Two women come together, intent, drawn into an intimate a conversation. One woman has lived through a civil war and her children’s hunger, and led a protest that reshaped her country. The other woman is holding a camera.
What does it mean to make a film? Director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has decided to answer that question on screen, and this Sunday at Wind-Up Fest she will answer it in person in a talk and show-and-tell about her upcoming film “The Blind Eye,” drawn from her 25 years in the field.
“The Blind Eye” began in 2009, she said, as part of a different film entirely. She went to Afghanistan to work on a story about a woman who runs a school for girls and women, and she focused on students. Then she showed that film-in-progress to a young student, and the woman said “I can’t be in this. It’s too dangerous.”
“That rocked me back on my heels,” Johnson said.
When they began filming, she had met this student as a hopeful young woman, looking eagerly into the future. By this point in the filming, the girl’s life had changed.
“You get people’s permission to film them, but often what you get no one expects,” Johnson said.
And she realized her sources have become more vulnerable.
“You used to be able to promise a film wouldn’t return to their village, or even to their country — but now it could appear on someone’s cell phone,” she said.
The Afghan young woman said Johnson could use her voice and scenes without her face, and in trying to work with that footage Johnson began to realize how much imagery she had available after 25 years in the field.
As a cinematographer and as a director, she has to get close to people and also to see their stories from the outside, sometimes as part of a larger story. In “The Blind Eye,” she is creating a documentary film about documentary film — about the power and challenge of her relationships with the people she films.
“One of the principal responsibilties of a camera person is to build an energy of trust,” she said. “The director has found people, and you create good energy. You can be there with them through intimate things.”
She creates intimacy and asks people into a space where they can end up revealing things they didn’t intend. In “The Invisible War,” a film about sexual abuse in the military,
she spoke with the fathers of women who had been raped in the military, who didn’t think they’d go as far on film as they did.
“Sometimes you have the space, if someone does that, to talk about it and get permission again,” she said.
And people may give that permission, even at their own risk, because care passionately about having the story told. She works on issues of social justice, and showing the pain is part of telling the story strongly enough to have an effect.
“You have to to create context so people can understand [the full story],” she said.
Telling an incomplete story can be hard on the people involved.
“… Sometimes someone gets immortalized in their status as a victim.,” she said. “That’s the part that gets recorded, and often that’s all that is shown.”
But without her work and the work of others like her, some stories would not get told at all, or not beyond a local audience. In “Pray the Devil Back to Hell,” she served as director of cinematorgaphy for a film about Wome of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, a group of women who became the leading force in ending Liberia’s civil war, pressuring the president and war leaders into peace talks, mediating with child soldiers and shaping the democratic elections that followed. Working on this film, Johnson found a lot of footage of child soldiers and of soldiers but hardly any of the women protesting.
“At some point a foreign cameraman … said ‘I saw them and I didn’t think it important enough to film,’” she said.
Which raises the question of who chooses where to point the camera. In “The Blind Eye,” she can answer that question directly, and she finds that freedom exciting.
“You can see in footage what I value and what I am interested in,” she said.
She thought of using voice-over to exlain her choices, and then she realized that the film footage itself would show them. Not many women work as cinematographers now, she said, and she would look at girls and women, pregnant mothers, old women with a kind of identification.
“Each of us has a perspective that shows in what we film,” she said.
To complicate her perspective, she often does not know the languages of the people she films. Sometimes works with a translator, she said, but she simply does her best to understand and be understood, and that can lead to miscommunications. She once had a conversation with a soldier in Afghanistan and thought it was going well until he drove off swearing.
These relationships are not one-sided. Often the people she films can shape the story on their own terms. She once showed a young woman seeking an abortion and purposely only filmed her hands. That scene, she said, still makes her cry.
“It’s clear the young woman has chosen to tell her story,” she said, “but it is dangerous for her, and that is empowering. In other scenes, you can tell people are trapped [in a situation)], and I’m filming them.”
That kind of trap can be simple — if she is standing at the top of a subway and filming the people walking out, they have to pass her to get to the street. Some put up a hand to shield their faces, and some talk back to her.
Sometimes the balance of power is less simple. In many places where she has filmed, people may feel she has authority and that they can’t say no, she said. The job brings responsibilities, to the work and to the people involved — as a journalist has a responsibility to tell a story honestly and to protect sources.
“Documentary film has not occupied the same territory as journalism,” she said, “but as resources for investigative journalism are shrinking it is happening, and we don’t always know the ethics of each other’s territories.”
As she has looked again at her work and her choices and the affect her work may have had on the people she has worked with, she has also begun to see the afect it has had on her. In her films, she has come close to genocide, rape, damaged bodies and the wreck of war. As she works on “The Blind Eye,” and as she goes back to scenes she put together with people facing terrible pain, she has found herself facing her own. At the time she felt focused on the job.
“I’m in the present when filming,” she said.
Looking back now, she has begun to realize how much she has filmed and what it has done to her.
“It’s outrageous how many horrific things I’ve filmed,” she said, “and what that does to [the people who chronicle these things] — a journalist, a driver, a forensic specialist. [I’ve begun to see] how much compartmentalization I function with … the trauma of it.”
She has edited scenes that she has found powerful enough to be unwatchable. She worked on one section for six months, she said, and when she showed it to the producer they both sat with their hands over their eyes.
She comes to know people — at times she has stayed for three months on location.
“You’re always under-resourced, and you never have enough time,” she said.
Some people who have never been heard feel gratified to be recognized and valued. Then she leaves, and that too brings its challenges.
“These people are in volatile and dangerous situations, and you go back to safety and make that public,” she said.
It has dilemmas, and it has dangers. But getting close to people is the heart of her work.
“It’s my job,” she said, “and my joy”