Chiara Clemente on Art

The 31-year-old director Chiara Clemente smiles easily as she discusses “Our City Dreams,” a new documentary exploring the work of female artists.

Although she is photographed frequently on the social scene, director Chiara Clemente clearly prefers remaining behind the lens. The second a camera starts snapping her portrait, her girlish face takes on a slightly stoic expression and her eyes turn wary.

“I don’t smile very often,” she offers, shyly.

The picture is quite different a few minutes later, when — portrait session done — a more relaxed Clemente cozies into a window-side seat of Greenwich Village’s Café Henri, cradling a large cup of hot chocolate in her hands. Sporting a downtown mix of Larsen Gray and Obedient Daughters togs, the 31-year-old smiles easily as she discusses her new documentary, “Our City Dreams.” The film follows five female artists of different generations who have all chosen New York City as their creative locus: there is Swoon, 31, whose printmaking finds a home on the streets and in MoMA alike; the Egyptian-born Ghada Amer, who juxtaposes hand-embroidered painting techniques with erotic figurative subjects; Marina Abramovic, a Serbian performance artist looking to re-create her European success in America; Kiki Smith, the famed sculptor, printmaker and installation creator, and Nancy Spero, now 82, a political activist and artistic pioneer.

The movie, which began a two-week run at Film Forum on Wednesday, is Clemente’s first major directorial project since moving back to the city from Italy five years ago.

“I had been working with artists, collaborating on portraits in Rome, so I knew that I wanted to do something on artists related to New York,” she explains, fingering her necklace designed by longtime boyfriend Waris Ahluwalia.

Clemente spent two years following her subjects — “I felt like I was a doctor on call,” she says — a process that had her jetting from Cairo to meet Amer’s parents, to Turin, Italy, where Smith created an ice sculpture for the 2006 Winter Olympics, and even a last-minute shoot in Thailand, where Abramovic mounted a large-scale, tsunami-themed piece. The resulting work is both a collective of individual vignettes and a larger story of female creation, all with New York as the omnipresent backdrop.

“The thing with this film is there’s no angle to it, you’re really just experiencing the artists,” says Clemente. “I was very respectful of them because of growing up with an artist father. It was great because it let them trust me, but sometimes I wish I had pushed more.”

“There was nothing invasive about her,” says Smith. “She was present and determined to accomplish what she wanted to, but in a way that never felt practiced.”

The elder daughter of painter Francesco and performer Alba, Clemente was born in Rome and moved to New York when she was five. She spent much of her childhood living in her father’s Great Jones Street studio, where the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat, Kenny Scharf and Julien Schnabel would wander in and stay for her mother’s home cooking. She and her sister, Nina, had playdates, complete with toys, with Keith Haring.

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