"The Word 'Sundance' Means You to Me": A Cameraperson's Letter to Robert Redford
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"The Word 'Sundance' Means You to Me": A Cameraperson's Letter to Robert Redford

Kirsten Johnson in Darfur. Photo: Lynsey Addario

A documentary cinematographer for 25 years, Kirsten Johnson has trained her lens of a wide range of figures and in a staggering array of locales, from Edward Snowden (Citizenfour, 2014) to Jacques Derrida (Derrida, 2002), a survivor of the genocide in Sudan (Darfur Now, 2006) to Osama bin Laden’s driver (The Oath, 2010). Johnson’s new film, Cameraperson, weaves together these experiences in a tapestry of footage that offers both an autobiographical portrait of the artist and an investigation into how “complex it is to film and be filmed.” As we conclude our Robert Redford retrospective—which celebrates his twin roles as actor/director and, through the Sundance Institute and film festival he founded, as community-builder for filmmakers—we share Johnson’s letter to Redford, sent in March 2016. It’s a fitting homage to a figure who for a half century has left an indelible mark on cinema, on both sides of the camera’s lens.

Dear Mr. Redford,

This weekend we screened Cameraperson as the closing-night film of the New Directors/New Films series at Lincoln Center and MoMA. When I introduced the film, I spoke, as I did when the film premiered at Sundance New Frontiers in January, about how this film is an act of acknowledgement. An acknowledgement of how films coming into being through the acts and contributions of so many people. When Tabitha [Jackson, director of the Sundance Institute’s documentary film program] texted me last night to let me know that you had asked about seeing the film, I marveled again at the way this film is alive in what it challenges and offers me to do. Now, it has generated the opportunity for me to acknowledge you and what your choices and generosity have meant for my life.

Thank you for wanting to see the film. I am humbled by your interest and also thrilled that you will find in it so much of evidence of the ways in which you are intertwined in my filmmaking life. The film draws upon footage that I have shot as a documentary cameraperson over the last 25 years. One of the first films I shot was with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida. I was still in film school in Paris at the time and completely intimidated by him, but desperately hoping to impress him. I tried to chat with him when I could. At one point, he was so frustrated with the experience of being filmed that he threatened to throw the entire crew out of his home. The director, Amy Ziering (who at that time said repeatedly she wasn’t a director [!] and didn’t believe she was capable of being a filmmaker but had been a student of Derrida’s and believed he should be documented), begged that he let us stay. He replied, “Kirsten can stay with the camera if she stops talking.” And so I remained in his home with him and his wife, filming for the next eight hours without saying a word, and had the slow realization that it was possible to express an intellectual and emotional experience with the person I was filming through how I used the camera. I think of that silent day in his home as one of the inciting incidents of my life as a cameraperson. Derrida went to the Sundance Film Festival in 2002 and it was my first encounter with your world. The experience of attending that screening convinced me that I never wanted to stop engaging with the kind of vitality in conversation about film that I experienced there.

Still from Cameraperson
Liberian women came together to end the civil war in Pray the Devil Back to Hell. Photo courtesy the artist

2002 was the start of my Sundance life. The thick middle of the story includes multiple trips to both sides of the mountain. Along the way Sundance has sent me to Afghanistan, generously engaged me creatively with the finest of mentors, pulled me back from the brink of financial disaster multiple times, and hosted the party at which I bumped into Ira Sachs and we decided to embark (along with his husband Boris Torres) on the inspired plan of co-parenting children together (Viva and Felix age four). My one time really sitting down with you came when I attended the Sundance 2006 Director’s Lab. I had written a film based on my post-9/11 experiencing of falling in love with a Moroccan man who had to flee the US under questionable circumstances. You had us all for dinner and I brought you a small plate from Morocco. After years of working in documentary, all the while filled with the fear and desire to make a “film of my own,” having you sit at the table with all of us was such validation that one could and must keep holding on to the quivering hope at the core of filmmaking.

