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About the 2005 edition
Rural life, landscape, memory: we offer them as the subject matter(s) of cinema – and we therefore suggest that they also be translated, right from the start, through themes such as gaze, interaction (confronting the camera), movement, work upon space, and work upon time.
Along the way we will open doors upon other worlds, both large and small, which offer prospects for future debates: initiation to images, archival images, and the territory of cinema within the territory of images.
As a conclusion, before our final assessment, we would also encourage a return to some of the themes which extend throughout a number of the brightest examples of Portuguese cinema.
Transcription of the debates
Third debate, after the films by Mohamad Al Roumi and by Yan Yu, Li Yifan
16th JUNE, THURSDAY
Films shown before the debate:
Azrack-Ramadi [Blue-Gray], Mohamad Al Roumi
Yan Mo [Before the Flood], Yan Yu, Li Yifan
Mohamad Al Roumi (MAR)
Li Yifan (LY)
Catarina Alves Costa (CAC)
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: I would like to say that after the debate there will be a short pause and then we are going to see some films that resulted from the workshops conducted by the Filhos de Lumière association (in collaboration with the Lírio Roxo association, and with the Serpa local council), with children here in Vila Nova de São Bento, in the Alentejo. We will also see examples of other work made in France and in other parts of Portugal.
I wanted to inform you that at 6:45pm, in front of the auditorium, the buses that are going to take us to Aldeia da Luz will depart. There will be a dinner at the Alqueva dam, provided by the Museum of Luz, and afterwards we will be able to watch the film My Village Doesn’t Life Here Any More, by Catarina Mourão, which will be screened in the square of Aldeia da Luz, with the local population present.
Tomorrow at 3pm and before we begin the afternoon session, we are going to have a guided tour with Antonio Cunha of his exhibition upstairs, called Mais alta a água – o Guadiana e a nova tradução da Terra.
I also wanted to let you know that a documentary residency is taking place here in Serpa. A group of ten people – who came to Serpa before Doc’s Kingdom began and who brought equipment with them to film and edit – have been around making short films, or short notes, as they asked me to call them. And those will be shown on a television that is the hall. This residency is organized by Nucivo, the cinema and video nucleus of the student association at the University of Lisbon. Closer to the end of the seminar we are going to revisit this issue of the residency and speak with their supervisors, Gonçalo Tocha and Catherine Villerat.
I will begin by proposing a few guidelines for the discussion of the first film that we saw, Blue-Gray. It’s a film that doesn’t make use of voice-over, or words. There is only one sentence at the beginning, which tells us that the filmmaker is returning to the place of his childhood to make a record of it, and afterwards there are only the sounds of things and singing. In a certain way it’s more of a testimony than an attempt to explain the issue of the construction of the dam, and of the water.
Mohamad is a photographer and has done a lot of photography in Syria. Why use the moving image and what is it that this brings? Being that photography is also, in a certain way, in the film: the way he films people, there is a certain pose when they are in front of the camera.
It would also be interesting to relate the film to the restitution of memory, of a certain time. In this film, the memory of childhood – in the beginning he mentions that he wants to film children like him, when he lived there. We are speaking of loss: the people are going to lose their houses, the environment in which they grew up, in which they lived. This pain, the suffering of this loss, how do we transmit it in the cinema? In the case of this film, maybe it couldn’t be expressed in words; a voice-over would be redundant. I think it’s interesting that in the end we read the title and the dedication that says something like “I am in solidarity with the people who suffer with this change, leaving this land.”
So there is this question of filming a feeling of pain and of loss – without words in the first film [Blue-Gray], through pure, very continuous observation in the second film [Before the Flood]. We are here to talk about time, about how cinema captures time, a kind of nostalgia for that which is in front of our eyes and is going to end.
I will ask Mohamed to speak about these more cinematographic choices and afterwards the debate will be open to people’s questions.
MOHAMAD AL ROUMI: I never thought of making films, yet I take photos and the two aren’t similar. I am absolutely convinced that the two are not of the same nature. But there is something in the subject that is part of both: nostalgia, that one finds in photography and that I have tried to put in the film. How someone sees his or her past, because in some way we embellish it. And, in fact, I wanted to paint a portrait of a place, the place of my childhood. Therefore I looked for elements that reminded me of the places that have been engraved in my memory. I don’t want to explain too much, because what I am saying right now in a few words is a long story.
