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July 31 2014

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Chiara Clemente Has Now Lived Six Lives

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Chiara Clemente will happily volunteer that she’s spent much of her life in the shadow of her father, painter Francesco Clemente. But now the daughter is making her own light: This week, Chiara debuts her first feature film, Our City Dreams, at Manhattan’s Film Forum. A documentary exploring the experiences of five renowned female artists—Swoon, Ghada Amer, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramovic, and Nancy Spero—Our City Dreams is both a window on five eclectic lives and a group portrait of one kind of life, that of the New York artist. Closely observed, beautifully shot and scored, and often moving, Our City Dreams easily earns the acclaim it received on the festival circuit last year. But the feedback she most appreciates comes from her own artist pals. “People have told me that the film makes them feel good about what they do and inspires them to get back to it,” Clemente says. “I couldn’t ask for any better response.” Our City Dreams is at Film Forum through February 17; dates in other cities are soon to be announced. (Click here to see the trailer.) And later this year, the doc will air on the Sundance Channel. In the meantime, Clemente talks to Style.com about overcoming her allergy to New York, why it doesn’t have to be your birthday for the party to be a surprise, and how being a documentary filmmaker is like having split-personality disorder.

I’m going to ask why you chose to focus solely on female artists, but first, I’m wondering what made you decide to center Our City Dreams on artists in New York?

There’s sort of a long answer to that. I grew up in New York, and I think, when you grow up here, you either feel like you can never leave the city, or the second you can, you get out. I was one of those. When I was 18, I took off for L.A., and I really thought I’d never come back. It was like, see ya, bye. And after L.A. I went to Rome and was working there. Maybe three years into living in Rome I began to realize I had more New Yorker in me than I’d ever admitted to myself. So I came back. All told, I was gone about eight years. That may not seem like such a long time, but I left a child and I returned as an adult. I need to rediscover New York. And the easiest way to that, it seemed to me, was through a camera lens. What I mean is—I knew I wanted to create a portrait of New York before I knew anything else about this film. Because I’d been working with artists and filming artists in Italy, telling the city’s story through an artist’s eyes felt like the right thing.

How did you choose your subjects? And—here’s that question, as promised—what made you want to focus on female artists?

One of the producers set up a studio visit for me with Ghada Amer. I’d always loved her work. Ghada proceeded to spend several hours showing me paintings and pulling out books and papers and just generally opening up in this very generous way. And there was this moment, where she took out the magazine that inspired her to start doing her work. It was that object, really, that made something click. I mean, what an unbelievable thing to capture! After that I began to think maybe doing something on women artists was going to make this project feel closer to me. Then I came up with the idea of five decades. If I was going to have multiple subjects, I didn’t want the film to feel like a series of vignettes, you know? There needed to be an arc. So, why not tell the story—through several viewpoints—of the life of an artist as she ages?

I knew I wanted Ghada, and Kiki Smith was an obvious choice for lots of reasons, and then Marina Abramovic and Swoon and Nancy Spero all came on board in different ways. I knew I wanted an artist who worked on the street—that’s so unusual, for a woman—and people kept referring me to Swoon. She was still pretty secretive at the time. No one seemed to know her real name. I knew, also, that I wanted a performance artist. Performance art always seems to be something people in the States don’t really appreciate or understand. Marina’s case was fascinating, because here’s a woman who is an art superstar in Europe, and she’s coming to New York to reinvent herself at the age of 60. Kiki suggested Nancy, and thank goodness she did, because for me, she’s the person who ties the film together. I met her and I fell in love.

She’s a total spitfire. What is she, 80?

She turned 80 while we were shooting. That was the highlight of the movie. I was invited to her birthday party in Paris, and I showed up expecting, you know, a party; 25, 50 people. Instead, it’s me, and Nancy, and her three sons. I was very touched. That was footage I shot myself, just sitting at the table with my camera pointed over a plate of birthday cake. There were moments like that with all the artists, where I felt like I’d really been let in. I think that’s hard, in particular, for female artists to do, because they spend most of their time trying to be understood as artists, not as women artists, and so the stuff in the background tends to stay there. But every so often, that brick wall would come down, and you’d get a glimpse of something quite private—like Kiki talking about the cast she made of her mother’s fingers when she was lying in her casket. Nancy may have been the most open from the get-go. She was the one who’d turn around and start asking me questions. Maybe that’s just because she’s beaten down all the doors already. Or maybe that’s just her approach to the world: She wants to let it all in.

That footage of Kiki with the cast of her mother’s fingers is really jaw-dropping. But it’s almost as astonishing to hear her say, in so many words, that she probably wouldn’t have become an artist if her father hadn’t died while she was still relatively young.

Yeah, I heard her say it and I still had trouble believing what I’d heard. I mean, one of the obvious connections between me and Kiki—aside from the fact that her real name is actually Chiara—is that her father was a successful artist, too. So when she talks about needing to leave her family and go off on her own for a while in order to become herself, I know what she’s saying, because I had to get away for the same reason. I mean, when you have a family member with such a presence, you’re always compared, and you’re always that person’s daughter. Even now, I feel that. But at this point I know I have my own work, and I know I’m my own person.

You haven’t run too far away from your family. It’s not like you’re making documentaries about, oh, ping-pong or something.

No, no, not at all. I mean, the questions in this film, I’m not asking them because I studied art. I ask because I lived it. And there were so many wonderful things that came of growing up the way I did. For one thing, it meant I always had artists around me. I’m genuinely grateful for that.

You ask all of your subjects whether they feel it’s possible to be an artist and have a family. Film can be a pretty all-consuming discipline as well. Is that something you struggle with?

I have a big family and I know I want a big family, so what I struggle with is, how do you make that work? Can you make it work? I mean, Swoon, she’s about my age, and she says in the film that she can’t imagine having a child, because it would require her to transfer all the passion and energy that drives her art onto another human being. I get that. Like I said, I grew up around artists, I’ve seen how all-consuming the work is. And the family thing, it is a different sort of challenge for a woman. It just is. That’s why, for me, Nancy is the ultimate. Not only because she has three — three! — sons, but also because she raised them while she was working her way through feminism, through the Vietnam War, and while she was married to another artist, who had his own work consuming him. I look at Nancy and I see that, yeah, you can balance the work and the life. But man, you have to be one tough cookie.

Photo: Waris Ahluwalia

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