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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.
2005 edition

Transcrição dos debates

Sixth debate, after the film by Joaquim Sapinho


Film shown before the debate:
Diários da Bósnia, Joaquim Sapinho

José Manuel Costa (JMC)
Joaquim Sapinho (JS)

JOSÉ MANUEL COSTA: Joaquim is saying that we could open the discussion to the room right away. At any rate, I think that it’s necessary to say something about this very special possibility of screening the film here for the first time. Joaquim was finishing the film, and there is the possibility of the film making the international [festival] circuit, but we insisted that it be possible to have the film here, even if it was a work-in-progress.
At Joaquim’s suggestion, there was the idea of having someone here who wouldn’t be connected to cinema, but instead to the world of travel literature, someone who could bring an echo of the travels of Europe, of the space and time of Europe’s history. And we tried to bring the Italian writer Claudio Magris to the debate, whom Joaquim himself had suggested, but despite having gotten in contact with him, it wasn’t possible. Joaquim said to me, “If we can’t bring Chatwin or Sebald, let’s try to speak with Claudio Magris then.” From the beginning we had also envisaged having a conversation with someone else who had been following the project, at least in its final stage, Vitor Gonçalves, who would obviously also bring us reflections from the side of cinema, but for reasons relating to the death of his father, it also wasn’t possible to have him here.
I don’t know if it will be easy to speak about the film straight away. On my part, there were two themes to bring up, and either one of them would be the beginning of a long conversation. I will only mention them. One is the journey, with all that it signifies, and also travel films, and where they intersect with some important paths of the documentary. The other is what seems to me to be a great silence that this film brings to us, the silence of a country, of a zone of the world that is observed, that is listened to with much attention, but that is silent. And, again, we have the issue of memory, in a very direct way relating to the need to forget and to the difficulty of forgetting. It says a lot that the documentary is the necessity of keeping memory alive, but there is also the need to forget. And memory comes from completely unexpected directions, in this case, directly Sebaldian. But also in the way that you conduct the film.
This film again brings up something that has been spoken of for some time – namely in the so-called “new Portuguese documentary” of the new generations, from the middle of the nineties, but that, having had some momentum and that for a number of reasons, I think for reasons relating to production and support, suffered some kind of decline – and this is the possibility of Portuguese filmmakers filming not only their country, which is in transformation and needs to be filmed, but also the world. We spoke about this many times in the past, even here at Doc’s Kingdom. I remember that in this renewal of the Portuguese documentary, for example, a significant film was the one by Catarina Mourão [The Lady of Chandor, 1998], which brought with it a new way of filming the presence of the Portuguese in the world. But I also remember a film that has to be mentioned, which is the one Graça Castanheira made in Belgrade [Outubro, 2001]. And here we are also talking about cultural politics, which isn’t something that we necessarily want to bring to the fore in the discussion of this film, but I think we must talk about that as well. An idea that has been much discussed is that, all of a sudden, it seems that in the criteria for the support of films in Portugal, there is the idea that Portuguese themes have to be spoken of. Not perceiving that a fundamental issue – even for Portuguese culture, and I am speaking of Portuguese high culture, if not of the Portuguese cultural vision – is the issue of the departure, the journey, the contact with, and the view of, the rest of the world. That is, when we speak of the necessity of talking about the presence of the Portuguese in the world, it’s good not to forget that it is not only in relation to the past. It’s necessary for Portuguese people who are in the world today to be able to express how the world is now. And this goes through cinema, and in concrete terms through support for the possibility of filming overseas; to film other things and with this to speak about ourselves as well.

