The most precious and successful works of art, I believe, are the ones that have been created with utter sincerity. What makes it possible to create such works is to know one’s existence thoroughly, to be able to extract its essence and capture it in the most unique way possible, without any agenda other than the capturing itself. Thus, not only are the artists’ works and their lives are inseparable from each other, but the works resemble the artists as well.
Searching for Sugar Man tells the story of a man whose modest existence mirrors his modest stardom. The film works like a detective story, as fans try to find Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter from Detroit who disappears after making an album in 1969. In the early 1970s, via the circulation of his album in South Africa, he becomes a source of inspiration for millions. Several myths surround his death, but no-one really knows what happened to him. When we find him alive and living a simple life with his family, Rodriguez discovers he has been a superstar in South Africa for years. After going on a tour where he fills stadiums with crazy fans, he goes back to leading his simple life. In an age where image, ratings and sales numbers are everything, he can exist, just with his music, untouched by such influences. He accepts his newfound fame with the same humility as he accepted his disappearance from the industry years ago. The film makes the most of his story, successfully applying twists and turns, and the filmmakers’ passion for searching for the musician is just as sincere as Rodriguez’s music.
Another documentary, Bob Wilson’s Life & Death of Marina Abramovic, depicts the preparation for a performance which plays with the boundaries between life and art. Through Robert Wilson’s reimagining of Marina Abramovic’s life, her experiences of pain, joy and growing up are transformed into a work of art. Abramovic’s participation in such a creation adds another layer to this process of deriving meaning from the journey of her life. As the film cuts between interviews, rehearsals and scenes from the performance, the pieces of her story come together. In a breathtaking and poetic scene, she takes part in her own funeral. The performance ends, the film ends, but of course her story goes on. She gets the rare chance to find closure while continuing on her journey.
In Nairobi Half Life, Kenya’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards this year, the gap between life and art is emphasized. Young Mwas, in love with movies and filled with dreams of becoming an actor, comes to Nairobi. But the harsh realities of life push him forcefully in a completely different direction. He starts leading a double life where he ends up recreating his criminal life on stage. Being someone from the streets, he’s aware that what they idealize on the stage could not be further from reality. Using a classical narrative with melodramatic elements, the film shows his existence is fragmented and he really has no way out.
Bruno Dumont’s Camille Claudel, 1915 centers on three days in the life of the great artist, but is able to convey a lifetime of repression and agony. In the asylum where she has been confined by her brother Paul, Camille awaits Paul’s visit, filled with the hope that she can defend herself and convince him to let her go. But when they meet and talk, she gradually loses hope. Despite the doctors’ reports which state she is free to go, her brother will never let her be free. Juliette Binoche gives a remarkable performance, expressing extreme fragility and strength at the same time. Observing her eventless days at the clinic, Dumont portrays how meaningless her life becomes when she is prevented from executing her art and becomes an empty shell. As a woman, she has no chance of defending herself or her art. The director’s use of mentally handicapped women to play the other patients in the clinic emphasizes the fact that Camille does not really belong there. Just because she is a woman, her reason for existing is taken from her and she can do nothing about it. Without her art, her life is devoid of meaning.
Edited by Lesley Chow
© FIPRESCI 2013