← Part of the Collection: Pedro Costa

Finding the Letter: Pedro Costa in Bucharest, September 2023

(1) As Filhas do Fogo [The Daughters of Fire] (Pedro Costa, 2023)

There cannot be any serious discussion of contemporary cinema – the field, the map, the territory – in the absence of Pedro Costa.

Much has been written about the Portuguese director’s oeuvre. Indeed, Sabzian has a very rich and ample dossier on his works, so much that it has become difficult to pinpoint where one should begin to read about him. His seven feature films – from O Sangue [Blood] (1989) to Vitalina Varela (2019) – have put forward a total artistic project: proposing both a radical shift in the field of political cinema that revolutionises the representation of marginalised, exploited individuals, and a method of artisanal creation that is small-scaled, self-owned, autonomous and radically different in rhythm from the vast majority of modern film production. And although his cinema bears such a unique aesthetic signature that it is one of the most instantly-recognisable of our time, his influences run the gamut of the great masters: from John Ford to Robert Bresson, and Jacques Tourneur to Straub-Huillet, who are organically integrated within the very fibre of his cinema, rather than being mere “quotation, [...] or the postmodern games of allusion, parody and reworking in so much contemporary narrative filmmaking,” to quote Adrian Martin.1

I was honoured to be a part of the small team of people that worked to bring Pedro Costa’s films to the cinemas of Romania for the first time, in a retrospective initiated by Pedro Emilio Segura Bernal for the Bucharest International Experimental Film Festival, and under the guidance of the festival’s artistic director, Oana Ghera. Even though we, within the programming team of BIEFF, were deeply aware that Costa’s cinema is not one to be subsumed under the umbrella of experimental cinema (no matter which of its myriad traditions and schools we were to regard), we knew that his praxis and trajectory is precisely experimental: here is a man that, like a handful of artists before him (one thinks, for example, of a young Pablo Picasso), studied the rules, observed the system constructed around them, absorbed their most important lessons and then threw it all away in favour of a precise and refined form, practice and ethos. And that is precisely what we desired to champion by inviting him to be our inaugural guest at the festival’s auteur retrospective.

In the following discussion, which took place in September 2023 in Bucharest during a masterclass that followed a screening of Costa’s latest short film, As Filhas do Fogo [The Daughters of Fire] (2023), Costa sketches an autobiography that is subjective (and thus, slightly incomplete). He discusses his experience of the Carnation Revolution as a teenager and his days as a student of history at the University of Lisbon, where his contract with the geographer and historian Orlando Ribeiro left a deep imprint on him. Describing his films up to his 2006 magnum opus, Juventude em marcha [Colossal Youth] (2006), Costa focused in particular on the revelatory experience of his second feature, Casa de Lava (1994), and the moment of rupture and revelation that was No quarto da vanda [In Vanda’s Room] (2000) – nothing less than a piece of cinema history, a pioneering work that broke the boundaries of fiction and non-fiction (indeed, “reality turned art” in the words of Bazin), a testament to the potentialities of digital image at the turn of the millennium, and all the hidden corners of life that it was capable of revealing.

Given the oral nature of the discourse, there are of course blind spots here and there. However, it does seem the following works as an introduction to both his biography and, most importantly, his Weltanschauung. And although he generally declines to discuss the “artistic” aspects of his work (even so, they transpire naturally in the conversation), the following discussion is a distillation of both his work ethos (with an emphasis on work), his political vision and his adversarial position towards the hegemonic production systems within contemporary cinema.

The following text has been edited for clarity.

(2) Casa de Lava (Pedro Costa, 1994)

On History, Portuguese Colonialism and Costa’s Affection for Cape Verde

Flavia Dima: I’d like to start from The Daughters of Fire, and slowly go back in time, through this film, throughout your filmography. I’d like to start by asking you about these fragments that close the film. As far as I understand, these fragments were shot by an anthropology professor you studied with, who also shot the fragments that you used at the beginning of Casa de Lava. I was interested in how this arch is part of these films.

