Toronto First Look: ‘Self-Portrait As A Coffee Pot’ Reveals Creative, Comedic Gifts Of Brilliant Artist William Kentridge

EXCLUSIVE: Audiences at the Toronto International Film Festival are about to get a treat: the world premiere of a nonfiction series starring and directed by the extraordinary South African artist William Kentridge.

Self-Portrait as a Coffee Pot defies easy encapsulation, but an attempt might begin with a description of the series’ setting: the interior of Kentridge’s studio, where he makes and re-makes magnificent large-scale drawings, contemplates the artistic process and various fundamental philosophical questions, and wonders whether perhaps he hasn’t become shorter by two centimeters as he approaches 70 years of age.

Kentridge works primarily in charcoal, and in fact there is so much of the dusty carbon about that one wonders if his lungs don’t match those of a Kentucky miner. He began filming the series – which includes inventive animation sequences, elements of cinematic trickery, and interludes of dance – when the Covid lockdown of 2020 forced just about everyone indoors. Relative isolation did not deprive Kentridge of his sense of humor, and he spends a good portion of the episodes literally in dialogue with himself; there are two of him on screen often upbraiding each other amusingly over such issues as art-making and the nature of perception and verifiable reality.

“Of what can we be certain? …Can you at least admit that the two of us are here together in this room?” one William demands of the other. Answer: “No.” “Can you at least agree to what is not here?” “No.”

Kentridge bears a passing resemblance to the late English actor Robert Morley – both possessed of impressively bushy eyebrows. He also looks a bit like the late American actor-producer John Houseman – similar hairline and jowls, but whereas Houseman came off as austere, Kentridge’s got a silent movie comedian’s impish nature.

Self-Portrait as a Coffee Pot is a series made to offer viewers a sense and spirit of possibility, from an artist’s perspective,” Kentridge explains. “It is intended as a polemic experience about a way of working, a confidence in giving an image the benefit of the doubt, and seeing what emerges.”

He adds, “At its heart this is really a series about the optimism and agency of making, itself. There’s an inherent optimism in the activity of taking the blank piece of paper at the beginning and having something at the end. If there’s a central argument I have to offer and engage audiences, it would be the defense of an optimism of making.”

Self-Portrait as a Coffee Pot, running nine episodes, is a production of Kentridge Studios, THE OFFICE performing arts + film, and Louverture Films. It’s an acquisition title at TIFF, with Cinetic Media and Cinephil handling sales. Executive producers are Rachel Chanoff, Joslyn Barnes, Noah Bashevkin, and Brenda Potter. Co-executive producers are Danny Glover, Susan Rockefeller, Maida Lynn, and Linda Dodwell.

Barnes is the co-founder, with Danny Glover, of Louverture Films. She has earned two Oscar nominations, for the documentaries Hale County This Morning, This Evening, and Strong Island.

“They tell me that art is ‘niche,’” Barnes said in a statement. “Well, so is that place behind our ribs where the heart beats, and yet not all the world will contain it.”

The series premieres today at 11 am ET at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. Additional screenings are set for Tuesday and Thursday.

Watch a clip from the series above, in which Kentridge works on a drawing while musing about his early ambitions.

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