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About the 2006 edition
A point of view about the world is a point of view about cinema. If one expects any film to incorporate a point of view about the world, today one should also note the importance of stressing almost the inverse: in the midst of the present audiovisual saturation, the productive use of the means of the cinema claims for an even stronger engagement, exigency and clarity concerning the place of cinema in the modern world. As much as a point of view about the world, the production boom claims for a point of view about cinema as a consequent part of our vision of the world.
The 2006 seminar includes some examples of this, films and film makers that define the landscape, and, consequently, may guide us along a journey through some key trends of contemporary cinema. Starting with films where each shot reveals a strong construction method, we will then rather concentrate on the recent methodologies of direct cinema.
Regarding the latter, we will propose a confrontation between different filming strategies, including an analytic approach of various parameters: treatment of space, treatment of time, handling of the camera, sound, editing.
The 2006 edition shall run according to a new structure of debates, in three distinct levels: dialogues on specific films; thematic presentation on formal strategies; collective debate.
Transcription of the debates
Fourth debate, after the films by Catarina Mourão and by Pedro Sena Nunes
15th JUNE, THURSDAY
Films shown before the debate:
À Flor da Pele, Catarina Mourão
Elogio ao 1/2, Pedro Sena Nunes
José Manuel Costa (JMC)
Nuno Lisboa (NL)
Catarina Mourão (CM)
Pedro Sena Nunes (PSN)
JOSÉ MANUEL COSTA: At the beginning of this debate I would like to emphasize that we’re absolutely conscious that we’ve put together very different films, that belong to two very different personal worlds, and that they’re not here to be compared. In that sense, although this is a continuous debate session, I think it’s worth starting with short talks about each of the films, before the potential broader conversation that they both may generate. I also want to remind you that we thought out today’s program as a whole, hoping that, in some way, this morning’s subjects can be continued or have some echo during the afternoon. Besides the potential discussion of specific aspects of each film, or the authors’ respective worlds, there’s an explicit incentive to discuss the filming devices that these films exemplify – relations with the people being filmed, choices on how to approach time and space, camera positioning, exchange of glances...
Moving on to Catarina’s film, many of you are familiar with at least part of her work, and she will certainly tell us something about how she sees this film in that context. I remind you that in the past edition, in 2005, in an unprecedented initiative, a special event in the history of this seminar, the whole group went to Aldeia da Luz. Together with the local population (who was also seeing it for the first time), we watched Catarina’s film about the death and rebirth of the village, A Minha Aldeia Já Não Mora Aqui [My Village Doesn’t Live Here Anymore]; a film she finished that same year. What might have been a little bit out of context was the specific production mode of that film, which revealed a more collective dimension, and may be worth having another look at... Concerning today’s film, I think that, from the start, we are encouraged to read the title literally. This film is made on edge, in the sense that if there is something connecting the images, it’s the emotions behind it all. One of the film’s challenges is to concentrate on emotions without ever tending towards the more obvious facile ones, and then maintain that level, which I think was achieved. This week we’re in the same exact context of the film again, with the football championship. I must emphasize the fact that we didn’t choose it because of that, but that echo is nevertheless present. And I think it’s also necessary to remember it, because it’s related to one of the two initial parameters that determine the way the film is made: there is a space factor, because the film aims at dealing with the microcosmic world of that neighbourhood, but there is also a time factor, because the film springs from the intention of filming that microcosmic world in a time frame that will end right there. Those two things should be thought of in order to understand why the film is the way it is and not any other way. It focuses on space, and the reference shots that organize the film are recurring façades of buildings, where the neighbourhood is seen almost as a surface. One could almost say it is the “skin” of the building, as a spatial representation of a microcosmic world characterized by proximity – people live their lives at close quarters with one another. On the other hand, the film is clearly focused on the children’s point of view and the relation you establish with them – with some very meaningful exceptions. A possible starting point for the conversation might be the way we are, simultaneously, confronted with such a specific physical universe, and a human universe that is so very universal. Because, essentially, when children talk about their games, when they tell us about their dreams, their fantasies, etc, they’ll be exactly the same as those of all children anywhere in the world... Which is to say the film gives us a rigorous analysis of how a certain space influences the development of a community, and then it transcends all that. It’s the same old question: the more you dig into the core of things, the more you generalise; the more specific, the more universal. Would you like to add something to this right now, Catarina?
CATARINA MOURÃO: I can give you a brief context. It certainly is a film that is limited to a specific space and time. That’s clear. The challenge was to make a film that summer, during the period of the Euro  (not during a period in which Portugal kept on playing, because the team could have been eliminated, but I would continue making the film). The time frame was the month of June and the space was that neighbourhood. From then on, I made sure the film was quite open. In the way I was going to address not just the various themes, but above all the people and the devices I was going to use. I wanted the film, even in terms of editing, to reflect the experience I had whilst making it. I decided to make this film with no dogmas, like “it’s going to be purely observational”, “there’ll be no interviews”, “no voice-over”. I decided to really react and adopt a much more intuitive approach to the film. Of course I thought about the editing whilst I was shooting, but I decided not to go by the book – no dogmas. I think the film reflects that quite well.
It was the first time I filmed children so closely. Obviously, the first stage is always a complicated one. They are always pulling faces at the camera, reacting, they are very camera conscious. Besides, that relationship with the camera is very clear during the whole film. I thought it would be very interesting to keep it going and see how it developed. In the beginning, there is much more intervention on my part, but that gradually stops and then it happens again from time to time. It’s not a film that is concerned about formal rigour in that aspect.
About the issue of the universal and the particular: I think that is always present in my films. More and more, that’s what interests me: I choose a spot, then I keep digging and go from there... The idea was never to make a film that would describe or portray that particular neighbourhood or Portugal (of course, it’s also that) but one which would show a common denominator. Because of that, it may be a more emotional film.
