• Flash Competition


Pauline Curnier Jardin

An artist, filmmaker, and performer, Pauline Curnier Jardin makes “wild anthropological” incursions into representations of femininity and women’s gender roles, retracing myths, rites, and beliefs. Her resulting readings are sometimes irreverent, sometimes grotesque, and often burlesque, as in the films and installations where she revisits the figure of Saint Agatha (Fat to Ashes, 2021), or that of Bernadette Soubirous in Lourdes (Grotta Profunda Approfundita, 2017). In Adoration, made in collaboration with inmates from the Giudecca Island women’s prison in Venice, stories collide with one another. In this “relegated space” that was previously a convent, Pauline Curnier Jardin uses collage in a spirited way to bridge one period to another, and one use to another. The film opens with the voice of an inmate we imagine as elderly (a nod to another invisibilized group) who recounts the history of the site, then the songs of birds and nuns lead to a finale as dynamic as it is unexpected: a feverish whirlwind based on a collective script and drawings and self-portraits by the inmates. Meant to enliven the prison visiting room, Adoration recalls festivities in which the women of the convent were once the inevitable protagonists. It is a joyous, carnivalesque turnaround for those who were, alternately or all at once, “women, prostitutes, nuns, actresses.” (Nicolas Feodoroff)

As an artist and filmmaker, the place of women, their representations and social visibilities, are central to your work. ADORATION was made in the Casa di Reclusione femminile della Giudecca in Venice. What can you tell us about organising this? 

The question that’s seemed to dominate my work for years is definitely the place occupied and not occupied by women and all those who identify with them or perform their function. I try and write scripts about reversal or inversion, of transformations, of shedding one’s skin, of revenants and revenantes. In the end, they’re nothing more than games that transgress the language of representations that turn society upside down and inside out. In a way, I apply the concept of carnival as a method of writing, the costume going beyond the skin. And, although my subjects are not just ‘women’, they depend solely on the encounters I have in my life, on what I am myself; that’s what legitimises my writing for the moment, and I’m not opposed to that. I recognise my own paradoxes and desire for drag in the incredible erotic force of power. I’ve made a few films with the war as the background; uniforms, the police force and the army have always ‘lurked’ in my work. Is it because the origin of the carnival was a historical opportunity to overturn religious and political vacuums that I’ve been interested in Catholic rites for years?  

I’ve been wanting to work with inmates since I finished studying almost 20 years ago. It’s taken all this time. I feel very honoured to have met these people and had this working relationship, this artistic adventure. I don’t know how to put it – it’s still a bit vague… I’ve always wondered why only 4% of inmates are women, and who they are.  In any case, that’s what brought me to the Casa di Reclusione Femminile della Giudecca, known as the “Convertite”, a perfect coming together of a closed society of women who’ve been marginalised for 500 years, a place first of forced conversion and then of penitence, where religion, ghosts, carnival, crime and motherhood mingle on a daily basis. I quickly did the maths – the number of crimes committed upon the women who lived there when it was a convent is undoubtedly higher than the crimes for which these women are locked up there today. What are we supposed do we do with this, this filthy institution, this architecture rotten to the core, where nonetheless, it’s better to be if you compare it with other prisons? Maybe it’s exactly that, that because the crimes committed there by the men and women in power were so much worse, it ‘helps’? Or is it because the architecture is designed for ‘adoration’ rather than ‘purging’? 

Goliarda Sapienza says “prison is our society’s fever”. In fever there’s a kind of trance, of being outside reality. 

You worked with a group of inmates. How did the group form? How did you work together? What part did they play in writing the film? 

The invitation and suggestion came from the curatorial duo Francesco Urbano Ragazzi. It was they who wanted this project in the Giudecca prison, at the Convertite, and then it was Vania Carlot, the founder of the Tero do Penseri cooperative that’s been working in the prison for twenty years that made this project possible. Once the project was accepted by the management, after more than three years of approaching them and multiple attempts and two years of Covid, the rest all happened very quickly. The group was formed. The workshop was proposed to the inmates and we worked with the women who decided to take part. 

