Get your tickets now for the New York Premiere of Jared Alterman’s Convento, this Saturday at the Old American Can Factory in Park Slope.

Jarred Alterman’s film Convento is a fascinating, somewhat bizarre, thoroughly immersive narrative experience which transports the audience to a place of spatial and temporal transience where life can be manipulated, reimagined and reanimated. Rooftop’s Sheila Maria Lobo spoke to Jarred about how he came to make the film and what it was like to live with the family in Convento.

Rooftop Films: Please tell us about your film in your own words.

Jarred Alterman: Convento, is a story about the Dutch kinetic artist, Christiaan Zwanikken, who reanimates deceased local wild life and their skeletal remains with servo motors and robotics.  He breeds these new species in a 400 year old monastery in a remote village in Portugal, that has been converted into an art studio, nature preserve and home.  The film’s focus is on the daily routines of Christiaan and his family; his mother Geraldine (a former ballet dancer with the Dutch National Ballet Company) and his brother Louis, the care taker of the property.

RF: How did you come to choose the Sao Francisco monastery and the Zwanikken family as the subjects for your film?

JA: I was traveling in Portugal with friends, and we heard about this monastery in the country side that was both an outdoor museum and nature preserve. It’s briefly mentioned in Lonely Planet, so we decided to check it out.  Once I walked through the gates, this mysterious energy overwhelmed me and I was suddenly walking through a labyrinth of dense gardens thriving amongst ruins, with no one in sight except for storks and falcons flying above. I walked up a long winding road towards the monastery, and I was greeted by a small herd of dogs, each a different breed, who briefly checked me out, before disappearing into the hills.

I walked into a old chapel (once inhabited by monks) that was now alive with strange modern moving art- skeletal parts whizzing around, robotic hybrid birds in full conversations with each other, and a man wearing a welders’ mask at a long work station. I think I immediately knew this would be my next film, but it took me two years to figure out how to make it.

I stayed at the Convento for a short time, and became very close friends with Christiaan and his family. We drank a lot of red wine, cooked meals together and discussed anything from alien abduction to the afterlife.  I started working with Christiaan in his studio on small collaborations, combining sculpture and cinema- we created a small piece that was invited to Art Amsterdam later that year.  After serious talks about the possibility of a documentary, with Christiaan and his family (how I would do it, what it would feel like, etc.), everyone finally agreed, and we made plans to begin principle photography in the summer of 2009.

RF: Your camera and your musical score both move with varying speeds and complexities, speaking with an intensity that might not be so powerfully achieved with words. Do you think that your prior films for Charles Atlas & The Merce Cunningham Dance Company and/or Geraldine’s dance background influenced this narrative design?

JA: I wanted Convento to be a film immersion, transporting an audience to a location, rather than showing it to them. The texture of the stones I walked on, the haunting bird calls of peacocks, storks and owls echoing over the hillsides, and sometimes just the sound of the wind traveling through the ruins, all were elements that drove the story.  It becomes a mediation, a sort of dreamy sensation you get while watching it.

I have spent the last ten years working with the artist and filmmaker Charles Atlas, here in New York City and London.  I was Director of Photography for several Merce Cunningham Dance films, where I developed a love for the movement of dance.  I wanted to bring this sense of elegance and beauty to the camera work in Convento. So, I treated the daily routines of the Zwanikken family, in a similar approach to filming the choreography of dance; the camera floats across a studio or a garden in a wide master shot, so you can really get a sense of the pure movement in the scene.

RF: Christiaan’s kinetic ‘animals’ receive almost as much screen time as the people and wildlife in the film. They fight, play, move, and talk. Are they as equally ‘alive’ for you as the living?

JA: These “sculptures” deserved more screen time, than the typical documentation you would see in an art television program. I wanted to create micro-narratives or mini-movies for the kinetic sculptures, which feel more like characters, than objects. I also had the advantage of being a friend and collaborator with Christiaan, so I was able to treat these scenes with some of my own artistic interpretation- adding stylized camera movement and foley sound to some of the pieces, in order to make them truly cinematic.

Anytime you photograph, videotape, or record another artist’s work, it ultimately becomes something else.  It doesn’t become your own, it just becomes a part of the medium you are using.  Since I was making a film, we all had a lot of fun experimenting with how to capture these sculptures, for the scene they were in.

RF: The Rooftop screening of Convento will feature an exhibition of Christiaan’s work. How do you think being able to experience the sculptures first hand adds to the experience of watching the film?

JA: We just had our UK premiere of Convento at Edinburgh International Film Festival, and we brought a collection of sculptures to create a temporary exhibition at the festival.  After the screenings, we invited the audience to the gallery space to interact with the sculptures, up close and personal, and it was an incredible experience.  You are not limited by the camera, instead you can walk 360˚ to appreciate the engineering and movement that is programmed into the pieces.  Some offer headphones to listen to the soundtracks Christiaan has created for the talking robo-beasts, which you can finally listen to in their entirety (the film could not include full dialogue sequences).

What I love most about the on-site exhibition, you can appreciate why these sculptures and the sculptures in Convento can coexist. They support each other, and strengthen eachother’s purpose in a way.  I am also thrilled to bring this installation into the industrial landscape of The Old American Can Factory- we are really using the space to tell a story.

RF: What else are you working on now?

JA: I am currently writing a script that combines surrealism and science fiction, that takes place in New York City and Portugal. Christiaan and I are taking our collaborative relationship into the narrative world, and I’m pretty damn excited about it. Imagine Jim Henson meets Ridley Scott. We need investors… just send them my way!