Kirsten Johnson has traversed the globe as a film director, and as one of the most acclaimed and sought-after cinematographers working in nonfiction filmmaking today. She just shared the 2010 Sundance Documentary Competition Cinematography Award with Laura Poitras for The Oath, and shot the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival Best Documentary winner, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, directed by Gini Reticker and produced by Abigail Disney, two women she is currently, once again, collaborating with for an extended project in Congo. She also shot Ted Braun's Darfur Now (2007), and has collaborated with directors such as Raoul Peck, Barbara Kopple, Michael Moore and Kirby Dick. A chapter on her work as a cinematographer is featured in Megan Cunningham's The Art of the Documentary: Ten Conversations with Leading Directors, Cinematographers, Editors and Producers. She has also directed the cinematography on films such as Throw Down Your Heart, Lioness, Motherland, Election Day, This Film Is Not Yet Rated, Farenheit 9/11, Derrida, The Two Towns of Jasper, My Generation, and many others.
Her feature script, My Habibi, was selected for the 2006 Sundance Writers' and Directors' Labs and is the recipient of an Annenberg Grant. Her film, Deadline, co-directed with Katy Chevigny, premiered at Sundance in 2004, had its national broadcast on the NBC television network, and received the Thurgood Marshall Award.
As is the case with most people I talk with who have been devoted to making independent films for a long time, Johnson's career trajectory was far from a traditional one. The beginning of her film career was spent living in Dakar, Senegal, and then seven years were spent in Paris, France, where she attended La Fémis, the French national film school, receiving a degree from the Cinematography Department. Her work has taken her to close to fifty countries, and she is fluent in French, Portuguese and Wolof.
Just a week before departing for Colombia to shoot part of Reticker's long-form new project, Johnson and I spent an afternoon chatting together at a café near her home in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. Here's our conversation:
Still in Motion (SIM): So you’re off soon on another adventure and working again with Gini Reticker and Abigail Disney. I’m assuming they want to work with you on every single thing they do for the rest of their lives, or something like that?Kirsten Johnson (KJ): Well, Gini and I have a collaboration that dates all the way back to Asylum [shot in Ghana, 2001, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short], a film we did with [director] Sandy McLeod. That was the first time we had worked together. Gini had strong story ideas but she wasn’t confident about her visual ideas at that time. Now, of course, she’s a very visual director. It was one of those things where we got on that shoot and it just was kind of remarkable how we were all seeing and wanting to shoot the same things. We call it the “stop the car” shoot where all three of us, simultaneously, would shout, “Stop the car! There’s something we want to film!” I think that that collaboration was one of those things where we found a way to talk about ideas together that has continued throughout the years. We’ve done two Wide Angle shoots together, one in Rwanda and one in Morocco, and then Pray the Devil Back to Hell. When Abby came on board, we all realized, too, that we could play Speed Scrabble together [laughs].
Right now, they’re doing this very ambitious thing, a four-hour series, done in co-production with WNET. But it’s a Fork Films production, which is Abby and Gini’s company. There will be a broadcast of the whole thing, accompanied by a broadcast of Pray the Devil as a part of the series.
SIM: I hope you’ll take this next question in the right spirit because some people we know and love sort of balk at this subject matter, but you’re a white woman, or a group of white women, and you tend to shoot in locales where, as a female and as a white person, and one with a camera, you distinctly don’t blend in. You’ve been doing this for decades now, so I’m assuming you’ve come up with ways to negotiate that. Both you and Gini, I know for sure, are incredibly open people and it wouldn’t appear as if it’s that difficult for people to trust and open themselves to you. But do you encounter suspicion or mistrust, wariness? And when you do, how do you counteract that?
KJ: I think that’s a great question and it’s an important one. For anyone who knows me, they know that thinking about race has been a part of my life, actually, since my childhood. I grew up going to a Seventh Day Adventist school that was incredibly racially diverse but there was a lot of 70s confusion about race and a lot of racism. I really picked up on that as a kid and I was very concerned and very confused and wanted to understand it. So I would say that I’ve been thinking about race since the early 70s.
I always think “whiteness” matters, being an American matters and it’s really important to understand that you represent something to other people and that those affiliations have an impact when you go somewhere. The question is always, how can you be aware of that and yet deal with people where they are? I was just talking about this with the sound person we’re with on this trip, Wellington Bowler; he’s African American. He’s one of my steady collaborative partners. I also work a lot with Judy Karp, who is a tiny white woman--as opposed to me, a giant white woman. I think all of us are really aware of what our presences mean in a certain place. What does it mean to have a man in a maternity ward, etc.? I think all of these factors go into my presence.
SIM: Is race thought of in the same way in those places?
KJ: It’s always different wherever you go. Wellington, sometimes, will be seen as a white person because he’s American.
SIM: Wow, that’s interesting, and kind of weird.
