By Don Simpson | July 25, 2012
Director: Jarred Alterman
In 1980, Geraldine and Kees Zwanikken left behind very successful artistic careers (as ballerina and photographer respectively) in the Netherlands with their two sons (Christiaan and Louis) in tow and relocated to Convento São Francisco de Mértola, a 400-year-old Franciscan monastery in a southern province of Portugal. When they first arrived, the land and the buildings were in an extreme state of disrepair; so they immediately took up the seemingly impossible task of making their new home inhabitable. Kees died many years ago, but Geraldine, Christiaan and Louis have continued to live at Convento. Over the last 30+ years, the Zwanikkens have resurrected their property — which was originally built for an abbot and twelve monks — into a surreal fantasy land.
The Zwanikkens each have found unique ways to intertwine their lives with the natural surroundings of Convento; combining art, agriculture and philosophy. Geraldine tends to their subsistence gardens, prepares meals and cleans the turtle pond; occasionally, she takes a breather to work on artwork. Louis takes care of the various animals (a horse, ducks, chickens, etc.); he also gives tours around the compound and writes poetry. Christiaan is a self-proclaimed “biomechanoid zoologist” who creates robotic creatures from old junk and skeletons of dead animals.
Jarred Alterman’s work of non-fiction is a 50-odd minute observation of the Zanikkens in their natural habitat at the Convento. Alterman’s film has been referred to as an unconventional or avant garde documentary, primarily because it develops into a unique artistic organism in its own right. Convento stays clear of being informational or probing; in fact, I have already regurgitated for you the limited factual information that Alterman provides. We are left completely alone to become fully immersed in the mysterious world that the Zanikkens have created for themselves.
Convento is at its most intriguing and magical whenever Alterman allows his camera to capture Christiann’s sculptures. Some of Christiann’s creatures serve actual purposes, such as a mechanical donkey that propels the irrigation system. A “kinetic artist,” Christiann is a godlike (or, more appropriately, Dr. Frankenstein-like) figure to these creatures, resurrecting them from spare parts found in the local garbage dump and unearthed animal carcasses. The reanimated beings are living works of art that clumsily walk around and sing eerie songs like characters from a Tim Burton film.
Of course Alterman’s purposeful avoidance of facts might prove to be frustrating for some viewers. We will never know how Geraldine and Kees first discovered the Convento or why they chose this place as their family home. Some viewers might wonder how the Zwannikkens can afford to live this lifestyle — Alterman certainly does not tell you that. The purpose of Convento is not to answer our questions but to serve as an escape from our own personal identities, like a weird daydream of an alternate universe. Turn on, tune in, drop out. Just sit back and enjoy the visual acid trip.