I left the place of my childhood and became a city dweller; hence I no longer have my robe. I put on some shoes, a pair of pants and a shirt and headed for “life in the city”. One fine day, I again found myself called to return to the place of my childhood – which everybody knows very well, the Euphrates – to participate in the rescue of archaeological sites that were going to be submerged in lake Assad. When I crossed the Euphrates, I did it in the boat that you saw in the first shot. I waited for the boat on the hill where the first house built by man and the first agricultural project were located. Thus I was very proud of that region. Bit by bit, I began to get to know it and I became even more proud to belong to that region. I began to take photos and to publish them in 1975. Afterwards, many sites disappeared and I decided to abandon that place and look for something else. And again I was called to participate in the project of a second dam that was going to submerge what remained of the place of my childhood. My first reaction was to do something very emotional and denounce it, above all because it wasn’t justified. The first dam was a failure, and the second one too. I think that it’s the same type of failure that they had in China: the people are poor and treated like dogs. Besides, it’s an ultra-rich region, it’s the most densely populated region in Syria. So then, what to do? I thought about doing a very big project, but afterwards my ambitions were reduced to only showing my feelings and being a witness – like watching someone who is dear to us and who is about to die, but with a great deal of dignity. So I found cinema without having looked for it. I had my Bolex and some film in the cupboard, purchased by chance; afterwards, little by little, I asked my friends to give me film, I bought some more, and there you go.
CAC: But it’s really the gaze of a filmmaker that one sees in your film, it’s not somebody who is only going to observe. This is cinema. Would it have been possible to use words to talk about those things? Is the image, by itself, more appropriate?
MAR: It has to be mentioned that I collaborated with friends who make films. So I don’t claim to be completely outside it. I have a certain cinematic alphabet and I tried to write in my own way. Writing with images, it isn’t innocent, it’s a choice. I chose that way because I thought that it was the easiest way to tell a story. I also tried to transmit my feelings and what I had been given by people. For example, the two kids who are very tender with each other. For me, these are moments which... Had I had film, I would have stayed there for hours. Well, that wouldn’t be in the edit, but these bonds moved us. I will tell you a little story: I have a friend, older than me, who received a camera, and the person who offered the camera to him said, “To take a photo, you need to have the sun behind you and a person in front.” But he forgot. He put the sun in front of him, he took the photo, and that’s the only photo of his ever published in National Geographic. There isn’t a method. What is essential is to transmit the story and the feeling, or rather, someone’s life experiences. That’s all.
CAC: Was everything filmed at the same time? Or were you there before, and then returned because of the dam?
MAR: The first scene with the voice-over was shot because I had some old reels of reversible film at home that had been out of date for some years already. I hesitated to develop them... but when I looked at them, I asked myself, “Why did I film the boat? Something has to be done.” Then I returned there and took my Bolex and four young friends. This coincided with an earthquake in Turkey. The Turks opened their dams and suddenly the water came. The villagers never believed that the water would come, and therefore the fields hadn’t been harvested, etc. The arrival of the water was a catastrophe. And I thought, “How am I going to express and transmit my feelings? Should I film the horror, the misery?” It was very difficult to film that!
Once, an elderly woman took us in and gave us food. To thank her, I got a sum of money and said to her, “It’s for your grandchildren. For them to buy things when they go to school.” She said to me, “Money? Don’t even think about it.” When the water arrived, I was passing through and she asked me, “Do you have a bit of bread left?” Beforehand, they didn’t need anything, not even money; they had everything in the fields. To live through a misery like that, it’s very emotional.
ERIC BURTHERET: In relation to the dramatic construction of the film, I had the impression that there is a sort of minimalist line. There is a first sentence, a little sibylline, that simply says that you want to film a world before its disappearance. You don’t say anything else. And afterwards, further into the film, there are those images of a house under the water, it’s a little surrealistic, we guess that something happened. And finally the resolution, we reach the credits, and it’s there that we in fact understand that drama that you spoke of in that sibylline sentence at the beginning. Could you talk about this dramatic construction?
MAR: Yes, it’s a choice. I announce that there will be a drama. One cannot film what one will say. One says what one didn’t film. I am not going to explicitly say, “You are going to see the drama, everything will be swallowed up, everything is going to disappear in the water of the dam.” We are used to seeing catastrophes on television. Yet there are catastrophes, wars, the dead, etc. I won’t announce the colour of the drama. We will discover it. It’s a choice.
CAC: Will you keep making films or will you return to photography?
MAR: I believe that cinema is an illness. Once you catch it...! I have a project, I hope to be able to make it come true.