Pedro Costa: These images, used in The Daughters of Fire and Casa de Lava, were shot by a teacher that I had, Orlando Ribeiro. I studied history, and at that time anthropology was not fully established at the university, at least in my country. Anthropologists and ethnologists then came to the history department, and so we had classes with him. He was much more than an anthropologist and much more than a teacher. He was a man of great knowledge and kindness. I learned a lot about books and films from him. He was a cinephile. At that time, I was just beginning. I had seen very few films. He introduced me to a lot of things. Anthropology is about the lands, the people, going to the origins, as with history, but it’s also very useful for an aspiring filmmaker. Now I know for sure, it was a very good introduction. I did not begin with film history or film studies [grimaces].

But I started with simple classical history and anthropology, ethnology, all these sorts of things. At the same time, he was one of the few specialists in the field of the Portuguese colonies in Africa. Portugal had a lot of colonies. Actually, you could say we invented them. Because we are a very small country and a very lost country, just like Romania today. I mean, it’s not a spectacular thing, it’s nothing that we Portuguese are proud of. But we invented this idea of colonists, colonization, the discoveries as we call it in Portugal. Going out to discover land, continents. We went everywhere: to the Americas, to the Indies, to Japan. And we had a lot of colonies: in India; in South America we had Brazil, and in Africa Mozambique, Angola and Guinea. And some islands called Cape Verde, more or less in front of Senegal, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. These islands were deserted in the fifteenth century. There was no such thing as a Cape Verdean people. But it was the perfect place for the boats the Portuguese sailed to the East and West with to be stored. It was a turntable, and then a market. It’s where they left and brought things, and it became the biggest slave market in the world in the fifteenth century. We, the Dutch, the French, and the English, mainly, traded all the slaves that we brought from continental Africa and then dispersed them to Europe and America. So, we were the first slave traders.

Orlando Ribeiro had a cinematic way of teaching this. Now I realise that but at that time I didn’t. It was very spectacular, and there’s nothing wrong with that for me. Spectacular in the sense that he wielded a very practical and at the same time metaphysical way of talking. And that’s a little bit of cinema. It’s at the same time very realistic and not at all. I learned about all this and I was learning about film – without even knowing it – and then there was another important encounter, which I also only realise, again, in retrospect. This affection and connection that I have with Cape Verde, these islands, and the people from Cape Verde that live in my country, that are immigrants. I’ve been working with them, these three girls that you see in The Daughters of Fire. They belong to the youngest generation of immigrants. They are fantastic singers. The film is in fact just a test I’m doing for a feature film. They are amazing, full of energy, very wise, and sensible at work.

On Directing a Sophomore Film, and Delivering Letters to Fontainhas

But it all began with my affection for Cape Verde. After I made my first film, Blood, I didn’t know what to do for my second film. The second is always the strangest film for filmmakers. I don’t know if there are some filmmakers present here, but you must know what I mean. Even if the first one is a failure or it’s not very good, or even if it’s a success, the second is difficult. It’s the one where you approach more intimate things – or you should. Because with the first film, you try to do everything. And sometimes it’s a bit sloppy. But the second is really a test for yourself. I’m not talking about any commercial intention or something like that. It’s just between you and yourself.

So for this second film, I didn’t know what to do and I remembered my teacher, and I remembered Cape Verde. And I remembered a film that I had seen, an American film from the fifties called I Walked with a Zombie [1943]. It’s a film by a French director called Jacques Tourneur, who was one of the émigrés in Hollywood in the forties and fifties. His most famous film is Cat People [1942], you must know it. And this one, I Walked with a Zombie, is a zombie story, a very strange, beautiful, amazing film, set on some island – in Antigua, I think. I remember this very stupid, irresponsible feeling of doing a remake of that film. Now there are five or six remakes, everybody did a remake of this film. Even a friend of mine called Bertrand Bonello, maybe you know him. So I thought about Tourneur’s film and I started imagining something. I went to Cape Verde, stayed there for a while, and tried to prepare, to see locations. I tried to set myself in the mood to do this film. Which I did.

I did my second film in Cape Verde, and it was a very difficult experience. Very problematic, for me. This encounter with myself and what I wanted to do. It’s also very difficult when you have sixty people around you. It was a big production with a lot of actors, some famous, mixed with non-actors from Cape Verde who didn’t know anything. This mix, the heat, the tropics... It was like a book by Joseph Conrad. It was my Apocalypse Now [laughs] – on a small scale, but it had everything: a lot of tears, fights.

