Wolfram Hissen’s “The Running Fence Revisited” screens this weekend at the Sonoma International Film Festival—an emotional portrait of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, the fence, and the community that fought over it
More than any other filmmaker working with Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wolfram Hissen has stayed the test of time. The German filmmaker made his first film about their work 26 years ago and, six films later, he is still going strong. The Running Fence Revisited, screening on Saturday and Sunday this weekend at the 14th Sonoma International Film Festival celebrates Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s iconic Running Fence, a 24 mile long white fabric fence that ran through Marin and Sonoma Counties for two weeks in 1976 and profoundly changed the way we all think about art. The documentary contains precious footage of Jeanne-Claude’s last visit to Northern California in the fall of 2009, and provides a riveting snapshot of the intense and highly creative style of communicating the artistic couple employed as well as touching interviews with the farmers and community members who supported and opposed the controversial project. Christo insists that the “Fence” itself is not the work of art but rather how the fence interacted with the landscape made the art. It was the trailing nylon ribbon “suddenly underlined and energized by the topography” and how “the people themselves who got into the discussion, for or against” and the immense paper trail—that were all together “Running Fence.” And this is the amorphous subject that Hissen tackles so admirably in his film that was commissioned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum for their exhibition “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the Running Fence” (April 2- September 26, 2010).
The 47 minute film was shot on location in Valley Ford, Bloomfield and along the fence line began near the Old Redwood Highway close to Penngrove, crossed 18 roads and transected 59 ranches as it stretched across the golden hills of West Sonoma County and dropped into the Pacific just over the Marin County line. It features many quiet scenes of Christo and Jeanne-Claude just walking and talking arm in arm, habituating the viewer to the slow dreamy rhythm of being in nature. There is no added sound, save from original sound of the fence itself being whipped about by the wind and music from the footage that was made in 1976-77 in the pickup of William Corda and Joe Pozzi.
Below is an interview Wolfram Hissen and I started in Washington D.C. last April at the film’s global premiere at the Smithsonian and finished at its West Coast premiere last June at the Union Hotel, Occidental, and at the Charles M. Schultz Museum, in Santa Rosa. Typical of the today’s international filmmaker, Hissen is constantly on the move: he maintains a home in France and in New York and is juggling several projects at once. Once a big chunk of the funding seemed fairly certain, he assembled his crew quickly in the fall of 2009–Derek van Rheenen, Ph.D., assistant director, Erin van Rheenen, gopher and author of an eloquent brochure on the film, and best boy Vincent O’Connell. He shot most of the film during the special Bloomfield celebration with Christo and Jeanne-Claude (September 2009) celebrating the fence at 33. (see ARThound, September 13, 2009 “The Running Fence at 33…an extended Family Gathers Round Christo and Jeanne-Claude” and September 3, 2009 “The Running Fence at 33..Christo and Jeanne Claude Visit Sonoma County.”
The interview has been edited so that the time frames discussed are relative to 2011.
Geneva Anderson: How did you first get involved with Christo and what inspired you to do this film?
Wolfram Hissen: Christo made a huge impression on me when I was young. I am a German citizen, was born in Köln, but was raised in Portland, Oregon, and New York. In the late 1960’s, our family returned to Heidelberg, Germany and I found that a very strange planet indeed. My parents were originally from East Germany and so that was another layer. We were travelling in both East and West Germany and, to me, everything seemed forbidden. My brother and I were very American and missing everything. I was about 8 years old and in Heidelberg, the America House had been wrapped by Christo in 1969 (America House Wrapped). I never forgot that, that someone came to Germany who had the power and freedom to wrap a building and that really totally surprised me.
Also, my family is very interested in film-making. My grandfather was a co-inventor of the magnetic tape and always had cameras and recording stuff around. From about the age of 10 on, I was always wondering what direction I would take. In art school, I saw the Maysles brothers film “Running Fence” and I remembered the Heildeberg project. The “Running Fence,” for me, was one of the most important artworks made in the second half on the century. When I saw that film, I said, one day I am either going to make art like that or film like that. So this is a magic moment. It’s 30 odd years after I saw that film. I had decided to make films like that. I found myself making a film about it and now I am showing it.
