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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
Fourth debate, after the film by Sasithorn Ariyavicha
17th JUNE, FRIDAY
Film shown before the debate:
Birth of the Seanéma, Sasithorn Ariyavicha
José Manuel Costa (JMC)
Sasithorn Ariyavicha (SA)
Paulo Fonseca (PF)
Patrícia Braz (PB)
JOSÉ MANUEL COSTA: I am essentially here to explain why we chose this film, which is obviously unclassifiable. I think that Sasithorn is the first to be aware of that. Some people might say, “What is this proposal doing in this seminar? Is it a documentary? Is it fiction? Is it an experimental film? Is it video art? What is it?” And the film is here because it transforms itself into that question. We always said that there is a question we don’t want to ask in the seminar, which is, “What is documentary?” But the question, “What is cinema?” makes sense for us to ask, and a strong work is also one that asks this question. To program a seminar like this is to ask questions. Programming is a series of questions. The answers, if there are answers, are inside the heads of each of the participants.
And to show this film at this moment is also to make a transition, you will see that there is a possible raccord between this film and other things that we are going to show later on. I just call your attention, for example, to the recurrent shot of the sea and to the long takes of the sea in the film by Kiarostami that will be screened tomorrow afternoon, although you could discuss if they are the same thing – and they probably aren’t. At any rate, it’s a film that raises questions about the very nature of images, what can be done with them today. And to us this seemed to be a profoundly coherent film, in the radical way that it puts forward these kinds of questions, and with a perfect internal unity.
Finally, as a film that speaks to us in a different way about landscape. As if, after a century of cinema, it was not only necessary – as with a large portion of modern cinema – to cleanse, to make the gaze on the world more subtle, but to literally reinvent this landscape that is the primordial domain of the birth of cinema itself, a view of the world, of the planet that we live in. This film is a proposal for the reinvention of the foundations, it creates an alphabet, neologisms, its own language. I suppose that this is what is said in the end, this language is registered, Sasithorn created the copyright for the terms themselves that she uses, there is a kind of desire to rebuild the base itself.
There are two people at this table to whom we proposed that they look at this film and raise some questions about it. Allow me to explain. This seminar and the festival Doclisboa are two complementary initiatives of Apordoc. At the last Doclisboa, there was an initiative that seemed to be successful, the constitution of two student youth juries of different levels. One of them was the “university jury”, and we thought it would be interesting to invite them to actively participate here. We realized that the film would be good for this, and we raised the challenge to Patrícia Braz and Paulo Fonseca. I will now let them speak, then Sasithorn, and then hand things over to the room.
PAULO FONSECA: Patrícia and I decided to approach the film in a very personal way, we had some preliminary conversations the two of us, and afterwards with Sasithorn. One of the questions that we asked her was about the boundaries of documentary cinema: where is the thin line that separates it from fiction.
Sasithorn addresses a subject that has to do with very deep subjectivity: memory, time – that can also be found in the Portuguese tradition, and that can be fado as much as saudade; the relationship with the sea itself, which is something very identifiable with Portuguese culture. I would like you to talk about the desire that was at the origin of taking on this theme in a subjective way, and of the path that you chose from the beginning in a project that, as far as I know, took four years.
SASITHORN ARIYAVICHA: I don’t really think about the difference between documentary and fiction. When I make a film, it’s always a film, it’s my film. I don’t believe in putting things in certain categories. Everything should be able to cohabit in a certain way. I’ve got a lot of influences from many types of films or media, and I think that’s why this film was made, and why it was made like this. I don’t know if I answered your question.
PF: We would like to understand not so much the issue of categorizing the film as an object, but the moment in which the desire to search for the subject was born: memory, memory in relation to the sea, to the city, to all of the human presence that you sought to depict in the film.
