WILLIAM KENTRIDGE: TRIUMPHS AND LAMENTS (Giovanni Troilo, 2016)
Film Society of Lincoln Center, Walter Reade Theater
165 West 65th St. at Amsterdam Ave.
Tuesday, January 17, 6:00, and Thursday, January 19, 4:15
New York Jewish Film Festival runs January 11-24
South African multimedia artist William Kentridge has made animated short films, designed and directed operas, performed one-man shows, delivered the Norton Lecture at Harvard, and exhibited works (including drawing, video, sculpture, and installation) around the world. Italian director and photographer Giovanni Troilo documents one of Kentridge’s grandest, most ambitious projects in William Kentridge: Triumphs and Laments, having its world premiere at the New York Jewish Film Festival this week. For more than a dozen years, Kentridge and site-specific artist and curator Kristin Jones were involved in planning “Triumphs and Laments: A Project for Rome,” a mural and live procession along a more-than-five-hundred-yard stretch of the Tiber River celebrating the history of the Eternal City. But Kentridge adds his own subtle sociopolitical twist, as he has done throughout his career with such works as his series of films about Soho Eckstein and Felix Teitlebaum. “The glories of imperial Rome were only possible through unbelievable and unbearable acts of cruelty, enacted on a massive scale,” he explains in the documentary, noting that he will link such disparate characters as Romulus and Remus with Pier Paolo Pasolini among the ninety figures. “Every colonial empire is there only through enormous acts of violence. The great things that were built, they’re always on the back of other people.” Part of Tevereterno, “a multidisciplinary cultural project for the revival of Rome’s Tiber River,” founded by artistic director Jones in 2001, “Triumphs and Laments” becomes enmeshed in a labyrinth of bureaucracy as an ever-more-emotional Jones fights for permits amid an ever-changing local government while Kentridge battles to get every detail just right, from the large-scale stencil drawings to the pacing of the procession. Wearing his trademark black pants and white button-down shirt, Kentridge is shown driving around his hometown of Johannesburg, describing his process in his studio, taking a boat ride along the Tiber, listening to longtime collaborator Philip Miller’s orchestration, and continually worrying about the potential realization of the project, up to the very last minute. At one point Jones and Kentridge bump into the mayor, who is riding his bike in the area; the chance meeting seems serendipitous until scandal forces the municipal head from office.
A fascinating theorist with an unpredictable sense of humor, Kentridge explains that his main goal is to “try to find the triumph in the lament and the lament in the triumph,” saying that “it only works if it’s possible to have an irreverence for the history.” Troilo also speaks with Miller, co-composer Thuthuka Sibisi, and others who offer their thoughts about working with Kentridge and the specifics of the project, one that will be temporary, since the procession is a one-time-only event and the stencils will eventually fade away, much like parts of Roman history. Kentridge, who was the subject of a major retrospective, “Five Themes,” at MoMA in 2010, is always a joy to watch, and that is as true as ever here in Rome, as he conducts another unique and unusual work as only he can. William Kentridge: Triumphs and Laments is screening on January 17 and 19 at the Walter Reade Theater, with producer Andrea Patierno participating in Q&As following each show. The twenty-sixth annual New York Jewish Film Festival, a joint production of the Jewish Museum and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, continues through January 24 with more than three dozen programs, from new fiction and nonfiction films to special tributes to Valeska Gert and the duo of Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder and a master class with Israeli documentarian Tomer Heymann.