GA: How many films have you done with Christo and Jeanne-Claude?
Wolfram Hissen: We’ve been working together for about 25 years and this was our 6th film. The “Running Fence” project was relatively fast…it took them 4 years to get approval but with the “Wrapped Reichstag” or “Gates,” it took them over 20 years to achieve those projects. They always had something to work on if one project was blocked. We adapted that with our filmmaking too, and I’ve worked off and on since 2008 on the fence film.
My main films are: 1995, Project for the Würth Museum, Künzelsau, Germany. (The floors and stairways of the small private Würth Museum were wrapped and the windows were covered.)
1996, Christo und Jeanne-Claude, Dem Deutsche Volke, Verhüllter Reichstag 1971-95, (alternative title: To the German People: Wrapped Reichstag 1971-1995) , Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, Est-West, 98 minutes.
1997-98, Wrapped Trees, Foundation Beyler, Berower Park, Riehen, Switzerland, (The wrapping of 178 trees at the Bayerle Foundation in Switzerland.), Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 26 minutes.
2005 Christo and Jeanne-Claude, On the Way to Over The River, Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 34 minutes.
2008 Along US 50 “Over The River” in progress, Wolfram and Jörg Daniel Hissen, EstWest, 89 minutes.
2010 The Running Fence Revisited, EstWest 47 minutes.
GA: Did you see actually see “The Running Fence”?
Wolfram Hissen: I did not see the fence. I was raised in Oregon though and am very familiar with the West Coast. My assistant director, Derek Van Rheenen, who I have been friends with since we were babies, is also from here. He’s a professor at UC Berkeley and we’ve collaborated on several films. I am also quite familiar with the mentality. To me, being European, I kind of look at CA like an independent country, very different from the rest of the states. You could say it’s like Belgium and France or Austria and Germany which are European but quite distinct. Actually, there’s nothing like California.
GA: How did the idea for the film about “The Running Fence” come about?
Wolfram Hissen: Since 1994, we’ve been filming for the “Over the River” project even though the project hasn’t happened yet. About 4 years ago, Christo and Jeanne-Claude asked me to make a film out of that footage and I said I’d gave it a try. It went well and that film was shown at the Phillips Collection here in Washington, D.C. for the “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Over the River, a Work in Progress” (October 11, 2008-January 25, 2009). There were a couple of people there from the Smithsonian American Art Museum, including curator George Gurney, and he liked it. They invited me over to discuss making a film about the Running Fence. I had already been to the region in 2005 or 2006 because of the next project that Christo planned, for the span of fabric over the Arkansas River in Colorado. I came to see where they did the Running Fence because that project is very much like putting the Running Fence horizontally over the river.
When I walked into that little post office in Valley Ford, I was so surprised…this was a beautiful post office… and like a shrine to Christo and the fence. I told myself, one day I am going to a film and this is going to be a part of it.
GA: What exactly is it about Christo and Jeanne-Claude that keeps you making films about them?
Wolfram Hissen: There’s such a great spirit in them and aspects that I myself share with them—being independent and valuing freedom, liberty. Also, I believe strongly, like them, that you do not always need to do things that make sense. If all our lives were about things that made sense, then what would we have. I also like the temporal aspect– these are ephemeral projects. And then both of them are just incredible people. I like being together with them…it’s been 25 years now. Aside from my parents, there is no one I‘ve learned more from. I respect them deeply. They are a brilliant creative team and they work hard all the time, never satisfied and saying ‘it’s good enough.’ For them, every detail is debated over and over.
