The centre of life has been in southern Portugal for decades, and we didn’t know it. Like the black holes that Alexandr Medvedkin talks about in Chris Marker’s The Last Bolshevik, it concentrates the largest amount of energy in the tiniest of spaces.
Encounters (2006), directed and edited by Pierre-Marie Goulet, is a film whose 105 minutes unfold much longer periods of time, counted in years and decades, through voices, places, natures and faces. The filmmaker himself readily accepts that he is one of those travellers called smugglers [passeurs], had the term not been sullied by other connotations. (Those who know Pierre-Marie Goulet know that, in his case, the term could not be more accurate. More on this later.)
The threads woven by this film roll past in the opening titles, fortunately too quickly to be retained as the film progresses: 1957 António Reis, 1959 Michel Giacometti, 1965 Manuel António Pina, 1966 Paulo Rocha. We still remember, but barely so, the first and last names, those of the “mavericks” of Portuguese cinema, as Serge Daney said.
The centre, but there is no centre – for that matter, the village we seem to be slowly approaching in the beginning will split in two. On this walk, which passes a ridge by a dirt road and leads to a green-hilled landscape, we hear two voices, a woman and a man, who provide us with both the leitmotifs and the intention. “All is harmony and enchantment,” says the woman. The man speaks in the past tense. Only memory remains. “Why do people far removed feel familiar to each other?”
The film goes in search of men and acts of the past by way of their traces. Following itineraries that cross the country, and in one exceptional detour the Mediterranean, it weaves the relationships that could unite these acts. “It was going to disappear, it had to be filmed,” says one character who will be identified later. There are many places, encounters and movements. Is it because the very centre, “harmony and enchantment”, is outside of history? But nothing of the sort exists. It is just a matter of different times. And of feeling the movement of history, the memory of expectations, of a liberation that did not come, along with the slow movement that passes over centuries and resembles immobility. “We used to spend our nights talking until the cafés closed”, says another, “and then continued elsewhere. The conversations lasted until dawn.” That, and the songs – two ways that revolutions are announced. This was Portugal in 1965 (it’s a long time coming; we had to wait until 1974, but the film doesn’t mention that).
As for the words “harmony and enchantment”, we hear them spoken by a very young voice. It belongs to Virginia, a smooth-faced elderly woman, her hands placed on the table, who suffered from not being allowed to study and instead wrote poems. She was unknown, and destined to remain so, had she not been illuminated by a light from elsewhere.
It was in Porto in 1957 that António Reis heard a group of farmers from the village of Peroguarda in Alentejo, on the other side of the country. He covered the seven hundred kilometres to the village by motorbike to record the poems of the inhabitants. On the tapes recorded in June of that year, we hear Virginia’s voice. In front of the camera in 2006, Virginia is supposed to be one of the main threads in a story with many threads, but perhaps it would be better not to count them.
There have been other recordings in that same village of Peroguarda. Michel Giacometti came to Portugal at the age of thirty and spent the other half of his life recording on tape and then on film the treasure trove of popular songs, whose preservation was paradoxically ensured by the country’s isolation due to dictatorship and poverty. We see a couple of images from his programme Povo que canta: a woman whose voice accompanies her treading the wheel that activates a water mill (“a man mill”, according to the Lumière catalogue’s description of the same instrument filmed in Japan by Gabriel Veyre, no. 1030). Pierre-Marie Goulet had dedicated his previous film to Giacometti, the beautifully titled Polifonias, which would suit this one.
For we are in the village, but also in Porto, where the dictatorship’s suffocation was undoubtedly more palpable. Like Manoel de Oliveira and Paulo Rocha, António Reis was from Porto, a city, as Rocha would tell Jean-André Fieschi and Jean Narboni, “that is very dense, with its own particular spirit and matter, where people are both more rooted and more isolated”.1
Before this encounter in Venice in 1966, a group of young people considered António Reis, who was mostly a poet at the time, as their mentor, according to the night-time reveller Manuel António Pina. “We kept his Poemas Quotidianos in our pockets and shared them furtively in cafés during the long lonely nights of our adolescence, like a shared flame, a sign that identified us as members of the same wandering tribe. We were all young, or thought we were, and in those controversial times believed that we had been given the gift, through poetry, of understanding and changing the world and life. António Reis did not know, but all the words we used were his.”