SA: This is going to be a simple answer. I wanted to make a film about things that I like very much: the sea and the cinema. The question was how to combine these two things, that don’t seem to have any direct relationship. I didn’t really have a readymade script or idea as to the direction the film should take, it’s a process of finding that direction – you try different things and see how it’s working. Sometimes you get lost, but I’m more interested in doing things I don’t know than in doing thinks that I really know, because it’s also a learning process, to learn how to create something, how to express yourself, to find a language that suits you.
PATRÍCIA BRAZ: In the beginning you tried to make a script, but at a certain point this idea ended up dissolving a little, and the film became a completely different object. How did this happen?
SA: First I wanted to make an art film. I wanted to do things like other people do, because I thought it would be easier to get funding. Before this project, I made experimental films and it was very difficult to get funding, so I thought maybe I should try to make a narrative film. But when I started, it just didn’t work. I tried to write a script, with characters, I tried to have a story and a statement, but it didn’t work for me. So in terms of the idea about memories, it’s just because it seemed to be something that you can invent, and it’s also closely related to the cinema. I think film is probably the best medium to convey memories.
PB: When we spoke about how this title came about, and the play on words between cinema and “Seanéma” (which involves the sea), you said that you could go beyond the prejudice relating to what you wanted to do. You wanted to make cinema, but you had to opt for reinventing (as José Manuel said) or going beyond these barriers, these preconceptions, and allowing “Seanéma” to emerge.
SA: And the question is?
PB: I would like you to tell us a little bit about this, because you said that you wanted to break the prejudice or the preconceptions relating to how to make a film.
SA: Well, it wasn’t intentional. I didn’t really want to break any preconceptions, but it just happened. First I tried to do whatever other people did, but it didn’t work for me. So I had to find my own way to do things, a world where I could move freely, and this is how it came out.
REGINA GUIMARÃES: This is obviously a cinema that interests me, because it seeks out everything that I most like in the cinema, from the old and oldest Cavalcanti to the best things by [Marguerite] Duras, to Henry Storck, to the Belgian surrealists and [Chris] Marker himself. What worries me... I see the film as a poetic film, maybe to simplify it in my head. (Obviously I really don’t care whether it’s a documentary or fiction, even because it’s a narrative film and from early on it’s a fiction film; but at a certain point there are only fiction films, so the problem is irrelevant.) There is a great variety of subjects; I don’t see it as a film about the landscape, but instead about the page. You seem to have filmed pages, and not landscapes. Pages which are textured in very different ways. I am not at all in agreement with Zé Manuel when he says that they are landscapes. But for me as a poet there is something lacking: reflection on form. Because the immense variety of subjects doesn’t exempt us from reflecting on form.
I will give you an example of what I think this reflection is, because I don’t want to be taken as... I am a little old, but what I will say is nothing against novelty, it is, on the contrary, in favour of novelty. Claudel was a man who wrote long verses (I am thinking of him precisely because he wrote long verses, and the film is of a long duration). He wrote verses; and said that the tempo and prosody of his poetry had to be found through memory, but from very concrete memories. And he spoke of the memory of a child who is separated from his or her parents’ bedroom by a wall and who hears their conversation, but doesn’t understand what they say; he or she only hears the rhythm. And it’s there that the kernel of the nature of poetry resides, in this rhythm. It seems to me that this has to do with cinema, although cinema isn’t exactly the same thing as poetry. And it seems that this reflection is absent from your film. This completely sensorial reflection of the body is visceral, because it comes from the most important memories.
I also thought a lot about Manuel António Pina, when he speaks of “to be been”. He is a great Portuguese poet. He speaks of the “to be been”, this cadence that is to live the present (which is something that does not exist) “passing it by”, transforming it into the past.