JOAQUIM SAPINHO: The first time I went to Bosnia I had the idea of a kind of adventure in the style of Malraux, to go to the eye of the storm, to the place where history was happening. And then, I had barely landed, it was obvious that this was completely stupid. Or rather, the idea that an artist can put himself on a plane, go to a place and put on a play by Beckett or make a film and that afterwards this causes some kind of change in the event is a ridiculous idea. This first impression had a strong impact on the film, and this was what forced me to return. Or rather, I felt that I had to rethink everything that I had thought before having arrived in Bosnia. And that the present issues were much less important than the issues of memory, that in truth everything that was happening had already been decided many centuries and decades beforehand, and that all of the work had to be done with a kind of understanding of the different forces in conflict, because they weren’t only forces on the surface. They weren’t even just political or economic forces.
Zé Manel was speaking about Sebald; I only got to know Sebald after getting back from the second trip. I don’t know whether people know Sebald; we are here speaking about Sebald and using this adjective, Sebaldian, but I don’t know if this isn’t some kind of soliloquy. And I feel a bit out of place here, because my film references are from fiction films. In this case, we were talking about this long tradition of travel literature. In Portugal it started off on the wrong foot, with the disgrace of our tragic, maritime history, which is as tragic as history itself, everything very badly written and very weak; there is Fernão Mendes Pinto and afterwards there wasn’t anything else, after centuries and centuries of colonialism. But in England and Holland there is an infinite tradition of travel literature. Sebald used travel literature to travel in history, therefore this encounter with Sebald upon my return from Bosnia helped me a great deal to understand and organize the material.

CATARINA MOURÃO: Zé Manel spoke about the silence, of leaving Portugal and of getting in touch with other peoples. It’s clear in your film that the characters communicate, but this isn’t translated. Weren’t you ever tempted to have more developed contact?

JS: It’s curious how in a documentary I found myself in a very difficult situation, because I was directing people, and, being that way, I wasn’t making a documentary anymore, but directing people instead!

CATARINA MOURÃO: Maybe the best would be to think that it was a film, regardless of it being a documentary or not.

JS: That’s not it. For example, what I most liked to do in the film was to work with that gorgeous girl, and what I was tempted to do was to stay in Bosnia with her for 10 years and watch her grow up. To act with her, to go see a film with her. The boundaries that people who reflected on the idea of the documentary tried to understand, and that I imposed on myself, that a grammar exists, codes, etc., that should o be fulfilled... I have always felt quite reticent about directing people...

CATARINA MOURÃO: I’m sorry, but was that something you imposed on yourself or was it the situation in which you felt most comfortable?

JS: At a certain point I wanted to do so many things with this girl that it wasn’t possible anymore to... do. It’s another logic. I think that it’s easier to make a film like this. This rule of dealing with the real is very difficult. To have people dying or taking drugs are, for me, impossible things to film. To imagine a person in Auschwitz and me with a camera saying to them, “Move a little to the left so that you fit in the frame”, it’s difficult. Making fiction films is good, we tell an actor to do this or that and there is a pact with someone who is in the same level as us. On this shoot I felt a little embarrassed with this man who had been in the war, who had killed. The real is very difficult.

REGINA GUIMARÃES: In my view you place yourself as a fictional character, something like Baudelaire’s flâneur, and then have the same problem as him: small pieces on commission. This is something unsolvable and solvable at the same time, because it worked and created things. And yet you say that “The documentary is this and that, the real is difficult,” but put yourself in the documentary from the very first image.

JS: But I wasn’t complaining!

RG: You were a little. Above all when you land in places of devastation and have death for companion. There were other ways to behave, there are a lot of scenes that show a world of ideas that are more or less stupid, more or less on the mark with Bosnia, but with which you behave like a fictional character. And I think that it has to do with the double journey, that is, with there being two moments, one moment of total discovery, where there is a point in which you go to the theatre of the world, of war, and afterwards another moment...

JS: I think that’s true. For me it was a great anguish to come close to... Sebald says in The Rings of Saturn, “Everything that I wanted to say is in the feathers of these ducks”, and it was more or less what I felt in the museum. Although they may not be interesting for people, the birds’ feathers. But I think that it’s true this position of the flâneur, who at the same time is scared coming close.

