Artists and museums get the red carpet treatment

Documentaries featuring Ilya Kabakov, Magritte, the Rijksmuseum and London’s National Gallery show in Canada

This year's Fifa includes films on: South African photographer Jurgen Schadeberg, the building of the new Rijksmuseum, and Belgian surrealist painter Rene Magritte

Montreal’s reputation as an underground city, with its labyrinthine connections between shopping centres, hotels, stations, museums and civic centres, is enhanced this month as it tries to convince citizens and visitors to spend even more time in artificially lit spaces—contemplating the entries to the world’s principal festival of arts documentaries. The International Festival of Films on Art (Fifa) holds its 28th edition from 18-28 March, with the organisers expecting to screen more than 200 documentaries covering all art forms with, as ever, the visual arts, architecture and design strongly represented.

The festival attracts a wide range of entrants, from established TV presentations to monographs made for dedicated gallery screenings and student films made on tiny budgets. Most will not receive commercial theatrical distribution, and for many Montreal will provide the highest-profile exposure they will receive. However, founding director René Rozon also says that the festival is increasingly attended by buyers for TV companies, for whom it is a marketplace from where they can programme films for broadcast. For festival-goers the distinctions matter little—most screenings are well attended or full.

The festival also holds retrospectives of the work of significant contributors to the art documentary genre. This year includes tributes to the film-maker André Labarthe and a series of films made under the patronage of dealers and collectors Aimé and Marguerite Maeght.

Labarthe began as a critic at Cahiers du Cinéma alongside future nouvelle vague luminaries such as François Truffaut and Jacques Rivette. However he turned to documentary, making films for French TV that echoed the magazine’s analytical stance. As well as appreciations of film directors and actors, Labarthe’s subjects also included artists such as Kandinsky, Van Gogh and Lichtenstein.

When the Maeghts launched their foundation in 1964 in Saint-Paul de Vence in Provence, they not only had the support of then French culture minister André Malraux, but also many of the artists they had represented. For Aimé Maeght, it was a natural next step to document these friendships, producing a series of films of varying length showing artists both at work and in discussion with each other, with the Maeghts and with other cultural figures. Among those participating are Joan Miró, Alexander Calder, Alberto Giacometti and Marc Chagall.

This year’s Fifa jury will be chaired by the Canadian polymath Herménégilde Chiasson, known as an academic, screenwriter, author, poet, film-maker and playwright. He will be joined by German radio, theatre and film director Uli Aumüller, Canadian writer and film-maker Jean Bergeron, Italian-American film academic Angela Dalle Vacche, and Barcelona art dealer Jules Maeght, grandson of Aimé. Below we preview some of the films in the festival:

Flies and Angels, from directors Kerstin Stutterheim and Niels Bolbrinker, is an extensive look at the life of Russian artist Ilya Kabakov. The flies and angels of the title refer to motifs often repeated in the artist’s work. It is a direct film, with a blunt aesthetic that reflects that of Kabakov’s art. Hand-held camera and variable lighting conditions give little quarter to the more subtle nuances of film-making. However, it seems a deliberate decision by the film-makers that keeps the artist to the fore. Kabakov talks about his life, his motives and his art, and is shown in situ with many of his works and in discussion with his wife and close collaborator, Emilia.

At two hours long, Oeke Hoogendijk’s film The New Rijksmuseum, about the tribulations and politics involved in the remodelling of Amsterdam’s principal art museum, might seem like too long a haul, but it’s worth the time. Hoogendijk’s patience is well-rewarded as, remarkably, she is given complete access to the in-fighting and muscle flexing involving director Ronald de Leeuw, the architectural firm Cruz and Ortiz and a feisty group of cyclists determined to keep open their right of access through the museum’s central courtyard. Along the way there are enough tears, tantrums and resignations to keep a soap opera audience happy, as well as quieter and more thoughtful interludes with various museum department heads, builders and security guards who reflect on their roles as the museum undergoes radical change.

The German-South African photographer and artist Jürgen Schadeberg is the subject of Peter Heller’s portrait, Schadeberg: Black and White. Born in 1931, Schadeberg grew up in war-time Germany before joining his family in South Africa in 1950, where he quickly became involved with opposition to the apartheid regime as staff photographer with the black perspective magazine Drum. Schadeberg documented the lives of many of the activists who would be jailed for opposing racial segregation, including the young Nelson Mandela, as well as emerging musicians such as Miriam Makeba. Heller follows the engaging and voluble Schadeberg—now resident in Europe—as he meets with old friends, visits parts of Soweto that he has documented over many years, and talks with young photographers who he trained and who are now making their own way in the still poverty-stricken country.

With production financed by London’s National Gallery, Suzanne Bosman has turned her book The National Gallery in Wartime into a film of the same name. The story of how the collection, then under the wing of war-time director Kenneth Clark, was finally stored in a disused slate mine under a Welsh mountain is by now pretty well-known. However, it comes to life again through the extensive archive film material included here. From Myra Hess’s wartime piano concerts that filled the depleted exhibition spaces, to the cramped living quarters of the collection’s mountain-dwelling attendants, and taking in much footage of bomb-damaged London, it’s a fascinating tale, briskly and efficiently retold.

Gerburg Rohde-Dahl’s Expansive Grounds is a gripping, contemplative study that considers her father’s role as a Nazi party member, interspersed with interviews with members of the public visiting Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in central Berlin. There are also comments from Eisenman himself and journalist Lea Rosh, who led the campaign to have the memorial built.

Man Without a Home: Study for a Portrait of Hugo Pratt, by director Nino Bizzarri, profiles the eponymous Venetian cartoonist and illustrator, creator of the naval adventurer Corto Maltese. Pratt’s life was by turn outrageous and poignant. Tales of his wartime life entertaining occupying troops of all sides in Venice are told with a degree of scepticism even by his friends and acquaintances (he was said to be prone to having appropriate and inappropriate uniforms run up as the need arose), who nevertheless describe him as the life and soul of any party. More disturbing is the story related by his daughter Silvina (he had a number of children by different women, and was often absent from one or other family) that he would refer to her as an “ugly disgusting crow” if she ever called him daddy.

Henri de Gerlache’s quirky Magritte, Day and Night is a part-fictionalised investigation into the artist’s career in which actor Charlie Dupont prepares himself to play Magritte by visiting significant locations from his life, talking with experts on his art and reviewing archive footage. Between events, Dupont—who bears little resemblance to Magritte—returns to a mocked-up film trailer, where he gradually adopts mannerisms, clothing and props that give an impression of the artist, and participates in a series of tableaux that link the man to his work.

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