"Creating an art documentary is like swimming in an ocean of endless rehearsals"
An interview with Svetlana Cemin | SAINT CLAIR CEMIN, PSYCHE | VMA20 BEST EXPERIMENTAL FILM | November Edition
When looking at a work of art, whether it be a sculpture, a painting, or an installation, we as audience remain oblivious to the creative process behind it.
What has led the artist to create that final piece? While the meaning of art can be subject to our own judgment and its aesthetic to our personal taste, the idea, the effort, and the creative stages of the artwork itself can only be revealed by the artist.
Writer, director, and producer Svetlana Cemin’s vision is to be the tool through which this revelation is shared with the world. Born in Belgrade, Serbia, Svetlana has been living and working on the New York-Paris route for many years. Founder of 610FILM, a Brooklyn-based art-house production company, her work behind the camera aims at promoting the artists and art in general.
In her latest feature documentary, Saint Clair Cemin, Psyche, her insight vision focuses on Brazilian artist Saint Clair Cemin by showing us the making of his marble boat Psyche. Starting from his Brooklyn studio, Svetlana has been filming Saint Clair’s creative journey for five years following the artist to the Amazonia forest, Beijing, Zurich, and Cleveland, Ohio, where the boat was installed in the Sculpture Gardens.
Saint Clair Cemin, Psyche won Best Experimental Film - Award of Excellence at the Vegas Movie Awards (November 2020) and was awarded in many other festivals in the United States and Canada.
• Svetlana, first of all, congratulations for your award at the Vegas Movie Awards. Before becoming an award-winning filmmaker, you worked as a renowned fashion model and as an actress. You have performed in numerous plays on American stages, and in the films of independent American directors, such as Loge Karigan's film, Claire Dolen, which was shown at the Cannes Festival in 1997. How and why did you decide to switch position and go from being in front of the camera to be behind its lens?
Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m deeply honored to have received such an important recognition from Vegas Movie Awards for my last film, Saint Clair, Psyche. This award truly means a lot to me and to my crew. A very big thank you!
Now to answer your question about switching my position and going behind the camera instead of in front. The decision didn’t happen overnight. For a while, I was living in Paris raising my daughter and was taking a break from my work on the stage. The transition was longer than I first thought because of personal reasons, but all along I was dreaming of going back to NYC. I wanted to try something new and fresh regarding my carrier. Before taking maternity leave, I had worked not just as an actor but also as a film producer, helping some young students to deliver their first short films, and I had also written one-act plays for the theatre. When I finally moved back to Manhattan, I started to reconnect with my colleagues and get back on the scene. I shared with them my idea of delivering stories that focused on the process of creativity. Some of them followed me and I ended up forming my own film company 610FILM where I was committed to creating intimate portraits of artists and films that focused on art itself.
Although in the beginning I only wished to be the producer of films, I was encouraged by my partner Saint Clair and some very close collaborators to also work as a director. Since I didn’t go to film school, I relied heavily on online courses, workshops, and participating in seminars. I loved sharing my ideas with collaborators and artists and being able to create something quite unique. So, the more I was diving into these projects, the more I was enjoying the process of it, mostly because I could now use my experience with theatre and combine it with my films.
• When you meet with an artist, what triggers your inspiration that eventually makes you want to shoot a documentary about them?
My idea was to select no more than seven artists to work within parallel.
From the beginning, it was clear that I wanted to work with unknown artists and established ones as well. My goal was to avoid any alliance to their commercial success and explore their different backgrounds and artistic styles.
Choosing the artists lasted a long period of time, perhaps at least six months. I was interested in the uniqueness of the artist, his or her conventions, what messages they want to transmit, their ability to be spontaneous and honest in life as well as in front of the camera. The first most important thing that I needed to feel in order to create their portrait was a level of trust and spontaneity on the basis of which I could build a creative relationship with them. So, once selected, these seven artists generously shared their process of creativity and opened up to me.
