In Praise of Doubt
It turned out to be incredibly prophetic that my first day in Venice, Italy, as one of the leaders for the Biennale College-Cinema was spent at collector François Pinault‘s incredible Punta della Dogana. This beautiful museum opened in 2009, with its closest neighbor — the Santa Maria della Salute Church — constructed almost four hundred years prior. It was but the first example of old masters sitting side-by-side in conversation with the new I experienced during this magical and inspiring week.
Filmmaker and fellow IFP Lab leader Jon Reiss and I entered the exhibition. In Praise of Doubt was based upon the curatorial notion of “questioning the idea of uncertainty and our convictions about identity.” It too displayed modern art masters like Jeff Koons and Donald Judd alongside a wide-range of younger, lesser-known artists, many of whom have never been included in previous exhibitions of the Pinault Collection before. For many of them, like our filmmakers, this was their first time engaging audiences with their work on the international stage.
These themes and ideas closely mirrored what would soon be consuming the teams of emerging filmmakers on the island of San Servalo, where Filmmaker magazine’s Editor-in-Chief Scott Macaulay and I were privileged to work with a group of five teams at the Biennale developing feature films in Egypt, Lebanon, the Philippines, Italy and England.
In concert with other experienced mentors and their fellow artists from around the world, they were pushed again and again for two weeks to communicate their vision: to fine tune their story worlds, enrich their characters and dig deep into their own personal narratives to create something totally fresh and engaging. Above all, they were forced to revel in and embrace the uncertainty of what was to come and what they might uncover.
I have to admit, I really felt for these artists. Although it seems like yesterday, I couldn’t help but remember my own transformation in Venice 18 years prior when I arrived on the island with little more than a pair of unfashionable overalls and the pack on my back. As an art student from a small, Southern university, I was certainly wasn’t equipped with the language needed to express myself. I too was there living amongst strangers. And I was terrified of how I would survive when seemingly my only skill-set was a proclivity for welding complex structures. It was a time in my life where there was a lot to doubt on a daily basis.
All to say, my world was small before Venice.
But the art, the people, and the copious espressos fueled me. I went out and explored. I tried new things, and sometimes failed spectacularly. For every night that I reveled in the experience and appreciated the opportunities given, there were plenty where I felt like this horse sculpture by Maurizio Cattelan which aptly confronts viewers at the entrance of the Dogana.
Luckily, the many teachers, artists and friends I met eventually got me talking about my work. It all became real – not just the art I was making and the stories I was telling, but the idea that this could be my life. And while I eventually exchanged my acetylene torch for a cheap digital camera, my experiences in Venice gave me above all the courage of conviction to keep pushing forward and become comfortable with the unknown.
Thus, the most emotional and meaningful part of the Biennale College-Cinema for me was watching these personal transformations unfold anew, some slowly and others adapting at a shockingly quick pace. Seeing these filmmakers find their own courage to change — in this case, overcome fears of public speaking or letting go of cherished, deeply personal storylines — was a reminder that inspiration and collaboration in Venice can truly do wonders for the creative mind.
In particular, it was a beautiful sight indeed to watch Shireen Seno’s Nervous Translation and Vatche Boulghourjain’s Tramontane develop. Quiet and evocative directors whose projects told stories of self and country, they were adept at creating unbelievable story worlds with rich characters and detailed elements that left you slackjawed and wanting more. These stories seem like a distant relative of Edward Kienholz, whose large-scale installation ROXY was appropriately tucked away in a secret corner the Dogana.
More still were the types of projects that took cues from old dramatic structures and spun them in fresh directions. Deeply personal narratives Roland Jobson’s Into the Light and Kasem Kharsa’s I Dream of Empire and their dark, nuanced visuals have scenes that continue to play out in my mind. They mingle in my memory along with Paul McCarthy’s mutilated mask series, She/Man, all playing with time, gender and form in a way that feel simultaneously original and ancient.
The ultimate winners of the Biennale – the three projects which will receive $150,000 Euro prizes and the opportunity to premiere at the 2013 Venice Film Festival — were all shockingly strong, conceptual pieces. Each provoked an almost visceral audience response as their stories and visuals unfolded in their pitches. Thai artist Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s A Year of June and New York-based IFP alum Tim Sutton’s Memphis both wowed, and I look forward to seeing them come to life in the coming months.
And then there was Alessio Fava’s Yuri Esposito, a meditative and beautiful project Scott and I worked with chronicling the slowest man in the world. The project won as well and will go into production this spring. The filmmakers assure me that their protagonist may be “lentamente,” but the project will be delivered on time!
To see it all in motion was a true joy and there’s not enough gelato or Chinotto in the world to thank Gucci, the Biennale’s Paola Baratta, Venice Film Festival head Alberto Barbera, and the amazing team of Savina Neirotti, Jane Williams, and Michel Reilhac for all they’ve done for these filmmakers. And as their sole U.S. partner, it was an honor for all of us here at IFP to have worked with everyone on this program from idea to inception. To see it all become real right before our eyes, watching these young filmmakers make work amongst the backdrop of one of Italy’s most achingly beautiful and ancient cities, was truly a sight to behold. I have no doubt we’ll be hearing quite a lot from these artists in the coming years and I encourage you to discover them for yourselves here.