Dutch kinetic artist Christiaan Zwanikken resurrects the deceased local wildlife by reanimating the skeletal remains with servomotors and robotic engineering. He breeds these new species in a 400 yr. old monastery in a village in Portugal that has been restored from ruins, to become his family’s home, an artists’ workshop and nature preserve. Filmed entirely in Portugal, Convento’s camera is almost perpetually in motion, tracking through the monastery and its landscape, transporting the audience into the daily lives of these extraordinary people. Each family member simultaneously nourishes the coexistence of art and nature, documented through a series of connected micro-narratives. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW]
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the SXSW Narrative, Documentary Competitions and Emerging Visions sections to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 SXSW Film Conference and Festival. To prompt the discussion, indieWIRE asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]
Director: Jarred Alterman
Producer: Jarred Alterman, Evan Meszaros
Cast: Christiaan Zwanikken, Geraldine Zwanikken, Louis Zwanikken
Cinematographer: Jarred Alterman
Editor: Jarred Alterman
Sound: Evan Meszaros
Music: Lawrence Dolan
Responses courtesy of “Convento” director Jarred Alterman.
Growing up in front of the camera…
I grew up with a super 8mm home movie camera shouting directions at me. In fact, for years I was convinced my father did not have a face. All I saw was a blinking green light (while I transformed into The Hulk or Spiderman) and a static red light while my father thought about the next shot. My mother was always concerned with the lens being too close, but I couldn’t get enough. I was able to wear a cape most of my childhood.
Once a month in our North East Philly apartment we had movie nights in our smoky living room. I have vivid memories of the loud motor from the projector and a silhouette of my father carefully setting up the screen. I watched our family become illuminated and immortalized, and this feeling of being a part of something truly magical. As a kid these images on the screen were hyper-real (and sort of psychedelic.) It was like some insane version of our lives, where we talked a lot faster and sometimes screamed for no reason. The muted colors, grainy texture and dramatic shifts from light to darkness were… shocking. But I think what made the strongest impression on me was this bizarre sense of time. I was flying around in my cape in one direction and suddenly I would enter the frame from another. Day would become night. Seasons would change. What the hell was going on here? This nightmarish collision of time and space made me sea sick, but it was so exciting!
From super 8mm to VHS…
Years later I began to experiment with my own home movies. Super 8mm became VHS. In-camera edits of my friends shoving cigarettes in their mouths and drinking black coffee in diners, became a Friday night ritual. I always had a camera with me. I was always looking for that hyper-realism I felt as a kid with those super 8mm home movies. And I guess I should thank that man with the blinking lights for eyes and the lens for a face, who lured me into this profession.
How a falling out lead to “Convento”…
In 2007, I was making a film about a band on a European sojourn: playing gigs and writing music on the road. We were invited to stay at a former monastery-turned-artist retreat/home in southern Portugal, where the band would write and play music and I would make a film. A long story short: while filming, the band and I had a falling out and the project was finished. But while staying at this sanctuary called The Convento Sao Francisco de Mertola, I became very close with the owners, a Dutch family of artists (including the renowned kinetic artist Christiaan Zwanikken.) We spent our bohemian nights drinking red wine and discussing alien abduction.
Over the course of two years we exchanged letters, and Christiaan visited me in New York. We began to collaborate on short films, and the following year we were invited to show a video installation and kinetic sculpture for Art Amsterdam, entitled: MINAS. But I wanted to return to Portugal.
I began to think about a feature film that would capture his artistic process in this 400 year old monastery, now converted into his art laboratory. I also wanted to film his family, who have created a nature preserve and amazing home. So in the summer of 2009, I returned with my camera, and co-producer/sound engineer Evan Meszaros to begin filming, Convento.
Mirroring Christiaan’s approach…
I wanted the film language and movement to parallel the basis of Christiaan’s work. His medium is kinetic sculpture. He creates many different pieces, but the one constant theme in all of his work, is movement. Nothing is static. So I wanted the story telling to follow this philosophy, especially while filming his work.
And I took this idea further expanding into the routines of all three family members; the camera would float and track through the landscape instead of just documenting. Introductions to characters and new environments are very important to me as a filmmaker. The camera, the characaters, and ultimately the film’s audience must feel a heightened experience of exploration.
Learning to film dance…
Over the past ten years, I have collaborated with the artist and filmmaker Charles Atlas (“Hail The New Puritans,” “The Legend of Leigh Bowery”) on several films for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. As a Director of Photography and camera operator working in this medium, my passion for movement was born. Merce Cunningham’s avant-garde approach to chance choreography in collaboration with John Cage’s revolutionary concept of music and soundscapes, created masterpieces like, “Views,” “Split-Sides,” and “Ocean.” I was taught how to film three- dimensional dance, choreographed for the live stage, with a two-dimensional medium. The dances are also counter-intuitive for a camera operator; they are not scored to rhythm, only time. And when you think the dancers will move forward, they move backward. I began to appreciate the simplicity and complexity of camera movement in relation to dance, and I carried these ideas with me while filming “Convento.”
Fighting the heat…
Portugal has such a beautiful landscape, with rolling hills and narrow rivers. I wanted to produce the film in the summer to take advantage of the sunlight and avoid rain. But, this comes with a price. Portugal can be brutally hot in the summer. We were extremely ambitious with our original shooting schedule, but soon realized we had to concentrate on early morning and late afternoon shooting — we had to avoid the sun and heat during the middle of the day. I fought this idea at first, but eventually caved due to the intensity of the heat.
I also wanted the majority of the cinematography to be slowly tracking through the environment. But we had two logistical problems: one, budget and two, the terrain. We could not afford a crane, and regular track would never work. So we came up with an indie-solution, The Cam Tram System. This is a clever high-hat with wheels that uses extension ladders as track. You can support the track with simple saw horses, or use cases for low tracking shots. As an operator this was tricky at first, since I am used to traditional dollies. But after a few run-throughs, I became one with the Cam Tram. I loved the idea we were using rusty beat up ladders to support a High Definition camera and monitor!
What’s next on the docket…
Currently I am collaborating with Christiaan Zwanikken on a new set of short kinetic films, a marriage of sculpture and cinema. I was invited to show new work on a large out door installation for the True/ False Film Festival & The Big Screen Project in NYC. We are also developing a feature length science fiction/ art film that takes place in an abandoned Copper Mine. Our dream is to include Rutger Hauer as a character and hire Wayne Coyne for the score.