The issue of childhood: of course these are kids, with specific traits, but I think we can all see ourselves in them, in a way. We go back to our own childhood.
JMC: I think it would be worth introducing the issue of using different methods. We had thought of an excerpt to begin today’s morning session (that ended up being excluded due to lack of time) that was, not exactly the film’s first shots, but the first scene with some continuity after the kids’ fight. You approach the group of boys and girls who are sitting on a bench, leaning on a wall, and somehow we get the idea that a subject was introduced – their everyday life, the games they play... We don’t hear that (presupposed) question, but halfway through that scene you join the dialogue, in other words, there is a dialogue between you and the children on that subject. We chose that excerpt because, on the one hand, the film’s method isn’t direct dialogue, but on the other hand, when you decide to do it halfway through the scene, you don’t hide it either, and you do it in a very natural, extremely organic way, that isn’t sensed as a change of course, it’s as if it came from the inside. That is to say, it seems we’re on a different level from the previous traditional choices – to intervene or not – being able to slip from one thing to another very naturally, because the two of them become one. Or else because that possibility of intervening, as it’s not explicit from the beginning, is somehow so strongly perceived that it unifies the whole thing... What seemed peculiar to us is that (as in many other films nowadays) we are in a purely observational mode in which there can be dialogue with the camera, or with the person beside the camera, without one feeling the transition – or as if they were both aspects of the same mode. What’s different isn’t the blend but the way it’s done, a new way of understanding the relation between the observational and the non observational.
CM: That scene isn’t one of my favourites, but it’s important at that point, and it does in fact coincide with the beginning of the shooting and of my relationship with the children. There is a time when I actually ask them a question. I say: “what is that about, playing men and women?”, and they answer. I could have done that differently. I could have cut out my voice and pretended they were answering one another – like in a fictional dialogue – but I thought it was important to keep my voice. There is that more thoughtful approach; the film is in great part the result of this encounter. Not all films have to be made like this. Later on, there is that scene in which two girls are sun-bathing and, suddenly, it’s almost as if they pick up the camera and start filming me (they don’t actually). I also could have removed that scene. What I think is strong is that not only do their questions, addressed to me, reflect the relationship that is being established, but that their curiosity reveals as much or even more than their answers. At times, a question can say more than an answer. This has to do with the relationship I slowly established with these people. It was important for that to be transparent in the film. What I’m trying to say is that it was not important to have my voice there, as in a narrative. There are situations in which the absence of a question can stop one from understanding the answer and the context. It wasn’t even the case; there is an actual intention to clearly state our presence in that neighbourhood (there are two of us, a small crew) and the fact that everything is a bit on edge. Anything can happen, from the moment we let that relationship become more visible.
JMC: My question wasn’t so much about the voice being included or not. Because even before the voice appears, there are small signals that convey the idea that there were actually questions asked, and that they were somehow answering those questions. Let’s say you are interested in staging a device in which that will appear as natural.
CM: Of course. When you start to film an environment which isn’t your own, there are stretches of time in which you’re there without the camera. In this case, as we were two, and the camera was small, why not be there with the camera already? The beginning of that relationship is mostly based on dialogue. It’s about us searching, and them searching to find out who we are. It didn’t have to be in the film, but I thought it would be interesting to include it. Maybe because I was conscious that time was going to be short.
NUNO LISBOA: That transparency, it goes both ways (you ask questions and they ask questions back), in a way it duplicates the very configuration of the neighbourhood, in which people live mostly outside, and the balconies reveal what’s inside. You get a graphic image of all that daily life but, besides that transparency, there seems to be a more hidden thread that’s related to the narrative that you end up developing there. The connection to certain characters or to one of them – how does that happen?
CM: It looks like a neighbourhood where there are no secrets. Actually, there’s that scene where a kid says “I can’t tell you, it’s a secret”, and then he tells you everything right afterwards. Everything is known, everything is heard, there’s always someone watching, there’s always a mum or a dad on a balcony. Rui was more secretive, and he is so himself, but that’s also a result of the building up of a character. There is a whole dreamy side that I associate with Rui, which is also my version of him. That’s what you were referring to when you mentioned a hidden side, isn’t it?
NL: Yes, that’s exactly the doubt I would like to clarify: if you went looking for that, if you had a glimpse of something...
CM: Leonor Areal was telling me she felt sorry Rui didn’t appear straightaway as the main character. Rui wasn’t even meant to be one of the characters. My idea, when I started this film, was to make a mosaic with those children. What happened? Rui insistently started entering the shots, he kept walking in front of the camera. When I sensed that Rui had fragile side to him I was a bit scared, at first. To what extent could he be a character with a different relevance, or at least in a different mode from the others? He was always there and, at some point, we started paying attention to him – it’s kind of unavoidable – and we started to pick up on Rui’s other side... In a way, he was the only one who went beyond the neighbourhood a bit. This was also important for us, because everything happened in that fairly restricted environment and Rui would take us to other things. And also – because we started to understand that he was a fragile element in comparison to the others in the group – certain bonds began to grow. I never intended to be impartial. After some time, I saw things from Rui’s perspective. It was unavoidable.
NL: In the final scene, the futuristic description, who goes to meet who? Are you the one who turns on the camera and moves next to the tree?
CM: Rui kept making those prophecies and talking that kind of talk. He was very obsessed. He had several DVDs about animals and dinosaurs (those wildlife documentaries), and one time he started talking to us about what the world would be like in three thousand years. We decided we had to talk to Rui about this under the tree, which was his spot. What happened? The kids were all around us. Every time we paid special attention to Rui, they all started mocking. That’s when I decided to include the other one, you see? They were there. But that clearly came from him. I didn’t shoot it the first time it happened (because I didn’t have the camera) but then I caught it on film.
