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'PINOCHET PORN', 2009, Super 8

Walking through Tenerife wearing a handdrawn clown mask, nearly mad from grief, I realized I could no longer safely draw on love for inspiration. For seven years he had been my muse, now I had to rethink my entire art practice.

I tried to think what else interested me enough to engulf my life—perhaps my friendships. I was thinking a lot about my friend Deborah Drier, an exquisite writer, editor, fashion diva; she had just had a double lung transplant and open heart surgery. I was wondering what aspects of our lives are free choice. Is tragedy a choice? What was her childhood like, a girl genius born in Queens 1948?

I thought about how the traumas in our childhood brought out parallel traumas in our adulthood, which seemed to extend from the largest historical catastrophes, to the most intimate personal misfortunes. And I realized how little I know about my friends, their childhood and family history, just a bit from confidences, stories, gossip, but not much really.

I began to make a series of drawings that drew on my best friend who had grown up in South America; she had an extraordinary life. I found I could channel my own raw emotions through her dramas. These drawings ‘Circus Lives from Hell’ tell an epic story of five kids growing up during the Pinochet regime, and their subsequent adulthood. Each child has experienced the dictatorship completely differently, from the dictator’s identical daughters, Paloma and Pipa, who grow up like princesses and marry the same man, to Jaime who is sent as a child into exile when his mother ‘disappears’. She was imprisoned, tortured, in the end went mad. It is a soap opera—tragic, comedic, fictionalised and historical. The drawings with their specific stories and dialogue were meant to be a film script, although I was never quite sure how this film could be made.

From 'I'm sorry knock knock', 2009, Super 8
From 'I'm sorry knock knock', 2009, Super 8

Last summer I made an exhibition at Participant Inc in New York, the main work being this drawing script. The director, Lia Gangitano, and I had the idea we would begin creating a film during the show with the help of some of the filmmakers in the gallery, projecting the footage under the drawings as we progressed. My brother, who works in banking, thought this plan was ridiculous, and tried to prepare me for its utter failure. He said that no one was going to devote their time and skill to someone else’s work if they were not getting paid—to get real!

This really riled John Brattin, an artist filmmaker working in Super 8 who I really admired (‘Eros is Sick’, 2008, ‘The Triumph of the Night’, 2006). He became adamant that we would make this film happen—and from his past experience he started teaching me how to organise the shoots. He took on the huge job as lighting and cameraman. A filmmaker I had never met, Elizabeth Subrin, loaned me her lighting kit. Then Lia and I ran into Jay Kinney on Houston in the pouring rain. He said he would be our art director. He took me to his mad house on Bleecker Street, showed me his props (tarantula, scorpions, alligator, human skull, bibles, crosses, toy soldiers etc), told us we could use his flat for sets, and offered up his neighbour’s apartment, baby and bar.

The intention was to film some sequences to make a trailer, shooting directly from my drawings. We started with the scene showing the dictator who always fucks his maids, his wife perpetually crying, and the children hysterical. A butch lesbian and her femme girlfriend were going to be the dictator and the maid. But they blew us off. Two friends, Nicola and Laurie, said they would love to do it, but Nicola got busy; then Urs was to be the dictator, but he didn’t answer his phone; Timor suggested prostitutes from the Chelsea hotel, but my work is not about the sex industry.

Top to bottom
Top to bottom: 'The suffering wife', 'how can he do this to me?', 'mommy mommy why why', all 2009, Super 8

I thought to play the dictator and the maid myself, gender bending. Everyone on the crew hated that idea. Then they thought of Jim Fletcher, a famous New York actor who had been the child murderer in John’s film ‘The Triumph of the Night’. I had also seen him play a cannibal in a theatre production at Participant More than the rest of us, he liked to prepare his lines to get into character. It was completely embarrassing when I had to call him long distance and tell him that his three lines were ‘keep dusting bitch’, ‘bend over you little slut’ and ‘suck it harder’! Describing the scene, I told him it could be played real or fake, and asked him if he could choose someone to be the maid.

Jim didn’t find a maid. So in the end, I said I would do it. I had already been the maid in another scene. And it was getting tiresome trying to convince other people to take their clothes off. The plan was since I’m not an actress I would follow his lead.

Coming into the kitchen after a camera break, Jay and Jim had found my wooden spatula and invented a kind of porno scene—this spatula was a present from my ex-boyfriend. My mother had given me a fancy Calphalon pan and he bought a wooden spatula as a symbol of our future domesticity. Unfortunately, that did not last too long and was utterly dire. At last I understood the meaning that revenge is best served on a cold platter!

