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.
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.