LEONOR AREAL: What I said wasn’t that he should have been a main character earlier but that, as he didn’t appear earlier as a main character, I didn’t see him like that. It was not apparent. It should have come earlier on. I don’t know whether he should be a main character or not, because the others were also very interesting, and I don’t find there has to be a main character. When you were talking about those things, it seemed to me a bit of paradox (but I suppose that’s the way films are), that amidst that conscious transparency there be so many opaque things that only a later clarification might reveal. Take the story about the kid that watches dinosaur DVDs. I didn’t even clearly understand what his problem was. We failed to grasp all that, him having a tree, the others teasing him, etc. If, on the one hand, there is an obvious transparency (and you’re practically the ones being observed and not them – that interchange between different cultures could even be explored), on the other hand, there is an opacity, a series of presuppositions that are being slowly revealed in this conversation, for someone who wasn’t there. The transparency is always paradoxical, because, at the same time, there’s a lot that escapes us.
CM: Yes, but I don’t think it’s important to know whether Rui watches dinosaur DVDs or not in order to accept his prophecy. There’s always a selection. That’s why it’s good that conversations say something that goes beyond the films. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be here talking.
MADALENA MIRANDA: Something was very clear to me when I saw the film: it’s also an invitation to forge a bond. Besides the emotional issue, I think you made a proposition to yourself, to the film and to these people and children, to create a place where a sensitive contact can occur. It’s in that place, when they are playing outside, that your relationship with them takes place. Then there is the hidden thread that Nuno [Lisboa] was talking about, which is when, within that contact, certain things happen which add a very strong dimension. One of the strongest scenes is the one with Rui, in which they talk about (I don’t know how to say this) taking it up the ass.
CML: The dog scene, is that it? It’s always the problem...
MADALENA MIRANDA: Yes. That’s the one. There’s an incredible dimension there. That depth... I don’t know how you solved that.
CM: That scene was the most problematic back at the office. It got cut out and then put back in again three times, it was shown to different people. Maybe it should have been shown to more people, but films don’t have to be... My doubts concerning the scene are obvious. What effect am I causing on the viewer when I show him this? Let’s be blunt: will the viewer think that there is effectively sodomy between Rui and the dog? To me it was obvious that this wasn’t the case. Those kids talk like that all the time. Sex is always present – at home and outside. I don’t think that in Oporto this scene would have caused the same reaction, but that’s another story. I thought it was important to keep it there, because it tells you much more about the other kids than about Rui – about the way they treat him. I also don’t think Rui is set apart and ostracized by that neighbourhood. He’s sort of accepted, but it’s tough, violent, and he has to endure those kinds of innuendos. The scene is violent but, if you think about it, the act of sodomy is compared to eating snails. Obviously I hesitated about that scene. Some people tell me: “man, I was pissed off with that scene, why did you put it in?”, but afterwards, thinking back on it: “oh, I get it.” I have doubts, but I have to take that chance. I think that scene really says a lot about those kids’ daily life and universe, and at the same time it puts all that into perspective.
MADALENA MIRANDA: I feel the film begins with that walk over the sticks. You walk along in a way that you planned, but it could happen that you suddenly fall in a deep hole. I love that, really. It was very well done.
CM: It’s funny, because people have different reactions to the film. Some people say the film is violent. Others say the opposite. As if I was praising the neighbourhood, as if it were paradise to live there, almost as if I were praising the social housing projects during Salazar’s New State. I’ve heard everything, and that contradiction is what’s interesting. The two things exist. Why do things have to be either one thing or the other? They exist side by side. First they’re attacking each other, then they’re shaking hands, there are friendly gestures and they play.
JMC: Talking about how that underground aspect and that latent violence surface, one of the moments in which that becomes very clear is the family scene with the television. It’s one of the few scenes in which the adults are in the foreground, and that’s why it’s extremely meaningful. As your film is made from the children’s point of view and the relationship with them, all the exceptions are going to have a big impact, which I think is intentional. In this other scene I think you convey that very well, because it’s tied to deciding your point of view, where you position yourself, with the father in the foreground and, behind him, a strict spatial hierarchy, in which he completely excludes the possibility for his wife and children of sharing the foreground with him. The others are behind him and they have to be there. First there is the television, then there’s the father, and then the ones behind him, and he completely emphasizes that. It’s a violent scene.
CM: That scene is violent, for sure. I’m always with the children, although, in Rui’s case I felt a real need to understand who the family was. Maybe it’s stupid, or it doesn’t make sense now, but I felt I needed to show the father so Rui could grow even more. He had an important place and I had to ensure that, even if I did it at the expense of his father. Maybe it’s a bit hard on the father, but the fact is that there was an atmosphere of terror in that house. The truth is that in terms of the visual angle, that was the only possibility: that living room is three by two metres and we literally had our backs against the door, but it worked alright though. Of course we could have had the point of view of the game, and then Rui’s and his father’s view of the game, but what really worked was showing that relationship and the father saying “move over, because my hands can fly any minute now”, in a very deranged manner.
JMC: How does the question mark appear? Like that, in that moment...?
CM: It has to do with another scene as well, one I decided not to include. The kids were always teasing him, saying he didn’t know how to read or write, and he proved he did know, but I didn’t include that scene. He’s reading and writing and, at the same time, he has his hands resting on the stone (it’s always in that corner next to the stairs). As he reads, he’s very nervous; he starts touching his face and the face gets all black from shoe polish. It’s a very strong scene, but I thought: “I can’t include this, the kid might feel...” When he was drawing in the sugar, he drew letters, exclamation marks, and other things. I chose the question mark. Maybe it’s a bit too much. because it makes the viewer think: “Why the question mark? What’s the mystery?” The question mark was what opened up the film further. As the whole idea was to allow people that space (it’s a very open film in that aspect), I thought it would be better than a full stop.