KJ: Right? Or we will be seen as urban people in rural places. There’s no question: I’m 6’2”; I am white; I am someone, in these situations, who can be very communicative, comfortable. I try and engage with a lot of humor. I have a presence; it’s a big presence in certain ways. There’s no missing me in these contexts. But it’s also how you behave, what level on which you give people the respect they deserve. One of the things I found early in my life through traveling in African countries is, because of this history of colonialism, as a white person you have unexpected privileges, and whether or not you use those privileges, how you use them would be the better thing to say, dictates how things go. Rather than being shut out, you’re actually given access to things that are almost inappropriate for you to be given access to. I’m constantly reminded of the kind of privilege you experience as a white person. It comes back to you, how meaningful that is. I clearly remember being in Mali and there was a group of people gathered in the central square of this village, all sitting under a tree waiting to meet with us. They had brought out chairs for us and there were a lot of older men and women sitting on the ground. I just gestured to them and gave up my chair. An older man took the chair and I sat on the ground. It wasn’t what they expected me to do at all. Who knows really how appropriate it was? I saw a hierarchy I respected and that was the hierarchy of age.
Being attentive to those cues is what makes it possible for any documentary filmmaker, no matter what their skin color or what country they’re working in, to gauge things. To gain a little respect from the people that are working or living where you’re shooting is really important. But you have to earn the respect they, in turn, give you by allowing you to be there, a white person in a brown world. There’s a lot of bad history under the bridge.
SIM: Current things being done by filmmakers, however, in the guise of being “sensitive,” kind of concern me sometimes. It’s tricky. People don’t realize all the nuance involved, particularly filming people’s stories. The respect definitely comes from the person behind the camera, the person telling the story. It’s an innate quality, perhaps—in the true sense of that word, they just know how to do it.
KJ: There is an innate thing going on. Sometimes, you’re in a sophisticated city, like Kampala, where everybody’s making music videos, for example. Or you’re in a village where they’ve never seen a camera before. That’s one thing people might forget: how technologically fluent the world is now. Cell phones, video cameras, all these things exist in the developing world. Respect for other human beings is just something you keep learning your whole lifetime.
Being the cameraperson really does put you in particular quandaries where your idea of what’s respectful is often challenged. It’s not so much the apparatus, the camera, that is perceived to be this intermediary between me and the subject; that quickly falls away. For me, it’s always, “Who’s holding the camera? How do they move?” I feel like I’ve done the same kind of work with a ridiculously huge camera and a teeny, tiny one I can hold in the palm of my hand. But you often find yourself in these moments of total ethical confusion.
Gini and I were shooting in Rwanda on a project that was to talk about a lack of infrastructure in the country. We were driving and we saw a group of people carrying a screaming woman on a litter. We could see them and hear them from down the hill. Gini quickly realizes that this scene completely conveys our theme and decides also that we are going to help them. There was a silence and I said, "Are we going to film them, too?" [laughing] It was like this little moment. Obviously, if we had stopped the car next to them and said, “May we film you?,” they would have put the litter down, the woman would have been in pain. We would have had to put her in the car immediately. So we decided that we would pass them, go up the hill. I was going to get out, be with the camera, and film them walking up the hill towards us. I know I’m not there as an aid worker; I’m not there as a doctor. I’m there as a filmmaker. But this thing of having to ask people’s permission—they’re in an urgent situation, etc. This stuff is just going through your head as you’re standing at the top of the hill while people are walking up to you. The woman was in labor and had been for seven hours. We put her in the car and it was another hour and a half to the clinic. She ended up naming the baby after our driver! But there was that moment that wasn’t quite right. But I got the shot and that wouldn’t have happened if we hadn’t done that. That dimension is constantly with you. Those are split-second decisions. As a cameraperson, I feel that you are certainly a collaborator with the director. But, you are also responsible for maintaining your own ethical boundaries.
SIM: It does seem like you’re working with filmmakers, for the most part, that have strong ethical boundaries, as well. But there can easily be a sense of confusion when your crew is in the thick of something and you just roll.
KJ: It can be confusing. There’s always this moment of, “This world makes no sense!” when I’m filming beside workers that make a dollar a day hauling huge sacks of rice with a camera that costs more than they make in several years.
SIM: You trained at La Fémis, the French national film school in Paris. Why did you decide to take yourself there? What were you going to get there?
KJ: I had kind of a peculiar career trajectory. It wasn’t about going to France. I went to West Africa and that’s where I started, in Senegal. I was really interested in African filmmakers. It was purely the discovery of filmmaking and I thought, I might want to write about film or be a critic. I really didn’t know.
SIM: What was it about the filmmaking tradition there that was so enticing for you?
KJ: I think it was the pace of it and the world that was being described in it. I had seen some of Ousmane Sèmbene’s films, a couple of Cissé's films. I saw that there was just a whole other thing going on. I was really curious about it, probably stemming from my focus on race. I had this elaborate plan my senior year of college [Brown University, Providence, RI]. There was a possibility of getting something called a Watson Fellowship that would grant someone $20,000 for the year and you could go anywhere in the world and do anything you wanted. I wanted to go to West Africa and be on set with filmmakers there—and to Brazil and to Paris and to London. And think about blackness in all these different places. I made it to the finals but didn’t get it. I didn’t have any back-up plan. At all. I sent some letters to various people, bought a one-way ticket, and went and knocked on Sèmbene’s door.