I’m just telling you this because at the end of the shooting – it’s a story I’ve told a couple of times – the thing I was most fond of was getting in touch with these people, with this population. I recognized something in them and, like I told you, there were no Cape Verdean people. In the sense that it’s a mix between those Black slaves from Africa with Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English aristocrats or simple sailors that were in Cape Verde waiting for the boats. These trips took two, three, sometimes five years, just to go to India and come back. So, some women of sailors, some nights, they met with some of those slaves, and things happened. The Cape Verdean people were born from this mix between Black and white, aristocratic and very low class. The Cape Verdean people have this aristocratic touch that you feel very strongly, they’re very... They’re kings and queens.

At the end of this shooting of my second film, the last day, we said goodbye to the people I had worked with. They gave me and some crew members a lot of things to take back to Lisbon: coffee and tobacco, some messages, a lot of letters for their relatives who were immigrants living in Portugal. Cape Verde is a land of immigration. More than 500,000 people is living there now, and there are Cape Verdeans all around the world. A lot in Boston, Paris, Rotterdam, Lisbon. They’re all over.

But they gave me these messages, these letters, and I did this transmission. I went to this neighbourhood where Cape Verdeans lived at that time, most of them, and I delivered the letters and the messages. House by house, door by door. I encountered people, and I encountered them in the best way, doing something very simple which we all saw in a film by Jacques Tati, the postman who goes to every house [Jour de fête]. The postman used to be a very loved person, the person who brings you... good news. Now, in modern times, it’s always bad news. But it used to be another world, let’s say. There’s no more post office. So I went and I gave the letters. And more than that, because I was giving something that was very precious and sentimental, sometimes I was invited to the house and I sat down. Mostly it was a very modest house, almost a shack, in a very poor neighbourhood. They gave me some liquor, wine or food, while sometimes they read the letters.

(3) No quarto da Vanda [In Vanda’s Room] (Pedro Costa, 2000)

On the Revelation of the Letters and Rejecting Scriptwriting, Money and the Idea of Industry

I’m telling you this because this has stayed with me forever as my own metaphor for cinema. Or, more precisely, the cinema that I like, the cinema that I want to do forever. Which is: you don’t have to write; it’s already written for you. Somebody else writes the letters. I don’t want to write letters; I have to shoot the film. This idea of scripts is something that I try not to touch. I abandoned that with the second film. I had a big struggle with myself because I cannot write. I don’t know how to write. Anyway, a film script is nothing, it’s not the work of art. I mean, it’s not dialogue, it’s not plot. For me, it’s not that. The film is something else.

This seemed to me the perfect metaphor for my kind of cinema. I was watching these people reading letters that I had brought, and I didn’t know the text. Of course, like a very good postman, I did not open the letters, I just gave them. And they read, some of them it in front of me, facing me, and sometimes I saw the tears, or I saw the laughter. At that moment, of course, I was not thinking about the things I’m telling you now. I was just there, moved, very touched. Seeing things that, immediately, I thought of: “This is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. This is a very important moment.” As you feel in certain passages of certain films, that’s what I felt. Or books, poems, or music. As a moment – maybe it’s not the whole composition, or the whole film – certain illuminations, pieces, instants that stay with you, and they connect with you because of very deep mysterious things.

That is, for me, film. I was facing what I wanted to do for the first time. I told myself: “You have to do this kind of thing; you have to get rid of the writing. You will not write a letter. The letter is written for you. You will try to find the letter.” That has been my fight from that moment on. To get rid of the money. It seems a bit strange coming from a filmmaker, but I really hate money and I’ve been doing the best possible to stay away from it. I mean, making films with a lot of principles. But encountering these people, like I did, it was not possible to continue with a lie, with this lie that film is in a way.

The filmmaker says: “Film is art, but it’s also an industry.” He’s a bullshitter, a man without principles. It is not an industry, it was an industry, in Hollywood, in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s – and then it was over. Now it exists here and there, a little bit, but they are groceries, run by grocers. I mean, there are some guys that make a lot of money. There’s a lot of money involved, of course. Dirty money mostly now. I couldn’t go on doing films like the ones I was doing. I thought: “I want to do films with these people, they can act. I want them to be the actors.”