BRAM RELOUW: First of all, I would like to say I liked the film very much because of this ambiguity. The scene of the dog, I’m glad you put it in, because it made a good statement about how the children interact with each other and what Rui’s position is in relation to the others. Very good choice. You did a wonderful job connecting the kids, the girls and the boys, showing the separation between them and also between the kids and the grown-ups. After the football team has won the first match, there are all these grown-ups with flags on the balconies. It’s a mirror of the behaviour of the children, it’s a sort of acting to be involved in football. It’s not coming from the heart. You’re supposed to be happy for the football team, so you are. The kids, they do it in a more playful, conscious way. The adults just do it automatically, they don’t even consider it anymore and that’s fascinating to see.
CM: When I was editing the film, I felt it went the other way around. The adults were starting to behave like children, and children were becoming like the adults. I really felt that the adults were much more involved with the European Cup than the kids. It had to do with the general hysteria that was going on across the country. Of course, there was a lot of theatre in this and a cathartic feeling that football would save them from economic depression. That’s why I included this other scene, which I’m not really very fond of, but was good in terms of information. The adolescents, these guys on the wall, like The Sopranos – it’s another universe. They’re neither children nor adults, but they give you a bit of the context of what’s happening. They go, “We’re proud now because if we win...” but on the other hand, they immediately say: “What good is that? It’s not going to change anything, so...”
RICARDO SILVA: By choosing the children as characters, you adopt a method which allows you to talk about that neighbourhood, because there are many possible points of view. To me, those kids are very much a reflection of their parents. My reading of those kids is a bit disturbing. What are they going to become? Their behaviour, those games, those reactions, the opinions. There’s that whole scenario, the football context, of the Euro 2004. That was definitely interesting, but the dynamic between the kids interested me much more. To see Rui there and the way they interact, how they react to conversations, to Rui’s behaviour, somehow that also disturbed me a little. In the end it mirrors their parents’ behaviour. Concerning this particular method, did you plan this consciously or not?
CM: I was aware that the kids were always re-enacting what they saw at home. Besides, the girls (they are about ten or eleven years old) already talk and act as if they were teenagers. And their concerns... The film has that disturbing aspect, it makes us wonder to what extent that will go on, are they going to re-enact what their parents are? Many times, João and I said: “we have to come back here in ten, twenty years. What will Cassandra be like? What about Tamara? Maybe they’ll be just like their mothers.” I also didn’t want to impose that too much, and that’s why there’s that scene after the closing credits. It’s the only scene shot outside the neighbourhood, in which the kid is a bit out of it in the car, feeling the wind blow against him. In a way it’s the hope that maybe it won’t be like that, something different will happen and some of them will manage to leave the neighbourhood. There are always a few that manage to escape, right? I believe so, otherwise it’s too predetermined.
NL: Escape what?
CM: Being the same as their parents and re-enacting everything, repeating more of the same. We had the idea of choosing that neighbourhood because there is a constant threat of demolition and of the tenants being relocated. It seems to be a recurring subject: neighbourhoods and relocations. It hasn’t happened yet, but that neighbourhood is situated right between two housing projects in a completely privileged location (you can actually see it, in that shot facing the River Douro) and sooner or later it’s going to disappear. To what extent will that neighbourhood dynamic vanish when they’re relocated? I think it will disappear. Whether that’s good or bad, that’s another story. At first it seems bad, because despite everything there is harmony there, but maybe it would also allow for other means of escape. I don’t know. It’s complicated.
JMC: Without trying to compare your two cinematic universes, what you said just now is clearly a possible bridge to go on to Pedro’s film, because we have to acknowledge the problem is very similar. The same question is raised in this film [Elogio ao 1/2]. It’s a film about a particular community with an already long story – about its development, how it was started, how it grew, how the houses multiplied just like the number of people – but there is also a huge question mark regarding what is going to happen next... It has reached a point where the living conditions are certainly not acceptable: in order to improve them, what should be preserved, what should be destroyed? What’s best, what’s worst, knowing that something is certainly going to happen that will solve some things and ruin others? The film is made on edge, and as a result there is a profound interrogation which isn’t fully answered, because no one can provide an answer. As with À Flor da Pele [On Edge], we’re once again in a neighbourhood having a strong concentration of people, with all the ensuing problems, and you depict that in its ambiguity. You give us the (positive) side of the community spirit and the complicated side, that’s related to the saturation point of densely populated places. In this case [Elogio ao 1/2] there is yet another underlying theme, which you [Pedro] make clear in the final credits, that is the history of the neighbourhood itself. This film is also about a place whose memory had already been recorded on film [Continuar a Viver, António da Cunha Telles, 1976] and, therefore, about what it could have become. The story of a harmony that started to fall apart when it was at its height. From the urban point of view, maybe it would have been possible to save that space, and it might have developed in a different way. It could have evolved differently, and that was somehow lost...
When I watch your film, the first thing I feel like saying is that it’s an extremely mathematical film. It’s obvious that you emphasize it, with the fractions business, you make a play on words, but that’s not all I’m thinking about. I’m also thinking about a rigour of construction you also display in other films, but which in this case is pushed further. Seldom have you composed the frames as much as you did here, especially those about space, streets, houses, with frames within frames, details. The small details which show halfway through the shot, are, at a certain point, another story within the film. I think that if we watch it many times, we will slowly discover more and more details. You work rigorously. For example, the way you use light and shadow. You explore different lines. Like the train track, that represents a lot of things in the film: on the one hand it’s a movement that runs right through it, a kind of flowing river. And that theme is there when you address the trajectory between two places, the one where you took off from and the one you settled in. A peculiar story, because we’re talking about two places separated by only a few kilometres, and yet they seem worlds apart... It is as if they had abandoned a miserable Europe and gone to the New World, crossing an ocean, when in reality they had just left Monte Gordo to arrive there. The train brings along the theme of the journey, and it’s also a frontier: a line that unites and a line that separates, being ultimately the frontier of death itself. It seems that all this is there from the beginning, in many of the frames in which the train or the railway lines are present. Then we should mention the shots of people, which are also very rigorous. From the start, you choose to listen to that community in a stable, elaborate framing, allowing for the chance for something to happen within the same shot. Things happen that show on their faces, on the words that come out. I would like you to comment on this concern about structure, and this almost mathematical (if you’ll accept the term), time structure.
