An Interview with Sophie Fiennes, director of Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow
by Jeff Reichert
Sophie Fiennes’s beautifully rigorous and wonderfully mysterious new documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, an observational examination of German artist Anselm Kiefer’s massive thirty-five hectare workspace/art installation in Barjuc, France, seems to have confounded many of the American critics who have had a crack at it. The filmmaker’s decision to elide almost all shreds of context—where we are, what we’re watching, who exactly this Anselm Kiefer guy is and what he’s up to—has been derided as a lack in the filmmaking, as opposed to an aesthetic decision that need be reckoned with on its own terms, pushed and probed to release its secrets of intent (oddly, British and other international counterparts seem to have raised few objections on this score). This criticism, which is not unlike attacking a bonsai garden for not being Redwood National Park, reveals yet again how many critics fall back on familiar tools in the face of a form (nonfiction filmmaking) different from the one they’ve been trained to examine (narrative filmmaking). It’s a critical blind spot that pushes studious, unimaginative bores like Inside Job to the forefront of public consciousness while leaving art like Over Your Cities in the dust.
I corresponded with Sophie Fiennes via e-mail about how she came to shoot in Barjac, what’s wrong with contemporary documentary, and how she knew where to put her camera.
Reverse Shot: Considering the relationship of the documentary filmmaker to her subject is a valuable way to begin thinking about how nonfiction films function. You've made films about individuals like Lars von Trier and Slavoj Zizek, but here you've made a film about an environment (or landscape), one, that once you enter it, surrounds you completely. How did that affect your work as a filmmaker? Or, on a more basic level: How did you decide where to point the camera?
Sophie Fiennes: I’ve always found observational documentary a fascinating form of filmmaking. It's very direct. You don't rely on the certainty of words to bring meaning through a voice over.
I approached this as a landscape film, with the challenge of rendering the Kiefer landscape into a film document. My approach is choreographic, in that I am interested in the representation of space in film. A lot of where I put the camera was judged in terms of how to create this. Often I had to move fast with a very heavy camera and commit quickly to the framing, which was exciting. I wanted the film to engulf the viewer, but also to allow enough time in those spaces for thoughts and responses to happen before the artist gives his interpretation. In this respect I am dependent on the imagination and attention of the viewer. The final film is a carefully structured open system.
RS: The film doesn't have a "story" like so many contemporary documentaries that feel the need to adhere to a strict "beginning, middle, end" formula (sometimes obsessively so). Can you talk about structuring and cutting the film? If a shot isn't placed to further specific narrative aims, how do you decide where it starts and stops?
SF: The film does have a story, it just doesn't have a plot. I think that is a big difference. I did a lot of research, in terms of reading what had been written about Kiefer as well as interviews with him, and we collaborated closely throughout the shooting period. For example, I realized that he imagined La Ribaute without people, so this informs the approach.
There are themes and aspects in Kiefer's work that I am trying to synthesize into the film's form. For example: the relationship to framing and point of view, fragmentation, obscure and diverse sources and references, animism versus materiality, time, beauty and of course, creation, and destruction. But in the end all you can say has to be found in what you have in terms of footage. This is the discipline of observational filmmaking. You can't impose meaning over the material, you have to invent within it. I had to reduce scenes down to discover what each scene was doing or saying, and then what emerged in the relationship between scenes. I began to discover the final structure by sitting a friend down with the film and literally finding out in which order I needed to show sequences. I think it's a very dense work because of an accumulation in the relationship between process and form. Storytelling lies in the order in which you reveal information. Most of the information here is contained in what you see. It's a film about looking.
RS: In one of the film's most mesmerizing sequences, you capture a lengthy conversation Kiefer has with a writer who’s interviewing him. It feels a bit like a manifesto, both for his art making, but also for your approach to capturing his art making. It's so unlike the rest of the film, which seems largely unconcerned with the content of conversations, but it's also impossible for me to imagine the movie without it. Can you talk about working that specific piece into the overall construction of the work?
