Getting intimate with strangers is a skill documentary ﬁlmmaker Reiner Holzemer has perfected. In an exclusive interview, he speaks to Imran Jalal about the art of being invisible and bringing out the human in everyone, including the reclusive Dries Van Noten, who’s headed to the screens here soon.
Holzemer followed Dries Van Noten for a whole year for his latest documentary on the Belgian designer, which is simply titled Dries.
“The most challenging thing (in documentary ﬁlm making) is to win people’s trust and to make them feel comfortable in front of your camera. If you don’t achieve this, people will fall into an acting mode – this is not what you are interested in as a documentary ﬁlmmaker,” says Reiner Holzemer.
Born in the southern German town of Gemunden in 1958, Holzemer became hooked on making documentaries after assisting a friend who was a ﬁlmmaker, and editing his work in the ’80s. Today, the German director’s name may not be on top-of-mind recall, but his work (Juergen Teller, Imagine, Anton Corbijn: Most Wanted) has given us deep insights into the fashion world’s biggest talents. His “portraits”, as he describes them, are characteristic for their slow and steady approach, delving intimately into each protagonist without the need for dialogue.
It’s a motif that runs throughout his oeuvre of 30 ﬁlms. Holzemer’s proﬁles – of fashion, ﬁlm and music photographers (Juergen Teller, William Eggleston, Anton Corbijn etc…), hard-hitting subjects such as the Nuremberg trials (he made a ﬁlm about Ray D’Addario, the American soldier who photographed the trials), and off-kilter character groups like New York City’s cab drivers – have established his ability to intimately transpose what’s captured by the lens into the audience’s mind.
He chuckles when you point out the irony of a lensman documenting a fellow artist. “I’m invisible in front of them. That’s why I usually shoot alone; two people at max. I want to be very close to reality. You should never have more people behind the camera than in front of it,” he says.
Dries Van Noten picking flowers in his garden in Lier.
That ﬂy-on-the-wall philosophy has paid off. He shares an anecdote from his 2011 shoot with Juergen Teller. The German photographer, best known for his provocative images and long-time collaboration with Marc Jacobs and Vivienne Westwood, confessed to a dark moment in his life, in relation to his alcoholic father who committed suicide at the age of 47.
“All of a sudden, Juergen said, ‘Follow me, I will show you something.’ Then he went into the forest behind the house. We walked for more than 15 minutes until we reached a hidden sand hole. There, he sat down and told me that this was the place where he would hide from his father who treated him badly. It was a very sad moment, and it happened out of the blue,” says Holzemer.
His latest work Dries, which makes its Singapore debut at A Design Film Festival in September, delves into one of fashion’s most romantic minds, Dries Van Noten. It’s the ﬁrst time that Holzemer has worked on a documentary strictly centred on fashion, and the mystique of the discreet Van Noten was a catalyst for Holzemer to pursue the ﬁlm (and its subject) for a number of years.
As fate would have it, Holzemer ﬁrst met the Antwerp Six designer on the set of the Juergen Teller documentary. Teller was photographing Dakota Fanning in the garden of the designer’s Antwerp home for the December ’10 issue of American Vogue.
Getting Van Noten to agree, however, was less straightforward. Holzemer started penning letters to the designer as early as 2011 to convince him to be ﬁlmed. Van Noten didn’t say yes immediately. Instead, he invited the director several times to Paris to view his runway shows. “He replied mostly saying that it would not be the perfect moment for him right now to do a documentary, but maybe later.” In all, it took three years, and even that coup (this would be the ﬁrst Van Noten documentary) was no guarantee that everything would be smooth sailing. “He’s a perfectionist,” Holzemer says ﬂatly.
Juergen Teller (2011) featured the photographer at work with names like Vivienne Westwood.
For starters, the designer did not like too many cameras around. “He’s afraid that (cameras) might disturb or distract his team at work.” Holzemer’s strategy was to spend between six and eight hours a day recording in the initial stages of the project in order to warm Van Noten up to the idea of having a camera perpetually around him. “If you switch your camera on and off, or if you leave it and come back again, you will never become the ﬂy on the wall,” he explains.
And rather than doing a biographical piece based on a single collection, Van Noten suggested that Holzemer tag him for four full collections to delve into his personality and work fully. At one point, Holzemer felt he had enough material for a 90-minute feature, until he found out the location of the Dries Van Noten Spring/Summer ’16 collection – the Palais Garnier in Paris. It was a set too beautiful too resist. In all, Holzemer spent a full year gathering footage for his project, which includes interviews with other industry heavyweights such as Iris Apfel, Pamela Golbin and Suzy Menkes.
Ask him what the most intimate moment in Dries was and he quickly points out to the moment he captured the designer cutting ﬂowers in his garden. It was the same place where he ﬁrst met Van Noten seven years earlier during that Dakota Fanning-Juergen Teller photo shoot.
“Dries would never call himself an artist, but I think he is one. He is creative in every aspect of his life, no matter if he is designing clothes or if he is arranging a ﬂower bouquet in his house,” he says. “He can spend hours doing this, and it is fascinating to watch him in these creative moments. He reminds me of William Eggleston, who is able to stare at a cup of tea or at a coffee table for hours – only to ﬁnd out how to make the best photograph of it. Only artists have this kind of sensibility for the beauty they see in every little detail… He was just so focused and happy to make a bouquet. You see that this is a person who loves the creative process. That’s the true essence of his personality.”
In a way, the Holzemer school of thought is a riposte to the brand of “hurrah” plot that is peddled in most fashion documentary ﬁlms. In Dries, there are no big meltdowns, no diva moments, no lavish parties in the ﬁnale. In short, he does not fuss over a happily ever after ending – it’s a human touch to ﬁlm-making that he seeks.
“I want the audience to participate in my experience with the protagonist. I don’t want to teach them, I don’t have a pedagogic approach. Rather, I want to touch them with emotions, no matter if it is joy or pain. In the end, I want to give the audience the feeling that they have met these people personally,” he says.