The thing that also works very well with us is that Jeanne-Claude was of French origin and I am of German origin but I was raised in the U.S., but for most of my adult life, I’ve lived in France. I do keep a place in Brooklyn but most of my life I’ve gone back and forth between those cultures. I really enjoy and get people who have this diverse cultural background and who live this life nomadic life. You don’t have to explain much—you get each other. Christo and Jeanne-Claude are people who do not judge that fast, who have openness and experience. They got along with those American ranchers and they knew how to make themselves and their ideas understood. In each language and each culture, you address this somewhat differently and they are great masters at that. They had nothing to do with Japan but got along fine, same thing with Germany. They fit. That’s such an important part of their art—how to make people understand what you want and what you are planning.
In the film, Leo Ielmorini says “They knew how to speak to a dumb farmer and to a supervisor.” It’s not true that Christo and Jeanne–Claude thought they were dumb farmers…far from it. No, they knew that were talking to someone with different experience and ways of getting things done and they knew how to reach him.
Wolfram Hissen: No, not at all. That is a beautiful film, certainly one of the best documentary films I have seen in my life and it influenced my own life. I saw it when I was a teenager and I thought it was beautiful and something I’d like to do myself. But with today’s filmmaking and situation, everything has changed, and it doesn’t really make sense to compare to them or to find things the two films have in common. What we might have in common, Albert and I, (his brother David Maysles died in 1987) is that we are both psychologists and it’s helpful to be a psychologist when you are a filmmaker and to really enjoy people. The people in CA are really wonderful, unique, and I must say, it’s fun to work with them. Every day, when I went out– sometimes with the team—and spent time with the ranchers, I really enjoyed it. I had nothing to worry about and I felt like I knew these people.
GA: What was your goal for the film then, and how did Jeanne Claude’s death impact the editing?
Wolfram Hissen: When you make this kind of film, you speak to people in a very direct and private way. On one level, it’s something fun but it’s also profound…this film has been speaking about actually pop art that happened in the 1970’s so we’re looking at a whole generation since then. I wanted it to be emotional and beautiful.
This was tough project, not that I am complaining, but when Jeanne-Claude also died, the film really became a different project…it became more about her influence and at the same time, it had to remain about the fence and tell that story. We were talking about things that were temporary and eternal with the overlay of her passing. She herself expressed this concept very well in words in the film. It was challenging but I found I had all the material I needed.
GA: Speaking of material, it seems to me, like it could easily be 90 minutes or more. How was the length determined and, within that constraint, how did you decide what to leave in and take out?
Wolfram Hissen: Budget and how much time I could spend with it. This film really went far with the budget it had. Initially, the planning with the Smithsonian was to make a film that was 20-25 minutes. When I did my first research trip to the area, I knew there was so much that I could easily do a 90 minute film. When I showed the first cut in Washington, D.C., a couple of months before the exhibition opened, the film was 30 minutes long. I felt there was so much missing, that I needed to tell more, to show more.
As it stands, I spent twice as much time as I had planned and the film is twice as long and also in the beginning there was a different approach. I was always a little afraid that something would happen and I didn’t want this film to become another story. And then, when Jeanne-Claude passed away, that added again a dimension that we hadn’t thought about before. For instance, the footage in the beginning of the film– those aerial views–they were taken on November 18, 2009, that’s the exact day that she died in New York. These shots were really taken that day and they are beautiful and everyone agrees they are breathtaking. I was informed the next day that she ha died but some thoughts ran through my mind about what it all meant.
GA: It’s a tender homage, showing her energy and passion. In the film, you were dealing some people who were older. Did you have any troubles from that perspective, with their memory and so forth? They come off as having the wisdom of ages and being very coherent.
Wolfram Hissen: Well, sometimes they would start to say something fascinating and I was like this is great, keep going …but they would forget what they were talking about and just stop. But basically it went very well. I was so fascinated by what they were saying, their intelligence about life.
GA: You decided to forego adding sound. How important is sound in this film?
