Sophie Fiennes

Sophie Fiennes talks about Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

Sophie Fiennes, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, 2010, still from a color film in 35 mm, 105 minutes.

Sophie Fiennes’s latest film, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, documents Anselm Kiefer working in La Ribaute, a dilapidated silk factory in Barjac, France, which Kiefer bought in 1993 and transformed into a massive artistic center. Fiennes’s films include The Late Michael Clark (2000), Hoover Street Revival (2002), and The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006). She is currently working on a second film with Slavoj Zizek as well as a film about Grace Jones. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow runs August 9–23 at Film Forum in New York.

WHEN I FIRST SHOWED SOME FOOTAGE TO ANSELM, he said, “the framing is good, but can you take the people out?” I understood from this that he sees La Ribaute as unpeopled, so I shot much of the film this way, as if everyone has left and what remains is something almost archaeological. For much of the film all you see is an abandoned place.

Some parts of the film were shot with a flying camera so the point of view is more like a disembodied gaze. While watching Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow you can fly through the spaces of La Ribaute and experience it in ways you never could otherwise. This is a childlike way of playing with a source in Kiefer’s work that evokes the Shechinah, a Judaic divine female presence who might be the point of view in this footage. It’s a deliberately childlike idea, but I think childhood is extremely important to Anselm. He said to me once, “After five years old, it’s over.” For him nothing is as intense as the first five years of life. I even think by being an artist he attempts to reexperience something of the intensity he felt as a child.

In the film you see a wild excitement in both destruction and creation. There are ambiguities in Kiefer’s work that have frustrated people because he plays with diverse references, some of which are historically loaded and others pretty obscure, but often it’s not clear what he means to say exactly. But part of the experience of childhood is precisely this sort of lack of comprehension, the unnerving feeling of not knowing what it all means. It’s these paradoxes that emerge in Kiefer’s work and make him such a brilliant artist. There is at once a frenzy in being human, in the fragments of myths and poetry, and of course the monumental scale, but also a morbidity in that everything is falling apart, everything is already dead.

I think of Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow as a landscape film where storytelling isn’t about plot but about how you reveal information and create a document. There are the ateliers in La Ribaute where Kiefer works with his assistants, creating paintings and sculptures, and then there is this parallel world he has created that is an internal landscape that he has rendered physical. Watching the film, the viewer traces La Ribaute through two layers: One is unpeopled and set in a kind of omnipresent time. The other unfolds through a series of present-tense moments, where the viewer observes human beings in the process of work.

As the filmmaker I have invented some formal strategies to document this extraordinary place Kiefer has created. But with documentary filmmaking, everything comes through the edit, and so I’ve attempted to go the very end to discover what is possible to do with the material I have.