Chiara Clemente’s Early Start

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Published October 18, 2010

As the daughter of famed painter Francesco Clemente, Chiara Clemente‘s knack for portraiture shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. With a resumé that boasts collaborations with Jim Dine and Frank Gehry; short films for Anthropology, Saatchi + Saatchi, and T Magazine; and the 2005 documentary, Our City Dreams (which followed Marina Abramovic and other female artists), the Italian-born filmmaker is now setting her sights on what came before the limelight. Her ongoing interest in identity—and her undeniable powers of perception—go to good use in Beginnings, a series of short films featuring a slice of early life from the likes of New York creative icons Dan Barber, Carolina Herrera, Yoko Ono [BELOW], and Mario Sorrenti.

We sat down with the diminutive beauty to discuss the power of family, her itch to explore, and why she keeps coming back to New York. LEFT: AT THE PREMIERE WITH FRANCESCO AND ALBA (RIGHT) CLEMENTE.

ARIELLA GOGOL: You grew up in Italy, India, and New York. Was it hard to move around?

CHIARA CLEMENTE: I loved to move around. And the thing is, when you do it as a child, it kind of gets stuck with you. Even now, it’s hard for me to stay in one place. I mean, I’m based in New York, definitely, but when possible, I do projects that take me other places.

GOGOL: What’s been your favorite place to live?

CLEMENTE: Oh, I don’t know. I always say I wish the continents were all back together, because then I could get a little bit of everything.

GOGOL: Were you always interested in identity?

CLEMENTE: Yes.

GOGOL: Moving around probably intensified that.

CLEMENTE: Definitely. Identity and family dynamics are two very strong things that I grew up with. My parents were very young when they had me, and they’re both artists, and it wasn’t a traditional household, but the Italian side of things kept things very family-based. I grew up with a really intriguing world around me, a lot of great characters—it wasn’t a normal childhood, but there was such a bond. You know, there were four kids, and family’s a big part of growing up. There was a lot of stability, and it’s helped me stay grounded today.

GOGOL: And to move around.

CLEMENTE: And to move around, you need that.

GOGOL: And for this project, how did you pick your subjects?

CLEMENTE: Well, it really started with the idea. Because when I was flying around the world for Our City Dreams, and after the showing, people were always inspired to go home and create. And the fact that it was crossing over to people all over the world—I was really proud of that film, and I wanted to continue that with my work, and I just thought, well, “What is a moment that everyone can really relate to?” A lot of the characters in this film are very well known characters, but most of these people started really young, it was just like a calling they had. And I really wanted to show that, because I think we live in a time of instant fame—there is this reality-TV kind of instant fame, but the truth is that all these people who have that, it’s not like it was handed to them.

GOGOL: Were any of these people your friends?

CLEMENTE: You know, New York City is hard. It never ends—the characters, the artists… Each person has their own story to tell. Mario Sorrenti and I had worked together at W magazine and I had gotten to know him a little bit there. He started so young, and all these elements… his father was a painter. I mean, the amount of time. And Carolina Herrera, I didn’t know her at all before. But you see these photographs, and it looks like a Fellini film—black and white, kind of romantic. She looks like a movie star in these photos. And I was so curious to hear her story.

GOGOL: Was there any challenge in getting these people to open up? There must be some sort of guard to overcome.

CLEMENTE: Well, every time with my work, one thing I try to achieve is this sense of intimacy. That it’s not a question-and-answer interview, that it’s really a conversation. So it’s a challenge—we had half a day sometimes, and we need people to feel comfortable enough to just let us in. But, I find that when you have people speak of a memory—something that’s not a recited thing—automatically their eye kind of looks back. It puts them in an intimate space. I enter a room, and it’s not about my character, it’s not about my ego. I enter softly. In the beginning, they’re more defensive, but after the first couple questions, they often realize it’s really only about them, and they become more comfortable.

GOGOL: When did you start thinking filmmaking would be your outlet?

CLEMENTE: Well, my grandfather, my father’s father, who I was really close with, he was an amazing storyteller. He would go from his war memories to family stories to fairytales, and he would sort of mush it all together. And that got my imagination going. So from a very young age, I started thinking up my own stories. And then one day I thought: I don’t want to do this with words, I want to do it with visuals—what if I do it with film? My first film was my senior year of high school, and at the time there wasn’t such a sense of documentary—it was just film. So I made this twenty-five minute film, but it was a documentary, because it was just called “Boys.” It was comparing Amalfi and New York City through questions to boys that I knew.

But how I started actually making documentaries? I moved to Rome after college, I was doing anything that got me on a set, that got me experience. Then one day, a friend of a friend looked at me and said, “You make films, right?” and he said they were looking for someone to make short portraits about shows and artists for this art channel. Do you want to go meet with them? And two weeks later I got my first assignment: to meet Jim Dine. So I went to go meet him, and at the end of the interview he looked at me and said: “Thank you, that was a really great interview. It made me feel very comfortable.” And I think those were very encouraging words. I just thought, OK, I can do this. I’d like to do this.

GOGOL: Do you think you became interested in personhood because you were coming from a place of privilege?

CLEMENTE: I never felt that. You know, the way things worked, so naturally—we grew up until I was ten in my father’s studio, around him painting all the time—it was not this strange thing. My mother was this amazing cook, so people were always coming over for dinner. So I think, because I was exposed to so many great characters, I just want to discover new ones. And I love to listen. And because I’m a good listener, I find that people that I don’t even know that well end up confiding in me. I’ll be sitting at a table, and all of a sudden I’ll be listening to a conversation and connecting the dots.

GOGOL: And what do you love most about New York?

CLEMENTE: Besides The Smile lemonade? You know, I have such a love-hate relationship with New York. It’s such an extreme city. It’s funny because I escaped when I was 18, and never thought I’d come back. And then here I am, six years later, and I seem to make one “I Love New York” film after another. I think there are all these amazing creative forces, people moving around. I can’t imagine doing it anywhere else.

BEGINNINGS WILL PREMIERE ON THE SUNDANCE CHANNEL ON OCTOBER 24 AT 9 P.M. E/P. YOU CAN VIEW BEGINNINGS FILMS OF CAROLINA HERRERA AND OTHERS AT FULL FRONTAL FASHION.