Pietra Brettkelly

THE ART STAR AND THE SUDANESE TWINS (Pietra Brettkelly, New Zealand). 98 minutes. Thursday (April 24), 1:30 pm, Cumberland Sunday (April 27), 9 pm, Bloor. For ticket information see Indie & Rep Film or hotdocs.ca. Rating: NNNNN

How do you control a film about a visual artist who’s a control freak? When the subject starts pushing, you push right back.

New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly figured that out when she showed installation artist Vanessa Beecroft a rough cut of The Art Star And The Sudanese Twins, Brettkelly’s stunning documentary about the artist’s attempts to arrange the adoption of two babies from Sudan.


VB 61 Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?, Venice 2007. Photo by: Vanessa Beecroft. ©2007 Vanessa Beecroft

Working in the realm of performance art since 1993, Beecroft is world-famous for her extraordinary human installations (See Career Highlights, page 106). She caused a sensation in 2005 with a work featuring 100 women standing still in Berlin’s Neue Nationalgalerie for three hours, each woman oiled from the waist up and wearing nothing but a pair of pantyhose.

In her most recent performance, the making of which Brettkelly’s film documents, 30 Sudanese women lie face down on a white canvas on the ground, their limbs intertwined, representing the genocide in Darfur.


VB 61 Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?, Venice 2007. Photo by: Vanessa Beecroft. ©2007 Vanessa Beecroft

Art Star follows the fiercely focused Beecroft as she manipulates her subjects in the service of her art, spending any spare time she can find arranging an international adoption.

At first the artist was impressed with the movie, but then she expressed some doubts.

“It’s an extremely exposing film,” allows Brettkelly, speaking on the phone from her home in Auckland. “She wrote to tell me what she liked and didn’t like, what she wanted to keep and what she wanted me to take out.


VB 61 Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?, Venice 2007. Photo by: Vanessa Beecroft. ©2007 Vanessa Beecroft

“But I said to her, ‘I’m doing what you would do in your own art – those women don’t have a say in what you do.’”

No kidding. Brettkelly’s documentary presents Beecroft as a nearly unstoppable force.

The film operates on multiple levels. Brettkelly originally wanted to track Beecroft as she set out on the adoption trail. The Italian-born, now New York-based artist had arrived in Darfur to pursue her art project just after she’d given birth back in America. While there, she encountered motherless twins at an orphanage and, lactating painfully, proceeded to breastfeed the babies. She fell in love and instantly set the adoption application in motion.


VB 61 Still Death! Darfur Still Deaf?, Venice 2007. Photo by: Vanessa Beecroft. ©2007 Vanessa Beecroft

She cajoles the father, lobbies the local authorites, promises to rear the children with an appreciation of their roots and to bring them back to Darfur for visits. But, and this is key, she almost never stops doing her art work.

So what began as a film about adoption couldn’t help but become a documentary about an artist who pursues her art as relentlessly as she pushes to secure the rights to the babies. I mean, viewers have to wonder what kind of mother Beecroft could be to the twins, given that she’s left a newborn at home to go to Darfur.

The Art Star And The Sudanese Twins director Pietra Brettkelly (left) says Vanessa Beecroft had a hard time accepting the film.

Photo By Rebecca Favaro

“She’s thinking about her art all the time,” says Brettkelly. “It’s funny that it’s seen as an adoption film and not an art film, an exposé of an extraordinary person’s drive and ambition. I hope it is a kind of exploration of the person as much as it is of the adoption process.”

At first Brettkelly didn’t understand Beecroft as an artist. Like many observers, she was skeptical about performance and conceptual art and not sure that arranging nudes into geometric shapes was an artistic statement.

“I’m used to the idea of an artist standing at an easel with paint,” she confesses. “To me, Vanessa seemed more an art director. She’s not even taking the pictures. I watched her moving people around and undressing them. It’s as if she’s saying, ‘I’m going to put this here and myself here and the women here and you take the photos and I’ll just stand over here reading adoption papers or nursing one of the twins.’

“But that was my ignorance. She is an artist on so many levels.”

Art Star is an unusually arresting film with riveting visuals. Camera operator Jacob Bryant makes Beecroft’s work look magnificant, and the film itself has a specific colour scheme. The scenes in Darfur are shot in greens and reds to connote new beginnings. A sequence in Venice is done in browns and muted colours, and those shot in New York favour blues and greens. Documentaries about artists – Manufacturing Landscapes, for example, or the General Idea retrospective, both screening at this year’s Hot Docs – tend to be very beautiful, but seldom do they boast this kind of art direction.

More important, Beecroft is never presented only as a personality bent on exploitation, but, rather, as an ardent, complex character who is authentically moved by her experience in Darfur (See Q&A this page).

“All Vanessa’s emotions are extreme, but she’s an incredibly loving person. She cares intensely, and she really believes, when it comes to the adoption, that she’s doing the right thing.

“As for her art, she says herself that she’s exposing exploitation. ‘I am putting that out there for people to consider,’ she told me.”

But Brettkelly worries about the immediate reaction people have to her as a character.

“Vanessa can be really naive about how people see her. I was aware that she was being open. While we were shooting, I asked her if she was sure she wanted to go on with this. But she insisted we continue, saying she believed that what was happening in Sudan was terribly important.”

At first, Brettkelly won’t comment on her opinions about international adoption, preferring that Art Star speak for itself. But eventually she can’t resist.

“Who am I to say that what they’re doing is wrong? My concern is with those people who are affluent. There must be a better way to help the situation than to take the children. Then, on the other hand, I’ve been to some of those orphanages, and they’re such depressing places that you just wish every one of those children could get out.

“Whether I agreed with what Vanessa was doing or how she was acting, I had to appreciate the strong passion within her.”

Audio Clips

She talks about how the doc is structured so that imfo seeps out slowly:

Download associated audio clip.

She talks about how the subject Vanessa Beecroft started suddenly turning up in conversations:

Download associated audio clip.

She talks compares the work she does as a documentary filmmaker with the work Beecroft does as an installation artist:

Download associated audio clip.


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