To be experimental is to have the tools and the willingness to dive deeper into the subconscious mind through mutual understanding. During the process, both the artist and the observer experience freedom and control. It is paradoxical but it works.
• What specifically stuck with you about Saint Clair Cemin and his idea to create the boat Psyche?
One February morning in 2015 in his Brooklyn studio, among some friends, Saint Clair shared his idea of how he wanted to turn his dream into a marble boat which he was going to call Psyche. While I listened to the details of his vision – how to go about the materialization of a seven tons marble boat – I was astonished.
Saint Clair Cemin is a very versatile artist who uses different materials in his works and produces the most amazing sculptures and monuments. He is also my partner for many years which made me hesitant about working as a director with him. I originally preferred to just be the producer on the project. However, my inner voice was telling me that I had to put my doubt aside and trust that this type of collaboration would help us both to discover his process in an authentic way and also grow artistically at the same time. So, I took up the challenge and I fell in love with the project. That’s how the adventure that leads us to China, Brazil, Switzerland, and back to the States started.
• In your documentaries what we see is not only the artists’ creative process but also their personal and human side. How do you build a connection with them in order to make them feel at ease and open up in front of the camera?
When I pitched the project to each artist I was quite clear that I couldn’t separate the personal life of the artists from their creativity. The artists that I have chosen to work with, agreed with me on that subject, and automatically put their trust in the process as much as I did. Our energies combined made everything possible. Film is very sensitive media, it is all about feeling and the hidden flow of emotions. I deliberately never came up with a script when we shot the scenes, I had my ideas well developed ahead of time in order to be flexible, and put anyone in the zone where they were uncomfortable.
• Your documentaries last a few years. How do you approach your filmmaking? Do you start with an idea from the get-go or do you follow the flow of filming and the artist?
I think it happens both ways. It’s hard to tell. It all depends on the situation. In a principal, I always start with a very concrete idea but when an artist lives and works in various places (which makes the whole process more complicated yet interesting) I have to adapt my style according to the different circumstances. In the case of Saint Clair Cemin, he has worked in both of his studios in Brooklyn and in China for many years. Surprisingly, during the second part of the shooting, the Chinese government demolished all the studios outside Beijing overnight, including Saint Clair’s. I decided to include that incident in the story. So we went back to China with Saint Clair and filmed what had become of the artist colony and the effect was amazing. Sadness, acceptance, and new discoveries all emerged from that very short last trip to Beijing in 2017. We turned pain into joy. That event has never been written in the script when we first started the project but it was one of the moments that shaped the whole story.
• What does experimental mean to you in regard of your work?
If I had to define what I consider experimental, I would have to start with an openness to new visions in terms of structure, form, and understanding the way the story will be told. I enjoyed working with experimental theatre and was influenced by the works of Alexandar Blok, Ibsen, Pirandelo to name a few. Of course, to master experimental art one has to have a lot of experience of the classics, because there is such a fine line between experimental and meaningless expression.
With that in mind, I aimed for strong connections with the artist, their surroundings, their dreams in order to develop this openness. I love forming an enigma around what’s real and what’s imaginative. For example, in the scenes featuring the artist’s dreams, which for me express their hidden essence, desires, and inspirations, I had to find the right connections to reality and build a bridge between both to illuminate their creative expression.
To be experimental is to have the tools and the willingness to dive deeper into the subconscious mind through mutual understanding. During the process, both the artist and the observer experience freedom and control. It is paradoxical but it works. The structure still remains even though I fought against it. I also allowed my collaborators to dive into the project passionately and intuitively and in the editing room, this proved to be very fruitful. The filming was improvised but had to be given structure in the editing room because of the limited amount of time for shooting the scenes in public places, especially in China, where we were constantly asked for the permits.
• What do you take into consideration when choosing the crew to work with you on this documentary?