PEDRO SENA NUNES: Before answering, I’d just like to say that it’s a pleasure to be here. This is my first time at Doc’s Kingdom. With all that this implies, it’s really important to be here. Concerning that idea of mathematics, I like it. There’s a film that is very close to this one, it’s Fragments [Between Time and Angels, 1997], where I decided to make an absolutely mathematical film, with a structure drawn by the millimetre, with symmetry. The film evolved to a certain point and then mirrored exactly that. The things would open up and eventually close in a natural and rather obsessive way. Here there was a comeback to that attitude, but now in a different way. In Fragments, I had all the time in the world to do whatever I wanted, even if the result was zero, or whatever the result. That was really reassuring. This was, on the contrary, a commission, with a deadline, because there was a set date for the première. So I had against me the need to get organized, and I had very little time to do things as I wanted. I had to be very careful how I addressed people and, above all, I had to create a formula I too could feel comfortable with. It was a struggle against time, and to win people over. If you take into account that the community has around three hundred people, that’s quite a large number. Among these people I had to make sure I found some I could forge a bond with in just a few months and have a film as a result in the end. I think that is what made me build up, in a very natural way, a structure that was inspired by mathematical formulas and by the gracefulness I found in playing with numbers. From then on, it was a question of fitting in a number of things I had in mind. As usual, of course, many were left out, in particular because the film also had to have a specific length. Which was an extra difficulty for me, because so many images had been recorded. I had never had so much footage (for a documentary that lasts one hour and ten minutes, to have thirty hours of raw footage is really excessive).
This idea of a formula is an old one for me, it comes from my background in cinema. The question of discipline, I always shot using film (including Margens [Margins, 1994]), so I was aware that I had to be in control of every metre, and make the best of every moment. I’ve always had that in mind, and still do, because even having the possibility of using video, I still like to follow certain parameters with which I feel comfortable.
Then there was this whole initiative of experimenting with a new format, a new crew. A lot of my initial work, for a few years, was done with the same film crew. Later, I understood that the idea of having a team could, in fact, change a lot of things, and today each project is thought out in terms of the ideal crew. The fact that it was the first time I was working with that sound director and photography director explains that fixity.
I really like to hold the camera myself, and I have a lot of footage I shot myself which is much closer to an account of everyday life. Not exactly a diary, but an account of everyday, family details, small almost insignificant things, and all that represents my particular way of viewing the world. That material builds up, this has been going on for years, and I hope one day I’ll do something with it. The idea we were talking about this morning, of having a very open way of looking, of being able to listen to people, while at the same time trusting that someone else can take the camera and translate something I myself cannot control, I find that disturbing, even difficult to manage. Because I often find, in editing, that some shots do not have the scope that I had imagined them to have, or that I had seen or felt. For example, a shot could have lasted longer and it doesn’t, only because some minor detail causes distraction, and what I really wanted to capture is missing when I see those images. That gap between a possible, direct account, without me holding the camera (but rather leading the cameraman and his gaze) and what I myself would do, if I were able to control it, it’s not that easy to adjust.
JMC: Anyway, in this type of film every frame is practically predetermined, because there isn’t (as in other films of yours) a wandering camera. There are no instinctive movements. Everything is absolutely controlled, both in the relationship with people and in relation to the space.
PSN: Yes. In addition to that idea of the movement of the camera, there is also the idea of the movement of the neighbourhood itself. There was a real need to understand and interpret the movement of this small world – how they function, how they organise themselves, without having to go into areas which are, from the emotional point of view, deeper. That was not the objective. We were trying to combine various movements and I felt that, as it was an architectural space, always seen from the outside, it would be fairly simple for me to control it through a rather obsessive relation with the camera and the point of view.
JMC: This means that even when you work with a cameraman, you want to be able to control the framing yourself, is that right?
PSN: Yes, make a point of it. I’ll give you an example concerning film (with video it’s more difficult to put that into practice). The camera has interchangeable lenses. As that was also part of my training, it is easy for me to tell at a distance – from what is being observed or the person I am with (the one talking to the camera) – the type of framing. That was easy for me to do and I would always make a point of doing that. If I have a zoom lens, I can, for example, forbid the cameraman to use it (in other words, alter the lens within the possibilities he has), in that way I try and keep the situation under control. This rule has to be followed. I had quite a difficult time working with people who might get (as is sometimes said or as they themselves would say) “a fantastic, unique shot, etc.” That does not interest me in the least. What I want is to be present and understand what is happening and be able to compose things as I live them. That’s more or less the process.
JMC: You’ve mentioned twice the question of going from film to video. How many movies did you make using film? Just one?
PSN: As documentaries go, just Margens, but we’ve made another four films.
JMC: That’s a different experience from those who went straight into video or digital image to begin with. It would be interesting if you could say something about the kind of changes that that different technology introduced, in the way you look at things, in your way of working ...
