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Q&A: Documentary Maker Sophie Fiennes on the Intimacy and Magic of Grace Jones

Documentary filmmaker Sophie Fiennes seizes opportunities and doesn’t shy away from challenges. This is what makes a documentary a good film: not only a great subject, but also the capacity of the filmmaker to add their original perspective. Sophie has worked with choreographer Michael Clark and legendary filmmaker Peter Greenaway. She has directed award-winning films such as Over Your Cities, Grass Will Grow, a film project with the artist Anselm Kiefer. She also made two documentaries with philosopher Slavoj Zizek, The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema and The Pervert's Guide to Ideology.

This time, for Grace Jones, Bloodlight and Bami, Sophie Fiennes follows veteran art-pop diva Grace Jones around the globe. She takes the viewer on an intimate and electrifying journey that moves between four cinematic layers – performance, family, artist and gypsy – to explore the fascinating world of this pop-culture phenomenon. Here we see Grace Jones behind the mask as a daughter, mother, sister and grandmother, alongside taking to the stage for a specially commissioned performance, with legendary hits including Pull Up to the Bumper and Slave to the Rhythm showcased in full. Larger than life, bordering on cartoon, wild, scary and androgynous – Grace Jones plays all these parts.

Julien Planté: Have you always been a fan of Grace Jones?

Sophie Fiennes: When asked what perfume she was wearing she said “body odour”, and from right then I just thought, this woman is brilliant. It was so refreshing because she was speaking from a different place than your average chat show interview. I know she was singular and I found her quite daunting as a women because she was so physically naked on that Island Life cover. I found her fascinating and I really liked her cover of She’s Lost Control, the Joy Division song. When I got to know her I became a bigger fan of Grace as the years rolled by.

Sophie Fiennes with Grace Jones. Photo credit: Sarah Douglas

Julien: You made a film without talking heads and without any clips - you always remain at a distance. Instead we see Grace Jones travelling, backstage, or with her family. What are your intentions with Bloodlight and Bami?

Sophie: I feel like I am in this position of privilege with the camera right there with Grace. My mission is to bring that intimacy into the film. I don’t want to break the magic of that time you get with Grace, or how differently it registers. Where I am really prevalent is in the editing and the camera work; I’m present but not there as a personality on the screen. I’m not directing it, I don't have an agenda. I make the film from the material that I create because that’s the school of documentary I most enjoy to watch so it’s also what I most enjoy to make. 

Julien: Unlike recent biopics like 'Amy' or 'Can I Be Me?', you are allowing us to see very raw footage - authentic, unplanned moments. What is your process as a film maker?

Sophie: Every film is different. In this film I decided that it was a creative decision to say 'let's see what happens'. I wanted to bring that into how I shot.

I took my time, which I think she appreciated. When someone sees the film they are struck by her different accents. She speaks in a different way in nearly every scene - whether she is speaking Jamaican, or English, or French, or English with a Japanese accent when she’s in Japan. She is someone who is always in a different degree of performance - and I think that is true with all of us.

We are all performing in a way - society expects us to be something. Certainly for women, what you wear, the sense of who you are and how you are percieved; Grace sort of breaks all that down and explodes it with really broad, different aspects of herself that I wanted to show. She is vulnerable, she is curious, she is erotic, she is a daughter, she’s a mother, and a grandmother.

What’s exciting, and what is revealed through Grace is how fantastic it is to play - in the broadest sense of who you are as a human. You don’t have to be too defined or too limited. People say that Grace Jones is androgynous but actually her fierceness is an aspect of her femininity. Why is there a notion that women wouldn't be angry or prepared to raise their voice? 

Her love of theatre, particularly Japanese theatre, her love of fashion and the visual world - that is where Grace and I have connected. We both love the visual world and I wanted to create a film that gives you a sense of how she feels. She has always been the object of our gaze. Images that fascinate us, that compel us, gain strength in their strangeness and the attitude that is so singular to her. I wanted to play a role reversal in that she is the person who is taking pictures, who is drawing the Parisian, a panorama. We are seeing the world through her eyes - and that speaks in the moment where she talks about the horror of having to close her father's eyes when he died.

