This week’s Discover Tuesdays presentation is the engrossing documentary Hand Gestures, which shows how little the process of casting bronze has changed since the fifth century BCE. Without narration, the film follows the process from the original wax model to the finished artwork – a series of painstaking and startling procedures.
Ahead of its UK premiere at the London Film Festival in October, we caught up with debut director Francesco Clerici at Picturehouse Central.
The documentary follows the process of creating one of Velasco Vitali’s famous dog sculptures, at Fonderia Artistica Battaglia in Milan. It’s interesting that you have these two art forms coming together – the age-old art of bronze sculpting and the modern process of filmmaking. How did you approach this?
What was very clear for me when I was watching the workers was that I had to disappear in the process. I needed to be more of a first spectator rather than a dictator and take out all the narcissistic stuff you associate with directing, including music or obvious editing. I needed to be just at the surface. One of the biggest problems was to keep them working naturally.
I feel that the cinema is a very good mirror of what you see in the foundry. You have the raw materials and it’s like a visage from one step to the next. For me, this is a very pioneering way to make a film. It was just me and a camera and a tripod and them. But it was a very honest homage to their job.
At the beginning we had no money, but everybody who was involved in the film was involved because they wanted to help. All the sound engineers were doing the recordings because they loved the project. It was a low-budget, family atmosphere.
You’ve given us a window into a secret world that nobody has really seen before. What was it like entering the foundry?
This is the reality that nobody knows. Even in Italy when we screened the film, nobody really knows about it and I’ve learned from watching the film with an audience that somehow it’s become a thriller. They’re asking what the canals are for and, of course, you don’t know the answer!
When you enter the foundry, there’s no sense of time and the rhythm is different from Milan. Even when it’s snowing it’s 45 degrees inside because of the molten bronze, and although no one is speaking there’s constant noises coming from the instrument and tools. It’s like a different dimension. When you enter the cinema you are in another dimension and it’s the same when you enter the foundry.
There’s a recent tradition of documentaries with very little dialogue that are hypnotic to watch. Ben Rivers’ Two Years at Sea and Leviathan spring to mind. Where there any filmmakers or films that you drew inspiration from?
I’m a big cinema lover but when I was there I was totally not thinking about film. I was thinking about them. When someone asks me whether I thought about Frederick Wiseman at a certain moment, I have to apologise! I was just curious about what they were doing and how they were doing it. Sometimes I was hypnotised too much! I was forgetting to turn off the camera because I was inside the process and then something unexpected would happen. I’d been there for four months before starting the shoot but everyday there was something different. I hope the audience feel the same way. I tried to take myself out of the process as much as as possible.
We get an impression of each of the workers from the way they work but never really get to know them. They seem like salt-of-the-earth types…
I like the idea that you can get a sense of the character of a person by just watching them working. In reality they were all different. One listened to classical music while another didn’t want to talk much. I didn’t want to be the intruder in their lives. Some had dramatic stories but I didn’t want the audience to care.
The documentary is about collaboration and it’s against the idea that’s fashionable today: that the artist is God and that the other doesn’t exist. This is what art has been before the 18th century – there was a group of people who worked for Leonardo Da Vinci. Today it’s all about the leader, whether it’s in politics or art. It’s about the author. Everybody knows Orson Welles but not everyone is aware of the screenwriter or the editor or the cinematographer. Cinema and the foundry are similar in this way. Everybody has to trust each other and if someone makes a mistake you have to start from the beginning. It’s the same in the foundry.
In the bronze process it’s all about matter and basic elements: mud, water, air and fire. Things from the beginning of time. It’s a connection in real life that we miss. This is one of the reasons some people like the film. It’s the connection with the manual job.
Hand Gestures plays across Picturehouse Cinemas on Tuesday 1 December as part of Discover Tuesdays.
Times+ members can discover stunning cinema by visiting www.ourscreen.com/discover
Every day MUBI’s in-house experts hand-pick a beautiful new film and you have 30 days to watch it. £4.99 a month with the first month free for Picturehouse customers. mubi.com/picturehouse