Press Release: Film Synopsis

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ART21 PRESENTS
WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE
PREMIERES OCTOBER 21 ON PBS

FILM SYNOPSIS

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE gives viewers an intimate look into the mind and creative process of William Kentridge, the South African artist whose acclaimed charcoal drawings, animations, video installations, shadow plays, mechanical puppets, tapestries, sculptures, live performance pieces, and operas have made him one of the most dynamic and exciting contemporary artists working today. With its rich historical references and undertones of political and social commentary, Kentridge’s work has earned him inclusion in Time magazine’s 2009 list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

This documentary features exclusive interviews with Kentridge as he works in his studio and discusses his artistic philosophy and techniques. In the film, Kentridge talks about how his personal history as a white South African of Jewish heritage has informed recurring themes in his work—including violent oppression, class struggle, and social and political hierarchies. Additionally, Kentridge discusses his experiments with “machines that tell you what it is to look” and how the very mechanism of vision is a metaphor for “the agency we have, whether we like it or not, to make sense of the world.” We see Kentridge in his studio as he creates animations, music, video, and projection pieces for his various projects, including Breathe (2008); I am not me, the horse is not mine (2008); and the opera The Nose (2010), which premiered earlier this year at New York’s Metropolitan Opera to rave reviews.

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE begins with the artist recounting his early career, which started not with a bang, but with a series of false starts as he meandered through exploratory pursuits in drawing, acting, and production design for film and television. Finally, in his late 20s, he followed the advice of a friend who advised him that he had no employable skills and that no one would hire him—so instead, Kentridge devoted himself to making art.

Kentridge discusses his early films, in which he began animating his charcoal drawings using an unusual technique that would lead to his distinctive style. On a single sheet of paper, he draws, erases, redraws, and adds to an image, photographing each step of the process. An entire animation is filmed on one sheet of paper; every erasure and smudge is recorded along the way. The effect, shown in a clip of one of his early films, Sobriety, Obesity & Growing Old (1991), is that every movement leaves behind faded, ghostly traces. The technique also introduced a pervasive theme of Kentridge’s art: making the process a visible part of the final work itself. He explains how this reflects his belief that life is about “understanding the world as process rather than fact.”

The documentary also features excerpts from Kentridge’s films, Shadow Procession (1999) and Johannesburg, 2nd Greatest City after Paris (1991), both of which are based partly on his own family history. In the late 19th century, his relatives fled Lithuania to escape the Russians’ persecution of Jews, first arriving in the U.K. and later settling in South Africa. His grandfather served in the country’s all-white parliament and his father was a prominent lawyer who advocated on behalf of black Africans. Kentridge describes how the division between races, the tension that resulted from these imposed hierarchies, and the passion with which his father fought against this injustice affected him deeply. The experience shaped the political and social themes that are woven throughout his work.

None of the films, Kentridge says, are scripted or preconceived. As we see Kentridge work on an animation of a horse using torn up pieces of black paper for the video installation and performance piece I am not me, the horse is not mine, (featuring Kentridge himself performing), he says he must think with his hands and have something to fidget with, “as if there’s a different brain that’s controlling how that works.” The title of this work, a companion piece to The Nose, comes from a Russian peasant saying denying guilt, and as Kentridge explains, the work refers to early Soviet artmaking as well as to the Communist Party purges of the 1930s. But, Kentridge continues, “it’s really about comedy and tragedy” and using the “universality of laughter” rather than “the particularity of tears” to explore the huge historical social forces which overwhelm individuals.

In his Johannesburg studio, Kentridge records music for his film Breathe. An opera singer, “Kimmy” Skota, sings into a cell phone and composer Philip Miller, in another location, records her voice through the phone onto a tape recorder as he plays piano. The effect is an ethereal, distant voice singing over an image of floating paper scraps. The pieces magically fall into place to reconstitute the image of the singer on the phone (again, Kentridge incorporates the process into the final piece).

While Kentridge’s youthful notion of becoming a conductor was never fully realized, music has always played an important role in his art. In 2005, he both directed Mozart’s The Magic Flute and created Black Box/Chambre Noire, a combination of miniature mechanized puppetry, animated films, kinetic sculptures, and drawings set to various pieces of music, including some from The Magic Flute. While Black Box/Chambre Noire shares formal elements with The Magic Flute, the historical period it explores is not the German world of 1791 when Mozart wrote the opera, but rather, the German colonization of Africa and, in particular, the genocide of the Herero tribe in 1904.

In What Will Come (has already come) (2007), which is about the Italian Ethiopian War of the 1930s, Kentridge explores another common theme in his work—playing with the viewer’s perspective via manipulated imagery. This piece consists of a distorted animated image projected onto a flat surface and reflected onto a mirrored cylinder that then corrects the distortion (a technically complicated feat that Kentridge explains in the film). He also experiments with stereoscopic viewers to create three-dimensional images out of flat drawings. Both techniques comment on our penchant to try to create coherence out of what is distorted—whether images or social conditions.

Kentridge explains the influence on his work of the early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès and the importance of performing in the studio, as well as the role of his own family in his work – whether his children inspiring Kentridge to make puppet shows with found objects, or his wife Anne appearing on film in his series 7 Fragments for Georges Méliès. We also see the role of Kentridge’s various collaborators outside the studio—including a tapestry workshop outside of Johannesburg where women weavers are shown at work—singing gloriously as they weave—on one of Kentridge’s tapestries related to The Nose, one of the many “satellite projects” he has created around the opera.

WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE follows the artist backstage at the Metropolitan Opera for the pre-production and rehearsal phase of The Nose, a rarely performed Russian opera by Dmitri Shostakovich (written in 1928), itself based on a satirical short story written by Nikolai Gogol in 1836. It tells the story of a government official in St. Petersburg whose nose escapes him, only to secure a government position higher than his own. Amid a dancing paper mâché nose, dozens of performers, and enormous, meticulously crafted set pieces referencing Russian modernism and based on Kentridge’s drawings and newspaper clipping collages, we observe Kentridge in his element as he carries out his vision on a breathtakingly grand scale, revealed in the spectacular premiere of the opera.

With its playful bending of reality and observations on hierarchical systems, the world of The Nose provides an ideal vehicle for Kentridge. The absurdism, he explains in the documentary’s closing, “…is in fact an accurate and a productive way of understanding the world. Why should we be interested in a clearly impossible story? Because, as Gogol says, in fact the impossible is what happens all the time. “

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