ANTÓNIO ESCUDEIRO: I don’t like this word flâneur, because I think that it’s something very vague and romantic. I have also filmed a lot outside of Portugal, and I remember having filmed in Guinea [Bissau], shortly after the 25th of April, when Guinea was a still very undefined territory in terms of possession. Despite there having been peace agreements, the wars continued and I walked around not strolling, but living in a very dangerous way, as I think you also lived. Afterwards, things calmed down a bit and I worked on a project called “The Portuguese decolonization”, subsidized by ICAM. It ended up being suspended because the guys who were in power at this point (one was the State Secretary for Culture, named António Reis, the other was Almeida Santos) thought that the project wasn’t of interest anymore. But I still ended up making a film about the independence of Guinea, and I filmed many things related to the war. There was a day when the director of PAIGC who was looking after me said, “You can stay a few more days and you are going to do some things that we will organize,” and they took me to a site that day. One of the large militias that existed at the end of the war in Guinea was composed of black agents who worked with Spínola at that point, and who had committed some atrocities against their Guinean compatriots, who were terrorized by the fact that, soon after independence, they ran the risk of simply being liquidated. And I understood this. I got up at nine o’clock in the morning with my assistant, we got in a helicopter and went to a place. I noticed that many of the members of these militias that had been faithful to Spínola were there, and that there was a process, that PAIGC was going to explain that everything was OK, that they were going to be reintegrated. I felt that there was a very tense feeling in the air, that everything happening was a preparation for a very tough scene, which was, simply, to shoot fourteen people that had been militiamen of Spínola’s. And they were gunned down. PAIGC told me that it was going to happen and told me to prepare to film. I simply said that I was going to put the camera on the ground and that I wouldn’t film. And I didn’t film, but I watched. For me it’s an ethical problem. The difficulty that you have as a non-documentarist, as a fiction-filmmaker, and for me more as a documentarist, is an ethical problem, and I also don’t know how to deal with this.

JS: I will tell you how it ended. We were in Srebrenica (which belongs to the Serbian part), and we were going to return to Sarajevo, it was nine in the morning and we were in a United Nations convoy. We had a small jeep, we were last, and on the way out of Srebrenica we rolled the car, they didn’t notice. We were stuck without the jeep, the locals stole the camera, we were 100km from Sarajevo in the part of the country were 11,000 people had been killed. The whole film was made in situations... Just that, as there was no interest in the adventures of a Lusitanian in Bosnia, this isn’t the subject of the film. Therefore, what I tried to do was to, in the most discrete way possible, approach the suffering that these people had inflicted on each other – which is very easy to explain from a political or civilizational point of view, but in contact with this suffering it’s very difficult to speak about it. Therefore this was the only way I had to either speak about the subject, or to get the subject out of my head. As a matter of fact, making this film was a way of being able to stop thinking about how it is that people kill each other.

REGINA GUIMARÃES: In relation to the flâneur. I wasn’t talking about this in the romantic sense, but instead in the sense of the kind of person who mixes in with the crowd but at the same time is above it – who is at the limit of the invisible, and this invisibility confers on him the possibility of absorbing a kind of air of the times.

JMC: I think that it’s important to talk about your statement in the first person from the beginning, the assumption of this as a simple diary – because in this way you inscribe yourself in a tradition that exists outside of the cinema. This brings up another important question for the field of cinema, which intersects with what in the history of cinema was called documentary, because I think that documentary comes from the first travel films. At a certain point there was the phantom of reportage. Where was the density of cinema when faced with that form which listens to others, as in reportage? The issue of Bosnia intersects with this, because, for the last part of the century, the civil wars in the Balkans had the same mythical charge as the Spanish Civil War in the thirties, which intersected early on with the advent of the documentary. It was possible that a great film was a film that simply announced taking a position in a barricade, and this was perfectly compatible with the greatness of cinema, it made sense. Here the world is different, and the problem of cinema as the art of intervention is different. I can’t help remembering a film called Bosna! [1994], by Bernard Henry-Lévy, a good example of the impoverishment of the so-called documentary form in relation to this subject. It’s very strongly influenced by the need to define an enemy and accuse it. And denial can be felt in that film. The urgency of saying this is so great that everyone who is there to be seen and heard becomes completely secondary, they are almost eradicated.
This film is a film in which you completely eradicate any trace of asking people questions, or giving text to people. And yet there isn’t any of this idea of superimposing an individual discourse, of superimposing a position, of trying to identify a problem, of accusing. The text is different, and there is a great delicacy in this text, which means that this absence of people’s words isn’t an absence of their presence. It’s because of this that I spoke of a great silence, which was what I felt most. One of the crucial moments is when you speak of the meeting with that man who takes you through a tunnel – which is a tunnel for you as well, where you pass through to a different time, where you pass through the paths of your memory, and where you clearly say, “I am hearing them and I am not putting their words in the film because this silence is stronger, because they aren’t capable of speaking, it still isn’t the time to speak.” I felt that great problem, but also a great delicacy and a very profound emotion because of that.