Among the many journeys Sundance has initiated for me, one was to the Skywalker Ranch for the Sound Design and Composer’s Lab in 2013. There I worked with the incredible sound mixer Pete Horner on the film that I had shot in Afghanistan. It was a film I was trying to salvage after one of the principle protagonists of the film, a teenage Afghan girl, had realized that she no longer felt safe appearing in the film. Cara Mertes, Bruni Burres, Kristin Feeley, John Cardellino, Rahdi Taylor, and the entire DFP [Documentary Film Program] team supported this film endlessly as it changed form (from 2009 onwards) and through a period when I think none of us believed a film would ever emerge. It was the film that became Cameraperson. And in that period when the one film was dying and the other emerging, you at the Institute had the inspired idea to hire Tabitha Jackson. (If she was writing this email, there would have already been a lot more great laughs by now!) When Cameraperson started emerging, I could barely articulate what it might be to anyone. But from the moment I met Tabitha and began describing the process of making the film and what I hoped it might be, she has never stopped looking at me with a sparkle and saying that such are the kinds of films she believes in and wants to support. Her role in the making of Cameraperson and the vision she has for supporting the “Art of Nonfiction” has been a critical to the completion of the film and the way it is being received in the world.

In August of this last year, as we were editing the film, I reached out to Pete Horner because our collaboration at the Lab had been so meaningful. He said that he was booked for the next year. When [Sundance curator] Shari Frilot called us the week after Thanksgiving to tell us New Frontiers had selected Cameraperson, the relief and gratitude I felt was overwhelming. We were on the brink of shutting the edit room because we were out of money and we knew that not getting into Sundance would mean that the chance of completing the film would be postponed at least another six months, if not postponed indefinitely—we were that on the edge. With the confidence that getting into Sundance inspired in us and in the funders, we were able to keep working with joy. We finished the edit and the mix in late December. Pete from Skywalker called December 30 and said he had a sudden opening the first week of January. Despite the fact we had already mixed and still didn’t have enough money to complete the film, I convinced our wonderful producer, Marilyn Ness, that we needed to go to Skywalker to mix again. Which brings me to the moment I had during the extraordinary week of collaborating with Pete and the exceptional editor Nels Bangerter.

Catherine Joy Johnson, the director's mother, in Cameraperson.
Catherine Joy Johnson, the director’s mother, in Cameraperson. 

We were mixing a scene in which my mom is getting blown over by the wind in Wyoming. Pete asked me to leave the room because he was getting so emotionally involved in layering the wind sounds that he wanted to work alone. I went for a walk and looked out at the big rocks and sequoia trees on the property and started thinking about the landscape George Lucas had chosen to set his working world in. Then I started thinking about you and the mountain. I though about all of the actors and directors and filmmakers who love our work, but how very very few of them specifically put their energy into imagining how to build a community and a structure that could support other people who want to live a life of making films, let alone did it and are still doing it. That is what you have done and are still doing every day. And I started thinking about all of the people I know and love who can be traced to you. And the list just kept getting longer and longer, and I thought of all the times, over and over, when Sundance has stepped in again and again when all our resources, both creative and financial, were completely drained, and somehow we felt filled up again and could continue. Over and over, you and the world you have built, have helped me overcome all of the obstacles and continue forward with hope and humility. It was a stormy day and it started to rain. I went back in to watch the scene you will find in Cameraperson of my mom being knocked over by the wind. That scene, which means so much to me, has you in it for me.

In the credits for Cameraperson, you will find a long list of people under the heading of the “Sundance Community and Fellows.” I did not list your name because it felt presumptuous to me because I do not know you personally. Now I regret that you will not see your name in the credits. What I hope that you do understand and feel is how you are in the film and how the word Sundance means you to me. And that I owe to and share with Sundance and you my filmmaking life.

With great honor and appreciation,

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