Filmmaker 5 with Sarah Vos: White Balls On Walls
In response to a diversity directive from city hall, Rein Wolfs, the new director of Amsterdam’s preeminent museum of modern art, the Stedelijk, and his team navigate a path that snakes between integrity and opportunism, while attempting to correct a history of exclusion and underrepresentation. Bringing her camera inside an institution that has exhibited predominately white male artists since it was founded in the 19th century, filmmaker Sarah Vos assumes an engagingly aloof point of view, gently provoking her subjects while providing a privileged look at the museum’s bureaucratic contortions.
White Balls On Walls examines the Stedelijk’s self-consciously refurbished agenda to dismantle the notion of an artistic canon, along with impositions of the white gaze. As Vos documents a year in the museum’s re-directed life, she catches incidents of raw confusion and polite antagonism, polarized opinions, and negative publicity. The ironies are subtle yet unflinching, as Vos reveals art history to be as unstable as the personalities who attempt to question and correct it.
White Balls On Walls begins its theatrical premiere engagement May 26, 2023 in New York City at Film Forum and opens June 6, 2023 with Laemmle Theatres. Our Classic Couple Academy interview with filmmaker Sarah Vos follows.
Filmmaker 5.1: You spent several years with what appears to be unrestricted access to the staff and the behind-the-scenes workings of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. How did you gain that access and how did you build trust with the museum staff you feature?
Indeed, I spent three years at the Stedelijk. Building trust, to me, means being very transparent in what you are looking for as a filmmaker. So, from the beginning, when the new director Rein Wolfs started he told me his focus was to detangle the white male perspective in the arts collection and within his team. I knew this is one of the big important issues in society; the dominant position of the white man; detangling it is the hardest process possible. It comes along with big unease. A lot of unease. From day one, I told everyone at the Stedelijk this would be my focus. That helped a lot. Also drinking lots of coffees with the team and Rein Wolfs.
It is very brave that they allowed me in in such a vulnerable process. Because of their openness, the film is not a polarizing picture but it challenges audiences to mirror themselves. That’s worth a lot. In Netherlands companies such as The Dutch National Police and The Dutch National Bank organize projections/viewings with their employees.
Filmmaker 5.2: In its examination of the art world, White Balls on Walls tackles a variety of themes—ethnic and gender diversity, colonialism, white privilege, institutional racism, prejudice, national identity, cultural appropriation. Is there a central question you aimed to answer with the film? And did you answer it?
I wanted to conduct in-depth research on white privileges and examine what happens if you break through that ancient system. It is an ongoing process, so not with simple answers. My next film will examine the internalizing of this project.
Filmmaker 5.3: What has been your personal experience with the Stedelijk Museum through the years? How did your perspective change in making White Balls on Walls?
The new head of research and curatorial practice, Charl Landvreugd, challenged me from day one in a fantastic way. He questioned me, for example, about my own taste (Malevich, Kiefer, Francis Bacon etcetera) by asking where and who made me develop that taste… and if I had ever questioned taste and things that I took for granted.
Filmmaker 5.4: You dedicate the film to your mother, who herself is an artist. What do you see in her experience reflected in the film you have made?
My mother, Valery Sxott, is a Belgian artist/painter; she grew up in a Belgian impoverished nobility family. As a kid she questioned all these Congolese attributes that hung in their little castles. They would beat her; they did not like any critic of sharp views. They even sent her to a very infamous institute run by Catholic nuns obliging girls to work for free and take heavy medication. She did not take these pills. spitting them out. She started to draw at a graveyard next door. One friendly nun saw her talent and introduced her to the director of the famous art school St. Joost School of Art & Design in Breda so she could escape.
Filmmaker 5.5: What do you see in your mother’s experience reflected in the film you have made?What conversations do you hope to inspire with White Balls on Walls? And what actions do you hope might result from audiences experiencing the film?
Kolonialism and white supremacy were her topics such as a huge painting of Leni Riefenstahl walking hand in hand with a Nubian. Galleries thought it too provocative. And as a woman she had no chance either. So her work is still to be discovered at the age of 83.
The film proves this excluding of women over the years. Luckily this seems to be changing now.
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Watch the White Balls On Walls trailer.
Photos courtesy of Icarus Films.