Tuesday 25 October 2016

Looking into the heart of another world

Film-maker Cosima Spender comes from a family of renowned artists and bohemians. Her new film examines an ancient, bizarre race in Italy

Julia Molony

Published 21/09/2015 | 02:30

Astride two worlds: Cosima Spender's latest documentary goes behind the scenes of the famous Palio horse-race.
Astride two worlds: Cosima Spender's latest documentary goes behind the scenes of the famous Palio horse-race.

'Shall we bring the cakes out?" shouts film-maker Cosima Spender to her father, the renowned British sculptor Matthew Spender.

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We are in the heart of the Tuscan countryside, at a table under a canopy of green, in the garden of the Spender/Gorky family homestead - a beautiful traditional farmhouse, which has lovingly been decorated and adapted by Spender Senior and his wife, the artist Mara Gorky, to become a living, breathing, art-piece.

Propping up the veranda are sculptural columns created by Matthew. Inside the house, the walls are painted with the intricate, brightly coloured murals that are instantly recognisable as the work of Cosima's celebrated mother. In the garden, decorative peacocks strut around and scratch. Everywhere is evidence of Cosima Spender's unique and prestigious creative pedigree, all of which has informed her identity as one of the most dynamic and accomplished documentarians around.

The visual arts, certainly, are in the blood. "My mother is obsessed with composition," she says. "Visual language is part of our family - my grandfather [the Armenian artist Arshile Gorky] was a painter, my mother is a painter, my father is a sculptor, my children draw all the time. We are a very visual family. We maybe have those brains which are more visual than verbal," she says, as her father ambles past, a plate piled high with delicious looking Tuscan sweets in hand. Though there is literary heritage there too - her grandfather was the poet laureate Stephen Spender.

For Cosima, however, the decision to channel all the artistic energy she has inherited into film was a simple one. "My mother told me never to be a painter because it's too solitary," she says. "And I do love the fact that film-making is such a collaborative process. I like people, I like being with people, I like teamwork. For me, human relationships are the essence of life. That's what makes life, more than money, more than success as we conventionally see it. For me it's about your friends, your family, your relationships . . . So I think that's what led me towards film-making."

Cosima the youngest of Spender, and Gorky's two daughters spent her early years here in Tuscany, and attended the local school. At 14, however, already restless, she was ready to branch out, and asked her parents if she could move to England, and go to boarding school there. It's a decision which reflects her self-starting, determined character. "My parents are very liberal and very laid back, and they drank a lot of wine, and so I was very independent as a child," she says. "At 14, I was really unhappy in school in Italy, in Siena, and so I decided I wanted to go to the only other alternative which was presented to me, which was boarding school". The experience helped shape her into a "very independent, self-sufficient person. That's great, but it also has it's downsides - it's quite difficult to live with me, probably," she says with a smile.

From school, she went to the University of London to study anthropology and art-history - a discipline which continues to inform her work. "I kind of got to documentary through anthropology,' she explains. "I'm very interested in how different cultures and different societies express social things through art."

Her latest project, Palio, is a neat expression of that principle. The film goes behind the scenes of the famous Palio horse-race, a unique and remarkable piece of civic theatre which takes place twice every summer in Siena's Piazza del Campo, the city's central square. For the thousands of tourists who flock to the medieval city, the race is well-known for its pageantry, its colour, its grand spectacle, and for the unparalleled (and slightly insane) thrill of high-speed, bare-back horse-racing right at the very heart of an ultra-urban environment. But as we learn from Spender's film, to the Sienese it is so much more than this. It is the annual blood-letting of ancient rivalries between clearly defined communities. For the rest of the year, members of different "contradas" (meaning neighbourhoods or parishes) exist peaceably cheek-by-jowl, living and working together. But twice a year, they are transformed into warring tribes as they compete to win the Palio.

The race, it seems, is Sienese culture in microcosm. The Byzantine rule system which governs it, the intricacies, corruption, ambition, optimism, back-stabbing and strategising that are built into the event's very format and structure - are a reflection of a usually unseen part of the city's identity.

It is this side of the story which Spender's film focuses on. She has a unique vantage point on it, having grown up close to Siena as both an outsider and a local. The daughter of British parents, she speaks English with a mysterious, not-quite-placeable mid-continental accent. She knows the local customs inside out, but at the same time, has the necessary degree of remove to be able to observe them acutely.

"What's brilliant," she says of how she interacts with her subjects, "is that I can even speak with their same accent, and yet, I'm an outsider so I can ask all the questions that insiders can't ask. All the taboo questions, or all the things that I should know. They kind of see me as an English person, but who can understand them because I grew up here. Which I can, I do feel very much a Tuscan."

Her approach as a film-maker, however, is one of neutral observation. "I try not to be judgemental because you are entering another world, and you don't want to judge it with your own point of view, even though you have a point of view. You have a vision. You don't want to impose your own value system or judgement onto different cultures, because everyone is entitled to choose the way they want to live their life, or express themselves."

The world of the Palio is a deeply male-dominated one. In Spender's film, women are rarely seen or heard. "It was much easier as a woman," Cosima says of infiltrating that environment. "Because it was so macho."

For her part, she says that in any case she's "quite comfortable in male worlds, because I went to a boys' school in London, and I think that really prepared me. And my children are boys. [She has two sons.] So for me, actually, I never think so much about the gender. Even about myself, I think of myself as a person before being a woman, strangely. Even though, of course, that's not the way the world sees me. It was obvious I really stood out. but I'm kind of used to that. And it helped in this case, because the men are more open with women, and they are less competitive. And everything is so competitive here."

Alongside her visual sense and her knack for storytelling she has another secret weapon close to hand - her husband. Valerio Bonelli is an award-winning film editor and the pair have collaborated on almost all of Spender's films so far. "Valerio is brilliant at his job - he's the best. We have really collaborated a lot together and I think we both really know how to create atmospheres together on film. He just brings a whole other level," she says.

"But, of course, the downside is that whereas with other directors he might be polite if he doesn't agree, with me if he doesn't agree on something he'll just blurt it out with no boundaries. But we've worked on that through this film. I think we'll be probably quite professional next time." In any case, she says, thinking of Palio, which was nominated for Best Documentary at the Tribeca film festival, "the end result heals any difficulties you've had. Because the end result with Val is always so good."

'Palio' is released this Friday.

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