Tales of the unexpected

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Jarred Alterman's striking film is the story of the Zwanikken family living in a converted monastery in Mertola, Portugal. Here he talks to EIFF about micronarratives, Charlie Chaplin and robotic ants.

Alterman's statement “I hate art-speak” might be surprising given that Convento focuses on a family of artists, however this is exactly the appeal of his film and its characters, robotic or otherwise.

Christiaan Zwanikken’s kinetic sculptures fuse the preserved remains of the flora and fauna of the Portuguese mountains with mechanics and microchips to create quirky animated creatures. Their movement, Alterman explains, references the work of comic actors such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, among others: “Kids love these sculptures and are more receptive to them than adults. Little girls are the first to pick up the headphones and they get it, they laugh. I always try to include humour in my work. For both Chris and I, Jim Henson is a huge influence. The fun, the playfulness but also the darker subtext. It’s also the notion of a family really working together to create something.”

Alterman developed a close relationship with the Zwanikkens after a fortuitous visit to their artists' retreat in 2007. This informed awareness of their artistic processes, but also the importance of their daily routine, permeates the film: “You see very little of Chris making the sculptures. To understand the artist you have to see them outside the studio. The Zwanikkens are inspiring because although they live this off-grid lifestyle, they don’t preach about it. When I first stepped through the Convento's gates, it was a life changing experience. In a space like that you can contemplate other ways of being. And then there is the history of the place.”

The converted 400-year-old monastery itself, Alterman explains, is the main character of the film in which the characters of Christiaan’s sculptures play out their own stories. Alterman collaborated with Christiaan to create these micronarratives which lend the film its light touch. The human interest, the interaction between humans and machines, be they mechanical sculptures or the camera eye defies expectation about ‘art documentary.’

“It’s not a documentary, it’s a film. I’m a classically trained filmmaker and my interest is narrative storytelling. I had so much archive material from Geraldine at the Dutch National Ballet and home video, it would have been very easy to include it all. But I realised I had to cut back otherwise I wouldn’t be telling the story I wanted to tell.” This restraint in the editing process pays off, Convento is not a dryly curated exhibition but a vibrant showcase of environment, art and personality. “Audiences take a bit of time to realise that they can laugh when the camera shows other animals react to, for instance, the robotic ant. It’s not serious.”

Alterman has just finished a screenplay he will work on with Zwanikken which he describes as a science-fiction art film with influences of Ridley Scott’s Bladerunner. Exciting, ambitious – no doubt label-defying – and in need of funding. He also takes the chance to express his admiration for EIFF this year: "I think it’s brave of Mullighan and the Festival to include the exhibition alongside the film. I’m now able to take this onto New York and Philadelphia. At other film festivals, people are just queuing to see films, this way they get to experience something completely new, unexpected and then go and see the film.”

There's only two more days to catch Christiaan Zwanikken's exhibition at Festivalhouse@Teviot, and the film is screened tomorrow, Wednesday 22 June at 8pm.

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