This Saturday night in Gowanus, Rooftop Films presents the NYC Premiere of the Jersey City-based filmmaker Jarred Alterman’s film Convento, a portrait of a Dutch family living in a 400-year-old Portuguese monastery. Elderly mother Geraldine Zwanikken, a former ballerina, tends to her herb garden and sculpts; middle-aged son Louis feeds the geese and pampers his horse; and brother Christiaan makes strange, whirring sculptures out of salvaged mechanical components and the skeletons of dead animals. Alterman crosscuts thoughtfully, describing a complicated interrelationship between humanity and the natural world—now and in death. Organic and inorganic matter are revitalized in Christian’s sculptures—automatons with tiny bird skulls, old fan belts moving like insects—and Alterman shoots his workspace like a mad scientist’s laboratory, with slow pans, dynamic angles, and eerie music which turns percussive as the sculptures begin to whir to “life.” The filmmaker answered a couple of questions over email last week.
How did you discover the art of Christiaan Zwanikken? What drew you to it?
I was traveling in Portugal with friends, and we decided to check out this former monastery in the countryside, that had been converted into an artist retreat and nature preserve. I knew there were artists living and working there, but I had no idea what to expect.
What drew me in to Christiaan’s work was at first the shocking juxtaposition of his
dancing, talking and robotic skeletal beasts against the serene backdrop of this quiet monastery and surrounding gardens. It was completely unexpected. Storks and Falcons are soaring above you, and suddenly a robotic snake-eagle, a hybrid of skeletal remains and steel claws, is perched on a tree branch, reanimated, drawing you in closer.
Christiaan has a poetic understanding of the movement of animals. He is not just replicating the way a bird moves its head, claws or beak. As a true kinetic artist, he has programmed randomness into the robotic design, thus giving the sculpture or creature, life. And in some of his work, it is the engineering that is a true marvel—his mechanical donkey serves as utilitarian art; he has restored an ancient Arabic irrigation system and water wheel, by eliminating the need for a living donkey and replacing it with a robot-hybrid who now pulls water from a well, feeding the thriving gardens at the Convento.
And of course, Christiaan has a wicked sense of humor and a love for science fiction. We hit it off immediately.
On the one hand, Christiaan makes mechanical sculptures out of dead animals and discarded appliances; on the other, his brother, the caretaker of the property, is a reticent animal lover; and their mother, an artist with a green thumb, seems to split the difference between the two, at least as far as their relationship to nature, waste, time and creation goes. Had you always planned on focusing on the whole family, or did the essay-film structure suggest itself as you got to know them?
I met Christiaan and his family two years prior to filming the documentary. I developed a friendship with him and we started collaborating on short films and installations, combining sculpture and cinema. I approached Christiaan and his family with the idea of making a documentary and they were not exactly happy with taking part in a non-fiction project. And frankly, I had no intention of creating a biopic with sit-down interviews and an obtrusive camera following them around. So from the early stages of pre-production we discussed how revealing or mysterious this film would be.
And because they have seen my earlier work and trusted me, we all took a chance and began principle photography two years later, in late 2009.
Even though a main character is Christiaan, the film is about the Convento. So naturally, I wanted to capture all the characters that contribute to this incredible oasis. The dynamic relationship of all three family members helps shape the beauty and complexity of the story. They each have a unique philosophy and role that is essential to the structure of the film.
And I think in order to understand what inspires an artist, and understand their process, you have to take them out of the studio and feel their surroundings. There is very little time spent watching Christiaan work on a new piece in his workshop—instead we catch a glimpse of him building. Eventually the camera floats to the garden where his mother is tending to a new batch of herbs, or his brother feeding a horse. There is a mediation and repetition of all three character’s routines, which helps the viewer subconsciously understand his artwork, and perhaps their biggest piece of art, the Convento itself.
Your film’s a documentary, but it’s also something of an experimental stop-motion horror reel, with the slow pans, dynamic angles, and eerie music which turns percussive as the sculptures begin to whir to “life.” It’s like a mad scientist’s lab—what motivated that choice? Should we read any editorializing into the way it’s shot and cut?
I wanted to create a film immersion. I wanted to transport the viewer to what it feels like once you past the gates and lose yourself in the dense gardens and ancient monastery, filled with secrets and unearthly vibrations from the past.
For the past ten years, I have had the privilege of working as a cinematographer with the artist Charles Atlas and The Merce Cunningham Dance Company, on a series of dance-films. I have developed a love for the movement of filming dance choreography—it’s filled with elegance and surprise.
I wanted to explore this sense of movement as a storytelling device for Convento. Instead of dance, I was filming the choreography of the daily routines of this family. And since the basis of all kinetic sculpture is movement, I felt nothing could be static, the camera is always moving or in part focusing on movement.
I also wanted to avoid the concept of observation-based filmmaking, especially when it came to the sculptures. These are not objects, these are characters. So with the permission and enthusiasm of Christiaan, I created micro-narratives with these robo-beasts, experimenting with sound and stylized editing, in order to fully embrace the cinematic experience.
I actually hate to describe this film as a documentary—it’s a heavy word. The audience immediately has a preconceived idea of what to expect when they hear, “documentary”—I wanted to have fun with the genre, so I guess its easier to call it a doc/art film.