Going back to our first shoot where the dictator and maid didn’t show, rather than lose the night, John’s boyfriend Andy went into my closet and came out ‘the aggrieved wife’. Lia reluctantly agreed to become the hysterical child. She was concerned about her professional relationship to the art world, but she said she would be in this shoot if we didn’t show her face. However when we started to shoot, John kept saying ‘I can’t see your face, can you look this way’. We set up the scene like Garcia Lorca’s play La Casa De Bernarda Alba . Both Andy and Lia were really crying. Andy’s father had just gotten ill, and Lia was working at PS1, so they both had real reasons to cry. I could see Lia was amazing. I was very apprehensive through the week about how to ask her to be in the next shoot—the identical twin sisters who have grown up to be teenage bitches torturing their maid and boyfriends—surprisingly Lia agreed to come. She showed up with ten sets of lingere and high heel outfits, arranging them on my bed. She had picked her clothes from looking at my drawings carefully. Then I knew we had a movie, she was in—she is the star. John who has known her for 20 or more years loves filming her. She plays herself and her identical sister.

'HA HA I made the Daughter of the General cry!', 2009, Super 8 
'HA HA I made the Daughter of the General cry!', 2009, Super 8

Paloma and her six husbands—Lia chose filmmaker Michel Auder to be her first husband, ‘the older man… he was rich but boring’. I imagined him to be fat and unattractive, but Michel is dashing. He marries Paloma, then Pipa, wearing the suit he married Cindy Sherman in. Naked, he is covered with sexy jewellery, going down on Paloma. During the bedroom shoot his openness made me realize how uneasy my generation is about our bodies.

After failing at stalking Leo Fitzpatrick from Kids, the artist Spencer Sweeney was Lia’s perfect second choice for her second husband, ‘the young man’. They run away to a deserted island (Robert Moses State Park). At the beach they danced together for one hour without music. It was beautiful to watch.

John Thompson wanted to be the third husband because he looks similar to the drawing—he’s so tall. He is trained as a professional actor. He stayed in character ‘the famous artist’ lecturing Lia about why Hermes window displays weren’t true conceptual art, patronisingly asking her if she was learning anything new?

All images
All images: from 'the dictator and the maid', 2009, Super 8

Harri Kupiainen is perfect as the fifth husband, Guillermo the rock star. He broke his guitar for us! And Paloma and Guillermo really seem in love.

Jay picked Danny to be the sixth husband. Mainly he plays a comic role (a dummy-sucking masochist from Queens), but it was quite moving to see him become the grief-stricken fireman.

It transpires that Danny is actually from a family lineage of firemen—his father and grandfather. He became an artist. I was standing on Lafayette Street lost, looking for the fireman store that wasn’t there. At that exact moment Jay texted me the store’s new address; it had apparently moved. Uncannily, he didn’t know I was going shopping for a fireman’s uniform. It was touching how synchronistic we had become in the making of this film. This is what is most satisfying about the making of Pinochet Porn —the magical intuitive co-operation, especially as being an artist can often be extremely solitary. Essentially this film is a collaboration of friends; it is possible to shoot only with the contribution of each person involved.

Back in London, through a moment of divine (drunken) inspiration, Pablo León de la Barra has become the Spanish narrator.

This summer we will begin to shoot the first chapter in London: the story of Manuelo, the clown boy, who becomes enlightened but still bites his fingernails. This takes place in an ashram in which Cerith Wyn Evans plays Osha, the fucking guru, he taught his disciples about free love with no jealousy…

Ellen Cantor is an artist
Pinochet Porn: Directed by Ellen Cantor: Production advisor John Maybury Director of Photography John Brattin: Art Director Jay Kinney: Starring Lia Gangitano, Michel Auder, Patrick Blumer, Ellen Cantor, Jim Fletcher, Francesca Gangitano, Andrew Haynes, Jay Kinney, Harri Kupiainen, Danny McDonald, Spencer Sweeney, John Thomson, Sofia Elisabeth Von Herrlich, Stephen Ward, Cerith Wyn Evans: Narrated by Pablo León de la Barra: Assistant editor Simon Popper & Nikos Pantazis

Pinochet Porn was shown as work-in-progress at the Serpentine Gallery, London, 5 July