JS: Victor Klemperer says in his diaries that the Germans, after the Second World War, were kind of like children that had been caught stealing, but that if they hadn’t been caught it would have been cool to keep stealing, a lot of fun. In Bosnia you felt the same sadness. The people were saying, “But how was it possible that we did this?” I came across that man, and the real horror was: how can you speak to someone who has killed but who thinks that to kill is something unacceptable, that is, how can that person live with themselves and what do I have to say about this? I don’t have anything to say. I only have to place the camera, be with him and drink a little vodka with him, I don’t have to do anything else, do I?
When I entered those tunnels I remembered Saint Augustine, of the caves and palaces of memory. It’s evident that the only issue in cinema that is of interest is the issue of time, and the only tool that we have to deal with it is space. This thing of the images being of interest is something incomprehensible to me. What exists is space, but the only subject is time – and the great difficulty was exactly that of how to deal with these two journeys, how to deal either with the horizontality and verticality of each of them, or with the articulation of both. What appears in the film is the relationship between the echoes that there could be in a journey of the other journey, regardless of the echoes in the storyline, of the echoes in the main plot of what is being shown or... The deep echoes. The only things that are worth saying are those about which nothing can be said. So cinema seems to be the perfect instrument for that. But it is very difficult... How can you do that? In that scene you understood it. It’s very difficult to speak of these things, to make them understandable. That’s why the editing work, the articulation, in the concrete case of these two journeys, can be a... Last year I spent a little more than a month in China, and in fact this thing of the Mandarins, of being able to spend a lifetime in front of a lake... The emperors had a fantastic palace in front of a lake. One could see the seasons. I could also spend the rest of my life trying to articulate these two journeys and seeing the hypotheses of fluorescences, invisible as they may be.
This sickness of the 20th century, of the relationship with the unconscious, is also evident. Everybody wants to speak about the unconscious. Also you can’t say anything about the unconscious. And so how do you manifest the unconscious, when it makes the step to civilizations and to wars, how do you manifest the unconscious that leads to this violence? These are all things for which words are not the most apt instrument – and it seems that cinema isn’t sufficiently apt yet.

JMC: Then there is the question of the way in which the film is pieced together. It comes from a known device, of the diary, but subtly, here and there, it denies that traditional logic. The story of that breakfast that you speak about when the helicopter lifts off – one doesn’t return to that. There weren’t images any of it, but there it becomes explicit: it’s pure representation of the memory of the text itself, as if in that moment this was the only flux of interest, and next, suddenly, you speak of the snow that covers the pine trees and of the problem of fear, of forgetting. This forgetting that is necessary but which, at the same time, is the object of fear – again the question of the representation of memory, which goes beyond a purely individual aspect and connects to something greater. This coming and going is the movement of the film but, sometimes, it seems to follow a completely preconstructed path, and it’s the completely denies and destroys that.

JS: That was an amazing moment. Catarina was asking about rules. One of the rules was to not pay anybody to be in the film, and the other was to not plan to film, whatever happened, happened – and this is why the word flâneur
I tried to speak about this difference in behaviour without judging anybody. At night I was writing in the diary and thinking about how it had been a warm experience to be with that family that seemed to be from such a different civilization, so distant. On the other hand, with that American who seems to be from a civilization closer to mine everything was so easy, but afterwards, nothing. It was very formal and the conversation ended.

JMC: That character in the film, regardless of what you wanted to say, his silence during the trip: the construction that you make of this is of a different silence, of different blockage...

JS: I think that the film tries to speak; I don’t know whether it’s easy to speak about this film, but how do we speak about silence? I try to speak of different types of silence. Silence would always be the same, but Bresson said that it isn’t. He said that silences are all different. I also think that they are all different, and this film would be a kind of taxonomy of silences.

JMC: And the museum?