SIM: Right out of college?
KJ: Yeah. I got there and I lived there and just loved it. I got to work on a film and discovered I really liked production. I worked as an intern on a film directed by Clarence Delgado based on a Sèmbene novel, Niiwam. He was Sèmbene’s assistant director. There was this whole crew of Senegalese filmmakers from a very particular era. Despite the sometimes crazy difficulties of shooting there, I loved being on set. I had this Senegalese boyfriend who was a photographer. I was realizing that I really needed to learn something about how filmmaking worked. He asked me why I didn’t go to the film school in France—it was free. So that was how I ended up there. But in talking to people, I was told that there was no way they were going to let me into the directing department, not being French. No American had been accepted into that program. I was told to try for a technical department and by default, I went for camera because I didn’t know how to do anything, but I’d taken some photographs before and that’s how I got into cinematography and fell in love with the camera.
I can give a lot of credit to the French and the way in which they train people for the way I work. The films I saw during my time there and some of the people we got to work with were extraordinary—people like Raoul Coutard and Michel Fano, who’s an unbelievable sound guru who taught everybody how to do documentary sound. Sound, in many ways, is the missing piece in so many people’s documentary filmmaking. The level of sophistication and intent was displayed in some of the films I saw and what we strove for in our own work. A strong contextual base is really, I think, where I come from and that has a lot to do with sound. That’s why I work with people like Judy and Wellington. When I first started shooting, I didn’t hear at all; I was so concerned with composition. Little by little, I’ve become more and more quiet; I listen more and I realize how much more of the story is in the ear than through the eye. That’s been an evolution for me.
Initially, my instincts certainly weren’t bad. Especially in relation to people, they were pretty decent. But for a long time, I was moving too fast. I wasn’t thinking about how to recognize a scene in the middle of a moment. All those things I’ve learned through the back and forth of working and watching other people’s films, and those films that are made with the footage I shoot. It’s surprising sometimes [laughs].
Right now, I’m working with this German-Swiss director named Mirjam von Arx. She and I are working on a film about the father/daughter Purity Ball in Colorado Springs. The ball is an event staged to celebrate the father's role in the daughter's commitment to sexual abstinence and virginity until marriage. It’s in lieu of a prom since most of these kids are home-schooled. We’re shooting in one family’s home for one year, from ball to ball. Mirjam is coming from a European sensibility; you hold a shot a really long time and look. I was trained in France; I have that sensibility, and yet it’s still a whole other level. I would shoot for about three minutes and start to move away and she'd lean over and say, “No, no, stay.” And it actually felt really wonderful to have permission to do that.
I felt that way working on Laura's film, too [The Oath]. She's a director that says, “Yes, we have the time. Yes, take the time.” Knowing that that kind of care and attention was going to be put into the film was exhilarating. There’s a lot of expediency we’re dealing with in camerawork a lot of the time. If you do end up working on things that are going to be made into television programs, it’s about getting the coverage and you may only have one day in a place with a subject. [Poitras and Johnson accepting their cinematography award, Sundance Film Festival, 2010.]
SIM: This is distinctly not in the American tradition of how films get edited and pieced together. If the time was taken on the shoot, we can’t really ever tell since we’re given such a rapid series of cuts to take in at any given moment. We aren’t usually given this luxurious sense of spending long, extended moments with a subject or character. Scenes clip along so rapidly.
KJ: There are enough moments where there is action—and by action, I might mean just emotional action happening between people. You can see it all in a wide shot and have a chance to sit and look at what’s going on. A lot of times, you’re in a space that’s so small and you’ve got one character on one side of the room and one on the other. The camera operator has to make the choice. If we’re going to see two people in this shot, I have to move, I have to change positions when I’m cutting from one person to the next. Thank goodness we’ve got the continuous sound to make us feel like it’s all cohesive. But you’re still making these choices. The mind space that I’m in is going to decide when I choose to move and on whom to put my focus. I try to develop those things with the director in conversations where we’re discussing what we want. What do we really care about seeing?
SIM: Was that the first time you worked together with Laura?
SIM: She usually has done all the shooting on her films. What was different about this project, about this situation, where she decided to bring on a DP? Making this film was difficult on many levels.
KJ: Almost in every way.
SIM: In My Country, My Country, her naivéte and inexperience shooting in a place like Iraq stood her in good stead, one might say. Meaning, I don’t think she really fully realized what she was stepping into and needed to just go by herself to figure it out. This was before she met Dr. Riyadh, this was when she was preparing to embark on that trip not really knowing what story she’d find there.