PSN: On the one hand yes, in any case, because I’m aware that, if needed, I could always shoot some more and not fall short of expectations. With film it’s the exact opposite. I really did not have more film; much as I wanted I could not invent it. Which means the pyramid structure is upside down: it’s the consumables that somehow lead the process. As for the way of capturing images, there is no major change. In that aspect, the device is the same. What always interests me is the relationship with people. After deciding where me and the crew are going to be and how I am going to place the equipment in the space, and what we want from that space or that situation, things unfold in a completely articulated way. Seldom do things get out of control. What I always want and wish for is that, after all that is taken care of and out of the way, I can be free to be with people. There are situations in which I speak to people during preparation, and then I try to find the same things in another moment. On the other hand, I know, for example, that in this film, working with a character and letting people choose their place (their own small world within the microcosmic world of the neighbourhood), and creating a setting together, in which he or she realize that they are completely isolated and free to say whatever they like – this creates an intimacy that would just not be possible in other circumstances.
CM: We’ve been talking a lot about image, but what is particularly interesting in your film is the treatment of sound. The feeling I had was that you decided to tone down the synchronous sound. Even in the scenes with synchronous sound, it is on a different level to the voice, and then there is the music. Was that something that changed as you were editing the film, or was it decided from the start? How did you work with that? Because I felt it lacked a bit of synchronous sound, there were moments there...
PSN: Technically, I don’t know what happens in this auditorium, but I noticed there was an absence of medium-pitched sounds. We were talking (Gonçalo and I) about that, because the voice has a very strong presence compared to the atmospheres, compared to synchronous sound. We tried to balance that as best we could. The synchronous sound is not at all intentionally muffled.
CM: Anyway, it does not have a narrative presence, it is not important.
PSN: No, because the whole structure is conveyed much more by the logic of the statements, which lead to the story I want to tell.
CM: Did you decide that from the beginning?
PSN: Yes. It’s like what Zé Manel was saying about logic. Sound matters a great deal to me, even more so than the image. If there is any formula, it has much more to do with sound (sometimes) than with image. Here, even in the work on the music itself, it is not at all differentiated. There are peaks, obviously, during which the music is louder, at other times it is much softer. The idea is to combine every aspect with another body (perhaps a more visionary one) which is the neighbourhood itself, which is what the images convey. There is always a more hidden discourse about something else that comes through the sound.
LEONOR AREAL: I’ll take up that cue of the “hidden discourse”. That’s what I was going to ask you, about the use of music in both films. The music itself doesn’t have to have a meaning, and it doesn’t normally (unless it is a song, which is not the case). Nevertheless music, when used in fiction, generally provides a kind of emotional and subconscious support for the film. In documentary, music is very different, its role is more that of a commentary on the images. That commentary, as I see it, has a meaning. I could answer the question, but I won’t, I’ll ask you: what is the meaning of the music? Is it a commentary on the action?
CM: Well, to begin with, when you make that distinction (that in fiction the objective is to transport us emotionally and in documentary it is to comment), I think it’s exactly the same thing for both, I don’t make that distinction, Leonor. Of course, if it is a song with lyrics, there is a much more literal side that we... But I think instrumental music has the same function in documentary and fiction. In my case, it’s complicated, the music. On the one hand, the moments when there is music are associated with Rui. It has to do with a more dream-like universe that I am trying to create, and that’s where the music seems to...
LEONOR AREAL: There is music right at the beginning.
CM: Exactly. The music is the same at the beginning and at the end. If you like, it is the music of the neighbourhood. The others are tunes related to Rui. Some of them you can barely notice, like when he is looking at the tree, at the clouds and at the reflections. It’s a tune that almost blends in with the atmospheres, it’s all a little diluted. Then there is the music during the game, but I associate it with Rui. Because ultimately, despite the fact that the father is in the foreground, I want us to be with Rui all the time, and I think we are, even if he is looking at the father. As for the music of the film, at the end and at the beginning (particularly at the end), it is there for an emotional purpose, there’s perhaps a melancholic side... It’s complicated, music says different things.
LEONOR AREAL: That’s the meaning of music. It acquires a meaning. In this case, that’ it.
CM: For me, it’s saying that there is sadness in that neighbourhood, but also something else.
LEONOR AREAL: For me, in your film, I feel the music has a certain irony (which I find pleasant) but, in reality, it’s difficult to interpret.
CM: Well, it’s possible that there is irony. Perhaps I am an ironic person. It’s difficult to say; music is really another space of freedom. Where you see irony, someone else will be moved, another is going to realize that those are plastic instruments (because it’s all done with plastic instruments – it’s not Zero, but Munchen, who also do that kind of work). I’ll let Pedro say a word now.
PSN: Music played a big role in this film. On the one hand, because the inhabitants became known as the “Índios da Meia Praia” on account of Zeca Afonso’s song, which is a crucial point (they even mix up the director’s name: it was António da Cunha Telles who made the film, and there is one character who says it was Zeca Afonso). There was a musical universe in the neighbourhood itself, from the very beginning. That song celebrated the creation of that neighbourhood. I first came to know that neighbourhood when I saw a video clip entitled A Jazzar no Cinema Português, produced by the Faro Cineclub. The first time I actually went there, I tried to be with all those people dancing, and that’s what happened. I was completely fascinated by them. There was an euphoric side I later wanted somehow to redress. I have worked with and without music (using only recorded sounds and with actual music being played) and I was in a special moment in my relationship with Gonçalo Tocha (who can talk about the music, since it is his), who is a member of the group Lupanar. There was a work relationship that had developed and which really interested me. I don’t know how one can pay homage to a musician like Zeca Afonso, I cannot pinpoint what the musicality of that neighbourhood is, the only thing we agreed upon was that, as they were Indians, we would try and make cowboy music for Portuguese Indians. That was the challenge for Gonçalo. What interested us most (me, especially) was the question of that particular environment and it being so undefined in many respects, politically, socially, architecturally, emotionally, etc... And that would be translated in musical arrangements and compositions that were sometimes more complex (not from the performance point of view but in the imbalance). The work developed in a very special way, because I got a chance to react along the way. Gonçalo tried out many things and I would say: “perhaps not that, this would be better”. With some I gave way, others not, but we achieved a balance that has an emotional tone to it. The point wasn’t so much to comment (I don’t see it that way), but to create different perspectives, even on the architecture itself. An interpretation. Gonçalo, would you like to say something?
