Charlie Curran‘s sensitive, dreamy and dynamic documentary, See Know Evil, is an oral and visual portrait of the young, talented photographer, Davide Sorrenti. Full of interviews and anecdotes about Sorrenti, along with many of his never-before-seen photos, we are given first-hand information about him and his work that goes far beyond the articles published after his untimely death in 1997. We learn that Sorrenti was born in Naples, Italy with a painful blood condition called Cooley’s anemia that required frequent blood transfusions. Growing up in a family of talented image makers, Davide learned on set and on the street with his crew, See Know Evil. Once he picked up a camera himself he seemed unstoppable, always documenting his life, friends, skaters, and models behind the scenes. By the age of 17 he was given his first editorial photo assignment. Due to his debilitating disease and the pain that he kept hidden, he seemed to live every day passionately, constantly experimenting and pushing boundaries.
During the ’90s there was a style in fashion that was coined “heroin-chic”, for the overly thin models and their seemingly hollow-eyed “drug-user”look. After heroin was found in Sorrenti’s system at his death, some assumed he was at the heart of that fashion scene. More than a decade later Curran, who was then a 20-year-old film student, stumbled upon Sorrenti’s photos in the library and became obsessed with the need to tell this young artist’s full story so that others could know him and his work.
Through patience and perseverance, this young outsider with no real experience entered the lives of a close-knit family, opening up wounds and archives to bring Sorrenti’s story to light. See Know Evil had its European premiere at the 36th Torino Film Festival in late November 2018. Both director Charlie Curran and Sorrenti’s mother, Francesca Sorrenti, attended the first of two sold out shows. Curran met with PopMatters to discuss his seven-year journey in making this documentary, and the genius of Davide Sorrenti’s work that was reconfirmed in the process.
I understand your first contact for this documentary was with Davide’s older brother, fashion photographer Mario Sorrenti, and the response was positive. When did you contact Francesca (Davide’s mother) and how long did it take for her to come on board with the project?
Not knowing anybody or anything about fashion or the history of photography or image making, and being naïve, I just emailed Mario. I looked up his website, and said, “Hi. You don’t know me but my name’s Charlie and I’m studying film. I’ve never made a documentary before but I’m going to make one about David and I’d love your support.” I actually got an email back from Steve Sutton, David’s step father and he said, “Hi Charlie. We’re all on vacation but if you’re still interested in January, let me know and we can talk then.”
I was just persistent, or stubborn, and I just kept emailing. I was trying to see if anyone would sit with me for an interview. Everyone was very hesitant at first, to go back to this time, for a bunch of reasons. Eventually, one person said he’d do an interview so I told Steve and Francesca that I was on my way to New York to do the first interview. At that point, Francesca said, “OK. Come to my house. Let’s have a coffee and we’ll talk about it.” This was about three months into it after going back and forth, mostly me emailing, following up again and again.
We sat down and we spent a few hours just talking and drinking a lot of espressos. I told her that I thought it was such an important story for kids my age at the time, that we really didn’t have role models our own age who were making images of that gravity. I thought it was really important and a disservice that the media had focused on the controversy and then taken the story away from the next generations. I think she saw the place that I was coming from, that it wasn’t morbid or focused on drugs or his death but on his life and his art. She wrote out a list of all the people I should interview and gave me a copy of the photo book she published a year after his death when there was the “Art of Fashion Photography” show of Davide’s work (and held at a Flatiron district loft in NYC), as well. She sent me off with that.
So in the first meeting with her she gave you an armful of stuff and basically her “blessing”, right?
Yes! From there I was like, “Ok I’m twenty-years-old, so how do I contact [actor] Milla Jovovich?” I was going to school at the Savanna College of Art and Design in Georgia at the time. We had studio days on Fridays and my uncle worked for the airlines so he helped me get to New York when I could to do interviews. My best friend from grade school, Rosario, and I would leave after class on Thursday and come back Monday morning for class. Rosario is a portrait photographer and that’s why the interviews look like they do because he framed them like portraits.
How did you come up with the format for the interviews?