The way The Oath is put together, working closely with you and Jonathan [Oppenheim, co-producer and editor], the level of craft is so deliberate and fine, with uncompromising intention, as in her other work. We move moment by moment through this film and we see and hear exactly what’s intended for us to see and hear. But we’re never told how to feel. The collaboration involved really speaks to that, I think. We see the outside world of the city of Yemen; we’re out in the streets. And we’re in incredibly intimate spaces, as well. When you first discussed this project with her, what were her concerns, especially as they pertained to shooting Abu Jandal, Guantánamo, and the possibility, at least at the beginning, of getting footage of Salim Hamdan, Jandal’s brother-in-law?
KJ: I actually saw the
film for the very first time at its premiere at Sundance in January. I could not be more honored that I was a part of making this
film. I think it’s
extraordinary. I think that Laura
and Jonathan did a mighty work in the edit room. I will say that I think that Laura had the vision in the
beginning. From the moment she met
Abu Jandal, I think she understood what a complex person he was. She knew she would have to calibrate
the film with that kind of razor-sharp attention and elegance. She also knew she needed these
counterpoints. Her initial impetus
for making this film was to do a story about a detainee returning from
Guantánamo. Her interest in
Guantánamo was there; it’s a place she feels very strongly about
politically. She wanted to
represent it in a way that translated the energy of the place. [Pictured, Abu Jandal driving his taxi in The Oath.]
We did everything we were supposed to do in relation to the military’s restrictions. We asked, every day, if we could film the prison but were never given permission. We kept asking and kept asking. We were allowed access, as most of the journalists are, to very specific things. And yet, we were also given access to all the public places of the base. The places that you can go, you go with a military escort. The prison, itself, is off in another place. I just filmed everything I was allowed to film and I filmed it with the energy borne by sitting in the courtroom everyday. That’s what’s so extraordinary about Laura as a director and producer. She couldn’t be in Guantánamo because she was filming in Yemen. She said to me and Jonathan that she wanted us in the courtroom as much as we could be there [during the trial of Salim Hamdan]. Now, mind you, we couldn’t film in the courtroom. It’s an eight-hour day, time she’s paying for us to be there. And listen. And take in the story. We were there a total of five weeks.
SIM: That’s really incredible. I didn’t know that.
KJ: Yes, amazing. So, basically, when I was shooting the exchanges between the journalists and the lawyers, I knew, from being in the courtroom that day, what the key moments were.
SIM: You had profound contextualization, in other words.
KJ: Yes, and very few people would feel confident enough, in both their collaborators and the subject matter, to say the important part of your shooting is for you to sit in a courtroom and listen. That speaks volumes about Laura. It was absolutely engrossing to be a part of that event, the first military commission trial of its type.
SIM: Did you experience a good amount of frustration that you couldn’t film?
KJ: Not being able to shoot in the courtroom? It killed me! I feel like I have this personal vision of Hamdan. I was sitting very close to him watching his emotional reactions to all kinds of things. He would say these incredibly cinematic things. At one point, he was describing becoming slightly delusional after being in solitary confinement for so long and he said that he felt like he had eyes all over his body because he was constantly being watched by the guards. What I would have given to have him say that on film, you know?
What’s so interesting, and I think is often true with documentaries, is that your constraints are part of the story. The more you have to find a way to embody them filmically, the better off you are. It’s a great thing in the case of The Oath that you don’t ever see Hamdan except in that footage at the very beginning.
SIM: It is very powerful. You’ve just articulated what we can do creatively with nonfiction storytelling. I did not know about the situation you just described when I watched that film and I’ve seen it twice now. But in thinking about those scenes with the journalists and the lawyers doing their post-mortem sessions, there was something ineffable and palpable in the way in which those interactions were filmed and interpreted. You can feel the import of it from all sides, this vital line of communication. There’s almost a secret language being spoken but, as a viewer, you really get a very nuanced understanding of what’s happening—it’s subtle, instinctual, anchoring. As opposed to the scenes where Jandal is holding forth and talking incessantly, rapidly, about so much. In juxtaposition to the post-courtroom footage, it’s quite disorienting, the wall of sound coming from this man who is providing a boatload of exposition. I always felt so off-center and that’s one of the things I love about this film.
KJ: I’m so thrilled that you picked up on that secret language going on between the lawyers and the journalists. I felt like that was something on which I had to quickly get up to speed. There is this roomful of amazing investigative journalists, people like Carol Rosenberg and William Glaberson, who’ve been following Guantánamo from the beginning. They understand all the legal intricacies. Then you’re there, listening to all of these lawyers, many working pro bono, some of the very top attorneys in the country and all of these military experts. You’re really dealing with three or four languages that are unfamiliar to you. It was stimulating and absolutely gripping. I would come down to the debriefing room after a day in the courtroom, anxious to hear about how a lawyer would address what had happened.
I mean there were moments when you, literally, could see the judge trying to decide, “Do I say this court is invalid?” It was the first trial of these military commissions [on Guantánamo] and there was no precedent for any of it. There were at least four times where the judge was faced with an ethical decision, more about his role than anything else. “Am I the judge that goes down in history as the person who recognizes this as something legitimate, or do I take a stand and say it’s not?” Those were stunning moments.