I had to think about how I would pay them. The men worked in construction; the women cleaned houses. That’s what they do still today. Immigrants, that’s what they do. Now they do Glovo and Uber sometimes. I thought: “This is going to be my life!” I was young, I was thirty years old. I had to think about this film business. That’s what I think about, it’s business. I hate to talk about art and artistic problems, the only thing I can talk about is how money gets into film, how you should take care of it, and how you should not fool people. Because if you start fooling people, working for example with huge differences in salaries and wages, it will show on the screen. That’s my problem. I see the money on the fucking screen. [Laughs.] That’s the only thing I see. I see extras. I see how much they paid, or worse, how much they spent. Spent in a bad way. Waste, waste. I hate waste. This is a form of ecology too.

On the Feeling of Doing Something Wrong, the Film Industry as a Broken Machine, and the Decision to Abandon “Traditional” Filmmaking

After you delivered these letters to Fontainhas, you decided to make a final film based on more conventional means of production, Ossos. You worked with a big crew, with a director of photography, Emmanuel Machuel, who worked on Robert Bresson’s L’argent. After this film, you let go of all of these conventional means that you just described. That was the moment of finding freedom within this artisanal way of making film, which also translates, you’ll have to excuse me, into the artistic qualities of your work. After Ossos, you go to Fontainhas with a small MiniDV camera and you spend a year there, working on what would become In Vanda’s Room. And I wanted to ask you, especially since there are a lot of young filmmakers here in the room tonight, how did you perceive this period in your career? What drove you to this complete refinement, let’s say, of both the production and the formality of your films, marked by In Vanda’s Room?

I always say the same thing. You don’t have to be a filmmaker to understand this. Film is really difficult because it’s a fight between you and yourself, as with nobody else. There’s no use in fighting with the technicians or the actors because it’s you, it’s always your fault. [Laughs.] But when I thought, or rather felt that I was doing something bad, or that I didn’t know how to direct an actor, or to do a shot, I always thought: “I’m stupid, I’m an idiot, I’m not as good as Bresson or Godard, I’m of no use.”

And slowly, very slowly in this process that I was telling you about, I understood that I didn’t have artistic but production problems. I didn’t know how to organize a crew; I didn’t know where the money was coming from. That’s a big problem today, I think, for young filmmakers, and they should take care of this. That is, to know where the money comes from. Is it dirty or not dirty at all? Fifty percent goes there, and you don’t understand why. You never understand why you don’t have the money to do certain things or to pay certain people. Now I know it’s very fake, it’s a way of dominating. To continue this machine that doesn’t work.

It’s a broken machine. We all know it. Films are not very good anymore, in general. The films still “work,” people still see things – American mostly and a very few European films. But it’s not the same... It’s not the same road that cinema used to be on. It was a very special thing. Like Godard used to say: “It’s not a book; you can see thinking in action.” You are sitting there, you watch and you are thinking, and you don’t know if you are thinking, if it’s actually thinking; it’s talking to you in a very special way. I wouldn’t call it language. You see people, big and small, landscapes, and you associate so many things that it comes back to you. It always comes back to your life.

What I understood at that moment was that I had to take care of the smallest things. “What are we going to eat tomorrow? How can I get four people to another place, which is a bit far away? Are we taking the train?” In film that seems completely crazy because time is money. That’s one of the things I had to change. Time is not money. So, how do you change that?

I did it in an extreme way. I shot In Vanda’s Room in four years, more or less, and I was not worried. All my colleagues were very worried and saying, “Come back, come baaack! You’re lost! Don’t go there!” [Laughs.] I thought: “This is my thing.” I disappeared completely from the map. Because I was in the industry, I was completely there. I disappeared because I wanted to disappear. It’s not disappearing, it’s finding a centre for myself, and this centre was inside myself. It’s a radiation point where you can see everything that you like and things that you don’t like. You have to understand why you don’t like them. And this is political and social: you see things around you. But you can only see a piece. I cannot travel the world like the explorers, I cannot see the world. I can see a house maybe, and maybe a bedroom.