The only thing that I feel is a pity is that in the process of a personal search for a form of expression (which I think is the basis of poetry, obviously), there is only a situation of victimization, and not the construction of form, that is, you feel yourself to be a victim because you didn’t make the narrative film, with prejudices, etc. And, therefore, we are facing a kind of draft. And I believe in the right to the draft, pay attention! I am not making any argument about whether the film should be in this seminar, because the right to the draft has been denied over the history of cinema. I think that filmmakers should fight to claim it back. But for me this is a draft, not a film. That is: to be a poetic film, which I judge it to be, it would need this reflection.
BRAM RELOUW: I thought the film was wonderful. And I also don’t quite agree with you, because I think that form is totally coherent with the content of the film. There’s a beautiful symbiosis of form and content, and I was especially fascinated by the rhythm of the images, fading in and fading out, like waves do. I was wondering if you put all these things… Did you preconceive them first and then you put them in? Or did you find out by experimenting, by trial and error, which was the best way? And what about the images with the low contrast, these grey images?
SA: It was trial and error.
PF: You said that it was a process that lasted four years with interruptions, reflection, desire to head in other directions, and in which there was a kind of awkwardness within this freedom. To what degree did the fact that you worked alone (you operated the camera, directed, produced, wrote the script and edited) allow you this flux over four years, and to bring the film to what is the end result?
SA: Well… I don’t think I’m very articulate [laughter]. What I can say is that you just do it and you find out whether it works for you or not, and if it doesn’t you go in a different direction, and you just try to make things work, in a way you feel comfortable with. It’s very simple, but that’s what I think. I don’t know whether I answered your question…?
PF: It seems to me that the final result of the film, the energy that it pushes out, has a lot to do with this idea of absolute subjectivity and of the very intimate relationship with the shots, with the text that supports it, which in some moments serves as a backdrop to it and in others complements or in a certain way eludes it. To what degree is this result a fruit of a process of great, solitary intimacy? In your opinion, if the project had been submitted to the logistics of production and a crew could it convey this subjectivity?
SA: I don’t think so. And I think I have difficulties in working with a team because I like to have direct contact with the material. I work more like a writer than a conventional filmmaker. If I had a team, it would have been a totally different film; you have to be more prepared because there are people waiting for you, and logistics. You have to be concerned with the deadlines and nobody is going to be there for you all the time.
WOITEK ZIEMILSKI: I was reading a review of your film, and I just wanted to share this. It goes, “My program note says it was shot on DV, so I wonder how Sasithorn could end up with such low-resolution footage.” Thank you for ending up with such low resolution footage. I found it fascinating how close you got to actually exiting the domain of film as something which we sit and watch from the beginning to the end, bringing it to the zone of a film as an art object, almost as an installation. I did have a problem watching it because of the time factor. I had to sit here and I watch it from A to Z without having this sort of liberty that I would have in an installation, of going in and out. I wonder if you ever though of changing the function or maybe the context of that work to make it more of an installation.
SA: Yes, I did, but since I started it as a film… When I got involved in it and the project started to take off in certain directions, it just became a film. It could be an installation, but I would have to change it somehow.
ANA ELISEU: You speak about “Seanéma”, so it has to do with the sea. The sea always has a continuous movement, but with arrhythmias. And I thought that the film was very uniform and monotonous. And if the sea is something in movement and cinema has to do with movement, where is it that this happens? Why cinema and then the sea? Well, I would like it if you could speak about this.
SA: Well, sometimes things move without us knowing it. There’s a kind of movement, maybe not very obvious, but I think there’s some movement. That’s my point of view.
PB: Someone asked Sasithorn if she had thought about presenting the film in a gallery, as an installation. In a gallery we can go in and out. Your film disturbs, it leaves us a little uncomfortable, we are faced with a film without sound, and the images linger for some time. You emphasized that the fact of the film not being presented in a gallery was intentional. Could you talk about this a little more?