The journalists would ask questions of the prosecution and watch the prosecutor set his jaw and insist that it was all working fine. To paraphrase one of the military prosecutors, he said something like, “We want the public to relate to these trials like they do to the Space Shuttle. Shuttles are constantly going up into space and people know that they are, but they aren't really paying attention." That was his hope--that these kinds of trials should become so commonplace. And yes, I would be shooting in my head and visualizing all these powerful shots of these people making these moment-by-moment decisions. But it’s nice to know that is all getting through on some level. You do put in all that time of understanding the context of what’s going on—it’s really important, understanding the deeper narrative. And then you do your best on the fly to tap into that. That’s what’s so amazing about filming real things; it’s all there, all the complexity, the power balances. Can you let the viewer see them?
SIM: What falls flat so many times about capturing vérité? A lot of times it really has very little dimension. The fanciest cutting and other production values are not going to hide the fact that one has captured less than compelling footage.
KJ: It’s an incredibly challenging job to be tuned into what matters and to find the way to film it. It’s exhausting. Often, you’re in for eight, ten, twelve hours in a day. You can get in a mode of shooting too much, obviously. But staying on point and staying focused on what really matters in the story takes a huge amount of concentration, a physical flexibility in space. It’s a thing that a director gives you. They give you what you need. I need twelve bottles of water a day [laughs]. They give you what you need in order to stay in that zone, able to film. If a director gives you the support and allows you to stay in the zone, then sometimes, you can actually start watching the film while it’s being made. It doesn’t happen very often but when it does, it’s extraordinary.
SIM: And when a director is, distinctly, not giving you what you need, or any of the other crew for that matter? You also take on the role of director and have a whole body of work you’ve directed. How does that inform the way you handle yourself on set?
KJ: That’s something I bring to a shoot, my experience as a director, my thinking as a director. I do think about what happens in the editing room. I’m a really active partner in the whole collaboration. I almost never would say to a director, in the moment, that things aren’t okay, that they aren’t working. There’s too much going on. But every night, I’ll come back with my input, letting him or her know that we needed more support in this regard; something was great in the way it was executed; we’re not giving this character enough time, etc. Sometimes, I really will push directors in terms of blind spots I feel they have. We all have them. I expect to be pushed on mine. Once in a while, I will encounter someone who’s not interested in the elephant in the room and for whatever reasons, it’s scary territory for them and they start putting up all these subconscious obstacles to actually getting at it. I’m definitely not a silent partner at the end of the day. I will do what I can do in the course of a filming day and won’t call into question any of the director’s choices. But at night, over dinner, I will talk about missed opportunities and want to know why. A lot of directors don’t really realize what you might be going through unless you speak up. People forget about the physicality of holding the camera, shooting. It’s the obligation of the crew to tell the director what they need and how and when they need it.
I like to talk about themes with the director so I can watch more for those elements that speak to those themes. That way when we’re filming something relatively interesting but I see something going on that really is the embodiment of what we’re trying to capture, I can just say it and be able to turn and start shooting what should be shot. They get what I’m doing because we’ve discussed it. That’s the art of catching things on the fly. There should be a good amount of preparation so you can do that. You have to know what you’re looking for and you have to have the freedom to get it. Not communicating well about these things can be disastrous, both for the film and the relationship. Hopefully, it becomes an unspoken thing after a while. That’s how you become really alive and light on your feet.
SIM: With your background, your training and these locales that keep drawing you—can you talk about light and texture in the way you see things? There’s a luminous quality to your work that’s very particular. In those places you shoot, in Africa, for instance, there’s a particular light that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Is that part of what draws you subconsciously, perhaps? This is more a curious question more than anything since I’m obsessed with light and reflection and how those things can cause emotional resonance just on their own, doesn’t matter really what the image is. Is that something you think about?
KJ: Yes, it’s something I’m absolutely interested in. It’s hard to tease it out in some ways. Senegal was the place I went as a young person. It was the first place I was truly free, in many different ways. I have a strong, nostalgic engagement in that particular environment and it speaks to why I love West Africa so much. Absolutely I’m turned on by the madness of color there and the quality of light on the equator.
Admittedly, though I’ve been slow in my developmental relationship to what light can do. I understood composition much more. Again, my teachers were extraordinary—I had an opportunity to learn from Raoul Peck on a documentary that he did here in New York. It was a transcendent experience. It was an essay film called Profit and Nothing But  set in Paris, Haiti and New York. He had planned to go to many different places in New York to express these different ideas. We’d go somewhere and nothing would be happening with the light and he’d say, “We’re out of here.” I’d never experienced that before from a documentary filmmaker. He had been a taxi driver and he took over from the AP who was driving slowly through New York traffic and he drove us up and down the city chasing the light. He went where the light was. Something changed in me from that experience. He also has an incredible compositional eye. We had a lot of locked-off shots and he’d have me set something up, come and look at it and he would just move the lens incrementally, just a smidge and that would be it, so much better. It became my quest to set up as many shots as possible to please his aesthetic, shots Raoul would keep. Certain things really matter to me from that experience; I was so inspired by him.