The poet Pina and Virginia meet for Pierre-Marie Goulet’s film, listening to one of the tapes from 1957 in which Reis’s voice can be heard. Except for these few voice fragments, the film does not say more about him. When Reis died, Paulo Rocha – among many others – wrote down a testimony about him, titled “A Luminous Figure”: “He lived in a flat in Gaia overlooking the river. The walls were covered with multicoloured cloth figures made by the madmen of some asylum. Those windows, looking out onto the river mist, contained an irrational energy, a breath of life on the edge of the abyss.”2
The film is not “about” one of these figures, not about Reis, Giacometti or even Rocha. They remain almost invisible. Two shots of an emaciated, mischievously smiling Giacometti, listening to his tape recorder, should suffice. We don’t get to see Reis’s face: Googling him would take care of that. Borges, The Aleph: “Our minds are porous and forgetfulness seeps in; I myself am distorting and losing, under the wearing away of the years, the face of Beatriz.”
The group around the poet Reis wanted to change the world and life, which resembles the title of Paulo Rocha’s second feature film, Change of Life, shot in 1966 in Furadouro, on the southern coast of the country.
Forty years later, Paulo Rocha returns to Furadouro. The young filmmaker, the old man, stands in front of the sea and his voice speaks of his childhood, of the big fishing boats he saw there, which were disappearing along with the village, worn down by the sea. When there was only one fishing crew left, “it was necessary to film... it was a kind of testament”. For the fishermen, not for the filmmaker. The testament became a manifesto: at that time, no other young Portuguese filmmaker had managed to pass the first film mark (in Rocha’s case: The Green Years, 1963).
About a third of the way in, Encounters contains a film within the film, which is announced by the projector’s cogwheels and ends when the film has unwound (but it is not [Vertov’s] Man with a Movie Camera). Change of Life provides us here with the return of a man, a colonial-war survivor who lost his fiancée while he was away; the monumental collective work of fishing with nets in large fishing boats; the sea invading the village and eating away at the houses. Sitting on the edge of the room, Rocha rewatches the film as the inhabitants, the characters, their children and grandchildren, exclaim as they recognise each other and reconstruct their genealogies. His hand against his cheek, Rocha remains silent, sometimes smiles.
“People in Porto are very interested in popular culture,” Rocha told the Cahiers duo, “but what we see [in Change of Life] was shown in such a way as to convey these things from a more general point of view. I will never resign myself to making films from a ‘well-informed visitor’s’ point of view. Nor would I, ideologically, want to make films that only satisfy one particular spirit, for example that of the people of Porto.” And: “Those unrelated to the country best understood the novelty of the film.”
The author of the dialogues in Change of Life is António Reis, as he appears in the credits projected on the screen in the small theatre. It so happens that the poet later became an important filmmaker, after the overthrow of the dictatorship. A self-taught member of the Porto film club, Reis had been involved – like Paulo Rocha – in Rite of Spring (1962), Manoel de Oliveira’s first feature film in twenty years. Reis’s feature films, made with Margarida Cordeiro, are set in the northeast of the country. The first one is called Trás-os-Montes, named after the province. The foreigners – among them the French Serge Daney, Sylvie Pierre, Jean-Pierre Oudart, Yann Lardeau and Jean-André Fieschi (alerted by Pedro Costa for Reis) – who, through their encounters, discovered the two filmmakers, and became figures in this framework – memory crumbles like houses to be discovered again – are not part of the film, but they became part of the movement and now belong to the “informal tribe whose members recognise each other when they meet”. As, for example, Antoine Bonfanti, who “brought about many encounters”, according to the dedication addressed to him.
Like Pierre-Marie Goulet himself, who arrived in Portugal the year Giacometti and Reis died. (Where do we know him from, how did the encounter take place; in my case through Jean-André Fieschi and João Bénard da Costa.) Being a filmmaker also means teaching and showing cinema to those who are not involved in it; programming is an act of montage. Four volumes entitled O Olhar de Ulises [The Gaze of Ulysses] complete a programme composed with José Manuel Costa, Teresa Garcia and Miguel Dias in 2001 (on the occasion of Porto 2001, European Capital of Culture). It is also a different possible history of cinema, and the volumes, composed as a montage of texts and images, keep me company – in the same way as Histoire(s) du cinéma or Adriano Aprà’s programme booklet Il cinema e il suo oltre (Pesaro 1996) – so as to prevent me from ever admitting that this history could be fixed and finished. In the past six years, this writing of history has continued with P.-M.G.’s and Teresa Garcia’s programming of films for the annual festival Temps d’images in Lisbon. (This digression is not off topic.)
