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Two New Documentaries about Dutch Designers

After winning a Golden Calf award for her film about controversial cartoonist John Callahan, Simone de Vries turns her talent to two of Holland's best designers - Erik Kessels and Ted Noten.

By Gabrielle Kennedy / 09-07-2009

After a slew of successful documentaries about renowned creatives like cartoonist John Callahan, Jewish songwriter, Kinky Friedman, actor and Golden Globe winner Rutger Hauer, and NRC Handelsblad cartoonist, Kamagurka, filmmaker Simone de Vries has turned her talents to Dutch designers.

Her next documentary will air August 20 on Dutch TV channel VPRO and is about conceptual designer, artist, curator and advertising creative, Erik Kessels.  

The characteristic common to all of De Vries’ subjects is a sort of artistic bravery and nonchalance about how the rest of society feels about them.  “They all have very strong opinions,” says De Vries,  “and they have the drive to make people think differently.  Probably this is the type I am most strongly attracted to because it is so unlike me.”

Erik Kessels creates work that, like an adrenalin shot to the heart, shocks people back into life.  It reminds them that they are coaxing through, passively consuming, but noticing nothing real.

“Erik is very creative and also very Dutch,” says De Vries.  “You know in Holland we don’t like to polish things, but just say them as they are.  A good example is the advertisement he created for a life insurance company of a coffin with a caption that read, ‘It’s 100% sure you will end up here.’”

Another infamous Kessels project that struck De Vries was one he worked on with Hans Aarsman.  The pair were commissioned to design a piece to sit in the center of a roundabout.  “But in end they decided to dig a hole and put all the art and ideas underground,” De Vries says.  “It was very controversial because the public paid to have the art work there, and in the end they couldn’t see anything.  The average person does not care about the concept.”

But perhaps the most poignant Kessels project and the one that guided De Vries’ film was his sourcing and editing of old discarded family photo albums.  One exhibition documented the lives of twins – two girls in matching outfits loving life - until one day one twin appears to vanish and the pictures continue with just one of the girls. “Nobody knows the true story, but Eric clearly thinks that one of the twins died,” explains De Vries.  “At least that is how he edited the images and presented them.”

The startling aspect of this remarkable body of edited old photographs is that just weeks before being presented, they were mostly lying on the ground in an old book market. “But that is Erik’s power,” says De Vries.  “He finds value in things other people have thrown away.”

Through interviews and time spent with Kessels, De Vries discovered that his interest in old photographs, family albums and death can be traced back to his own personal story.  When he was very young, his younger sister was tragically killed by a passing car.   

“When he looked through his own family’s albums, he realized that his sister suddenly stops appearing,” De Vries says.

De Vries then looks into Kessel’s own family albums, which are filled with images of his own children in tears and with bleeding noses.  “It is very interesting and telling,” she says.  “I think his kids are so used to him taking unstaged images that depict the rawer moments in life that when they hurt themselves they first run to him asking to be photographed before running to their mother for a bandaid.”

De Vries spent 25 days shooting Kessels who has not yet seen the edited film. “People say that if a subject doesn’t like your movie, then it is good,” she says.  “But it is horrible too.  Of course I want him to like it.” 

De Vries’ next subject is Dutch jewelry designer Ted Noten.  Noten has had a medical and creative rollercoaster of a life.  It was his Princess piece, a dead mouse donning a tiny pearl necklace encased in a Perspex bag, that shot him to design fame.

But whatever happened to Princess or the other pieces Noten created like “Murdered Innocence,” the gun, christening gown and bullet bag that authorities removed from the Stedelijk Museum, or the edible gold wedding rings?  After many discussions with design figureheads like Gijs Bakker, who referred to Noten as one of the most important designers of his time, De Vries decided to contact him to see if he would let her film a documentary.

“Gijs Bakker told me that Noten’s work elicits a strong reaction from the public,” she says.  “They laugh or they get angry, and a designer or an artist can only make a change if people are agitated in one way or another.  I knew he would be fascinating to film.”

De Vries is interesting to listen to on the topic of reality TV versus documentaries.  “Of course it is different,” she says when challenged.  “A documentary is filmed with a purpose and the filmmakers vision is most important.   I choose the scenes very carefully because they are about something, they stand for something. These films are about composition and are not made by simply following interesting people around.”

Images - main Erik Kessels, from top Simone De Vries, Kessels picture of his daughter and then images from his own photo collection as presented in Arles.

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