SIM: Was there another seminal filming experience that inspired you in that same way—to notice something you never paid much attention to, yet, somehow, now it’s a signature way in which you shoot?
KJ: You mentioned reflection, too. I was shooting a film, Derrida , for Amy Kofman and Kirby Dick. Initially, we had all these great conceptual discussions about how we were going to film things. One of the ideas was that we were only going to film Derrida in reflection. Which proved to be impossible, among many things, although it’s great to try and push yourself. I always love having to stay too long because once you stay too long, you get through all of the “stock” shots, the obvious things to do. You get to a place of slight boredom because you think you’ve seen every possible angle from which to shoot. Then, suddenly, you’re finding things. That was my experience in the courtroom in Deadline [co-directed with Katy Chevigny, 2003]. I started shooting reflections in the table, filmed the clock seven times, people’s hands in a moment of grief or agitation. You start to see differently because your eye gets tired of seeing the same thing. You start to search. You learn that there are always more shots.
SIM: This is when you realize there are two directorial minds—that of the director and that of the cinematographer. It’s a distinct advantage, especially in documentary.
KJ: In my experience, everyone I work with in documentary, including the sound people, thinks like a director. Your whole team has to be thinking that way, respecting the director as the primary person. When you don’t have that in documentary, stuff just falls off the edge. That’s what it demands. It demands this team of people totally engaged in making the same film.
SIM: Have you ever lone-wolfed it—did your own directing, shooting, sound, with no one else crewing?
KJ: I did that this past summer in Afghanistan and I have to say I kind of loved it. It’s something I hadn’t done in years. This was more of a scout situation and it was in a place where there’s a lot of danger so it wasn’t wise to bring too many people. There was a clinic opening and a lot of people were making speeches. If I’d have been there with a director, I might have felt obligated to “cover” the scene, the crowd watching, the people speaking. I was perfectly disinterested in that but what was amazing was that every person there was completely stressed, everyone was worrying their prayer beads, all in a state of deep agitation. I felt a lot of that in Afghanistan, people are worried, stuff is churning. I spent the entire opening of this clinic just filming people’s hands. It’s gorgeous footage; I have no idea what I’ll do with it. But, to me, it said a lot about the emotional state of these people. Instead of that being a cut-away in a sequence in a scene of the opening of that clinic, because I was by myself, I filmed what I wanted to.
But I do feel like I have relationships with directors where I can say to them that I know which shots are going to give us what we need in terms of capturing the emotional temperature of a situation. I ask them to allow me to do my thing. I am comfortable taking the initiative if I see something like that. But to not even have to discuss it was really fun. One thing I did find difficult working by myself was not having a producer. Having to decide where to stay, where to find food, all the logistical stuff you take for granted when a good producer is just taking care of all that—I missed that very much [laughs]. Half the time I’m shooting, I’m completely disoriented, since I’m so present in the action around me.
SIM: What kinds of stories haven’t you had an opportunity to explore, thus far?
KJ: I’m really interested in having the time and space to tell really complex stories.
SIM: Complex in what way? The stories you’ve told have a complexity to them.
KJ: I feel like something like The Oath has the kind of complexity I mean. I feel like we’re in a time where a lot of “issue” documentaries are supported and expected. I’m supportive of that kind of work, certainly, but they trap you in certain ways. They might allow you to go into structural complexity, but not necessarily human complexity. It’s sometimes too much to get in, somehow. Where I’m headed right now is that I’m feeling like I have a couple of ideas and a couple of places I want to be where I can tell those complex stories. One of the things that I admire about The Oath is that it manages to function on a complex level both in a human way and in a political way, addressing something that’s really important to us all. You have to take the time to make the choices you’re making. To do most things well it takes years of commitment, to not get sidetracked by things that are less critical. There are a lot of critical things to think and talk about right now. Finding the way at them is important.
One of the things that interested me about my time in Afghanistan—and I don’t quite know what to do with this yet—was my interest in photography and filming in Afghanistan. There are all kinds of restrictions on who can be filmed and who cannot. There’s an amazing group of female videographers who film weddings. The wedding parties are all single-sex and women dress completely differently than they dress out in the street. It becomes illicit material that everyone wants to look at and it can be dangerous, as well, if the video images of women dancing get outside the family and passed from cell phone to cell phone, for instance. Women can get into trouble. That’s fascinating to me, what can be photographed, what can’t be; there’s a lot to explore there. This entire history of imagery is hidden or purposely destroyed. I saw a lot of interesting stuff there and there would be something interesting to make there, although right now, I don’t know how or what it would be. I can get very conceptual like that and realize, that’s not a movie!
SIM: Or it could be. It’s always captivating to discover narratives hidden in these types of “archaeological finds.” I like it when people make up stories on evidence left behind where not much is explained anyway. There’s an archive, but of what we don’t know. The baseline of the story is rooted in reality. I think you’ve earned your creative stripes to try on something like that if you feel like it.
