Contemplation, Observation and Creation: Documenting the Spiritual and Physical Beauty of a Buddhist Nunnery

Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson recounts her experience shooting Kim Shelton's observational documentary with the Sony FS7.
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Cinematographer Kirsten Johnson recounts her experience shooting Kim Shelton's observational documentary with the Sony FS7.

My latest project, for director Kim Shelton, took me to the Sagaing region of Myanmar to shoot an observational documentary in a Buddhist nunnery. Set on a lush tropical hill just up from a glistening river, it is a world run by women, meditating, maintaining the grounds and preparing food, always aware of their desire for spiritual equilibrium. As the film crew, we sought to let the nuns lead our pace.

I’m always searching for the camera that gives me the most physical possibilities, and the Sony FS7 really delivers in this regard. I knew that in Myanmar I would constantly be in confined spaces like jungle trails or tiny caves, or in boats or on the back of vehicles, so my capacity to move freely in these situations required a camera that I could really hold and use in many configurations. With the FS7, my movements were more natural and comfortable. I think that energy gets conveyed to people and our interactions can be more open.

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We shot in several very dark places, including some grottos and caves, as well as shrine spaces with Buddhas inside of tunnels. There were a lot of very low-light situations, and sometimes we were in very bright, high lights outdoors, which were almost white during midday. There was a real range and the camera handled that range beautifully.

A memorable segment with the FS7 came on an alms run with the little girls. The girls were sitting in this little hut that had them in shadow and the day was incredibly bright. I sat close, among the little girls, and I was shooting with a 16-35mm lens. Surrounded by the girls, I saw a line of monks coming down the road in the distance. I didn’t think I would be able to capture with the camera what I was seeing with my eyes, but through my lens I could see the details in the shadowed face of the little girl next to me and still make out the forms of the monks coming down the road in the distance, despite the white hot light and the range of contrast between the two. It was breathtaking to capture that all in the frame while holding the camera comfortably. I thought to myself, “This is the way I want to film, somehow translating what it feels like to really be here.”

Kirsten Johnson is a cinematographer and director known for her unique ability to connect camera and subject. The majority of her 60-plus credits are documentaries, and her most recent effort, 2014’s Citizenfour, won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

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