(4) No quarto da Vanda [In Vanda’s Room] (Pedro Costa, 2000)

On the Inception of In Vanda’s Room, Adolescence and MiniDV

I saw this girl and she seemed very interesting because she was mainly killing herself. That’s what she was doing. She was a junkie. The whole neighbourhood at that time was in a very problematic state. I was younger, and they were a little bit younger than me. There was some danger there too. Cinema smells danger. It has to smell danger. Because, if not, it’s not very interesting, I think. I saw her and I thought she was interesting as a subject to study. I’m not ashamed of saying that. So again, anthropology and ethnology come into play. I told her, “I would like to do a film with you in your bedroom.” That was where she lived, mainly. She never got out. Slowly, I discovered that her bedroom was very crowded. It was almost the centre, the heart of this neighbourhood. Everybody, young people mostly, came to talk, to cry, to run away, to hide… all sorts of things. I could see the neighbourhood there. You know, when you think that this is a rotten society, let’s think about why, and where it’s rotten. And you could see it in that room.

I did the film with this girl, Vanda, for three years, and it came to me that cinema is something that you learn every day, discover every day, and you are happy and sad every day. But not in the same way as in a film crew. In a film crew you fight, you are angry, disturbed. It’s a job. I found a way of not doing this job but of doing work. And I like to work this way. I stayed there, shooting on a small MiniDV camera, on video. It was very cheap.

At that time, my film was one of the first to be shot on MiniDV. Actually, I got my camera because Lars von Trier was the co-producer of my third film, Ossos. He had seen Casa de Lava and he liked it. He offered me to use his studios in Denmark that he was building at the time. This big thing that he has now. I went there to do my mix, but when I got there the studios were not finished yet. He said, “Ah ha ha, you have to stay a year, because it’s not finished yet, you can’t go back.” He’s a crazy guy. [Audience laughs.]

Working on video, with a small handycam, helped a lot. I couldn’t have done it otherwise. I thought about shooting the film on 16 mm, but still, it would’ve been very difficult because I was alone. Almost alone. Late in the process, too late, I thought I had to bring someone to help me with the sound. Because you can’t do image and sound well by yourself, and I was working under difficult conditions. It was a very small room, there were a lot of drugs, a lot of crazy things. I should have gotten a friend to help me, which I got for the last month, a sound engineer. That changed everything for me.

After I started, I stayed. I saw no reason to leave. I thought there were a lot of letters, or stories if you want, to work on. I stayed. Sometimes, two or three times, I did something else. Somebody asked me to do a film and then another, but I’m staying there. In fact, now there’s no there anymore. The neighbourhood was demolished, and the people were relocated to other places. And I went with them. The film after Vanda, Colossal Youth, is a little bit about the process of moving from one place to the other, and the complications, and the ways of adapting. It’s even more anthropological.

I’m not afraid of these words – anthropological, sociological. A lot of filmmakers say, “No, my films are not sociological!” Mine are. A lot. They only have messages. And I love that, I love that. I owe a lot to all the teachers, the books and the things that I studied, all of which I can embody in film. Films too of course, these mattered much more than writings on film. Interviews with filmmakers, I recommend them. I like them very much – but with classic filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin or John Ford. You learn a lot from those people. But criticism – some, very few: Jacques Rivette, Truffaut sometimes, and Godard, of course. But, in fact, I have to say that history and sociology have been my companions. Sometimes they help me to explain certain things.

On Jacques Rivette, Running Away from Film School, and Cinema as a Conversation

Jacques Rivette, who’s someone I’m very fond of (he wasn’t only a great filmmaker, but for me, also the best writer on film; I met him once or twice), wrote something that I think is the most perfect definition: “When you do a film it’s always a catastrophe.” Every shooting is horrible, in the sense that nothing goes well. All you have to do is push this thing, day by day, and try to be good, to be on the right track. All you do is very practical, very physical, very emotional, and very sentimental. It’s your body, your nerves and attention that are moving, that are always in motion. One thing that stops – this is Jacques Rivette, not me – is your intellect. You forget what you want to do. You don’t know what you’re doing, what the subject is, or what the scene is. Everything vanishes because you have a lot of things to take care of, first on the table, and then on the wall, then the camera, the tripod, the light, and so on.

I stopped working with fifty people. We work in a very small team, mostly four people, like for The Daughters of Fire. And we do everything. I can do a bit of sound for example. And yes, Rivette used to say that you stop thinking, you just act and react. It’s pure energy. You don’t have time to think. For cinema is born from this movement. Sometimes it’s born from one or two very small ideas that cross your mind, but in general… it never stops. It’s a machine, a train, a car that has to be in motion.