KJ: Well, I’m glad to hear you think I’m entitled to that [laughter]. I’m definitely interested in doing work that’s formally sophisticated and emotionally true and is complex. I’m trying to find ways in which I can do that with other people or on my own. I realize now that takes time and strong choices about subject matter and intense commitment. Again, I think of the work Laura does and her commitment to the material on a number of levels.
SIM: Well, there also needs to be a willingness, I guess, to be in that tortuous phase where you’re really lost. Where you do say, I don’t have a movie.
KJ: If you don’t feel that way, you’re probably not making a movie, especially a nonfiction one. It’s in those moments, I think, where the work of discovery is being done. It certainly creates anxiety for me as a director, but as a cameraperson, I really like being in that place where I’m searching. There’s always something interesting going on, you just have to find out where it is.
SIM: Who’s making work these days that really excites you?
KJ: You know what film I think about a lot is [Jean-Pierre Duret and Andrea Santana’s] Because We Were Born (Puisque nous sommes nés). I want to show that film to everyone. I mean, come on!
SIM: It’s gorgeous. They really reached a creative pinnacle with this film. It took them many years to get there. It’s filled with so many incredible moments.
KJ: There’s so much happening on so many levels—it’s visually stunning and they tap right into the dreams of those boys.
I can watch that movie with Gini or Judy or Wellington and we all know what it takes. You see that film and respect it for what it represents which is the complexity of that relationship between those subjects and the filmmakers. They were living with them for months and negotiating their involvement with them day by day. That’s a high emotional risk, such difficult terrain to journey through. Being in those kinds of situations for a long period of time is a big deal. And in seeing Duret’s film, I knew how many levels on which those filmmakers were operating. It’s such an exciting thing to see. You don’t look at a film like that and just take it in as something stylistic. No. It is an approach, it’s time spent, it’s understanding how a camera works, understanding how a story works. The choice of filming two little boys who can talk to one another—all those things speak to a lot of experience. You see it all there. That’s the kind of thing to which I’m aspiring.
SIM: I’m always embarrassed to say this out loud, but I call it love. It sounds kind of dopey to say that, but that’s what you feel when you watch a film like that. It doesn’t speak well of my critical chops but that’s what it is and I twist myself around trying to find a more academic word for it. It’s the energy created from the people behind the camera and the people in front of it that supersedes circumstance; all have a hand in creating something utterly unique and singular and I don’t understand how that cannot be a thrill. You feel it in your bones.
KJ: Absolutely. Listen, some of the situations that these people are in, the subjects of our films, are egregiously horrible. And they’re still human beings who are funny, who have hope, who are open. Truly, we have to honor them. Filmmaking becomes a form of honoring people, honoring the tradition of filmmaking, as well, stretching that far, and further. It’s a mutual gift documenting the truth that happens between director and subject. Laura did that with Abu Jandal. She surprised him.
SIM: It’s not such a bad thing to sometimes be underestimated. Low expectations give you a lot of leeway, a distinct advantage [laughter].
KJ: Yes, but sometimes you need to own up, too, and show right away that you’re a high-level player. A really great example for that, to me, was St. Claire Bourne, someone I miss terribly. Saint did not let anyone, I mean anyone, sleep on the fact that he didn’t have a sharper question, was searching for a better answer. He was always on, always bringing up the level of expectation for everyone. He wouldn't let an interview subject off the hook. That’s especially important in interviews.
SIM: Sure, especially when you have agendas which are in opposition to one another. It is the filmmaker’s responsibility to weigh that, not the interviewee’s.
KJ: Yes, if you let someone sleepwalk through an interview, they will. It’s our job to get at it. I know I’ve said this a couple of times in the course of this conversation, but sound people are so underestimated in the documentary world. I have these incredible conversations with the sound people I work with. They are the people listening the most. It doesn’t happen very often, though, that the director is turning to them for input into what’s happening. One of the things I try to ask of a director with whom I’m working, if he or she is okay with it, is to give both me and the sound person an opportunity to ask a question at the end of an interview. The director is caught up in the interview and we’re there the entire time watching and listening. It can be tricky because sometimes it is inappropriate to ask and the crew needs to stay out. But most of the time when this is allowed to happen and the director is willing to give it a shot, there will come Wellington or Judy, or whoever has been recording, with a question that sends it out of the ballpark, the question that nails the interview. I like to set up a dynamic where that kind of thing is possible, reminding everyone in the room that we’re all filmmakers together. [Soundman, Wellington Bowler, pictured.]
SIM: Can you recall a particularly profound moment while filming that shifted your molecules around, made you look at the world a bit more openly, perhaps, than you had before?
KJ: I can say I’ve had many, many of those moments. I can think of a lot of extremely emotional experiences, particularly interviews, as we were talking about. The experience that always comes to mind, however, is that of shooting Derrida (1930 - 2004). Basically, he was very ambivalent about us filming him. He’d constantly cancel shoots. One day, he’d kind of had it and was in the mood to call everything off. He said he just couldn’t have all of the distraction going on; he needed to get things done. He just needed to be there in his house. He told us that if it was just me who stayed and I didn’t say a word all day, we could stay there with the camera.