Cinema is a matter of elective affinities, from which it draws its strength, which in turn allows it to resist music and poetry. It took a non-Portuguese to give an account of this framework without simplifying it or making it illegible. Happy encounters that have found the one who remembers in their place. Encounters is the story of links that are too weak to be formulated, except in a poetic language: “The insatiable search for a soul by means of the delicate glimmerings or reflections the soul has left in others,” writes the Argentinian [Borges] elsewhere (The Approach to Al-Mu’tasim): “First, the weak trace of a smile or a word; towards the end, the diverse and growing splendour of reason, imagination and the good.” Only the reflection of these characters matters, how a network is born, like the kilometre-long nets of Change of Life. It is about their influence and how they operate in the present.
The poet, the musicologist, the filmmaker, all have come from the Northeast, from Corsica, from France, to try to find what moves them. Manuel António Pina meets Virginia for the film, and their memories are different, but parallel. Virginia confesses that she did not dare to tell Mr. Reis that she was the author of her poems; she told him that they had been handed down to her by her mother. Shortly before, Pina recounted her last encounter with António Reis: “Memory is continually a narrative that we make of our own past. We don’t remember facts. I already don’t remember Reis. Nor that scene in the rain. I remember remembering it. And perhaps poetry is a way of constructing our memory. And perhaps there is a great deal of factuality in this memory of Reis and in this whole episode, but this factuality is lost, irretrievably so. The past does not exist, the present does.
Virginia goes to Corsica to the place where Michel came from (who wanted to be buried in Peroguarda). She starts again, in the other direction, the journey that opened Otar Iosseliani’s film Georgia, Alone, travelling the Mediterranean by way of its songs. (Iosseliani, for his part, started from Colchis and ended up in Euzkadi, but that doesn’t matter). The Corsican cetera resembles the Portuguese guitar. What she finds is beyond speech: music, song, the material of the last part of the film.
The initial path, retraced in the other direction at the end, is only one of many. Rather, there will be sideways tracking shots and cuts. The montage can divide and bring together at the same time, as we know from Mediterranean (Pierre-Marie Goulet happens to have co-directed a film with Jean-Daniel Pollet). Once again we must quote Daney on the subject of the aforementioned Trás-os-Montes: “The distancing (or its opposite: the bringing together) that interests the makers occurs in the hic et nunc of the present.” He spoke of “being aware of that which, in the shot (a zone, I recall, of dreams and anguish), refers to elsewhere...”.3
One last quote (then I’ll stop, I promise) from Reis, who – in reference to his magnificent first film, the medium-length Jaime – said to João César Monteiro: “It is horrible when they save a Romanesque capital and put it in a museum. A capital was part of a column, the column belonged to a portico, the portico to a cathedral, with all its institutions, alienations and dreams, it was still part of a temple inhabited by people.”4 The magazine was called Cinéfilo, and the interview was published in the week of 25 April 1974.
- 1. “Paulo Rocha : Mudar de Vida”, interview by Jean-André Fieschi and Jean Narboni, Cahiers du Cinéma 183 (October 1966).
- 2. Paulo Rocha, “Uma figura luminosa – António Reis, poeta do cinema”, in: Jornal de Letras, Artes e Ideias 480 (September 1991): 17–23, quoted from: Roberto Turigliatto (ed.), Paulo Rocha (Turin: Lindau, 1995).
- 3. Serge Daney, “Loin des lois (Trás-os-Montes)”, in: Cahiers du Cinéma 276 (May 1977). Also in: Serge Daney, La Maison cinéma et Ie monde, I. Le temps des Cahiers 1962-1981, (Paris: P.O.L., coll. “Trafic”, 2001).
- 4. “Jaime, o inesperado no cinema português”, interview with António Reis by João César Monteiro, in: Cinéfilo (20 April 1974), quoted from: O Olhar de Ulises 3, A Utopia do Real (Porto: Porto 2001 – Cinemateca Portuguesa, 2001).
This article was originally published as ‘Encontros de Pierre-Marie Goulet’ in Trafic 80 (2011).
With thanks to Stoffel Debuysere and Bernard Eisenschitz.