Sophie Fiennes

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Sophie Fiennes
Sophie Fiennes, photograph by Remko Shnoo
Born (1967-02-12) 12 February 1967 (age 57)
  • Film director
  • producer

Sophie Fiennes (born 12 February 1967) is an English filmmaker best known for her films Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017) and Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010), as well as for her collaborations with philosopher Slavoj Žižek: The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), and The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2013).

Fiennes’ formally inventive approach often combines observational documentary with performance film. Film critic Danny Leigh identified this in her early work: “Almost uniquely, Fiennes remains adamant she wants [Michael] Clark – or whoever she happens to be dealing with – to be understood through their work rather than the other way round; not for her the hackneyed game of small-screen head shrinking.”[1] Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw says her 2010 film Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, “could be described as a ‘participatory documentary’ in the sense that the film-maker gets alongside her subject and in some way contributes to the art being created.”[2] Fiennes’ work has screened internationally in festivals including Cannes, Toronto, Rotterdam, IDFA and Sundance, distributed theatrically and broadcast. Her work has shown in museums including MOMA New York; Hammer Museum Los Angeles; Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Denmark; Hokkaido Museum of Modern Art, Japan; Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid. Tate are acquiring the installation current/SEE, which comprises a 13-minute extract of her film, The Late Michael Clark, originally commissioned by the BBC. The installation was produced on the occasion of the Barbican exhibition, Michael Clark: Cosmic Dancer, in 2020.

Sophie Fiennes was awarded a NESTA fellowship in 2001 to support her innovative approach to filmmaking and she won the Arte France Cinema award at Rotterdam’s Cinemart in 2007. Sophie Fiennes teaches at University College London, where she is Senior Tutor on the Creative Documentary by Practice MFA,[3] and Mentor for the Ethnographic and Documentary Film (Practical) MA.[4] She has also taught at the IDFA summer school.

Early life[edit]

Sophie Fiennes was born in Ipswich, England, and is the daughter of photographer Mark Fiennes and novelist and painter, Jennifer Lash (Jini Fiennes.) She is the sister of Ralph Fiennes, Martha Fiennes, Magnus Fiennes, Jacob Fiennes and Joseph Fiennes.

The family moved house throughout Fiennes’ childhood, living at various times in Suffolk, Wiltshire, London, and notably in West Cork and Kilkenny, Ireland,  where Mark Fiennes designed and built the family’s house, and developed a practice as a photographer. Although best known for his architectural studies, “photographer of extraordinary versatility, whose work - featured in 2003 in a major retrospective at the Menier Gallery in London - reflected his sensitivity to places and people, his perennial sense of humour and, not least, an ingrained dislike of pomposity and hierarchy that gave many of his pictures a cutting edge of social comment.”[5]

Jini Fiennes, described by the writer Dodie Smith as “almost too interesting to be true”,[5] home schooled the children, inspired by the Scottish educationalist A.S.Neill.

Along with her siblings, Fiennes assisted her parents with running their postcard company Insight Cards, black and white photographs of Ireland taken by both Mark and Jini Fiennes. They sold the company in 1976, which now trades as Insight Cards Limited.

Fiennes’ father, Mark Fiennes, taught his daughter photography – both how to take photographs and how to print in black and white – while Jini Fiennes took her daughter to attend life drawing classes aged 11, at St Edmund’s Art Centre, Salisbury. Sophie Fiennes attributes this early immersion in observation and the creation of the image as a foundational experience.

Early career[edit]

Sophie Fiennes attended Chelsea School of Art Foundation Course in 1984. She worked as photographic assistant to Perry Ogden in 1985, and between 1986 - 1991 held a variety of production roles working closely with director Peter Greenaway on feature films including ‘Drowning by Numbers (1988), The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989) and ‘Prospero's Books (1991). Fiennes met dancer and choreographer Michael Clark who performed the role of Caliban in ‘Prospero’s Books’ and subsequently teamed up with Clark, to re-launch The Michael Clark Company, and produce the award winning stage work Michael Clark’s ‘Modern Masterpiece’, (Mmm…) (1992)

Overview of  Fiennes' style and formal approach[edit]

In the mid 90’s Fiennes began to make her own work and turned to documentary; with the advent of digital video cameras it was now possible to make films with a relatively independent and ambitious creative approach. Fiennes shoots her own observational material and explores ideas of cinematic staging[6] and film grammar within non-fiction cinema. When shooting on 16mm or 35 mm, she often works with cinematographer Remko Schnoor, and in 2022 worked with Mike Eley BSC on Four Quartets.

