Playing at the Mead: Alterman’s Convento main content.

Playing at the Mead: Alterman’s Convento

by AMNH on

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Filmmaker Jarred Alterman profiles an artist who brings the inanimate to life. © Jarred Alterman

Call it the antithesis of Grey Gardens. While that famous documentary showed how Hamptons socialite Edith Beale and her daughter oversaw the eponymous estate’s slide into squalor, the inhabitants of the 17th-century monastery in Portugal at the heart of Convento, a selection at this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival, lovingly resurrected a ruin into a home full of life and art.

Here one finds Geraldine Zwanikken, a former prima ballerina with the Dutch National Ballet Company who left the Netherlands in 1980 with her husband Kees for the dilapidated Convento São Francisco de Mértola, where the couple raised two sons. It took a full year for the family to make the stone structure—which had been home to 12 monks and an abbot from 1612 to 1834—habitable.

Filmmaker Jarred Alterman mixes archival footage and home movies with recent interviews and stunning images of the property to weave a rich chronicle of this remarkable family. Today, the widowed Geraldine sculpts, cooks, gardens, and maintains an intimate relationship with the natural world around her, for example fiercely tugging lily pads from a pond to make more room for turtles. Her now-grown sons are a study in contrast. Louis is all about the living, tenderly caring for the horses, geese, and other domestic animals. Christiaan, a celebrated artist, scours the countryside for animal carcasses and the local dump for discarded electronics in search of raw material for his sculptures. In a chapel turned studio, he creates curious pieces that blend mechanical works with the bones of animals to, as he told Nature magazine earlier this year, “bring them back to life.” (Don’t miss the eerie recitation of lines from the 1982 film Blade Runner by a chorus of moving masks with tongues.)

Still, despite the obvious tension between life and death, the natural and the man-made, there is, in Convento, an undercurrent of good humor, even joy. Convento makes its Manhattan premiere at the festival on Friday, November 11.

To see a display of Christiaan’s kinetic art, stop by the first-floor Grand Gallery at the 77th Street exit through Sunday, November 13.

Click here to see the full Margaret Mead Film Festival line-up and to watch trailers, or visit to buy tickets and make a personalized schedule.