TIFF ’17: Sophie Fiennes’ intimate portrait of “Grace Jones”

Filmed over the course of a decade, Sophie Fiennes‘ latest feature-length documentary explores the many lives –performance, personal and public – of seminal New Wave icon Grace Jones. In Grace Jones: ...
September 7, 2017

Filmed over the course of a decade, Sophie Fiennes‘ latest feature-length documentary explores the many lives –performance, personal and public – of seminal New Wave icon Grace Jones.

In Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami, gone are the stylings of a traditional biography, ripe with sit-down interviews and archive footage.

“That’s not an interesting form of documentary to me because then it’s always about the past,” says Fiennes of the decision to treat Grace Jones as a cinéma verité project. “I like the present moment and capturing that present moment.”

Instead, the 115-minute film, which serves as the opening night TIFF Docs film, provides an intimate vérité-style look at the Jamaican model-turned-singer-turned actress.

The doc sheds light on the former Vogue cover model and singer by tracing her with family on a holiday road trip across Jamaica, where her familial roots and the story of her traumatic childhood are uncovered. Fiennes’ lens is also fixated on Jones as she enters into the recording studio with Jamaican duo Sly and Robbie, and jaunting over to Paris with frequent creative collaborator Jean-Paul Goude.

(The film’s title is taken from Jamaican patois, in which “bloodlight” is the red light that illuminates in recording studios, while “bami” means bread, the substance of daily life.)

Interspersed throughout the film are performances from a 2016 concert at the Olympia Theatre in Dublin, Ireland, that provide a theatrical element to Fiennes’ intimate portrait. The film sees Jones performing such hit songs as “Love is the Drug,” “Pull Up To The Bumper,” “Amazing Grace,” “Hurricane” and “Slave to the Rhythm” alongside ornamental routines that echo her modeling past.

Produced by Dublin-based Blinder Films, Sligoville and Amoeba Film, the film was financed by BBC Films, the British Film Institute, Irish Film Board and Roads Entertainment, in cooperation with ZDF/ARTE.

The film was produced by Fiennes, Katie Holly, Shani Hinton and Beverly Jones. It is represented worldwide by WestEnd Films and is being distributed by Trafalgar Releasing in the UK and Ireland.

Executive producers include Christine Langan, Joe Oppenheimer, Lizzie Francke, Keith Potter, Francesca Von Habsburg, Danielle Ryan, Alan Maher, James Wilson and Émilie Blézat.

Realscreen caught up with Fiennes to chat about Grace Jones ahead of the doc’s world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this evening (Sept. 7).

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

What was the genesis of Grace Jones? How did it come to be?

I had made a film about her brother’s Pentecostal church in Los Angeles and it was from seeing that that film (Hoover Street Revival, 2002) that she spontaneously suggested we embark on a project together. It was very much the beginning of an organic process of really giving herself over to being seen in a documentary context outside of this construction. She had never been filmed before without makeup. She’s controlled by her public image very carefully, very tightly. She’s kept her private self very private. And I think that for her it was a really exciting and challenging process to be seen in a different way.

Can you take me through the process of creating and developing this film that was 10 years in the making?

I started in 2005, but after five years I knew I had the material that was covering a certain moment in her life. I knew that I really needed to capture the performance in a contrapuntal way to set that against this intimacy in the film. I wanted to set this question of construction of self on a stage against being in one’s life in a day-to-day kind of way – to create a relationship between those two registers of being.

Grace as a performer has changed a lot since her early work with Jean-Paul Goude. I really felt her performance had to be captured properly because she’s an extraordinary performer and, as I was filming over the five years with just a small documentary camera, I could see this amazing performance happening. This was something that I wanted to capture in a higher production value than my DV camera could do – it needed to be done properly – and that meant raising money to make that happen.

What sort of production challenges did you encounter during the making of this film?

It’s always a challenge to raise money. The paperwork and the bureaucracy now that’s required in bringing a film to completion is enormous, just in terms of making these agreements work. It’s a whole year of just putting paperwork together. That’s why my lawyer, a wonderful woman called Shani Hinton, is actually also a producer on the film — because she was doing so much of this work and that was a huge part of completing a film.

The shooting, creatively, I would say is one of the most thrilling experiences for me because it was a risk in creating a show. We only had two performances and shot it on 16mm – you’re changing film magazines and there’s always a certain fragility in that.

In terms of the documentary side of it, it was just constantly being in these moments, capturing them and finding ways of framing that you get to that strength of Grace’s beauty and the power of her physically, and also the many sides of her character.

From my understanding, you’ve edited the past five of your documentaries using Final Cut. Why is that?

Because no one would ever take the time to go into the material the way that I would and I couldn’t afford that anyway. But I also love editing. Documentary filmmakers have often edited their own work because you don’t have a script to follow…you have to write it in the edits. Now with the software systems, you really can write with film, and I don’t just mean what is said in speech. It’s also to do with the rhythms of picture, sound and the evocation of place and moment. Building those is always the part that I really, really enjoy.

What’s next for you as a documentary filmmaker?

(Documentary personality and philosopher) Slavoj Žižek and I have a pact that we are going make a trilogy, so I have one more film to make with him that we’re talking about – the final in our Pervert‘s series. The working title is The Pervert’s Guide to the 21st Century. To have made a film that was exploring psychoanalytic ideas and then ideological ideology, and to be in the world that we’re in now, it’s a really interesting challenge to see what the material for this film will be.

  • Grace Jones: Bloodlight & Bami debuts at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre Centre in Toronto tonight (Sept. 7) at 9:30 p.m. ET
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