We just told everyone that wherever they were most comfortable was where we wanted to interview them. Seeing as we had no funding or resources, it was a matter of them meeting us wherever they were willing. I would do the sound, Rosario would shoot it and that was it. We just kept at it for three years until we had finally done all the interviews.
At one point you are seen in the film from the back, asking questions. Did you ever consider that you wanted to be in the film?We didn’t know any better. At SCAD there’s a policy where if you miss five classes you fail the class and so that time Rosario set the cameras up and had to go to the airport to get back to school. I had to run the cameras, do the audio and the interview too. I wish I could say it was intentional or planned but we just learned as we went.
I’ve just come to peace with it because I don’t think that anyone could have made that film at an older age. Like if I had started the film at, say, age 28, I don’t know if Francesca would have blessed it. If I knew what I was doing, it would have been a different film but because I was genuinely curious and naïve and didn’t know any better or how long it would take, we just did our best.
Do you think that since you were the same age as Davide that maybe Francesca took a certain interest in you as well? At the Q&A (where Francesca was also present) it seemed that there was a familial bond between you two. How did your relationship develop over time?
We grew really close. It’s as much her film as mine. And all of his friends, they’ve been so supportive. There were so many times when I had no idea what the next step was and they were always so encouraging. They’d tell me to keep going and trusted that I’d figure it out. Whenever I’d do an interview I’d give a copy to Francesca and so I think for her, too, she was discovering a lot of these stories. She might not have known about all the hijinks the kids would get into, so it was really built on trust and honesty and transparency.
As Francesca said [at the Q&A], maybe “enough time had passed’ and she was ready to revisit some of the memories of Davide. It seemed like she learned some really wonderful things about her son too.
Yeah, I hope so. It just kind of feels like fate. It seems a lot of it happened in spite of me doing it. It just happened in the only way it could have.
I believe that part of documentary filmmaking is really about serendipity in the sense that you go looking for something and you find something else, or it can be like a series of doors opening up.
Can you tell us a little more about the footage that you used throughout the film, the glimpses from around the city and the moody scenic clips? I learned that Davide’s sister, Vanina, had been studying at the School of Visual Arts in the ’90s and had made videos around New York City and she gave you access to them. Did you use all of her work or did you film some of that yourself?
There’s some stuff that we filmed because her husband, Cedric Buchet, who is a photographer as well, collects cameras. Over the years he was showing me his cameras and he told me about a certain Canon model that was the last Super 8 camera Canon ever made. It was like the height of Canon Super 8 film technology and that’s what she had shot a lot of her footage on.
We purchased one as well so we could shoot some of the places like Davide’s old diner. About eighty percent of the footage is hers. We did more of the textural stuff like lights in the tunnel, the rain, things like that. Our desire was for the film to feel really loose, almost like a dream, so it was a way to kind of connect it, to bring it all together.
I understand you worked with Thomas Niles on the editing, how did you meet him and how was that process?
After we had finished with the three years of interviews, I had no idea how to go about piecing together a feature film. There were a lot of false starts. Eventually I ended up working with Thomas, a really amazing editor, who has done some documentary features. He came in and he really helped me piece together the story edit itself.
I had met him through our producer. They had worked on a number of films together. I felt like I was too close, being in the room, doing all the interviews. At the start of it I couldn’t necessarily tell what were remnants of my experience of making it versus what was on the screen and the audience was taking away. Having someone who was objective next to me and working on the film’s structure together really helped. Once we went through the rough ideas of the acts and how the story was going to go, then I took it, stylized and finished it.
Did you feel an obligation to get the story right? My feeling is that you wanted to set the record straight and to show how Davide was much more than what articles published in the ’90s after his death said about him; those descriptions of the heroin chic moment and him as almost a poster child for the period.
I think it’s kind of ridiculous if you think about what people were saying at the time that this young boy, when he was eighteen to twenty, was responsible for a heroin movement. You have to remember the times and the culture wars. I also think it’s easy to point a finger and blame someone rather than pose the question that Davide’s agent, Mutale did, “Why are all these kids feeling so despondent that they have to turn to drugs?” I think it wasn’t one thing, it was the culture.