Since 2006 Fiennes has edited her films, (sometimes under the pseudonym Ethel Shepherd). Perceiving film editing as a form of writing, Fiennes’ films are shaped from her directly observed material. Bryan Appleyard, writing in The Sunday Times says, “She believes in the autonomous power of the image, its ability to change meanings as you watch.”[7] Fiennes herself describes this approach as an invitation. “What I’m doing is allowing viewers to engage purely with the visual world, to make it their own.”[8]

Fiennes has been described as a “sharp and sensitive observer”[9] who makes ““bold, beautiful but demanding”[8] work. She is a director, “who isn’t afraid to risk alienating audiences with her nonlinear storytelling”[10] and works in close collaboration with her subject matter, “her camera responds creatively to what it sees, it modifies and transforms the spectacle.”[2]

In a 2020 interview she describes documentary as a practice that can take many forms and which has preceded the moving image; life captured in songs and oral traditions, painting and the written word. Documentation is for her “a remainder, a moment witnessed and lost – except for the document. There is something pathetic and exceptional in this. And a work will also change in time.”[11]

Films by Sophie Fiennes[edit]


In Fiennes’ first  short film, Lars from 1 - 10, Danish director Lars Von Trier discusses his Dogme ’95 manifesto and reflects on his creative process. The film premiered at Sundance in 1998.

The Late Michael Clark (1999) combines intimate observational documentary with dance sequences carefully restaged for the camera and shot on 16 mm film. “Somewhere between the relative relaxation of Clarke in front of the camera, "writes the art critic Danny Leigh, “and the film’s Digital-Video derived sense of verité, the results are absorbing, inventive and, more unexpectedly, entirely approachable.”[1]

In 2001, London based arts organization Artangel commissioned Fiennes to document Because I Sing, a choral project involving 19 amateur choirs staged by composer Orlando Gough and Belgian theatre maker Alain Platel. Fiennes forged relationships with these amateur choral groups, capturing their diverse worlds. Described by one critic as “one of the most unusual documentaries about London its inhabitants are likely to see”,[9] Because I Sing was first broadcast on Channel 4 on 27 May 2001.


Fiennes’ first theatrical feature documentary, Hoover Street Revival (2003), uses the sermons of Pentecostal pastor Noel Jones as a form of narration for the life of the local Compton community in Los Angeles, using these to echo the Christian narrative. Writing in The Guardian, Andrew Pluver says: “Fiennes has assembled a collage of footage that pays eloquent testimony to the infectious religiosity that appears to be such a powerful force in an otherwise desperate community.”[12]

Fiennes’ celebrated collaboration with the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek began with ‘The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema (2006), described by The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw as “a highly entertaining and often brilliant tour of modern cinema, with clips from Hitchcock, Lynch, Tarkovsky and Chaplin”.[13] Writing about their collaboration, Žižek says, “When Sophie Fiennes approached me with the idea to do a "pervert's guide" to cinema, our shared goal was to demonstrate how psychoanalytic cinema-criticism is still the best we have, how it can generate insights which compel us to change our entire perspective.”[14] The result is not only an intellectual deep-dive but also, says Bradshaw, “tremendously exhilarating.”[13]

VSPRS Show and Tell (2007) is a document of and about Les Ballet C de la B's performance VSPRS, directed by Alain Platel. This challenging stage work was inspired by the devotional music of Claudio Monteverdi’s Maria Vespers, alongside footage filmed in 1904 of mentally ill in-patients in hospital. One critic described VSPRS as, “full of choreographed hysteria and spasmodic movement”;[15] Fiennes describes it as exploring the problem of humanity – “ this relation between emotion and physicality.”[16] ‘VSPRS Show and Tell’ was filmed using 2 cameras over 7 performances, and maintains a tight, almost claustrophobic frame on the performers as they move from stage to backstage.