GONÇALO TOCHA: A western. The only idea we talked about was to do with a western, with cowboys, and it had two musical registers: a twelve cord guitar (that can sound like country music or like a Portuguese guitar) and broken flutes, tins, metals, plastic bags in the water. Looking at the film now, I feel more and more like subtracting the guitar and leaving only the sounds that connect everything, to let it all fly. And the whistle of the train.
PSN: As with that neighbourhood where you [Catarina] went, demolition here is about to start. They’ve already started destroying some of the adjacent buildings, and the idea is to tear everything down, the most difficult part being the fact that the tenants paid for the construction themselves. With the help of the State, but they contracted debts. For 25 years they paid, and all those promises of urban improvements, such as streets and sanitation never happened, whereas next door... The last shot of the train goes from a green area up to the neighbourhood, and the green is a golf course right next door. I know that this point is not explicit in the film (because it was an idea I did not develop in the end), but it is there: that universe of the golf course exists right beside the neighbourhood. A wall was built, so as not to disturb the golf players, and the natural tendency will be for the golf course to expand. At that moment, if this goes on, we’ll have the opportunity of changing the music. It remains open.
BRUNO CABRAL: From what I understood, in your introduction you mentioned that you had many hours of footage, many of which were everyday scenes, observational details, which you did not manage to include in the film. I would like to understand whether that mathematical structure derives from the urgency of making a film, now, about that neighbourhood and if, deep down, your greatest desire was to make a film based more on observation. This is much harder to construct, because the elements are much more dispersed. To really create a narrative line about life and these characters (that you are probably still have to discover) – is that a wish you are putting off until later, due to a need of doing something right now? Is that why you impose that structure on yourself?
PSN: The footage left out was not so much on an observational tone. On the contrary, these are endless conversations that I had with people, and then I went on (another inheritance from cinema) and just recorded the sound. I have a whole world of sounds with loads of recorded hours, which I know I have to organize really well to be able to use. For example, if I have the opportunity of continuing this work, now that they are going to demolish, and people are going to be rehoused. Does that interest me? I don’t know if I want to go back there at the moment. But if I had had the chance, just using the footage I already recorded, of sorting it out and editing it again, I think the tone and structure (mathematical or otherwise) would be very similar to this. There are not many more images in an observational tone that could bring any substantial change to this work. There are other statements. That was our choice. Some of them are of such intimacy... We took these conversations to a point that meant they could no longer be included in this kind of work. That’s between me and those people.
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: The film refers a lot to that other film, and about its music too. You’re always mentioning this. Did you feel you wanted to include some clips, archival footage from the other film?
PSN: In the video clip, I had that possibility, and I used images from the film by Cunha Telles. The possibility of using them in the documentary was there, but it was soon put aside. There was also the idea of Cunha Telles being present, because some people remembered him (although they were children at the time), and the older ones had pleasant memories of his being there, but it all became so complicated that it was put aside, and that was it. Cunha Telles was at the Cinemateca when the documentary was shown, and he responded very well. He would like to put on “commercial” sessions with other works and that would de a possibility, on his part, to get on with that project. Absolutely fine by me, because there are, in fact, things that connect and characters that one realizes are the same. Although I don’t feel that weight so much. People spoke initially of that relationship with the past through the film by Cunha Telles, and at a given moment (I can’t say when) during the shooting process (it’s not explicit in the film), people stopped mentioning the film by Cunha Telles.
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: I don’t think they are talking about the film. I think that thing about the “Indians” became like myth, and they talk about it a lot. “Why are we Indians? Are we Indians or not?” You made the music with that in mind. I am talking about the impact the film had. Perhaps people didn’t even see it or remember it, but that name certainly made an impression on them, and I think the film is about that somehow: how did they begin to be identified by the other fishing communities as “the Indians”, how did they incorporate the word “Indian” and how come at the end you dedicate the film to the “Indians”. For me there is something missing in the film, that would give me an inkling of that past, the origins of that. Perhaps through the song by Zeca Afonso.
PSN: “Indians” just comes from the song, not necessarily from the film. From the moment it became so difficult to have Cunha Telles with us, the enchantment was gone, and it made no more sense to talk about the film anymore. For me, it was even a question of balance and respect, the fact of being there. Afterwards, I cut off from that. Today I feel no need at all for those images from the past and, on the other hand, I don’t want to talk too much about him – despite our mentioning the “Indians” all the time and what it is to be an “Indian”: whether it’s bad or good, the “Indians” having great pride in being “Indian”, the lady who says she hates being “Indian”, because she’s out of work, she is not entitled to certain things that other people have from the moment she says she is “Indian”...
CATARINA ALVES COSTA: That scene around the ground fire, it’s a kind of game...
PSN: A game in which they went over the top I think, because of our presence. That’s a natural thing to happen due to the presence of a camera, and there are probably other times when that is the case. The last shot of the fire, in which we see that metaphor of the islands, the sub-families (it’s just one family – with multiple relationships among cousins who get married to I don’t know who, but it’s only one family); that was the hardest moment for me. Whereas on a daily basis I was with a few people (I couldn’t be with the whole three hundred simultaneously), on that particular night they were all in the same place, even if apart in a calculated way. In other words, “I’m not speaking to those there, I’m on good terms with these here”. It is a neighbourhood where being rich or poor is an issue. That studied distance meant I had to make quite an effort to reconcile and rebalance those relationships emotionally, because there was clearly a closer bond with one of the families, more so than with the others. I was accused of outright favouritism, and it was one of the more delicate moments.