Wolfram Hissen: Most of filmmaking is in aesthetic decision. The main music in the film is actually the artwork of Christo and Jeanne-Claude and there is ambient sound. This world is so loud we really wanted to invite people to look closely at that footage and listen to what the people have to say.
In 1991, Derek (Van Rheenen) and I went to Bakersfield and also to Japan to film “The Umbrellas” project and we asked Christo how he chooses the exact spots where he put those umbrellas. He said, ‘How do you write a symphony?’ The art itself is also musical, lyrical. If you look at the fence, as Bill LeBaron says in the film, it was in the landscape, it was all movement, ripple. We decided to focus on the original sound, so the music in the film is the original music from the footage that was made in 1976-77 in the pickup of William Corda and Joe Pozzi and that’s it.
GA: What was it like to interview the sculptor Mary Fuller McChesney, who along with her husband, Robert McChesney, vehemently opposed the fence? She seems entrenched in her attitude about Christo and Jeanne-Claude to this day.
Wolfram Hissen: That is ok. I respect totally that people should be able to have their opinions. I thought for the film it would be important to have the opposition interviewed. I also interviewed Mr. Kortum, a Sonoma County Supervisor at the time, who is by now quite old. And it was difficult to understand always what he was saying but he made his point. I think from Mrs. McChesney you understand very well why they opposed the fence– because they did not want to be a part of this art– which is fine. The other reason to be opposed was for the environment, and those claims came from Kortum. We found out from certain ranchers, like Leo Ielmorini, that this wasn’t a big issue at all. And time has shown that well too–nothing came of the claims that were made about Christo and Jeanne-Claude or the damage that the fence would cause.
GA: You captured the common sense of the farmers very well, especially with Leo’s lines about birds not flying into the fence at night.
Wolfram Hissen: I especially loved his old-American language, which you don’t hear anymore. He says Christo and Jeanne-Claude “were smarter than the average bear.” That’s Yogi Bear. What kids today know who that is? Or, he says, “They’ve been around the horn once or twice,” which is a typical expression of immigrants 150 years ago, I mean before the Panama Canal, because you had to go around the horn, which was the southernmost point of South America. I just love that.
It is also part of American culture to create or to play with words, like the term “sue happy,” “everyone is sue happy.” This came up when I was talking about the probably of getting these permissions from all the individual farmers today. I had never heard that before and I really enjoyed just listening to the farmers talk. And Roz, in that tiny post office, was wonderful.
I wanted to make an emotional beautiful film, which to me is like a roller coaster that takes you with it. In the beginning, it’s just beautiful and then you meet these people and they take you some place with them. They are funny and you are laughing and forget the world and you just enjoy, taking it in, but then there’s this moment where they’re talking about getting older, aging, saying my father passed away, this person passed away, and that was so important to put in the film. That’s what I mean by emotional beautiful because all emotions are there—a lot of people at the end of film are crying…and the last words of Jeanne Claude, those words about what they are doing and the temporary aspect of it, are chilling and beautiful.
GA: What are you doing right now?
Wolfram Hissen: I am making a film about the American landscape artist Stephen Hannock. It’s a film about modern landscape painting which is experiencing a revival and the musician Sting, who is a friend of Hannock and a big supporter of his work, is involved. I’m also working on a series about the West Coast for a German-French art station with my brother. We also just completed a film on the eruption of Mt. St. Helens that was shown on Nova. We always have different projects we are working on. Our films usually take quite a while.
The Running Fence Revisited, 2010, 47 minutes. Team: Directors: Wolfram Hissen, Derek Van Rheenen, Best Boy: Vincent O’Connell, Erin Van Rheenen, Gopher: Erin Van Rheenen
Screens at The 14th Annual Sonoma International Film Festival: Saturday, April 9, 2011, 6:00 p.m., Sonoma Valley Museum of Art and Sunday, April 10, 2011, 6:45 p.m., Woman’s Club) Festival Details: www.sonomafilmfest.org