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Although she is photographed frequently on the social scene, director Chiara Clemente clearly prefers remaining behind the lens. The second a camera starts snapping her portrait, her girlish face takes on a slightly stoic expression and her eyes turn wary.
“I don’t smile very often,” she offers, shyly.
The picture is quite different a few minutes later, when — portrait session done — a more relaxed Clemente cozies into a window-side seat of Greenwich Village’s Café Henri, cradling a large cup of hot chocolate in her hands. Sporting a downtown mix of Larsen Gray and Obedient Daughters togs, the 31-year-old smiles easily as she discusses her new documentary, “Our City Dreams.” The film follows five female artists of different generations who have all chosen New York City as their creative locus: there is Swoon, 31, whose printmaking finds a home on the streets and in MoMA alike; the Egyptian-born Ghada Amer, who juxtaposes hand-embroidered painting techniques with erotic figurative subjects; Marina Abramovic, a Serbian performance artist looking to re-create her European success in America; Kiki Smith, the famed sculptor, printmaker and installation creator, and Nancy Spero, now 82, a political activist and artistic pioneer.
The movie, which began a two-week run at Film Forum on Wednesday, is Clemente’s first major directorial project since moving back to the city from Italy five years ago.
“I had been working with artists, collaborating on portraits in Rome, so I knew that I wanted to do something on artists related to New York,” she explains, fingering her necklace designed by longtime boyfriend Waris Ahluwalia.
Clemente spent two years following her subjects — “I felt like I was a doctor on call,” she says — a process that had her jetting from Cairo to meet Amer’s parents, to Turin, Italy, where Smith created an ice sculpture for the 2006 Winter Olympics, and even a last-minute shoot in Thailand, where Abramovic mounted a large-scale, tsunami-themed piece. The resulting work is both a collective of individual vignettes and a larger story of female creation, all with New York as the omnipresent backdrop.
“The thing with this film is there’s no angle to it, you’re really just experiencing the artists,” says Clemente. “I was very respectful of them because of growing up with an artist father. It was great because it let them trust me, but sometimes I wish I had pushed more.”
“There was nothing invasive about her,” says Smith. “She was present and determined to accomplish what she wanted to, but in a way that never felt practiced.”
The elder daughter of painter Francesco and performer Alba, Clemente was born in Rome and moved to New York when she was five. She spent much of her childhood living in her father’s Great Jones Street studio, where the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Julien Schnabel would wander in and stay for her mother’s home cooking. She and her sister, Nina, had playdates, complete with toys, with Keith Haring.
“I’m very impressed by how she came out. I feel slightly more scarred by the experience,” says Smith, who also grew up in a creative community — her father was the well-known sculptor Tony Smith. “She had remarkable parenting. You can see she comes from a very loving, strong family that paid a lot of attention to her, and it shows in how poised she is as a person.”
Clemente always loved storytelling, and at age 12 asked her parents for a Sony High 8 video camera. After graduating from Dalton in 1996, she headed to film school at the Pasadena Art Center and then moved to Rome, where she made a series of art documentaries for the Italian Rai Sat Art Channel, on subjects like Frank Gehry and Brice Marden. In 2002, she directed “Three Worlds: A Portrait of Francesco Clemente,” a documentary about her father.
Though she seems at ease with her illustrious lineage, Clemente hasn’t always escaped the judgment that can accompany it. While she was at Pasadena, her father had a large retrospective at the Guggenheim, a show that temporarily broke her initial campus anonymity.
“Literally, I had someone say, ‘Oh, I just found out who your dad is. Wow, this really changes how I’ve seen you for the past year,’ ” she relates, still incredulous.
“People have expectations of you that have nothing to do with you and that can be quite complicated,” says her good friend Poppy de Villeneuve, whose father, Justin de Villeneuve, was a famous photographer in London in the Sixties. “You have to work double hard to be taken seriously.”
In Clemente’s case, escaping New York was a necessary step in gaining that sense of independence.
“It’s such an electric city, and in that way it can either fry you or feed you. Doing this film and seeing these artists and how they really felt about the city made me really connect with that side of it,” she explains. “It took me four years in Rome to realize that I was actually more of a New Yorker than I wanted to believe.”