SF: Yes, you mean this point about the importance of boredom, or the “endless mental space to reflect in,’ which would possibly be a more direct translation of the German word Kiefer uses. I also love what he says about beauty at the end, and also his claim that we long to return to the sea at the temperature of 37 degrees. What sea has this temperature? Only the uterus, I think. As one imaginative viewer pointed out to me, this conversation occurs in the film in a similar way to the objects Kiefer sometimes attaches to the middle of his canvases.
Insofar as the film is a navigation of the spaces of La Ribaute, in this sequence words are the material he’s playing with, not ash or gold or mud or lead. I think it also reveals how much we need the confirmation of language. How language makes everything feel safe. How we crave meaning, even though the meaning of Kiefer's artistic project is very hard to pin down. I don't believe there is a unifying theory. He is an artist, not an academic. I believe this hermeneutic undecidability in Kiefer's work is the most provocative thing about it, rather than the explicit examination of German history in his early work, for example. I think the conversation comes as a pleasant shock in the film. Some people don't like it, for others they feel like they hit an oasis.
RS: I've read that Kiefer invited you to come shoot at La Ribaute—how did that come about? And once you were there, what was the interaction like? Even though the final film reveals much about him, this is most definitely not a film "about" Anselm Kiefer in the fashion of much biographical nonfiction filmmaking. Was that important for both of you in working together?
SF: It’s clearly not a biographical film. It would not have interested me to make that. I like to make films in the present tense. I like to document, and he wanted a document of what he had created here. I really don't know why he asked me, but I should have asked him this! He was wonderful to work with, very collaborative and supportive. He works like a maniac, and was only ever concerned if he thought I wasn't actively working like a maniac too. So I did, so as not to disappoint him.
RS: Your arrangement of images results in something that I find rather hypnotic and meditative, but I also appreciated that there's a certain degree of humor laced throughout the work. I'm thinking especially of when Kiefer observes a canvas strewn with broken glass, seems perturbed by it, picks up a particularly large pane, drops it so that it breaks further, and then announces his satisfaction at viewing something that, to most eyes, doesn't look terribly changed. Given how easy it can be to satirize contemporary art, that you can get an audience to giggle (the very mixed festival audience I saw the film with loved this bit) without undermining Keifer's process at all is a very successful act of balancing.
SF: Kiefer was himself amused by these moments when I watched the rough cut with him. Humor is certainly important to me. In the first scene, where he is putting the glue on this massive canvas and walking all over it, flicking the glue on like a priest dispensing frankincense while his assistant Alain throws on the ash like a peasant sowing seeds, there is some physical comedy around class in this moment. Where there is genuine humor, one should not be afraid to let it in.
RS: The film's refreshing in its lack of adornment, trust in the spectator to suss out meaning, and unobtrusive but firm authorial voice. To the degree to which you feel comfortable discussing documentary practice in a larger sense, why is a film like this an anomaly in contemporary nonfiction filmmaking? Somehow the artistically rendered, observational documentary seems to have fallen out of fashion, perhaps save for Wiseman.
SF: Wiseman is a wonderful filmmaker . . . Our first experience of the world is through observation before we have language. I have to trust myself that the viewer will be able to read the film. I make the decision to trust the audience, but it doesn't always work out. I am disappointed in Manohla Dargis of the New York Times for explicitly wrapping my knuckles for what she sees as a willful refusal to play by the rules of documentary and give information. She clearly couldn't engage with the film as an experience, which is fine, but it’s sad when observational filmmaking is referred to as tourism.
Because of our chaotic world, much documentary practice today is concerned with delivering messages or forcing dramatic plot narratives. I have too much doubt to do the former and for me the latter often perverts the complexities and subtleties of the subject.
RS: Would you consider going back to the studio in Barjac? It seems like the images you could capture twenty or thirty years from now could enter into an interesting dialogue with the ones you've already recorded, but I also suppose there's a way in which what happens to the space outside of the circumscribed piece of time in which you were viewing it is some ways beside the point.
SF: If I am alive in thirty years time, I would be fascinated to see what had become of Barjac!