SA: It started out as a film. When I started editing and having – I wouldn’t say a story, but whatever that threads the film together, it became a film. If you put it in a gallery like this, without any modification, I would say it wouldn’t work… There are certain time frames that you have to see; you have to look at a certain shot for a certain period of time. It’s more of an enclosed unit as a film. But as a video installation, it would have to be more open-ended. So when I told you it could be a video installation, I meant that if I modified it to be more suitable for the environment of a gallery…
ERIKA KRAMER: I want to thank you. It was a very, very rich experience for me. I really respect your capacity to communicate.
What I feel strongly in the reactions here, in the room, is an amplification of the conservative nature of film people, the department of film lookers, makers, critics, supporters. It is as if it were some kind of old bank that is almost impossible to get through and get the richness. And when somebody dares to follow their true search with cinema, to listen to their own voice, rhythm, language, and gives it to us, there’s a kind of a fear, almost. I feel a fear factor in the audience: “Don’t touch me with that, it makes me uncomfortable. Put it in a gallery, so I can walk in and out. Tell me what department I should put this in, so I can sell it.” Anything but to say, “I spent this time with you, the person that made something, and it has given me a chance to know myself differently, to know cinema differently, to care, maybe differently.” For me what you did wasn’t very radical, it was beautiful. What you did is a normal and natural process for me; it’s not a scary place. But I was very impressed by the feeling of the audience watching your film. Was somebody behind me reading? I felt the pages of a book, papers turning in my head? Were there people walking in and out? You made people afraid of themselves, I think. And I think this is marvellous, because it is a safe fear. It’s not an invented fear or a manipulating fear, with artificial means.
It’s about what we have when we come to this space. What capacity we have to learn, and be present with the gift that is given to us. And every film that I see here is a gift given to me; a chance to receive and open that gift slowly with the cinéaste in the terms that they give us, and not to attack right away: “why didn’t you do this, why didn’t you do that? Did you ever think that you might…?” And we hear the cinéaste very clearly say, “I worked for 4 years, I arrived where I was satisfied to offer it to you, and take me for the ability that I have here and now to give you this.” And yes, it’s good to bring things in, but trusting the person that made this gift and going deeper with it. And I felt everything in your offering to us, today, to go deep into myself. It is my own limitations, not yours, that give me what I can say back to you, or share back to you. And the narrative of your story, the document of the reality was very, very profound. I don’t agree with the fact that it is a big step aside from the films we’ve been seeing. I feel it’s the same subject, the loss, the displacement of something we know, and transforming it into the realm of what we don’t know is coming. And you’re choosing greys rather than black and whites to tell this story. It’s a very, very rich encouragement to the continuation of the discussion, on its wholeness, for us all to say what we are really up against in ourselves and face, in other words, the large and the small. And your film is a beautiful exercise for us all to appreciate those questions in ourselves. I thank you very much.
SA: Thank you.
REGINA GUIMARÃES: Forgive me if I seemed provocative, but I have a different way of seeing films. When I see a film and am able to see it in its entirety, that is, when it leaves me room to think, I love this, and it’s because of this that I was saying... It’s because the film interests me that I am speaking. And I try to speak to you as a writer, and as a writer I can’t help disagreeing with you when you tell me that your problem is to arrive at an image with which you are comfortable. I think that the work of the writer and of the filmmaker is to arrive at the image with which he, his own first spectator, is uncomfortable. And that’s why a little while ago I was speaking about the problem of form. Because I think that the material is rich, but the form isn’t committed.
SA: Well, I’m not here to defend my film. I think everyone has his own opinion about a film, his own version of it. And it could be… This is what I can do… I mean, it might work the way you want, but I don’t know how to do it.
JMC: I feel very tempted to discuss what Regina said at the beginning, and I am absolutely aware that, in provoking a discussion about this now, on one hand I am opening this up to a point we had intended to arrive at, but on the other hand I am doing this at the moment in which it’s necessary to close the debate. Therefore I will say this with the explicit intention of provoking a discussion that will continue tomorrow afternoon.
