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We speak to Reiner Holzemer, the director of a new documentary on Dries Van Noten, about portraying artists, his relationship to his protagonists and exploring unknown worlds through the documentary lens.

What made you want to use documentaries as a medium to depict artists and designers?

In 1990, I was making a documentary on a photographer, Ray D’Addario; he was an American soldier who photographed the Nuremberg trials in 1944 where Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer stood accused. I wanted to explore how he could coexist for close to a year next to Nazi war criminals, photographing them as he would have had it been anyone else. I wasn’t that interested in the artistry aspect of it but that was how it started. My earlier work focused on photography and photographers as it was a reflection of my own work as a documentarist; the two disciplines are very similar.

Is documentary an effective means of telling a subject’s story?

I’m not sure—I’ve never tried doing anything else. Making a fiction film allows you to get more aspects of a person because you can include things that you discussed with the subject off camera; it’s not a requirement that you have it on tape. My films are devoid of narration; hence I’m depending solely on the honesty and openness of my protagonists. At times, they’ll ask me not to put this and that in the film, so fiction can, in fact, be more realistic than documentaries.

Does that make the process fragile, having to rely solely on the subject for the narrative aspect of the documentary?

I’m 58 now and have made more than 30 films so it doesn’t worry me anymore. I’ve learned to adapt when people tell me that they don’t want to share everything. On television and the internet, everything is said and blurted out for the whole world to take in. Seeing that entices me even more to show a limited and curated depiction of the subject. I’ve learned a lot from Dries (Van Noten) in this regard. He’s the most discreet person I’ve ever met in my life.

How so?

I had a lot of ideas about making a documentary with a biographical scope. Dries told me from the get-go and throughout the process when there was something he didn’t want to share or talk about in the film. You always have a preconceived notion of how you’d like to portray the subject which leads to you covering as much as possible in the shooting process. I learned to accept that there were certain aspects that I had to focus on.

Did the work on the Dries film differ from that of your past projects?

Dries is a very busy and well-known person within his own sphere, just as William Eggleston and Anton Corbijn are in their respective realms. The problem with busy people is time—finding time to shoot and to establish and grow the relationship of subject and documentarist. Dries was the first subject from the fashion industry that I’ve portrayed; it’s an industry that has a desire for perfection. I wanted to delve into the developmental process of the industry and to show how Dries’ designs came to life. It was a naive way of approaching the matter but it allowed me to focus on the perfectionistic aspect of fashion.

  • Words:
    Nikolaj Hansson

"I wanted to delve into the developmental process of the industry and to show how Dries’ designs came to life."

How important is the relationship between subject and documentarist?

The subject has to trust me. I lay all my cards on the table for them to see before beginning the work process. I also do something that most of my colleagues don’t—showing the protagonist the film before it is unveiled to the public. Regardless of whether it’s a well-known artist or a private person, I show them the film because they’ve given me so much openness and placed their trust in me. By showing them the film before it’s released, I return the favor and allow for them to give feedback on the work. I’ve never had problems with this, not even with Dries. There was an image or two that he didn’t want in there or something related to color proofs but other than that, he never asked me to edit anything, leaving the final cut up to me. That’s how it works. It’s about friendships and human nature; sometimes they flourish from the beginning and other times they take more effort.

What does being a documentarist mean to you?

It’s my profession and my work; I truly love it. It gives me access to people that I’d never imagined having access to in life. I learn so many things about life from my subjects. Before starting the work on Dries, I had almost no idea about how a fashion designer works. I’ve spent a whole year with him and it’s been very rewarding. My work is a reflection of life, both the artist’s and my own.

How do you know when to end the shooting process?

It’s a feeling. For Dries, the initial idea was to follow one collection and do a biographical retrospective alongside that. He proposed that I should follow him over the span of four collections to delve into his personality and work. I found it too challenging at first—four collections over one year wrapped into a 90-minute film. I felt that my work was done after the third collection and I was about to tell that to Dries when he told me that the fourth collection would be shown on the stage of the Palais Opera Garnier in Paris. It was a new aspect and we had to document it.

Is there a general objective to your work as a documentarist?

The obvious one is to explore worlds that I’m unfamiliar with. Moreover, I want to give people a feeling of having been there with me and the protagonist. We had a private screening of the film in Antwerp with Dries’ friends and family. A young lady came up to me after the screening and said, “I had to close my eyes for a few seconds at times to realize that I wasn’t part of the film.” My work is very personal and intimate in many ways and being able to pass those aspects onto the viewers is what I’d like to achieve.

What is the most important thing you’ve learned throughout your many years of filmmaking?

That life is incredibly rich. The work on Dries was wrapped up a couple of months ago so I began working on new ideas and projects, meeting new people to potentially portray. I always think there’s a system that I can impose on the project after having made so many films but there isn’t; each life is rich and singular in its own way, even if it has sad elements in it. It’s a very rewarding and truly beautiful thing.

The film Dries had its world premiere on March 18, 2017 at CPH:DOX and will be shown in Antwerp on March 29 and 30, 2017.

"My work is very personal and intimate in many ways and being able to pass those aspects onto the viewers is what I’d like to achieve."

  • Words:
    Nikolaj Hansson

"My work is very personal and intimate in many ways and being able to pass those aspects onto the viewers is what I’d like to achieve."

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