JR on his new movie with Robert De Niro
The artist tells us about The Ghosts of Ellis Island, 'a fiction, that slowly connects to the reality'
Ellis Island’s Immigrant Inspection Station, in Upper New York Bay, served as the gateway for many would-be Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. At its height, in 1907, it processed a little over a million immigrants. Yet, for some, the island was not an entry point, but a barrier. Around two per cent of hopeful arrivals were denied entry to the United States, many due to poor health.
French artist JR’s 2014 project, Unframed – Ellis Island, brought those long departed sickly souls back to life, by posting vintage photographs of the patients and staff of the island’s hospital onto the derelict walls of the facility.
JR followed up this with a short film, The Ghosts of Ellis Island, with Robert De Niro in the lead role, and a script by the Oscar-winning writer Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).
As the artist explained when he visited our offices recently, the film, which is in post-production, links back to the Ellis Island installation, but also brings the story up-to-date.
“It’s a fiction, that slowly connects to the reality,” JR explains in this video. “I asked Robert De Niro to play an immigrant that’s been [to Ellis Island] and never got accepted, and ended up being a ghost in this island. You see things from his point of view, telling his story and it slowly connects to what happens today.”
JR has pasted portraits of latter-day US immigrants onto the film’s set, to remind viewers of “those who emigrated and made it today," he explains, “but are inbetween states and don’t have papers.”
It’s an interesting meditation on contemporary social issues that JR hopes to extend into the screening and distribution of the film.
“I’m trying to think outside of the classic cinema way or Internet routes,” he says, “to reach out to people – I love it when [film] gathers people (together) and they don’t just watch it on their phones,” he continues. “A big part of my work is to create events through art that gather and reconnect people. The best part of exhibition is not maybe the artwork, but it’s the fact that you go and you meet other people and you talk about it, and what it creates.”
You can watch the full interview above, and check back soon for news of the JR screenings, as well as details of our forthcoming monograph dedicated to this important, exciting contemporary artist.