Because if you think the films would be horrible. And there are such films, a lot. [Laughs.] I used to see them – I do it less nowadays, but when I was younger, I went for one year to film school after finishing my history studies. Then I ran away. I met one teacher that I loved, Antonio Reis. He was a great filmmaker. I learned a lot from him, but apart from that I just wanted to learn how to work the camera, the sound etc.

I ran away because of the theory. I didn’t like film studies. [Grimaces, audience laughs.] I didn’t like it because it didn’t help me. It confused me, and I always thought it’s too implicated, there’s no solution there. There’s a lot of obliviousness to what cinema really is. For me, cinema is really political – political in the sense that it cannot be anything else but what you were doing when you were shooting. No-one thinks a film. It’s not a dream. I mean, you can dream a film. But when you’re shooting it’s not a dream, it’s a nightmare probably. [Audience laughs.] No, it’s not even a nightmare, it’s in reality things don’t work. There’s always this guy that says “Why are you giving me twenty euros, I need forty!” or “That wall isn’t green. Why isn’t it green? I want green!” Things like that. [Laughs.]

Your desire doesn’t match reality. It has to be a conversation. You have to care for reality to get something back from it. And that has to be very discreet. You can transform things, do something completely operatic or fantasy, something full of effects. But I think it gets to a certain reality. Even if it’s very small, it will get to a certain reality. Now, we want to do that with song and music: about Cape Verde, about loneliness, about the fact that every immigrant is an individual; that’s why there’s only one person in the frame. But at the same time, they’re together with the others, and singing is perfect for that because it has this counterpoint and conversation.

That’s what I like in cinema, it’s the conversation. But it’s silent. You have to understand it’s a silent conversation. That’s why silent films were the best. Or musicals, but there are very few good ones. Ernst Lubitsch, Jacques Demy of course… A few others. The Americans sometimes, and Bertolt Brecht. A thing that he said in his diaries: “The only nights I don’t sleep and I’m sweating in anxiety are not the nights that I’m thinking about the dialogues or the characters or the art. It’s the nights when I’m thinking about the production. How will I pay these actors? How can I sustain this troupe, this gang of actors to play and do theatre?” It’s absolutely true. If you take care of this business and turn it into a non-business, non-profit, and if you take care of that part of things, I think the art will emerge by miracle. Sometimes, not always.

(5) Juventude em Marcha [Colossal Youth] (Pedro Costa, 2006)

On Routine in Filmmaking, Repetition and Precision

There’s a particular shot in Colossal Youth that always mesmerizes me whenever I see it, where you take your protagonist Ventura to the Calouste Gulbenkian museum in Lisbon. For me, it’s a gesture that really sums up a lot of what I feel is your artistic credo: introducing him in the space of ossified art. Also, the letter from Casa da Lava reappears like a sort of fever dream. It’s interesting that after this extreme closeness to reality that you just described, in Colossal Youth things become more oneiric. There are ghosts, many things.

A lot of ghosts. Now, that’s a film that I especially like. Not to see it. But I like that it was the first that we really worked on. Because I felt like I was completely involved with it. I was working like the Japanese directors, like Ozu, Naruse or Mizoguchi. There’s this studio and you go there by bus or train every morning, and you have a film to do, and you get there and everybody’s there. The actors are dressed, and the sets are ready. I really had that impression. Back then I went by bus, now it’s a train. Of course, I would like everybody to be able to do that, because it’s a very good way to relax and think before starting the day: taking the bus or the train, or the bicycle maybe. [Laughs.] But no production car with an assistant that says, “Good morning, it’s going to be a wonderful day! The actors are waiting for you and they will love you!” [Audience laughs.] I’m telling you this because I did a bit of assistant directing before I made films. So, of course, I had to do this imposture. “The actors love you! The producer adores you! The film is becoming a masterpiece! We will surely win the Palme d’Or!” [Audience laughs throughout.]

My trip by bus was exactly fifty-two minutes long. I Like these kinds of things. I read the daily newspaper and then I just watched people, landscapes going by. Without thinking too much, like Rivette said, you do think about what you’re going to do, what you did, how to solve some things that you couldn’t solve while you were in bed, trying to sleep. In fact, film has to do a lot with being awake. For me, it has nothing to do with dreaming and sleeping. You have to be awake to see things. And very awake.