WOITEK ZIEMILSKI: I would like to thank you for putting on these two films, one following the other. I admit that I didn’t have any information about the first film, and I found myself very, very surprised and completely without words, because I didn’t realize, until the final credits, that this world had literally been submerged. And it was the second film that made me understand that in fact I lived the experience of many people who lived there: to not realize the scope of the transformation and the size of the drama until the very moment of the arrival of the water. I would simply like to share this discovery. I very much liked that order of being introducing to the theme: firstly for me myself to discover how life is almost idyllic, paradisiacal, and then to see the last image of the water everywhere and think, “What is happening here? I don’t understand, I have missed something here!” After seeing the credits, I thought, “My god, how is this possible?” And the second film spoke about this exactly, but on the level of the people who lived in their own houses. I found that fascinating, the play between the spectator and films themselves.
JOSÉ MANUEL COSTA: In this case, was there management of the problem on the part of the state? That is to say, did people receive compensation, or were they simply abandoned?
MAR: What we see in the Chinese film is a very important human drama; we see it in detail. My film is an invitation to throw a glance, to come closer to the problem, and I can tell you that what we lost under the water, everything together, is a part of the history of mankind that we can never recover: the first house, things that go back to the birth of civilization. My personal childhood memories are paltry compared to the side of what we lost.
The state, at the beginning... What remains is a piece of marble that says, “This dam was built in the time of President Assad” and, like that, it will remain eternally. And so, that is the story of the dam. I have friends who made films that dissect what happened in a journalistic way. And that is actually very important. But it wasn’t my...
JOSÉ MANUEL COSTA: So, if I understood properly, people didn’t receive compensation, even houses...?
MAR: Ah no, it’s complicated. To receive compensation, possession of the land must be proven with administrative papers. But only 5% of the Syrian population has administrative papers, at least in that region. And worse, they were told to go and inhabit a region with uncultivable land, where there is salination. Therefore they were really thrown away like dogs. There were 65 villages with very, very fertile land, which were removed to somewhere else. And among them there are many who built around, because they didn’t want to go somewhere else; they tried to live with the leftovers.
REGINA GUIMARÃES: I just want to make a very small comment that has to do with the incorporation of historical consciousness in poetry in the 20th century. I think that it’s a reflection that can also be of use for cinema. A landscape is a cultural thing, it isn’t something natural, and this film is absolute proof of that. It’s a landscape constructed by man, paradisiacal, but anything other than savage. Apollinaire said, at the beginning of the 20th century, that we should look at trains being conscious that one day they will cease to exist. Or rather, nothing exists outside of its historical condition, regardless of the catastrophe that will sweep it away. The historical condition is also the critical condition of memory. I found the Syrian film extremely interesting, but if there was something I found lacking, maybe it was this thing that is intertwined in memory, which is history. Because our memory doesn’t exist disconnected from history.
MAR: Actually, it’s the history of man that disappeared forever. It’s not the history of the Syrians or of the Portuguese. There were archaeological missions working there, but that couldn’t save this history in five years (they gave a five year time limit to the archaeological missions for their research). Five years is not even a beginning. They made magnificent discoveries: they found frescoes from 8000 [BC]; in Jaada, they found houses painted with trompe-l’œil... It’s the patrimony of mankind has now been gotten rid of. Lost forever. There are people who prefer to do things for the living rather than doing things for the past. But the dam isn’t even for the living or for electricity, because Syria gives electricity to the Turks, to the Lebanese. It wasn’t even for agriculture, I have seen that everything around it is arid. It’s simply for the marble plaque. Unfortunately.
CAC: Let’s move to the film Before the Flood, taking up this question of history, of preservation. From what I could tell, there was initially the idea of filming the historical city, the city of poets, which was going to disappear. Afterwards the filmmakers began to follow people and realized that it made much more sense for the film to go in that direction.
LI YIFAN: Initially we had wanted to document the cultural and historical loss of sites with more than two thousand years of history, including this village where many poets had spent an enormous amount of time, and from which some of China’s most important poetic works emerged. We filmed an enormous amount of material of this, which ended up not being used in the film. When we began to film, we became aware of the situation of the everyday lives of these people, and it was much more urgent to show this: a China in a dramatic form of development, many new things. When people confront the difficulty of survival, for me this is above any issue of cultural products. When you see this in front of you... It’s as if it was a war. Nothing is more important than this. These people who appear in the film are my compatriots, they live in the same zone as me, and speak the same language; they are very close to me.