JS: The museum was even stranger than it is in the film. I went in, the museum was closed, and the director was an absolutely extraordinary man. The first thing that he tells me is that he has 25 letters to send to humanity to ask for help – it really seems like something from Sebald – that I later put in the post. I also sent him some money that I managed to get. These are really very much things from Sebald, people have a very personal proximity, which doesn’t go through either institutions or countries. And what was extraordinary in the museum is that the only person there was him, a kind of guardian of Noah’s Ark, as if Noah’s Ark had been abandoned there in Bosnia, and that extremely cultivated man, a Muslim... The whole world was collapsing and he was holding it together. It seems like that Judaic tradition, there are 36 wise but unknown men who really support the world, and he seemed to be one of them. It’s a museum in which, when a bomb drops, someone goes and fixes it with some plastic! I looked at that and said, “He’s demented, isn’t he?” What is it that this man did? He put a piece of plastic on the impala and pushed the camel and sand to the corridor, a kind of ecology... The model of this museum was Austro-Hungarian, it’s the German model of this marvellous obsession with nature. The tradition of the cabinet, of Rudolf II of Prague at the beginning of the 16th century, in which all of these collectionisms were beginning to come into existence, this lasts until Darwin, and then up to the DNA. It’s a central moment, these museums in which a person could visit a kind of world vision. And it’s as if he were preserving this world vision. This man, who is a Muslim, who is a communist, is at the same time profoundly immersed in that Austro-Hungarian idea of understanding the world through nature. Everything collapses around him and he’s there holding up the museum. How does a person deal with a situation like that... There are no words.
This is why my encounter with the work of Sebald was so moving. Things were so close because it was a world that I already felt had been completely designed like that, or rather, that there are people who try to create and preserve worlds. It seems that cinema has a lot to do with this. A kind of dementia, to create things that don’t exist. I always remember Murnau, it’s Sunrise [1927], isn’t it? The perfect idea. To make things that don’t exist but that maybe other people can understand.

JMC: Once in the film, and only once, there is a moment when you talk about history, it’s a very quick reference to big history. I know that you studied a lot everything that is behind all that, the history of the Muslims in Bosnia. What was the importance this had for you?

JS: I know everything about history, not about the history of Bosnia in particular. I have been a slave to history since I was young. Nothing that happens can be determined by us, everything that happens is because of history...

JMC: What I want to get at is that, in a film that could have gone down this path of a lot of information, and which seems to go down another completely different path, suddenly there comes a reference to big history – which is abandoned just as quickly.

JS: But those who know everything about history are not going to speak about history. It just appears there because I think that it has to do with the snow, not with history. It doesn’t interest me to talk about history. I know history, and it doesn’t do me any good. I don’t understand anything about the world in knowing everything about history... Now, when I went out in the snow, I looked at the snow and said, “This is also going to disappear.” It was a much more truthful emotion than all of the history books. Knowledge isn’t useful for anything, what is knowledge useful for? People kill themselves anyway, die anyway... It’s incredible that in Buchenwald they preserved Goethe’s oak tree. To go killing Jews but to be much more concerned about Goethe’s oak tree. Crazy, isn’t it?! It’s not history that is going to help us.

JMC: And on your part? A great silence has descended on the room...

PARTICIPANT: I just wanted to say that in the beginning I had the feeling that I wasn’t going to like it, because the film was narrated in the first person and was in the format of a diary. But afterwards I saw that there wasn’t a story to tell, in the sense that there wasn’t a character. The character was the region, and it was your search for something that maybe wasn’t completely clear... But the presence of this was already the story, it already created something, fragile and without words, with silences and some strong images. Afterwards there was this scene of the man... And strangely I noticed that everything could be a story, that he killed without wanting to, had to kill without wanting to – but also that it wasn’t about telling this. It isn’t a story that you tell in the way that you tell a story to a friend.

JS: Maybe I can finish with Elizabeth Bishop, who is an American poet. She said something marvellous about diaries: in diaries things have really happened, and, for people who have a lot of imagination, the things that happen are really marvellous things. I also think so. It’s good that things happen in life and that they aren’t just imagined by us. It’s been a pleasure.

JMC: Thank you, Joaquim. I have the feeling that we will continue to speak about this tomorrow. I hope you stay here. I just wanted to explain briefly, about this evening’s screening: we are going to put on an event today, a projection in the main square in Serpa, the Praça da República, and the film that will be screened is The Miracle of Candeal [Fernando Trueba, 2004], which has to do directly with Carlinhos Brown’s concert that took place a few days ago in the same spot, and with other musical initiatives that have been brought here to Serpa, which connect Brazilian culture to African culture. It’s a kind of parallel event that is one of the various ways of relating to Serpa. It has to do with the context that they provide for us and the way in which they welcome us here.

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