I was incredibly intimidated, very respectful of who he was. He made you feel as if your speech was so superfluous; he thought people talked too much, like so many of my words were superfluous because he used words so carefully. He was so precise and rigorous. So I was left in Derrida’s house and I vowed not to talk all day and went into this place where I just moved around and filmed him doing what he was doing. I opened the door, went out into the backyard, filmed him from outside when I got too much of being around him [laughs]. I just kept moving around and doing my thing in complete silence. It was quite liberating. I’m obviously quite a talker!
I wanted to prove to him that I was smart. That mattered to me, you know, that Derrida should know that the cameraperson wasn’t dumb. To have him tell me what he needed from me, which was utter silence and for my presence to allow everything to happen for him, was revelatory.
I’m currently working with a filmmaker named Kathy Leichter on a personal documentary about her mother’s suicide [Motherland]. We’ve been working on it for a long time and it’s usually just her and me in the room. She’s let me know that, filming with me, she feels like she can display any type of emotion—even intense anger—and it’s okay. I feel like I learned I had that ability that day with Derrida. Kathy says she can feel it, that she can feel from me that it’s okay. People always have the right, after the fact, to request that something not be used in a film. But if there is trust established, it allows the subject emotional freedom. Kathy says she's actually willingly gone to very dark and difficult places because she feels like she's safe to do that with me. I’m not sure I’d know how to let myself emotionally go to certain points with someone standing by. It was thrilling to me to see someone allow herself to do that.
Can I ask you a question? Do you feel, in general, excited about what’s happening formally in documentaries right now?
SIM: For the most part, I do. It’s a way of telling stories I’ve been fascinated by for a long time, even before I became a maker or started celebrating in rapturous prose all the incredible work I see. I want to concentrate on people pushing the form in exciting ways, not the horror stories of elusive funding and how hard it is to make films and how we can monetize all this in some way. I’m bored by all that. I see too many instances where people make their films on their own terms using money they scraped together somewhere and made a beautiful, personal piece of work.
It’s interesting that in this particular form—in most creative endeavors, but particularly this one where you are investing years and years of your precious life and it’s hard to keep the mechanism going, and there’s so much mystery involved!—well, the most extraordinary people are drawn to do this. Documentary filmmakers are the most fascinating people to be around, they just are, mostly because the best ones tend not to be filmmakers. They're coming at cinema from another vantage point; they've been out in the world and lived a bit, traveled, learned languages. So yes, I have hope that the work of making nonfiction cinema is just going to get better and better and better if my reading of the pulse and vigor of this particular community here in New York is anything to go by. The aesthetic imperatives are becoming something important to acknowledge and that’s a big leap, I think, and an important one.
KJ: Where we
can take hope, on a certain level, is that there are many films that do exist
where the craft is so strong, it cannot be denied. I think we just have to keep speaking publicly, indulging in active discourse and honing our unique sensibilities. But that
aesthetic imperative should be more of a baseline. I care about social justice as much as
the next person; I’ve spent my entire adult life filming stories that push that
agenda, right? But we have to be
careful about these alliances we make that can, if we’re not careful, create
literalism, reduce craft. I’ve
seen it happen. A lot more of the
funding is there for that than it is for other kinds of films.
I try to save certain periods or opportunities where I can work for free or for very little money and have blocks of time where I earn some money so I can take on these kinds of projects that I know are never going to get funded. I worked on Kathy’s film for years because I knew it wouldn’t be getting into any funding loop. Or something like Lisa Collins’ film about the Oscar Micheaux festival in South Dakota [Festival of the Unconquered, 2004, currently in post-production]. She can’t take that project to the Good Pitch, or whatever. And it’s the most complex film about race there is. It’s about this crazy town in South Dakota where they hold a festival and celebration of Oscar Micheaux because he lived there for a short period of time. There are Indians coming from the reservation, old ladies talking about race problems in Denver—it’s a wild film, the funniest and most complex discussion about race you’ll see. That doesn’t fit a category; there’s no NGO for that. And did I mention it’s funny?
SIM: There definitely need to be more comedic docs.
KJ: I need to make more of them, too. The important thing is to allow for the surprises that happen in a story. A story isn’t necessarily “character-driven” if its main protagonist is chosen because he or she fits in a slot that serves the explication of the issue. And we don’t let people talk and tell their own story outside of the context of illustrating a problem, especially if they’re “problematic” people like criminals or terrorists. It’s always got to be in this context of explaining the political issues involved when, in fact, it could just be the weirdness of a certain person [laughs] and how they got to this obsessive place. That’s fascinating. There should be a space for films like that to be supported. Those kinds of things are very hard to predict in terms of outcomes.
SIM: Well, we all live for the going-down-the-rabbit-hole episodes of our lives and that’s always what it is.
KJ: It's so important that we be surprised by what we find.