And let me mention the [original] title: Yan Mo is a verb that can have very varied connotations. It can be translated as ‘to drown’ or ‘to flood’, that is, people in some way are swallowed by something. In this case, it’s things that are changing, the whole environment, as if these people were drowned by all of these questions of life.
CAC: One of the strongest things in the film is the way the camera focuses on the inner tension being lived, staying with situations for a period of time that isn’t very common in cinema: waiting for the beginning of a meeting, maintaining a discussion that begins to develop and then finishes, staying in this interval. What was it like to film this tension? Did a lot of time actually pass in these situations and were you always filming them? And how was the relationship with the authorities?
LY: In some way, the film comes close to a story, a drama, because this is the real situation of China. There are many things that happen, many questions like this, and here the dam is only the background and not the theme. And it’s because of this that the film has this tension, this thread of drama. The tension also results from the timing of the government. For everything there are deadlines that need to be rigorously observed. Before filming, we spent an enormous amount of time with people, we spoke and we tried to penetrate the relationships they maintained with the church, with the government. When we began to film, we already had a certain closeness. We took advantage of a point in which there were a huge number of journalists there and in which the government was a little disorientated, not knowing who we were, if we were filming for ourselves or if we were working on some kind of government discourse, they didn’t know on which side... Because of this they turned a blind eye and we took advantage of the confusion to make the film. We also had many friends who were there working for a television network, to make documentaries to later be screened on the government’s central television channel, and, as we always appeared together, they thought that we were part of the same group. This uncertain position turned out to be good for the film, also because — contrary to those who were working for television, with a many resources — we only had a small camera. And this didn’t frighten people, which made the filming easier.
EDUARDA DIONÍSIO: I won’t say that I really liked the film and that it was very revealing for me, this isn’t the case. From what was said, there is a recurrent topic or situation, which is the meeting. And the meeting brings discussion, and leads people to have to make the same gestures. And this is a reality that almost disappeared from documentaries that have this theme, and that we are accustomed to calling “the disappearances”. Or rather, it’s each man for himself, and this is normally considered deeper than when there are collective situations – which is the case here. I would like to know if this is a social reality in China or if it was provoked by the documentary itself, or by the situation. Because here, in the filmography of the 25th of April for example, it’s evident that the issue of meetings and of discussions was abundant, because that was the situation. But it was revealed to be the exception; an excess, as people say. It was an excess to have a meeting. It’s an excess to discuss things. I would like to know if it’s an excess or if it’s a way of being. Returning to Regina Guimarães’ question, that is, within history, it isn’t for there to be a story (a moment ago I think there was some confusion between history and story, or rather the story of the person and the history of mankind; but there is another history that isn’t that of mankind, but of various mankinds): the recent and problematic history of China in some way is adequate to the ease that people seem to have in speaking with each other, in discussing with each other, to be together, and we see meetings even in churches and they do strange things and afterwards they deal with money! Besides the horror of the implosions, it seems like this is the fundamental topic of the film.
LY: Exactly. That’s why I’m not happy with the translation of the title. “Yan Mo” is a verb with various connotations. And in this case, it’s not through the water; in the film we see the destruction of the house. And it’s exactly like that; people are swallowed up by everything around them. This issue is more serious in China because development is happening very quickly, with all of these changes. When communist thinking was left to the side, people seemed to let go of everything: it’s only the financial issue and how to get something else that is of interest. They left ethics, philosophies, everything, to the side: this is the inundation and drowning of people.
It’s a normal situation due to the rapid development of China: people discuss things and are scared of change and of the influence that it will have on their future lives. In Fengjie, there’s only one question behind all of the others: housing, accommodation. It’s complicated, in the space of two years, to arrange for alternative solutions to the destruction of a two-thousand-year-old village.
With capitalism, people became more selfish and are always trying to get something out of it. To get to where I want I have to walk over somebody or something. And this issue is very important: what society became. When we talk about the most basic necessities, we leave all of the idealism aside and don’t manage to think of anything else other than what we are going to eat, where we are going to sleep and all of these issues related to survival. The people that we see in the film work as longshoremen for the boats for 300 yuan per month, which is roughly equivalent to 30 euros...
GIUSEPPE MORANDI: Thank you for the documentary you made. It’s very important and maybe it was the most interesting documentary that I saw over these last few days. And thank you for the choice you made: you chose to follow man, the difficulties of man. What you filmed was an ecological disaster, but mainly a human disaster. You followed man in a moment of despair. And you captured work, the environment, the atmosphere. It’s a document that the whole of Europe should see, because when societies do not focus on man, they aren’t human societies, but rather capitalist, imperialist ones. Thank you.