To answer your question about the “Indians”: what I feel is that I freed myself of all that somehow, in order to be with those people. I can’t explain it any other way and I understand the question, but: archival footage, no; music by Zeca Afonso, no; this work, yes.
ANA RITA BARATA: At the time, there was also a question of perhaps speaking to Nuno Portas, the architect who was in charge of the project including the SAAL [Local Support Ambulatory Service]. On the idea of the past, of making that bridge: thirty years later, Pedro Sena Nunes films the “Índios da Meia Praia” or “Meia Praia”. The fact of having chosen not to make a follow-up as such, but to be there in the present created another project. I was just making the bridge.
JMC: I did not say anything a moment ago, when you mentioned the method, but I don’t want us to finish without an echo of that. I am very stubborn about that, not because I want to create a hierarchy for solutions, but because it interests me to understand the consequences of the use of each method. In the end, all methods are possible and all can be very effective, there being deep reasons for them and an adaptation to what we want to express, an internal unity that justifies them. For example, when you say that the statement system is what allows you to concentrate, and that you felt that would elude you if you were there with your camera following conversations, I feel deeply curious about that. Because there are cinematic worlds that seem to show that it does not necessarily have to be like that... In this seminar, we’ll have with us for two days someone [Frederick Wiseman] who has been doing this for forty years and manages to tell the most complex episodes – the history of a civilization that is his own – without interacting directly with people through dialogue. Which goes to show that there are other possible methods, and I don’t think that any of them have to be seen as a limitation to concentration, for example... Would you agree?
PSN: I agree, but the question is: I cannot talk about another method because it is not something that I have ever looked for, and when that happened it always went along with various problems, and by this need of mine to control things. Not that I am not interested in spontaneity and the unexpected. I am not sure I want to control things to the limit, but this has been my method. In fact, there have been others, but they always featured communication between two people. When I had that crew I mentioned, a few years back, in which there was a very strong connection between myself and the cameraman, often things would happen quite easily which I felt fine with (the result, I mean).
CM: Even though you say you cut with the past, at least the first fraction of the film is about the past. They are talking about the past. If that was important to you, perhaps with another method it would have been difficult for you to convey...
JMC: Well, let’s liven things up a bit, shall we? You [Catarina Mourão], when you made A Dama de Chandor, you did exactly the opposite. In a certain way, you told the history of Portugal in that region, which is also the history of the Portuguese in the world, through the observation of one person’s daily life...
CM: I know (I knew you were going to say that...), but I was scared. You think I didn’t interview her a few times? I did, but I didn’t put that in the film. Of course, my idea was to manage to portray all those issues through the present, but it is difficult. You can always tell what you like with whatever methods. That had to do with the kind of cinema each person makes. In Pedro’s case, even though there is a fraction that is called the future, the other one which may be the present, I feel that it is a film very much about the past.
PSN: That has more to do with my training. I attended a school where it was literally forbidden (I’m exaggerating) to talk about documentary films, which was one of the things that fascinated me most. Taken to the limit, there is an intuitive side, which has to do with being on the defensive. Somehow the result has been a formula that has been perfected from certain works to the next. There has been no continuity. The only thing I try and follow is whether I feel comfortable in the middle of all that, and that’s also true for those who are with me, even when the themes and subjects we are dealing with are very complex. As for the rest, the things I’ve tried haven’t been safe enough for me to follow that path.
LEONOR AREAL: The film is about that moment (that the other film portrays and that is mentioned here) in which they built the neighbourhood. Until a certain point is reached, when they are going to have to move to another neighbourhood. Did you not feel like making a film about that transition, that new break that is about to happen and that was already the subject of another previous film (this one, in a way, would be a remake of the same story at another point in time) and not so much a film turned towards the past?
PSN: Only now, after the film was finished, was that announcement finally made, that there was a political decision to abandon that place. It’s in the film – a man says he already has a house – but it was still very premature. He has a house because he used to live in an annex, and during a first phase it is the annexes that are destroyed, only later the neighbourhood itself. I could even say: there is still some difficulty in taking on that commitment, because they are “Indians”. Not long ago, we had a showing of the film in Lagos with a room full of “Indians”. The unease of the local authorities (who, in this case, were present in the room) in making the announcement was quite noticeable. Cunha Telles filmed the construction of the neighbourhood, and I can film its destruction. I am not sure that interests me, at the moment. I had this specific time frame for the film to open, because it had been commissioned. I had never worked in such conditions, where a deadline had to be met. At the moment, I have no idea. I am much more concerned with thinking about my current projects.
JMC: One of the things we propose as a method for the seminar is that people (or at least those following all the debates) should try and link things up throughout the various sessions. Those who were here on the first day, when there was a debate on the film by Pierre-Marie Goulet, heard a conversation on the question of past and present in cinema, which turned out to be really relevant in the debate on the film by Pedro Costa, who spoke about this once again, but from another angle... I recall what Cyril Neyrat said, that he thought there were no films about the past: cinema is the art of filming the passing moment. Meaning we film the present which immediately becomes the past, and it is always on the edge, because it is neither one thing nor the other. I think it makes sense to think of this now, and it can perhaps provide a lead for the conversations that will follow ...
GONÇALO TOCHA: As for the past: in this country it is normally a frozen past that has lasted thirty years. The situation has remained the same for thirty years, except that there are more houses now. Not only is the country facing the past, but it is a frozen past, like so many other things.
JMC: I’m not sure it is frozen, but that would be another debate. Thank you Pedro and Catarina.