Giants On Reel

Interview by Tay Huizhen
Images courtesy of John Madere, Kathy Brew, Roberto Guerra, Jeff Dupre, James Belzer and Anonymous

There are only two film festivals in the world dedicated solely to the creative realms of art, design and architecture. A Design Film Festival (ADFF) is one of them, and the first of its kind in Asia. Since its 2010 inception in Singapore, the festival has travelled to Berlin, Taipei, Kaohsiung, Bangkok and Portland. Films screened include features on renowned designers and creative visionaries like Rem Koolhaas, Yohji Yamamoto and Jun Takahashi.

Back with a 2013 edition, ADFF will feature a diverse programme of 12 official film selections, 10 of which are making their Asian premiere in Singapore. The line-up includes award-winning films that range from the sensational New York Fashion Week documentary The Tents to a major retrospective of performance artist Marina Abramović. The directors and producers of three films to be screened at ADFF 2013 tell us more about their subjects and what inspired them to make these films.


The creative pair, Kathy Brew and Roberto Guerra, on spotlighting the work of another, and the Vignellis’ legacy in design.

Giants on reel lella massimo vignelli

What was your first exposure to the Vignellis’ designs?

Kathy (K): As Barry Bergdoll, Chief Curator of Architecture & Design at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, states in the film, “The Vignellis are known by everybody, even by people who don’t know their name. They’re surrounded by the things that they’ve conceived.” And so, for many, the first exposure to their designs are through ubiquitous encounters with their work in the public realm—the logos for American Airlines, Bloomingdales, Saks Fifth Avenue, Benetton; the Knoll furniture; the iconic NYC subway map from the 70s; the stackable plastic dinnerware, and so much more. One may not know exactly their first exposure to the Vignellis’ designs because there are so many.

The Vignellis are an institution in design. What challenges did you face in charting their journey onscreen?

K: The Vignellis are considered the most important designers of the second half of the 20th century; their timeless principles of design have made them éminence grise in the field. Creating a high quality film that did their work justice was a major challenge. We wanted to not only show their vast portfolio which spans different areas of design in over 50 years of collaboration, but also offer a window into the dynamics of their partnership; to let audiences have a sense of who they are as creative people. We wanted to feature both Massimo and Lella and their work, because it often seems that Lella hasn’t gotten adequate credit for their collaborative projects.

As much of their well-known work have already been created, we couldn’t include much “behind the scenes” footage, although we do have some aspects, such as the changing of the architectural plan at St. Peter’s Church, the build-up to the opening of SD26 restaurant, as well as some more personal moments that let you see a bit more of their personalities and dynamic exchanges such as the lunchtime scene. Another challenge was deciding what projects of the prolific pair we wanted to feature, since clearly not all could be included in an 80-minute film.


James Belzer on the iconic New York Fashion Week and its historic move to Lincoln Center.

giants on reel the tents

How did your idea for this film come about?

I was working at Harper’s Bazaar when I first heard about New York Fashion Week’s planned move away from Bryant Park. Bryant Park is located near the Garment Center in New York, so the move to Lincoln Center was an emotional change. Having directed theater and other projects during my years in the magazine business, I was preparing to launch my film career. So when I spoke to Fern Mallis, creator of the fashion week, about the idea to do the documentary and found that there wasn’t a plan in place to capture this history, it was clear that I needed to leave the magazine business to start work on the film immediately!

What makes New York Fashion Week (NYFW) so different from other fashion festivals? What kind of buzz does it create?

NYFW is more like a global convention; a meeting of people from all over the fashion industry to discuss not only fashion trends but also larger cultural ideas that are coming for the following season. The diversity and sheer number of people who come to NYFW make it a really unique time for the global fashion community.


Producer and co-director Jeff Dupre on how the multi-persona performance artist Marina Abramović charmed her way into his film.

Marina Abramović: The Artist Is PresentMarina Abramović: The Artist Is Present

A still from documentary Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present.

What was your first encounter with Marina?

I was seated next to Marina at a friend’s dinner party when she told me about her upcoming retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and I was smitten. There was tremendous potential for a feature documentary on her life and work because: 1) Marina herself is so seductive and outrageous. 2) MoMA had never given a retrospective to a performance artist before. 3) Marina intended to take some major risks in the work she was going to perform. The stakes were high and there was a built-in timeline to structure the film: After a lifetime of striving, Marina at age 63 was setting out to secure her legacy and prove to a very skeptical world that performance art is worthy of our attention. My own ambivalence regarding performance art—and a wish to work through and clarify (though never resolve) them—made me want to make the film even more.

To the majority of the public, performance art is at best powerfully symbolic and at worst, pure eccentricity. Most times, it’s a heinous mix of both. Were you attempting to debunk any myths about performance art in this film?

We initially thought that we might end up taking a very critical stance on Marina and performance art in general. I really didn’t know if Marina would pull off the MoMA performance until it got underway in March 2010. But once the show began, what I witnessed made a believer out of me. That said, I do think there is plenty of bad performance art out there, just as there’s plenty of bad painting, music, poetry, etc.

Read more in The U Press N˚2 (Singapore edition).