It’s the small things, it’s the repetition. This is why I’m telling you about how and why I love this kind of work. Even the routine, the boringness of the days. I love that, because days that are all the same give me all the things that I need. I don’t need more. I discover in the repetition. That’s where I like to work. And in a certain way, all the really great filmmakers, they tend towards repetition. The most famous is, of course, Ozu. It’s always the same thing. It’s the daughter or the son, it’s in the family. It’s very musical, also: like a variation, repetition, a theme, etc. And I like to be in one space. That space, if you’re like me in that regard – doors open, doors close, windows close, people go out, people go in, it’s life – that’s what you can form. It’s where I discover more. I like the ritual of cinema. The making of it is repetition too because in my case, and in the case of a lot of filmmakers, we do takes. We repeat, we rehearse.

I like to rehearse. Because I don’t know and the people I work with don’t know, since we don’t go to work with the ideas and everything prepared. Now I know that the biggest proof of this is the singers I worked with. They need to repeat a lot. They need to rehearse. Now it’s not me, it’s them. I do one take, I do a second, and I do a third, and on the third, I say, “Alice, what you did is incredible!” And she says, “No, no, it’s all wrong. I need one more take.” She does it once more, because she knows it’s not right. And for them it’s scientific, it’s musical.

Because the problem with film is that it’s not musical, it’s not music. That’s why so many films are not very good, because they’re vague. It’s too much time or too little. The judgment in film is difficult because if you sing or play, if you don’t play the right note, it will be bad. In the shot, in the editing, it’s always good. Who cares? Everything goes, especially today. In the old days, it wasn’t like that. It was more precise. When I say more precise, I’m saying it had more to do with humans, let’s say. Today, it’s no more. Film doesn’t belong to us anymore, I think. It belongs to aliens, to money and to corporations. But a long time ago, it belonged to theatres and the people. I mean, you saw somebody like Charlie Chaplin, and he was very precise in his work. Had to, because if not, it wouldn’t work, the gags wouldn’t work. Now, I think it’s a bit vaguer, it’s a bit more… poetic? And when a film gets too poetic it can be a problem. [Laughs.] I get very frustrated and angry with these kinds of things.

On the Origins of the Iconic Scene of Ventura in the Gulbenkian Museum

But the scene that you mentioned is just very simple. I think it’s a metaphor. I worked with this man, Ventura. I’ve done a lot of films with him as an actor. He’s Cape Verdean, one of the first to arrive in Lisbon, one of the first immigrants, a pioneer. He arrived in ’71, I think. One of his first jobs was in construction, as a mason and bricklayer. One of his first contracts was to build a museum in Lisbon called the Gulbenkian. Calouste Gulbenkian was an Armenian guy, who left behind a foundation and a big museum. Ventura was involved in the building of that museum; he was in the foundation of that foundation. The true foundations: the digging and the building. And I didn’t know, he had never told me.

One day – when we weren’t shooting we would still see each other a lot – we were passing by this museum in the car and he said, “I did this.” And he pointed to the museum. I asked, “What did you do?” “I built this.” The way he said it was very impressive. We stopped the car, and I asked, “What?!” “Yes, yes, I worked here for three years. We built this house.” He called it a house. So the obvious question was, “Ventura, have you been inside ever since?” And he said, “No, no. They told us to leave.” Other people came, the people with the paintings, [sarcastically] the art people.

He never saw his museum; I call it his museum. We did a visit with him that day, immediately. And what happened is we re-enacted this, with a little bit of fiction. We did a tour of the museum, which was completely spectacular, I have no other words. He entered the museum and it was like Van Dyck owned the museum, or Rembrandt. It’s the same. You felt like this is a guy who really worked here.

For us, he was equal to the Rembrandts. It’s a museum that has a few Rembrandts, some Rubens; it’s an ancient art museum, or that part of it at least. He entered and he immediately confronted a big portrait of an old man by Rembrandt. Then he got very lost in his thoughts, so we stayed behind. There was a silence. He’s a very big man, a very kingly man. As we stayed behind, we thought: “What will he say, what will he do?” And very slowly, he said, “They have to take care of that.” There was a crack in the wall just beside the Rembrandt. This for me is a metaphor for the fact that he’s an equal. If Rembrandt would come with him, he would probably say, “You’re right, they have to take care of that. Do you like my painting?” And he would answer, “Not bad.” [Audience laughs.]

