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Abel Ferrara’s Sharp Documentary ‘Sportin’ Life’ Reached Venice Thanks to a Luxury Brand: Saint Laurent

Through its SELF art project, the fashion house is supporting maverick artists and producing films that address the current cultural moment

Abel Ferrara’s Sharp Documentary ‘Sportin’ Life’
Courtesy of Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent creations have adorned some of the most significant icons of film and fashion, but the storied luxury brand’s latest foray into film has to do with far more than clothing.

At this month’s Venice Film Festival, Saint Laurent will debut the sixth incarnation of the international art project SELF, curated by Saint Laurent’s creative director, Anthony Vaccarello. The fest will showcase the premiere of Abel Ferrara’s newest documentary, “Sportin’ Life,” and the fiercely independent filmmaker will be honored with the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory to the Filmmaker Award.

Vaccarello started SELF, in 2018, as a way to work with artists who express the true concerns of contemporary society. Other participants have included international luminaries such as filmmakers Gaspar Noé and Wong Kar-Wai, performance artist Vanessa Beecroft, author Bret Easton Ellis, and photographer Daido Moriyama. What unites these artists, according to Saint Laurent, is their confidence, individuality and commitment to self-expression. 

For the SELF projects — which have shown at prestigious festivals — Saint Laurent is not just dressing the cast, but serving as a producer and collaborator. Saint Laurent’s goal is to enable the boldest creators across art and cinema to freely express their vision without censorship.

In Ferrara, a restless poet and rock ’n’ roll firebrand, the fashion house seems to have found a kindred spirit. Throughout a career that spans nearly a half-century, the Bronx, N.Y.-born filmmaker has found a multitude of cinematically inventive ways to explore the boundaries of the self. 

According to a statement from Saint Laurent, Ferrara’s strong vision reflects the values of their luxury brand. “Sportin’ Life” is a glimpse of Ferrara’s “world refracted through his art — music, filmmaking, his collaborators and inspirations … his partner, Cristina Chiriac … and their life in the eternal city, Roma … as the coronavirus descends and paralyses the world.”

In a statement, the Venice Film Festival’s director praised Ferrara for “his undeniable consistency and allegiance to his personal approach, inspired by the principles of independent cinema even when the director had the opportunity to work on more traditional productions.”

“From his first low-budget films, influenced directly by the New York scene populated by immigrants, artists, musicians, cops and drug addicts, through his universally recognized masterpieces … to his most recent works, increasingly introspective and autobiographical, Ferrara has brought to life a personal and exclusive universe,” it added.

In an attempt to project the core values of Saint Laurent, the SELF project is attracted to the heady mixture of attraction, ambivalence and mystery generated by photographers, artists, and filmmakers who seek out controversy. Over the course of his career, Ferrara has confronted new frontiers of spirituality and sexuality.

Having left Hollywood and lower Manhattan behind for a life in Rome, Ferrara has recently shifted to a mode of personal filmmaking that concentrates on his family, his apartment, the faces on display in his neighborhood and his closest artistic collaborator (and real-life next-door neighbor), Willem Dafoe. The filmmaker turns the people and objects nearest at hand into the ingredients of a rich, variegated stew.  

The film also includes a handful of original songs by Ferrara, including one called “Bad Lieutenant,” which borrows the title of his most controversial, best-known feature. Shifting between dramatic and documentary modes, Ferrara’s recent work is a testament to the unpredictable magic of the filmmaking process, and the ways that a life committed to art is a process of constant self-evaluation.

“I have been shooting predominantly documentaries the past 10 years or so,” Ferrara says. “Whatever the subject — Piazza Vittorio, Padre Pio — we also film the process itself … so our team and I are a part of it. The subject of my new documentary is the relationship I have to my work, to Willem Dafoe, and my music and art. These relationships are the starting point and I could not avoid facing what the world went through this year with the pandemic.”

“Sportin’ Life” is preoccupied by the sources of creativity — those that stem from the individual psyche, and those that are the product of meaningful partnerships — and the many pieces of the self that undergird any self-expression. (Maybe not coincidentally, SELF’s mission supports self-expression.) The film’s power stems from its closeness to everyday life and its staunch refusal to sidestep this year’s global upheaval. If we are living in a moment defined by a series of unknowns, “Sportin’ Life” finds a powerful method to inhabit the unknown.

Producers of “Sportin’ Life” include Diana Phillips, Anthony Vaccarello for Saint Laurent and Gary Farkas for Vixens.

Saint Laurent aims to reinforce and fuel new expressions of diversity, individuality, and self-confidence through a lens free from pretense and hypocrisy.

Ferrara has generated such an expression while living quarantine, which is no surprise. The director’s aesthetic vitality can hardly be constrained by spatial limitations. 

As Variety’s Owen Gleiberman once put it, “Abel Ferrara is a movie.”