A Conversation with Alexandra Isles

Patty de Llosa: The theme for this issue of Parabola is “Seeing,” so can you tell me how you come up with an idea and then turn it into a visual action?

Alexandra Isles: Works of fine art have a supernatural quality. They can evoke an emotional response but are, after all, only canvas, pigment, stone, or wood. Conveying that magic was a challenge. Midway into the editing, and after we knew what parts of the interviews were going to be included, we went back to the museum to re-shoot many of the works because they had taken on new meanings after their stories were revealed. In the case of Rembrandt’s self-portrait, seeing it in its formal frame and then pushing past the frame and into the face gave the painting a strange animating energy. With the Lucien Freud portrait of LEigh Bowery, slowly moving up his huge back toward the ear on his tunred-away head evoked a sense that Bowery could hear what was being said about him. The pacing of these moves was very important. In another case, it was only in the editing room that I saw that the object and the person talking about it had a strong resemblance to each other.

PdeL: Was this challenge different from that of your other documentaries?

AI: In some films you want to see what the person who is speaking sees, through their filter, their point of view. In other cases you may want to try to show how other people see them. I did a couple of films about prejudice and you can see what they are up against — the Gypsies are a particularly good example of that. I contrasted a film of Gypsy life in Germany in the 1930s with Leni Riefenstahl’s film on the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Viewers could easily see how these two cultures were so differnet. You didn’t have to say anything. Also, in Scandalize My Name, about blacklisted black actors, I showed shots of them from World War II in uniform or entertaining the troops or being patriotic, so, although I didn’t say anything, you just saw that and could make up your own mind. In any case, this was their truth.

PdeL: You said you wanted to make a film abotu the quiet power these art objects can have on our lives, as opposed to the blockbuster shows and soaring auction prices that have made art a commodity. How do you look at art?

AI: It’s not very intellectual, but I go to museums and galleries with the same wish as going to a play or movie, hoping to be surprised and moved.

PdeL: A documentary of a museum is usually about objects, but the storytelling aspect of this film is very powerful. How did that come about?

AI: My previous film, The Healing Gardens of New York, taught me that everyone has a story. Until then my films had always had a historical framework and were told chronologically. Healing Gardens was made completely on intuition and, as with all my previous films, I was incredibly lucky in finding memorable and interesting people who were willing to tell their stories. I follow two rules. The first is that my presence is invisible and silent. The film belongs to the storytellers. The second is to do as much research as possible, trust the material, and never film re-creations.

PdeL: I understand the Metropolitan recently began a yearlong series on their website called Connections, in which staff members reflect on their favorite works of art. That’s an exciting result of the film, the fact that you woke them up, so to speak. Could you say something about that?

AI: After showing at the museum I was told that the film had changed the administration’s attitude toward the staff. That hadn’t been my intention; however, inclusiveness is always lurking somewhere in all my films. The beauty of documentaries is meeting people who teach you about the human condition. For me, the great filmmakers are the subtle ones. A beautiful example is Section 80, by John Alpert, about the area in Arlington Cemetery where the soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are buried. It observes quietly and, in doing so, taught me so much about grief.

PdeL: Can you say what person or people influenced you most in your approach to Hidden Treasures?

AI: In September of 2007 I read Holland Cotter for the first time. His piece wasn’t about art. It was about a road trip he took in the summer of 1964 when he was just out of high school. HIs trip took him into Mississippi at the height of the civil rights killings, and there was something so warm and direct about his style that I made note of his name. The following Friday the New York Times reintroduced me to him as one of the paper’s leading art critics. Over the three years it took to make the film, his Friday reviews amazed and inspired me with their knowledge, sense of wonder, and playfulness. His writing combined a spiritual openness with real scholarship. His balanced way of looking at, and often loving, art made him my guide and teacher, and gave me the confidence to pursue this very personal way of looking at art.