He was very moved by his work: the rooms, the marble, the floors, the ceilings, the details. He was proud, and he was happy that there were these famous paintings that he didn’t know the names of. He said, “Wow, this is great.” And then I asked him, “If we come here to shoot a scene, what painting would you choose for me to focus on?” After he took the tour, he said, “Come, come.” And he showed me a very big painting, the biggest. The Escape to Egypt. And this is particularly beautiful. It’s a night scene with the moon, a donkey, and it’s very beautiful, very dark, and big. And I said, “This I like.” It’s The Escape to Egypt. It’s even more metaphorical.

Then we shot the scene, and, now again for me, it’s not only the obvious statement that this belongs to him, to the people who don’t get to go inside museums, the people who don’t know what art is, who have never read a poem or never listened to Mozart. It’s not only that. [Long pause.] You can be moved in different ways. It’s a cultural thing. We thought he was looking at the Rembrandt like we were. In artistic ecstasy: composition, the colour, etc. He was looking at the wall, his wall. But it’s exactly the same esthetical fruition. It’s the same. You might call it lower, maybe. But for him, it was the same. I saw the gleam in his eye. I saw his pleasure like we have it when we see a great film or painting. It’s just a cultural thing. You know what it is, we know what it is. He doesn’t know Bach, he doesn’t know John Ford. But he knows his work, and he knows he likes his work, and he knows his work has some qualities, and one of them is also esthetical. Why should we deny that?

For me, this is the metaphor that I made along this scene. And I think it’s valid. [Long pause.] It’s not a very interesting statement to say now in this festival called experimental [the Bucharest International Experimental Film Festival], but I’m very attached to the classical things, in cinema and painting.

(6) Juventude em Marcha [Colossal Youth] (Pedro Costa, 2006)

On Flemish Painting

Of course, there are still some great things. But the society that allows classicism – let’s call it classicism, just to simplify – doesn’t exist. I’m not talking about paradise. I mean cathedrals were done in the Middle Ages, which were terrible probably. A lot of people died young. You’d die from a toothache. But there were the cathedrals, there were incredible things. There was a spiritual thing. Luis Buñuel said, “I would have given my right hand to live in the Middle Ages. It was a very spiritual time.” This is Buñuel, he was always funny, but there’s truth in that. I like paintings from the seventeenth century. From the eighteenth century, they are already very bad. The seventeenth century is Holland, the Dutch, the Flemish. And they did documentaries, that’s what they did.

They painted landscapes where you saw the cow and the guy who works in the fields. That’s when a barrier was gone, because it’s where you can start to see women working, thinking, studying. You see those girls in the paintings. They’re great, very realistic, very social, very political. It’s a moment in painting that is the most profoundly artistic. The way they worked with colour, lights and composition, everything came together with the way they felt. They thought, “I have to show this girl, I have to show this street, it’s my street, or it’s my wife, or it’s my son.” They left behind subjects like God etc. Before that, too, it was also very nice. Giotto for example. At that moment, they became obsessed with reality, with the world, with the streets, with the pavements. Just see the pavement in Vermeer. It’s incredible. Then it got worse, then it got a bit better with the Impressionists. Then Picasso, who was great. And then it got bad again. [Sighs, audience laughs.]

For me, of course, these two things are no longer matching. But film is still a place where these two things can match. For example, Radu Jude is a great filmmaker. Somebody who can think about that. In film there are still some people who can think of these two things that are just one in fact. Because if you take care of the reality, reality will come back in a way that is magnificent, spectacular. You just have to take care, observe and, of course, study and work. And work. And see, and see, and listen, and listen.

  • 1Adrian Martin, “Blood,” Film Critic: Adrian Martin.

Image (1) from As Filhas do Fogo [The Daughters of Fire] (Pedro Costa, 2023)

Image (2) from Casa de Lava (Pedro Costa, 1994)

Images (3) & (4) from No quarto da Vanda [In Vanda’s Room] (Pedro Costa, 2000)

Images (5) & (6) from Juventude em Marcha [Colossal Youth] (Pedro Costa, 2006)

CONVERSATION
27.03.2024
EN
In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.