, and cinema can help me keep him. Cinema made that possible for me and it’s a stroke of luck: Dick Johnson is still alive and the film gave us the opportunity to be together and have fun.”
Asked about her current projects, Johnson said she’s working on a hybrid documentary-fiction about American writer and political activist Susan Sontag – “I’m going to try to make a funny film about Susan Sontag, good luck to me!” she said joked.
She also spoke about her desire to address “a number of questions about 21st-century cinematographers.”
“Ten years ago I thought we were going to see an explosion of cinematic language, but it doesn’t feel like it,” she said.
“Machines are starting to film us, security cameras are filming us, drones are filming us, and a lot of the entertainment that’s being produced — the big superhero movies, studio franchises — is increasingly being shot with no body, no physical space, or cinematographers: us going into a world of virtual production,” she said, where machines “come at us in the form of algorithms.”
“The system is not designed to support certain types of requests and the machines will progressively block us. So the question is, what do we do with it,” she concluded.
https://variety.com/2022/film/global/kirsten-johnson-visions-du-reel-1235233919/ Kirsten Johnson on cinema as a collective endeavour