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. Continue reading Jeff Reichert’s interview.