The documentary Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami provides an immersive look at the titular fashion model, actress, and music icon. The access afforded to director Sophie Fiennes for the film is nothing short of remarkable, intimately revealing Jones at her most vulnerable and alone, as well as at her most dynamic and spectacular. It’s a testament to what can happen when a documentary subject trusts a filmmaker implicitly, so we were eager to speak with Fiennes about the experience of making the film. Read on for the valuable lessons she shared for other documentarians looking to create a similarly impactful portrait of an artist.
Fiennes had an initial advantage in gaining access to Grace Jones as a documentary subject — she had previously made a film called Hoover Street Revival (2002), about a Los Angeles Pentecostal community, which featured Jones’ brother. At a private screening, Jones approached the director and expressed her admiration. She not only appreciated Fiennes’ interest in, as the director puts it, “the aesthetic power of cinema” as demonstrated in the movie, but also her understanding treatment of Jones’ family.
Eighteen months later, Jones got in touch with Fiennes. She asked, “Should we do something together?” And, of course, the director agreed. “We didn’t know what we would do,” she explains. “We were just going to film.” More than ten years later, the result is Bloodlight and Bami.
Naturally, not all documentarians will gain access to their potential subjects so quickly or easily. However, Fiennes’ experience illustrates a useful bit of wisdom: your previous work is a vital calling card that can help you convince your subjects you’ll do right by them.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami director Sophie Fiennes
Fiennes spent a decade shooting Jones for the film. Starting in 2008, the director was there to document Jones recording her album Hurricane, touring and performing throughout Europe, and visiting her family in Jamaica. Nothing is filtered or kept hidden. Watching the film, it’s clear Jones trusted Fiennes implicitly.
For Fiennes, there is a core component to engendering and honoring that type of trust from a subject. “People want to tell their stories,” she says. “They want a witness. You have to be a good witness. And if you’re a good witness, then it’s appreciated.” Start with that, and trust will follow.
A cinéma vérité film like Bloodlight and Bami isn’t solely the result of getting access; it also reflects the importance of knowing what to do with it. “You have to be there — not just physically there — for the events. You have to be present for every moment that’s unfolding,” says Fiennes. This means listening, watching, thinking, and note-taking. “You’ve got to be so present in your filming process,” says Fiennes, which means being open and ready for whatever happens.
That “wait and see” approach can be scary, but it’s a challenge most documentarians have to face. “That’s something that you have to learn to manage,” says Fiennes. “Because if you get too frightened, you shut down. You have to feel like you’ve got nothing to lose.”
Doing Your Homework
One way of ensuring you’ve got nothing to lose is by doing your homework. “You have to build your knowledge of the subject outside of the shooting,” says Fiennes. “There’s so much you have to learn when you’re not shooting, because during the actual shooting, you’re faced with a lot of technical questions.” That means you need to establish an almost instinctive knowledge base that will free you up to be a more present documentarian.
But the homework you do shouldn’t just be related to your subject. You also need to study up on your own craft and inspirations. “That’s why it’s great to look at really great films, and look at paintings, and think about framing, and look at great photography,” Fiennes says. These things can also free you up to better recognize and capture great moments when they come. “You don’t want the technical stuff to get in the way of how you’re feeling in that moment,” she says. “It’s all about where you put the camera.”
Never Missing a “Moment”
Try to capture those moments that exemplify the cinéma vérité approach can put a lot of pressure on a documentarian. For example, Fiennes has been asked about what she was thinking when she started capturing a memorable moment in Bloodlight and Bami where Jones, exasperated and weary, is yelling on the phone at an event venue manager who’s refusing to pay for her hotel suite. “I’m just thinking, ‘Is this the right frame? Should I keep holding it?’,” Fiennes recalls. “The most terrifying thing you can do is to move your camera at the wrong moment.”
What helps her know what to do in situations like that is, partly, her belief in what an image should accomplish. “Images are so fascinating because they have layered meanings,” she says. “An image isn’t going to make it into a film if it’s just doing one thing. It’s got to be doing many things. It’s got to be carrying its weight to be there.”
That knowledge doesn’t mean every shot will be “The Shot,” but it will better help someone identify it when it comes along. “I always equate it to dowsing,” says Fiennes, referring to the process of divining things buried beneath the ground. “People who can dowse, they can sense a kind of magnetic pull. It’s a bit like that — when I’m filming, or even when I’m looking at the frames that the operators are getting, suddenly the frame pops, and I know, ‘Yes. My god, there’s something happening here.’”
That feeling – “There’s something happening here” – is one that the best documentarians can produce in us, as an audience, too. It’s a feeling that results when everything above culminates together, producing something wonderfully raw, revealing, and illuminating, like Bloodlight and Bami.
Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami is now playing in select theaters in the US. Check the film’s full release schedule to see a list of all upcoming screening dates.
Header image and all Grace Jones images courtesy of Sligoville Limited, Blinder Films Limited, The British Film Institute, British Broadcasting Corporation. Photo of Sophie Fiennes courtesy of Remco Schorr.