Convento - Jarred Alterman interview
Portrait of Dutch artist family and kinetic sculpture
This article is from 2011.
Jarred Alterman, director of the documentary Convento, takes me round the tie-in exhibition at Teviot Row House, full of the kinetic sculptures by Christiaan Zwanikken that populate Alterman’s dreamlike film. Passing a gang of creepy, animated and ululating palm leaves, we head upstairs to a cyborg hare that shares its perspective on art (a response to Joseph Beuys’ How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare). Elsewhere in the room, Zwanikken is setting up for an improvised musical performance to follow the UK premiere, which Altermann later claims will feature ‘a local snake charmer’ playing the musical saw. Two goat skulls atop an odd contraption butt heads and a small mechanical man wrestles enigmatically with his hands tethered to the sky. It’s all an excellent accompaniment for Alterman’s film, which has proven to be one of the quiet and thoroughly deserved hits of the festival. I spoke with Alterman to try to unravel some of the mysteries of his film.
Convento follows the three members of the Zwanikken clan (Mother Geraldine and sons Christiaan and Louis), three Dutch ex-pats living in the titular converted chapel. Eschewing narration, Alterman’s film deftly evokes the ambience of the spectacular setting, telling the family’s story and presenting Christiaan’s kinetic art with minimal intrusion. Alterman, originally from Philadelphia, stumbled upon the Zwanikken family home in Portugal while travelling with musician friends. Finding an intriguing advert in Lonely Planet for a ‘monastery museum, nature preserve’ they decided to check it out. He says that as soon as he walked through the gates of Convento and discovered Christiaan’s studio, ‘I knew this was going to be my next project’.
Alterman stayed on there and became close friends with the Zwanikkens, ‘drinking a shitload of wine and talking about alien abduction’. Christiaan and Alterman began to collaborate, but it wasn’t for another two years that Alterman returned to make the documentary. ‘My goal was to transport you there and the only way to do it was to fully embrace what it feels like to be staring into the abyss,’ Alterman chuckles. Arriving in July, at the height of summer, Geraldine Zwanikken warned him that ‘When it’s really hot out, you will be able to hear the heat’. Alterman adds, ‘Never travel in Portugal in July’.
To conjure Convento’s distinctive immersive quality, Alterman drew upon his experience as a cinematographer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He made an early decision to tell the story visually. ‘I think working with dance for ten years had a real big affect on me about what I like when it comes to filming. I love elegance in movement, I love slow tracking shots. I knew I wasn’t working with dancers for Convento, but I sort of treated [the family’s] routines as choreography.’ Alterman continues, ‘Some of my favourite documentaries are visually driven. I love Rivers And Tides and Touch the Sound. That’s a filmmaker [Thomas Riedelsheimer] who’s both a cinematographer and a director, so watching these films and really loving these movies and seeing how beautifully a story was told visually, I thought, “OK, I could do this.”’
The sound design is also a vital element in the finished film, with the natural sounds of the Convento, the sounds of the artworks (which often incorporate their own recorded soundtracks, sampling strange vocalisations and Hollywood films alike) and Alterman’s foley work all mixed in. Alterman has no qualms about discussing the post-production fiddling with the natural sounds of the artwork. ‘Any time you photograph or videotape another person’s art, it already becomes something else. So, why give a watered down version of that when you could just fully embrace it and make it your own?’ Alterman added his own bone clinking sounds for the goat skulls, among others. The composer, Lawrence Dolan, found the thread between all of those elements, ‘and used really strange instrumentation to create this eerie tone. We have a dark sensibility, there is this brooding sort of darkness that you feel when you’re there.’
At 54 minutes, the unusual length of Convento meant Alterman has faced some difficulty with distributors and festival programmers alike who have struggled to categorise it. But the director stood his ground because, ‘I want you to walk away with more questions, wanting more. I think it makes for a much better conversation piece afterwards.’ And regardless, he wanted Convento to be on television, ‘I’m realistic, I knew it wouldn’t get a theatrical release, especially one that would warrant a distributor to spend thousands of dollars on putting it in theatres.’
Having persevered through rejections from several film festivals (‘The beginning was hell, man,’ Alterman chuckles), the director credits the blossoming success of Convento to a successful screening at the SXSW festival, word of mouth and several key supporters. ‘I’m a firm believer in these grassroots movements, that [if] one person believes in your movie, they will champion it. Sometimes it’s not about who you know, it’s just about some people believing in a project.’