What you said about the origin of poetry and the issue of rhythm is something fundamental for me, but then I am not at all in agreement with your conclusion in relation to this film. I think that this film has, in an absolutely evident way, rhythm, a beat, its own breathing. It’s really part of its primary nature. I don’t know if it was this that Ana [Eliseu] up there wanted to say a moment ago, but for me it is in fact obvious that the idea of the sea, or of the cyclical movement of the sea, has to do with this. The film is deeply coherent in relation to that breathing. At a certain point, whenever a narrative thread is raised, we hold on to it as film spectators – “Ah, now we are beginning a story” – and afterwards we move completely away from that, and the story always stays at a subliminal level. And what remains is precisely, until the end, this breathing of the film, that comes from the inside, from some place.
But there is in fact a problem. And you used two words that I would like to comment on. One was rhythm and the other was body, if I am not mistaken, the more physical side of this other presence. I think that here we are entering a field that goes beyond the history of cinema. I am not at all concerned with frontiers, with definitions, but I am concerned with trying to understand what is happening, where cinema is today. I am a great defender of the notion that today there are many people making cinema, responding to all of these issues that the history of cinema raised through the work of digital video, but that respond to everything that was the interrogation of cinema, the matter of cinema. It continues today through other media. But I question myself about this. Because what I feel is precisely a rhythm that isn’t based on something I think the whole history of cinema is based on: a confrontation, I would say physical, with another matter. A camera in front of matter, bodies, space, time, whose physical presence is absolutely crucial in the nature of the whole of cinema. This is true for silent cinema from the day the Lumière brothers placed a camera in front of a square, any kind of movement. Cinema was always this physical presence of things, this tangibility (which can now be absolutely sophisticated, for example in the images of Kiarostami’s that we are going to see tomorrow; there is a return to origins and a leap to something else, but the whole of the history of cinema is in those shots). Here I feel that the whole basis of the construction of the film is not this confrontation with space-time, but a thing that comes from the inside. That everything starts not from a conflict with the landscape – let’s call it landscape or sea, urban landscape, whatever it is –, but from completely mental matter. And I think that this is different in relation to the history of cinema. For me, it’s landscape in a different sense. The way that the urban landscape comes into this and joins itself with the sea. Perhaps my reading is the way that someone today – in the context in which Sasithorn films, faced with the great urban landscape, of the great Asian metropolis – can deal with that urban chaos. It’s the way the city comes in, along with the sea, through this purely mental process, of great distantiation. As if it were not possible to address, as cinema always addressed these spaces, without transforming them from the beginning into something almost ethereal, adding to it an enormous distance and transforming them at the level of the very concept of landscape.
I know that in saying this I could be allowing for discussions that would ultimately be unproductive, but it seems to me that today this problem presents itself. That is, I think that the domain of cinema extends a lot through the digital medium, but within this medium, of the modern audiovisual work, there are in fact other territories, other synthesizing works just as the cinema was – and this was also its obsession at a certain point in the 20th century – but that today are beyond this territory. We can talk about this tomorrow.
ALEJANDRO CAMPOS: I want to thank you for this film. I don’t know if I understood you very well. One of the things that this film gave me is that I crossed this frontier of mental cinema. For me, this film is many things, it’s a space where anything can happen. I thought about how it would be to add one second of a song, which would be a contrast, or of colour, or fast movement. But I remember this concert John Cage gave, where he was just silent (there wasn’t exactly silence, just the sounds people made), and I think we are a little bit hiding and running away from these spaces.
SA: Thank you for mentioning John Cage, because he’s my hero! And there’s one of John Cage’s compositions that begins with “I have nothing to say, but I’m saying it”, and that is poetry. I’m not saying this film is poetry, but it’s true that I began it with nothing to say exactly.
ALEJANDRO CAMPOS: My question is: how do you feel watching the movie, being with people through the film? And how do you feel about this gift?
SA: When the film is being shown, I don’t usually stay in the theatre room. I don’t feel comfortable watching the film with the audience.