Watching a film in the company of its maker is a rare and often intimate pleasure. Last week, director Kirsten Johnson joined FilmStruck for an event at the Wing, a women’s club that opened in Manhattan in October, where she screened her acclaimed 2016 film Cameraperson and chatted with actor and author Illeana Douglas. The inaugural installment of the Wing’s summer screening series Femmes in Film, the evening reflected the club’s mission to provide a space for, and to foster a community among, female professionals working in a wide array of fields.
A remarkably engaging storyteller, Johnson shared insights on her more than twenty-five years as a filmmaker, during which she has traveled the globe—from Bosnia and Herzegovina to Nigeria to Yemen—as a documentary cinematographer for directors such as Michael Moore and Laura Poitras. Cameraperson is a revealing portrait of her life and work, interweaving fragments of footage to examine the elusive nature of nonfiction filmmaking. Johnson’s path to completing the film, though, was not easy, as she explained in the post-screening discussion, highlighted here:
On self-doubt and perseverance:
The thing that I want to share with all of you is that it truly felt impossible to make this movie. It felt like I was failing the whole time. It felt like it was not going to be possible to take all of these scraps and make it into something that made sense to anybody. Really, I promise you, up to the very last minute before we got into Sundance, I was like, it doesn’t exist, it can’t exist. I’d been working on it for years. Saying I don’t get it, it’s not good enough yet—all of that was real for me up until the very end of this movie.
On the importance of making mistakes:
That’s what you do—you go towards it—and I think that’s where everyone just needs to be kind to themselves. You will blow it. In the most beautiful moment, you will forget to press record.
On how her mother’s work as a photographer has influenced her:
Stop the car! That was my mom’s big line when I was a kid. She would see something and we’d have to stop the car because she’d want to get out and shoot it. That’s like me on a shoot. Literally what I say to drivers when I’m on a shoot is: “Hi, so I’m going to do this thing when we’re driving . . .” That was my mom; she would see something and want to capture it. That’s what being a documentary filmmaker is about. It’s about being willing to just stop because something just blew your mind. That’s what I love about camera work: you get to say “Stop the car!” because you just saw something beautiful.
On the experience of watching the film with an audience:
The thing I love about talking about this movie is that everyone always makes me think about it in a new way. We figure out for ourselves what we make, how we make it, then we learn to understand that we—and the things we care about—will be present. You see the world the way you see the world, and the more you just listen to that, all your stuff is going to be in it . . . Don’t sweat it, because nobody even imagines the way you see the world—which is kind of a shock to your system.
On what we’re all searching for in filmmaking:
We all love movies and we’re all trying to figure out how to become a part of movies. There are these silos, but I think we’re all just trying to get to the love of this shared experience.
First two photos by Hillary Weston. All others by Mia Fermindoza.