For example, who knows why Grunge happens or suddenly you have Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction and The Basketball Diaries, all these depictions of heroin use at the same time? It’s not a twenty-year-old boy making photographs doing that, there’s something much larger happening. It’s a cultural occurrence, bigger than any single person.
He was young, he was in fashion and there were drugs in his system when he died, so it was easy for the media to jump on him, to paint this picture and make him this poster boy. But I just felt that wasn’t the case. It was a disservice to other kids on similar paths or anyone who wanted to look at his work and find out what he was trying to articulate. It just shut down access to [his work]. I thought it was really sad and unfair. I felt like everyone could appreciate or use the genuine story of what actually happened.
During the c. 1994 Richard Avedon interview shown in your film (photographer Richard Avedon often made casting videos that were informal interviews, this one is not available but was later given to Francesca by Avedon), Davide specifically says he was influenced by Robert Frank and had much more of a street photography vision than a fashion sensibility.
Exactly. He was very into reportage and had a Nan Goldin sensibility.
In his fashion photography he didn’t really use flash but was using available light, whether in an elevator or in front of a window. He seemed to be after expressing a feeling.
I think he grew up in a very special family, surrounded by image makers. To earn a few bucks or to help Francesca, he would work as her freelance photo assistant. It just happened to be the way he innately knew how to express himself. He had access to all those resources to be able to express some deeper concepts through a language that he was born with.
Tell us a little about the context of the story: New York City, the ’90s, pre-digital age, pre-9/11, pre-hardcore gentrification in that city and what that means for you and this film.
For me it’s really the last genuine youth movement before [Mayor] Giuliani [1994-2001], the sterilization and gentrification of New York City. Now it almost feels like an adult Disneyland, it’s very commercial, it’s very clean.
There was a recession at the time and it was a really unique time in fashion that afforded younger artists and photographers probably a once in a lifetime chance. Someone Davide’s age could walk in and meet with the creative director and be commissioned for a shoot based on the strength of a portfolio alone.
It was a time with all these luxury brands, when the luxury market had tanked with the recession. They were struggling to connect with the youth culture and so they empowered all these younger kids to come up and take on these huge campaigns and these big opportunities and that’s where you get Davide Sorrenti because they were able to put faith in a seventeen-year-old with the final cut. Today you could never imagine an i-D Magazine or someone else doing that, but then it was just like the perfect confluence of forces happening.
It was also a very different time because it’s pre-social media, just before the dot-com boom when money came fast and everything was digitized. Image-making became cheaper, too, and so it’s different because I feel like it was more thoughtful. You couldn’t just post images. You would have to go into the lab and develop them after and so it’s a different pace of image making with a different kind of intention too.
I think it was a really special time. I wish we could have a moment like that again but I don’t know that we will.
Since See Know Evil‘s world premiere at DocNYC in November , are there plans for it to be shown in upcoming festivals?
The next showing is going to be in London on January 17th, 2019. Katie Grand, who is the editor and founder of LOVE magazine and was the fashion director at The Face magazine, is really close with Francesca and she’s going to throw us a screening in London.
There are so many people in London who knew Davide and would love to see it so she’s going to put together a screening for us. Later in 2019 Davide’s friends Richie Akiva and the SKE crew are going to put together a screening in Los Angeles for everyone out west who couldn’t make it. From there we’re not sure but we’re talking to some distributors now. People are eager to put it out wider so I’m not sure how long of a festival run the film will have. My hope is to get it out to everyone so it gets seen.
How did you come to the Torino Film Festival?
That was our producers. They were submitting to a few festivals and one of our producers, Susan Hootstein, her husband made a documentary film here about the Agnelli family for HBO. As the director he spent a lot of time in Torino and he told me it was beautiful, the festival was amazing and we had to submit here. Luckily they saw the film and liked it so we were so excited with the chance to come here.
What kind of an audience do you have in mind for your documentary?
This is a film I made when I was twenty, so I hope that a twenty-year-old kid in Savanna, Georgia has the ability to find it and watch it. It doesn’t have to be someone who can afford to fly to New York for a premiere. I just think of myself at twenty and how I would have access to it and that’s like the ideal audience for me.