She has an intense attitude of being alive and being in the present tense: don't let this moment pass you by. That sense of the present tense is also very important to the film, because it is all in the present tense, every moment, whether it’s stage or whether it’s life. It’s not like you are casting back and saying ‘here’s a picture of me in 1972’, it doesn’t look back, it’s all present tense.

Julien: How did you manage to build Grace Jones’ trust?

Sophie: She saw the film that I made about her brother's church called Hoover Street Revival and that was a very visual film too and responded to his sermons as though they were a performance. I think she liked that film and the trust was built through seeing what I had made. What happened was, I was actually busy making The Perverts Guide to Cinema and she contacted me and said, "someone has approached me to make a film, a TV company. I don’t really work in that way, but maybe you and I can do something together?” Of course I leapt at that, I said "Absolutely!" It was very much like an experiment between us. It might not have materialised into a film, but I had such beautiful material - I loved the footage. I had this box of tapes that was like a box of jewels sitting there and I had got to a point where I couldn't make another film until I had finished this one.

It was an organic and creative relationship that started from a point of trust in me as a film maker and her knowing me. I had had enough conversations with her before we had embarked on the film to know that we liked hanging out. She's great fun to be with - you can see that from the film, and that’s why I don't want to get in the way of the audience having that fun watching the film. Being me, as it were, they (the audience) are looking through my camera to see what I am seeing - they get that time with her.

Julien: It’s great to have those uncut moments - an incredible window into her life and her many façades. Did you know how long the shoot would be before you started?

Sophie: I didn't know how long it would be. When I embarked on it a voice in my head said, ‘just keep shooting and don’t think about how it's all going to work.’ Then there was a point where that same voice said, ‘I think you’ve got the documentary coverage now'. So, I shot it from 2005 to 2009 - and then I knew it needed her live performance.

I think she was surprised about needing the live show, but I said, "look every time I’m seeing you perform it’s so brilliant and I've just got this tiny little camera and I can't capture it properly". I needed to push the boat out to make a proper performative layer in the film; but also I realised I needed it structurally because my footage was going all over the world with different times of day - different moments. I needed something that could work as an anchor - a place where you return to. It was the songs and the set list that created structure in the narrative; like a musical.

Julien: Grace Jones looks like she always wants to have full creative control - was she involved in the production process (the pre-production, filming, editing)?

Sophie: No, not at all. In fact, the thing about Grace is, she is a brilliant creative collaborator. She was not at all controlling, she was much more conspiratorial. When I said to her ‘I need to stage the performance’, then she said actually there are these designs that Eiko Ishioka made that we never did, but they might be interesting to look at. So we dug those out of her storage of paperwork and I took one look at them - they were just photographs of an idea of a staging that had been mocked up - and I said, this is really brilliant. She came in with that and equally I said to her that I wanted her to perform Slave to the Rhythm twice, once with a hula hoop and once with a death mask and then I would cut them together to start the film and she immediately said “Okay, great, great, love it.” You explain an idea to her quickly and she gets it, she doesn't want to chew on it for too long, she doesn't like to overthink, certainly when she goes on stage. She didn't want anything to do with the lighting. I gave her every opportunity, she could see the stand, the lighting, take a look at the colours. I wanted to give her every opportunity to have input whenever she wanted to but at the end of the day I had final cut and she never questioned that.

Julien: What was the vibe between you two like?

Sophie: She would call me and say, "We’re going to be in the studio, do you want to come?" I was very much in her hands. She instigated when to come - when she had any travelling trips, she'd call me: “I’m going to Jamaica to a family reunion, come along." In the actual moments of filming she just let me get on with doing what I was doing, even while chatting with her and having in-depth conversations. While I was in Jamaica we spoke a huge amount - on and off camera -  and I got to really understand her a lot. We were there for three weeks and I got a good understanding of the relationship with her family and her childhood.

Sophie Fiennes. Photo credit: Remko Schnorr

Grace Jones and Friends Live, 25th October, will include a screening of the film, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami — which goes on general release 27th October — followed by a Q&A with the artist.

More info and tickets here.