KIRSTEN JOHNSON — Avoiding the Pitfalls of Exploitation
By Dakota Hall/ Kosovo 2.0
On Thursday, DokuFest hosted American director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, known for her work on “Citizenfour”, “The Invisible War,” “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” “This Film Is Not Yet Rated,” “Fahrenheit 9/11” and several other major documentaries of recent years. She gave a masterclass in Kino Klubi, then screened her latest film, “Cameraperson.”
Johnson’s talk focused on ethical complexities that arise in filming and telling other people’s stories. She opened her talk with a clip filmed in Bosnia and Herzegovina, of two young boys playing with an axe. The younger boy’s face gets quite close to the axe and at one point, the older boy turns the axe around and starts chopping a stump with the duller side, swinging the sharp side towards his face. While filming, Johnson wasn’t sure if she should intervene because it was unsafe.
We as journalists and documentary filmmakers wield immense power in creating narratives of other people’s experiences and putting them out into the world, Johnson stressed. This power can be used to enact positive change, but it can also be harmful. Johnson said she strives to use her talent to be productive for the people she works with. The success of “The Invisible War,” released in 2012 and about endemic rape in the US military, resulted in new legislation and reform.
Johnson’s explained that her passion for fighting political injustice started when she learned the word “apartheid” at the age of 16. She and an older black woman from her church began regularly picketing the house of the South African ambassador. Throughout their picketing, the woman told Johnson about her experiences living under segregation.
When dealing with politically sensitive issues, especially tragedy, she suggested that it can be challenging to avoid the pitfalls of exploitation. It’s challenging to protect sources who reveal information that could put them in danger. Our understanding of our own place in the stories we collect and tell, and the ways in which our cameras mediate our relationships to people and places, are constantly in flux and can veer into dangerous territory, argued Johnson. Even the language we use sounds aggressive. We “shoot” people, “get” images and believe our cameras and press badges “protect” us.
Johnson emphasized her firm belief in the unpredictability of unintended consequences, and shared a personal story of a time she taught a young man to drive for a project, only to find out that he was later arrested for stealing a car, and ended up with a 14-year prison sentence.
“Cameraperson” is Johnson’s exploration of these issues. Excepting one scene, the film is comprised entirely of footage shot during Johnson’s other projects but not used in the final cuts. She doesn’t usually have control over that selection process, but in “Cameraperson,” she was the producer.
The scenes of “Cameraperson” touch on different aspects of her relationship to her subjects. In one, Johnson looks out over Sarajevo and says she wants to shot a series of minarets. She films as Michael Moore interviews a visibly frightened US soldier who explains that he wants to be honest about his experiences, even though they’re forbidden from speaking to the press. Moore promises they’ll try to help him if the interview gets him in trouble.
She films her own mother as she loses her battle with alzheimer’s disease. A close friend of her mother was upset by the footage when she saw it, as she felt that it had been inappropriate of Johnson to film her mother in such a state. That criticism might sound difficult to hear, but Johnson said it made her happy because it confirmed that her mother had been a real person other people understood as well, and the push back was like her mother being alive again.
Johnson has dealt with a lot of sensitive issues throughout her long career. She told another story about a time she served as a cameraperson on a project about a group of young athletes. Johnson was very conscious of her position as an older white woman operating a camera pointed at a large group of young, black men in a locker room. Hundreds of subjects were present, but only one man asked her not to film him while he undressed. She realized that some of the other subjects might feel the same way, but didn’t think they had power to voice that opinion.
When Johnson watched an early draft of the film, she saw the director had included a clip she was uncomfortable with. Though nicely framed, she felt the shot of several of the men standing in a line invoked images of slavery and contributed to a harmful tradition of portrayal of black men in US history. Fortunately, the director respected her feelings and removed the shot.
Johnson also worked on a film about two young people in Afghanistan. When the film was finished, she returned to Afghanistan to show it to them, and upon viewing it one said she feared the film would put her in danger if released. Johnson then dropped the project and created a new short film out of the footage instead.
She mentioned Sunsan Sontag’s seminal work “Regarding the Pain of Others,” which had a big impact on her when she was younger but ultimately asked questions that aren’t very pertinent to our time anymore. She says we need a new set of questions to wrestle with today, the most important of which pertain to the internet. What does it mean now that our work can be accessed instantly and will be available for the rest of our subjects’ lives? How does that impact what we create? We need to have a public discussion about this, she emphasized.
In the Q&A, a British man voiced his concerns about making films in foreign parts of the world without contributing to the colonial gaze. Johnson emphasized that every documentary film is a gaze. We can’t escape our gazes; we can only understand how our gazes operate within power structures outside our control, and keep interrogating ideas about what is and isn’t appropriate in each specific context.
Johnson said that we shouldn’t shy away from topics or projects just because we’re afraid; ultimately, it’s good to be afraid and concerned about our ideas, she argued, because that’s where our most interesting work comes from.
Kosovo 2.0 is DokuFest’s official media partner. This article is part of a series of pieces written during DokuFest 2016. Kosovo 2.0 is a print and online magazine bringing you voices unfettered and unafraid.