Stories of relentless, obsessive endeavors (think Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”) are always fascinating and if they happen to involve an attractive, contemporary Art World star who gives a filmmaker intimate access into her ploy to adopt Sudanese twins for reasons that raise controversy – not to mention the fact that she openly admits that her creativity is fueled by some form of madness – you’ve got yourself an intriguing premise for a documentary. Writer director Pietra Brettkelly’s expertly architected melodrama allows the details of this complex story of Western perceptions of the third world, acts of questionable respect in the name of art-making and a critique of an artist as a human being, to unfold at the right moments.
Vanessa Beecroft makes art that has been branded feminist, controversial and provocative. Her tableaus usually involve sizeable groups of naked or semi-naked women (we learn that she doodled large families even as a child, so you could say her work represents a life-long obsession with scores of people contrasted with a solitary upbringing in a remote Italian village in the 70s.). She took on issues of suffering in Africa with photographs of naked, bloody African women. Then she met the twins…
Beecroft, the child of an English father and an Italian mother disrupts a Sudanese village with her desire to photograph two ebony infant twins suckling at her white breasts. She envisions every detail of this vignette from the flowing white, Bibical inspired gown (which she has singed just so along the hemline), to the position of the babies. But this is Sudan and not a controlled in-studio environment in New York City and some of the villagers begin to object to the art-making and barge into the church they are using as a studio to stop the photos before Beecroft can get the perfect shot. She is beside herself, but she is out of her element. One has to marvels at Beecroft’s audacity and apparent comfort with using these children and other villagers as props in a politically charged art work. Do they understand what they are being asked to do and is it culturally exploitative? These are the questions inherent in Brettkelly’s footage.
On the spot coverage of the immediate aftermath, conveys the sense of turmoil that Beecroft has created in the village. The Sudanese have no laws for adoption. They question how these children will learn their language and culture living in New York City. Suddenly, the scenario of the Westerner rescuing a child from a poor village, to give them the comforts of life in the United States seems self-serving and wrong. And Beecroft’s motives seem extremely ill-conceived and possibly dreamed up in a manic moment, especially considering that she bypasses her husband’s opposition to the adoption, by negotiating with the lawyer without his involvement, as if she is merely buying an expensive pair of shoes behind his back.
Ultimately, the charismatic, self-possessed Beecroft, a woman clearly used to getting her way, allows the camera to see her unravel and then re-focus, reconstructing her poise and mounting the show for which she took the photographs. Beecroft is above all, driven by her art.