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Sophie Fiennes: Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

Sophie Fiennes discusses her meditative documentary on celebrated German artist Anslem Kiefer

Over the last ten years Anslem Kiefer has created an elaborate interconnected world of installations, tunnels and towers near the village of Barjac in the South of France. This strange landscape, extending over 35 hectares, is the subject of Sophie Fiennes’ latest film Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow. The documentary premiered at Cannes earlier this year and captures the evocative environment Kiefer has created and gives a glimpse into his artistic process. Sophie Fiennes talks to Dazed about working with the acclaimed artist. 

Dazed Digital: When did you first meet Kiefer?
Sophie Fiennes: I had met him through the d’Offay Gallery at several openings of his work and at these art world post opening dinner scenarios. Out of the blue he called me, he wanted to make a document of Barjac and he knew I was a documentary filmmaker. He said to me why don’t you come to Barjac and see it. I went there with a very open mind to what I was going to find and not sure whether I knew how to make a film about Kiefer or his work but then seeing what he created was so cinematic. It was something very filmable, it wasn’t just art objects in a white room.

DD: How much did you work together in the making of the film? 
Sophie Fiennes: He certainly wasn’t there in any of the filming of the work, I did all that alone but where he’s present in the material, where I filmed him, I would have a big monitor. Early on it was interesting for me to show him the footage that I had shot and play it back after a day’s work and just occasionally say, ‘can I show you this?’. It’s nerve-racking because you’re showing your material that is uncut but it’s also necessary because he’s a picture maker himself. I was interested to understand how he approached picture making, how he would frame, how he would respond to some of my frames. I would learn how he saw things filmed. I discovered that his eye is very frontal, he didn’t like anything asymmetrical. 

DD: What was it about the work that you felt was conducive to being the subject of a film?
Sophie Fiennes:
 He’s been making that landscape in an organic way for a period of ten years and it’s just unlike anything else. Because it’s sort of a strange artwork, sprawling experiment it just lent itself to the immersive cinema that I like, that inspires me. The cinema that I grew up watching was the New Wave, the amazing cinema that was made in the 60s and 70s and there’s still films that I’m going to see that I’ve never seen before, it’s endless, there’s so much there to discover. That sense of immersion into a world that the cinema allows is something that for this subject made sense to me.

DD: How did you approach creating the soundtrack?
Sophie Fiennes: When you are translating a landscape into a film suddenly you have this element of audio; it’s an audio-visual medium. Having spent time in Barjac and having had the privilege to wander through it, the effect of being immersed in it physically evokes different things, it creates different sensations. I needed to have music that could have monumentality to it and materiality. The music has a sense of material texture, it’s not built around the idea of harmony or anthemic closure.

DD: Are there elements of his work that you find particularly cinematic?
Sophie Fiennes: Certainly. There is this sense of a grand scale to Kiefer’s world that resonates with the scale of the image projected. It’s also imaginative, it’s not a geographical place. The landscape is informed by many stories and references. There’s the Kabbalah influence, there’s the history of the French revolution, horticulture, the relationship of poetry, science, history, grand narratives, imagined narratives, odysseys - all these things are story-telling. So for me, to tell the story of space through the cinematic staging of it was really exciting. 

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow is now showing in cinemas.