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Robert Fenz (1969-2020)

Robert Fenz has passed away at the age of 51. We interrupt our summer break to pay homage to a wonderful filmmaker and a singular cinematographer. French film theorist and lecturer Nicole Brenez permitted us to reproduce the following tribute she previously posted on Facebook:

“A magnificent visual poet left us, the experimental American filmmaker and visual artist Robert Fenz.

Robert was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan in 1969. He grows up in San Francisco, where he becomes a professional movie projectionist, notably for Roxie Cinema, the Telluride Film Festival and for the Anthology Film Archives in New York, where he builds up a solid experimental culture. He begins studies in cinematographic directing at Bard College, NY, where he takes courses in particular by the master of film description, Peter Hutton. Graduated in 1997, he then obtains an MFA at the California Institute of the Arts in 2002. Robert Fenz meets Robert Gardner in Cambridge in 1998, asks him to show him his work, and a written correspondence between the two artists follows. In 2003 Robert Gardner hires Robert Fenz at the Harvard Film Studies Center.

Film lover, inspired by his mentor Wadada Leo Smith, inseparable from his Bolex and his Aaton, Robert Fenz harmonized the principles of free jazz and visual celebration. His work combines a fine understanding of the cinematic medium with an exemplary sensitivity for difficult political issues. His films stand out through rigor, depth, visual energy and above all, historical accuracy. Robert’s body of work, from Duet For Trumpet and Camera (1992) and Vertical Air (1996) to his superb fresco Meditations on Revolution (1997-2003) and to his most recent works, belongs to the same rank as those of Rudy Burckhardt, Helen Levitt, Bruce Baillie or Peter Hutton, to name some of the genius to whom his style and topics are close.

Robert Fenz was also a great cinematographer and producer for other artists. He worked as co-cinematographer on Peggy Ahwesh’s film Nocturn in 1997. In 2001 he worked as co-cinematographer, coproducer and as first assistant director on Chantal Akerman’s documentary De l’autre côté, shot on the USA-Mexican border. In 2002, he was the cinematographer for her installation for Documenta 11, in 2006, he was again Chantal Akerman’s cinematographer for Là-bas, shot in Israel. His own short film Crossing (2006) is a loving experimental answer to Chantal Akerman’s documentary.

His work was screened or exhibited all over the world in theaters, museums and galleries, notably in New York at the Museum of Modern Art, Millennium Film Work-shop and Anthology Film Archives, the 31st International Film Festival Rotterdam, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, Cinéma du Réel in Paris (2009), thanks to Javier Packer-Comyn.

He received many awards, among them: Vertical Air received a “Jurors’ Citation” at the 16th Black Maria Film Festival in 1997. In 1999, Meditations on Revolution, Part l: Lonely Planet, won “Best Cinematography” at the 37th Ann Arbor Film Festival and Meditations on Revolution, Part ll: The Space in Between, won “Best Experimental Film” at the Nashville Independent Film Festival. Meditations on Revolution, Part V: Foreign City won the prize for “Best Film” at the 23rd Black Maria, 10th Media City and CinemaTexas 8, Film Festivals. It won the prize for “Best Cinematography” at the 42nd Ann Arbor Film Festival.

On the night of August 8-9, 2020, Robert Fenz died in his sleep from an heart attack. The title of one of his exhibition in Berlin (2012) offers a good summary of his values and perspectives: “Arsenal of Democracy”. We will need Robert Fenz’s work more and more every day.

Rest In Silver Peace, dearest Robert”


Robert Fenz watching his film Vertical Air, at Paris 3, 28 September 2017 (photo by Nicole Brenez)

Robert Fenz watching his film Vertical Air, at Paris 3, 28 September 2017 (photo by Nicole Brenez)


Meditations on Revolution, Part V: Foreign City (Robert Fenz, 2003)

Still from Meditations on Revolution, Part V: Foreign City (Robert Fenz, 2003)