To start with, I showed them some of my films and a few references I thought might be stimulating for the work we were going to develop. In particular, the film Black Narcissus (1947) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which has been a great source of inspiration – in my work in general – but more specifically to create a permanent installation in the parlour or visiting room of this prison that was once a convent (Prostitutes, Nuns, Actresses: Breaking the Convent Wall in Seventeenth-Century Venice). We read the essay by Christine Scippa Bhasin** that contains the appalling story at the heart of my film. 

I then organised three intensive drawing workshops following the idea of an improbable party with all the women who live, work or haunt the “Convertite” prison; a party with screws, inmates, ghosts and nuns. 

Some drawings followed these ideas to the letter, in others, new suggestions emerged, with trees, dates, hairdryers, cakes, children, everyday objects. I organised a choir one afternoon with the most adventurous women so that we could accompany the (Italian) disco track composed for the film by the band Real Miracolo (and no, I didn’t invent the band’s name!) 

They don’t appear on screen, but what seems to be their personal archives are part of the film’s material. How was that developed? And what about the drawings? 

It’s not the inmates’ personal archives that make up the film’s material, it’s their drawings, their work during the workshops. 

It’s a very important aspect for me – in the film, we see their hands and eyes appear, literally, through the drawings they’ve done of these parts of their bodies. But their hands and eyes emerge mostly through the images they’ve created, through the traits, the stylistic and thematic choices, the colours. And then there was a ‘styling’ session organised with an Italian designer. I attended the session, I retouched the photos and used their silhouettes: that’s what makes the film strange and comic, the fleeting reality of their bodies as models, another form of masquerade, and body parts they’d drawn themselves. 

Although I’d directed this experiment and the resulting film, the material for Adoration is the result of the fruit of the workshop attendees’ hands and visions. And I’d like to stress the word you used at first, material, because it seems to suggest being rooted in the materiality of lives and experiences, a rootedness that, I hope, emerges in the film. 

It’s difficult to talk briefly about the way the images were created. Each inmate has a different approach to drawing, ease or ‘artist’s block’, the desire to draw independently or the need to be guided… In my workshops, I make suggestions; I also share references, but I leave room for a lot of freedom of expression and I try to accompany the tendencies that emerge spontaneously. 

From the narrative right up to the final atmosphere somewhere between karaoke and carnival, the film’s movement seems above all to be a liberating gesture that thumbs its nose at you. Why was this important to all of you? To them? To you personally?

With regard to the work on the Casa di Reclusione Femminile della Giudecca, as I said, it was the perfect coming together – the carnival, the parody, the performative play of power roles in society came to me through Christine Scippa Bhasin’s historical reconstructions. This research led me to discover that, centuries ago, theatre was used as a means for liberation and subversion by the Convertite de la Giudecca nuns. Scippa Bhasin talks of “theatrical transgressions”, a concept that became fundamental for me. 

So the carnival dimension was already there, trapped in the Venetian walls of this place! And it was a way to tell the story of the Convertites in Adoration in a deconsecrated and liberating way.

Producing this film radically changed my relationship with life; I can’t really put it into words. The fact is that since then I’ve had a real and extremely privileged existence in this prison, and it’s been a source of deep and unexplained joy. I call it the miracle of the Convertites! 

  • Black Narcissus tells the story of Anglican nuns sent to the Himalayan palace of an Indian general to set up a convent, hospital and school there. This palace, located on a steep, windy mountain, used to house the Indian general’s harem, and troubles the nuns’ tranquillity. 

* Scippa Bhasin, Christine, “Prostitute, Nuns, Actresses: Breaking the convent wall in Seventeenth-Century Venice”, in Theatre Journal, John Hopkins University Press, March 2014.


  • Flash Competition

Technical sheet

Italy, Norway, Netherlands / 2023 / 9’

Original version: Italian
Subtitles: English
Script: Pauline Curnier Jardin
Photography: Pauline Curnier Jardin
Editing: Benni Atria
Sound: Antonio Giannantonio

Production: Studio Pauline Curnier Jardin (Studio PCJ)
Contact: Pauline Curnier

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