Fiennes also traveled with Platel to Palestine to make Ramallah! Ramallah! Ramallah! (2005), a short film about his work with El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe and Ashtar Theatre.


In 2008 the German artist Anselm Kiefer invited Fiennes to document his hill studio estate, Ribotte, in the South of France. Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow (2010) bears witness to Kiefer’s alchemical creative processes. Shot in cinemascope, the film constructs visual set pieces alongside observational footage to capture both the dramatic resonance of Kiefer’s art and the intimate process of creation.

Writing in The Sunday Times, Bryan Appelyard describes the film as “a wonder” – able to render Kiefer’s personal universe as a film journey. “Before I saw the film, I knew Kiefer was a great artist,” says Appleyard, “After I saw it, I knew why.”[7] Peter Bradshaw describes it as, “a deeply serious meditation on artistic practice and expression: a discourse in which the artist as creator is respectfully restored to the very centre of the process, and not marginalised by the cross-currents of money, fashion or theory.”[2] Charlotte Higgins writes, “She maps his extraordinary, Wagnerian Gesamkunstwerk – which extends from labyrinthine, sepulchral tunnels dug out of the earth to impossibly tall, tottering concrete towers – with careful, elegant precision. The film has moments of surprising drama – such as when the artist pours molten lead down a mound of earth, or smashes endless sheets of glass on a stone floor. The physicality – sometimes even physical jeopardy – that goes into creating his works of art was something of an eye-opener.”[17] Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow premiered in the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.

In 2013 Fiennes documented the London residency of Chinese painter Liu Xiadong, resulting in Liu Xiadong Half Street, exhibited at the Lisson Gallery, London from 27 September to 2 November 2013.

The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology (2013) is Fiennes’ second collaboration with Slavoj Žižek: a “riveting and often hilarious”[18] film in which, “Slavoj Žižek manages to explain some of Lacanian psychoanalysis’s most inscrutable notions with disarming clarity and infectious urgency”.[19] Writing in ArtForum International, J Hoberman says that the collaborations between Fiennes and Žižek represent as well as explain Žižek’s cultural theory: "Žižek’s sense of ideology as spontaneous, even fun, drenches the venerable notion of 'sociological propaganda' with a secret sauce - chef Lacan's objet petit a"[20] Critics have praised Fiennes’ ability to communicate these ideas in an engaging and effective way: “It takes an academic to star in this heady scholastic narrative, but it also takes a fine director to make this movie the all-round cerebral success it thankfully is.”[21]


As a fan of Fiennes’ Hoover Street Revival, Grace Jones, sister of the Pentecostal preacher Noel Jones who features in the 2003 film, invited Fiennes to document her world. After 12 years, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami (2017) premiered in the Toronto International Film Festival.

As much as intimate verité sequences, the film employs Grace Jones’ elaborate masquerades and performances as central to this film portrait. “In a movie about someone who has shown you everything,” writes Wesley Morris in the New York Times, “what you're looking for is something you never expected to see. Bloodlight and Bami delivers.” He describes Fiennes’ approach as responsive and profound: “The documentary is a feat of portraiture and a restoration of humanity. It’s got the uncanny, the sublime, and in many stops a combination of both.”[22]

In 2018 Fiennes collaborated with Stopgap Dance Company and choreographer Lucy Bennett to reimagine the live performance ‘Artificial Things’, staging it in a derelict shopping mall. The film Artificial Things won the IMZ Dance On Screen Award in 2019.