In general, I like to work with the same crew, especially in NYC where my home and studio are. In the case of making Psyche, a lot of overseas travel was involved and I relied on recommendations from my senior collaborators abroad. For this, as in any other film I needed collaborators who were fully committed not just because they loved the project but also because they believed in the idea of making a documentary about the process of art, and are themselves very creative. In other words, I love working with artists on each level of production and postproduction. Art is our universal tool and language, and having artists making films about other artists is my greatest achievement in filmmaking. Since, the working hours were unpredictable, sometimes, long and exhausting, be it in the middle of the jungle or in the mountains, it was their passion of making art that guided us along the way, and I believe that that’s what my type of documentary film making is all about.
• What was the hardest thing you faced while doing Saint Clair Cemin? Both in the shooting phase and in the post-production one?
The project itself lasted almost five years, so it is quite amazing that the process of filming and even postproduction was such a smooth run. Over the years I learned to hurdle many obstacles. The turning point was when Saint Clair got terribly ill in the middle of the project, he was suffering from Bells-Palsy, and for about six months I had to put everything on hold. I even considered stopping the project altogether. Nevertheless, he encouraged me to film his solo show in Zurich in spite of his poor health. I thought that his courage was marvelous, so we flew to Switzerland and shot some scenes. In the close-ups, you could clearly see his exhaustion and pain.
Another experience that made me almost lose my faith in the project happened during the post-production. I waited almost eight months for an editor whose work I admired, and who I had befriended; but once I arrived in Belgrade, where we were supposed to work together, he told me that he couldn't commit to my project any longer because he was burned out from the previous one and needed a break of several months. I tried working with someone else, but that experience was dreadful: there was no common ground for collaboration. I couldn’t finish the film without having an exceptional editor and I was in despair. It took me a long time to find the right replacement, but once I met Uros Maksimovic, I immediately realized that he was a perfect match for Psyche and our working experience was one of the best I had in this whole process of creating Psyche.
• Do you confront with the artist while doing the documentary (especially in the editing phases) or do you need to keep full freedom in shaping your documentary?
Of course, sometimes it is necessary to confront situations if things are misunderstood, especially in the editing room. This is a natural part of the creative process.
Conflicts over important decisions do happen and I’m fully aware of their importance, sometimes I welcome them. It is sometimes the most understandable way of finding the best solution for the storyline, but I don’t spend too much time going back on past issues, even though they have proven to be the key to creative relationships. I have a wonderful relationship with my collaborators, and I’m truly grateful for that. I believe that everything is a work in progress, and creating an art documentary is like swimming in an ocean of endless rehearsals. We worked hard , we trusted and the results were good. Naturally, one prefers not to repeat the same mistakes and we can only hope to learn to avoid them as we go along.
Conflicts over important decisions are sometimes the most understandable way of finding the best solution for the storyline, but I don’t spend too much time going back on past issues, even though they have proven to be the key to creative relationships.
• Are you working on a new documentary at the moment or are you planning to? Is there anybody you’d like to thank?
During the last five years I worked and have delivered seven films about artist and it necessary to take a break from that theme. When I work on a documentary, since that process is quite long, I cannot develop on other themes. As soon as I’m done with the festivals circuit, I want to move onto something else.
I have been focusing on emigration, since that subject has been on my mind for a while and I want to explore it in my first feature film, which I have been preparing, and I can’t wait to plunge into it.
There are many wonderful collaborators and friends that I want to thank, not only for their participation in this film but for their overall involvement in the 610Film mission. I have thanked them in person, but I must take a moment to give a special thanks to my associate producers, Isabelle Kostic and Joao Roni Garcia, my fantastic crew in China, Brazil, and New York, my postproduction team in Belgrade, Serbia, and a very big thanks to Saint Clair Cemin and my daughter Sara who are always there to share their support and love with me.
- Website: www.610film.com
- IMDb page: imdb.me/svetlanacemin