CLARA SARAIVA: I thought it was interesting that despite being on the same theme, a population displaced because of water and the dam, the scale here is completely the opposite. Aldeia da Luz has 183 inhabitants for the moment and in 2002, when the water rose, there were 300 houses. People had new houses and made huge demands. It was a process that was much talked-about, regulated, etc. Despite this, there is a point that is very interesting because of its parallels with this film: the people elected, firstly, a common enemy. In your case, I think it was the Chinese government, in the Portuguese case it was EDIA – the Empresa de Desenvolvimento e Infra-Estruturas do Alqueva, which forced people to leave their old village. Secondly, there was disunity and fights between people, not because of the comparison of the new houses to the old houses, but between what happened to me and what happened to my neighbour. I think that this is what the director referred to a moment ago, when you note, especially in the meetings, people criticizing and saying that others in the village or in another part of the city were compensated in a way that the people there weren’t.
LY: I never understood the issue of the dam very well, this mega-construction, and I never studied the subject enough. The mega-construction doesn’t frighten me, but instead what the people do: in situations like this, of sudden turning points, their reactions, leaving everything aside, the ethics, the morals, everything, life itself. It’s frightening!
REGINA GUIMARÃES: I can’t resist congratulating the director. It seems to me that the film is an extremely disquieting metaphor for the global economic war that we are living through. A metaphor for the war of the imposition of capitalist operation on a planetary scale, and of all of the damage that it is causing along the way; in a certain way in some places and in another way in other places. The energy war is only a small slice of this other very serious war, against which we apparently don’t have weapons or don’t know how to arm ourselves. Often I think that when the Americans are at war in Iraq, they are undertaking our war. And that’s why we are all seating in comfort: because they are fighting the war for our energy, so that we can continue to live in comfort, with electric light, our cars outside and asphalted highways. These films are very important and intelligent; these alternative (a word that I don’t like) actions can lead us to definitively put in question and put an end to this process which destroys humanity (humanity in the sense of human dignity, as the film shows very well, just as at the end the people are on all fours, on the ground, scavenging).
ALEXANDER GERNER: In relation to the church, there is something that I don’t understand. I imagined that the Church should be like a European institution, but it’s only about discussions and money. Maybe I didn’t understand because I know very little about China. I would like you to explain a bit more about how you see the Church, the organization.
The second question is: you speak about the change from communism to a capitalist communism and set out the turning points, like the side of the planning (which I think already existed with communism), how people react to this great scheme of the dam, the displacement, the destruction of the home, of memory. Is the film a recent project or is there a longer story behind it?
LY: Why the appearance of the Church in the film? I had planned to film an official group, but it was difficult to film a local government department or something else like that. Therefore, the Church. There are three types of religion in China: one is supported by the state, another is permitted and the other is viewed by the state as something to be eradicated. And in a mostly atheist population, I wanted to show what is discussed in religious places. In the end, I wanted to see if religion was also “drowned”, if it was also “flooded”. In the third place, there is a personal interest of mine in religions, because they are growing in China. The Anglican protestant church, including the underground, has 30 million followers. What interests me is the importance of the Church in China’s recent capitalism. Probably one of my next projects will be about religion, what changes the growth of the churches will bring, with Taoism and Buddhism diminished.
In relation to the second question: from 1978 onwards, when the opening up of China was decided (and which was afterwards reinforced by a trip by Deng Xiaoping, leader at the time, in 1991, to the south), it was proclaimed that politics isn’t important. What is important is development, the future.
CARLOS RUIZ CARMONA: From my Western point of view, ignorant of your culture and your country, what I saw in the film was a lot of poverty and misery, very difficult ways of life, without many choices or directions in which to head. People are very influenced by their environment and economic and social circumstances. And when this story of the dam takes place, what I felt was this lack of choice, as to how they could be compensated or as to what their future could be. They can only accept the situation.
LY: It was also one of the major concerns of the film: to show this social class that normally isn’t shown on television, in the news, because the Chinese news programs show happy stories, never sad stories.
MAYA ROSA: You said that you took advantage of a certain confusion to be able to film. Now that the film is finished and edited, what is happening in relation to the Chinese authorities? Can you screen the film in China? What are the repercussions of a film like this?
LY: They forgot about it. There is no feedback! I am very happy that they forgot.
CAC: We are going to have to finish this conversation. I would like to thank Mohamad and Li very much; it’s a privilege to have you here. Thank you for the translation. See you soon.