In 2022 Fiennes collaborated with her brother, the actor Ralph Fiennes, translating to the screen his production and performance of T. S. Eliot's poem, Four Quartets. The original on-stage performance was described as “a magnificent theatrical experience”[23] and “a poignant one-man show about a world under threat.”[24] In Sophie Fiennes’ film “the lens and the screen bring a new, even more intimate, perspective”.[25]

Films in production[edit]

British theatre company Cheek By Jowl has shaped dramaturgical practice through ground-breaking productions of classic plays. Currently in post-production, ‘Acting’ is the working title for Fiennes’ process-led observational examination of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s method of creating theatre.

The Pervert’s Guide to Utopias marks Sophie Fiennes' third collaboration with Slavoj Žižek.[26] The film is a European Co-production with Blinder Films, Ireland and SPOK film, Slovenia and P Guide Ltd. The film is in development and scheduled to shoot in early 2024.




  1. ^ a b "Direct and to the point". The Guardian. 23 February 2000. ProQuest 188416310.
  2. ^ a b c Bradshaw, Peter (13 October 2010). "Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow – review". The Guardian.
  3. ^ "Teaching Staff". UCL Anthropology. 2 February 2023.
  4. ^ "Tutors". UCL Anthropology. 25 November 2019.
  5. ^ a b "Mark Fiennes". The Independent. 4 January 2005. ProQuest 310725923.
  6. ^ Bordwell, David (6 April 2005). "Figures Traced in Light: On Cinematic Staging". davidbordwell. Retrieved 6 April 2023.
  7. ^ a b Appleyard, B (2010, May 09) Good Choice, Sophie The Sunday Times
  8. ^ a b Sooke, Alastair (9 October 2010). "Inside the world of a modern master: Sophie Fiennes is documentary maker in a famously high-achieving family. Her latest film is a riveting exploration of the art of Anselm Kiefer". The Daily Telegraph. p. 12. ProQuest 757028795.
  9. ^ a b James, C (2001, July 13) Another Fine Fiennes The Evening Standard
  10. ^ Hohenadel, Kristin (10 August 2011). "The art of filming an artist: Sophie Fiennes captures the mysterious world of Anselm Kiefer's work". International Herald Tribune. p. 8.
  11. ^ Ruda, Frank; Hamza, Agon. "Interview with Sophie Fiennes: Risk is the Holy Grail We Need to Hold Onto". Crisis in Critique. 7 (2): 290–297.
  12. ^ Pulver, Andrew (23 August 2002). "Hoover Street Revival". The Guardian.
  13. ^ a b Bradshaw, Peter (5 October 2006). "The Pervert's Guide to Cinema". The Guardian.
  14. ^ Zizek, Slavoj. "A Pervert's Guide to Family".
  15. ^ Cripps, Charlotte (15 May 2006). "Preview: VSPRS, Sadler's Wells, London". The Independent. ProQuest 310971376.
  16. ^ Carré, Josselin (2009) Cinedans: meeting with Alain Platel / Sophie Fiennes
  17. ^ Higgins, Charlotte (18 May 2010). "My picks from the Cannes film festival". The Guardian.
  18. ^ Mintzer, J (2012, September 7) The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology: Toronto Review The Hollywood Reporter  accessed 6/4/23
  19. ^ Semerene, Diego (29 October 2013). "Review: The Pervert's Guide to Ideology". Slant Magazine.
  20. ^ Hoberman, J. (November 2013). "Eyes Wide Shut". Artforum International. 52 (3): 125. ProQuest 1462493803.
  21. ^ Watson, Tom (3 October 2013). "Film Review: 'The Pervert's Guide to Ideology'". CineVue.
  22. ^ Morris, Wesley (12 April 2018). "Review: 'Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami' Finds the Model, Singer, Actress, Person". The New York Times. ProQuest 2610705347.
  23. ^ Brennan, Clare (6 June 2021). "Four Quartets review – Ralph Fiennes meets TS Eliot in a triumphant return". The Observer.
  24. ^ Rutkowksi, Laura (2022). "Four Quartets, starring Ralph Fiennes". Radio Times.
  25. ^ Einav, Dan (15 October 2022). "Pick of the week". Financial Times. p. 18. ProQuest 2735685428.
  26. ^ "The Pervert's Guide to Utopias". Field of Vision.

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