terça-feira, 27 de outubro de 2009

Little White Lies

Interview by James Mansfield

With his debut feature Blood recently given a DVD release and Tate Modern hosting a complete retrospective of his films, Pedro Costa is a filmmaker in demand. From his noirish debut Costa’s focus turned towards the poor immigrants from the former Portuguese colony of Cape Verde and the Fontainhas slum on the outskirts of Lisbon in followup Down to Earth.

After moving away from full film crew productions Costa went to stay with some of the people living in Fontainhas, filming hundreds of hours of footage over many months as they played semi-fictionalised versions of themselves. This led to In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth; two masterpieces that magically and devastatingly transform truth and fiction into new realms, creating a blisteringly direct portrait of a community whose inhabitants still retain their mystery. Costa has also made two documentaries, including his most recent film, Ne Change Rien. Costa was in London earlier this month to coincide with a period of increasing interest in his work.

LWLies: Do you enjoy attending retrospectives and talking about your films?

Costa: Yes, because when you talk about something you learn a lot and find yourself saying things you’d never thought about. I try not to be repetitive and instead go a little bit further and try and discover something new. In a situation like this I’m relating and making connections between the films so that’s nice for me too, and is one of the best parts of having the films shown together.

LWLies: So it becomes part of the process to help you move on to the next film?

Costa: That’s especially true in my case because my films are now like Chinese boxes. There’s an obvious connection because I use the same people and shoot in the same place. Sometimes I discover there was something I’d never thought about at length, where just a word in a film can give you an idea. It’s a little bit like how with Colossal Youth the French title is not that at all, it’s Youth on the March. For me that’s like a metaphor of the process, walking and thinking. Making films is also a way of walking. It’s nice to have a programme that’s not only for the audiences but also for me, even if I don’t see the films themselves.

LWLies: Do you ever go back and watch your own films?

Costa: I never watch them again. There’s only one I’m more or less comfortable watching, and that’s the film I made about Straub and Huillet. I can always learn from them.

LWLies: What were your interests growing up?

Costa: My first project was music. I was lucky when I was younger because there were a lot of things happening, the excitement of so many great bands with great lyrics. At the time the experience of listening to something by Wire and PiL was amazing. It was like seeing a Godard film. It was another world where you would get out of the movie theatre. It was a time when the person next door would probably do something amazing, but it wasn’t a commercial competition. There was also a political revolution in Portugal at the same time, where the fascist dictatorship ended and the streets were full of anarchists, communists, and socialists, so from the ages of 13 to 22 I had everything, the music, the cinema, the politics, all at the same time. What this made me see was that John Ford was a hundred thousand times more progressive and communist than so-called left wing documentaries saying things like “film is a gun”, and “change the world”. It was Ozu, Mizoguchi and Ford that were saying that really, you just had to be patient to see it.

LWLies: What was it about these filmmakers that inspired you?

Costa: I’m very attached to a beautiful formula written by Serge Daney, one of the best French critics who I had two or three classes with in Lisbon. He said that with the movies that we like, it is the films that see us. Of course it is you that is watching the film, but the film sees you, it watches you grow up. The film tells you something, to live this way and talk that way. I knew I would like to live in the worlds that some filmmakers showed me, and I could also see immediately that certain films were not for me, because they weren’t watching me. It’s a very beautiful formula, maybe a bit vague or poetic, but you feel it immediately. Films by Straub and Godard knew what I was feeling. It’s something you recognise, it’s like a sect, a club. You feel like you belong to this club and not the other one. With my own films it’s the same feeling. If it feels right it is like the images and the sounds are watching you and protecting you, showing you the way to do this or that. It’s not the script, it’s not your ideas. It’s something more real and integrated and in time. It’s more in life.

LWLies: How did you come to make Ne Change Rien?

Costa: I thought this film was going to be very special and different from the others I’ve made, but in the end the ideas and the form are not really so unlike all the things I’ve been doing. It began as a friendship with Jeanne Balibar. We met seven or eight years ago at a film festival. We were always watching films together and discovered a common sensibility, and then one day she asked me to do a video for a song off her first album. The idea then came for me to be there while she was rehearsing. When I filmed her in concert I didn’t want to do a film like Shine a Light with the camera turning upside down, and I wasn’t interested in doing a ‘making of’ that you have on DVDs with guys in the studio telling jokes and drinking beer.

LWLies: How did your approach for this film compare to the documentary you made about Straub and Huillet?

Costa: When I was there with Jeanne and the musicians I had the same approach as with the other film, discreetly moving around with very small equipment, being really close without disturbing them and trying to keep an eye on what’s happening in the microsecond. It’s so small that the moment where you cut is the time when something happens. It’s so small that you miss it. For both films it was the same fascination because I was watching people I like. What I’m doing is turning these guys into monuments. It’s almost like doing a fiction film because you want them to come out so good, like actors, where you can cut off all the bad parts and the things they don’t do so well. I want Straub and Balibar to be bigger than life, bigger than themselves and bigger than the image you have of them. The structure I made is very fictional because they have to come out like heroes, like the great people I always thought they are, and there was no disappointment.

LWLies: What was the shooting process like for In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, the two films you’ve made without a film crew?

Costa: The shooting takes a very long time, and this changes everything for me. For Colossal Youth we shot every day for two years except on Sundays. I felt for the first time in my life like I was working. I made my first films in five or six weeks and it was a luxury environment I was uncomfortable with. I thought I was too slow to make a film in this time. I always had the feeling that in the last week of shooting I would begin to start discovering the film, realising that we had done everything wrong, so I would have to be asking the producer to give me two or three more days. Of course it’s not that I’m really a slow filmmaker, but that I just don’t want the shooting to end. I want the complication of life to be a part of the film, to make the film. When we started filming Colossal Youth, Vanda told me she was pregnant and a year later her child ended up appearing in the last shot of the film. Of course you can’t script this or suggest such an idea to a producer.

LWLies: How did you persuade the inhabitants of Fontainhas to let you stay with them and film them for so long?

Costa: I had to show them that the film could be possible in another way, without a film crew and the trucks and the money, that it could be possible for me alone with a camera. They had to see how difficult it was for me. They had to see that I came at 9am when they opened the coffee shop and the barber shop and that at 7pm I would close the door. I had to show them it was a common street. That was decisive.

LWLies: Did you feel conflicted about making In Vanda’s Room when there are so many drugs around?

Costa: Vanda has been into drugs since she was 15 and it’s something you can’t avoid. It’s daily life. She smokes heroin and cocaine like I smoke cigarettes, so if you’re with her for an hour you have to see it. For me as a filmmaker, there was a moment where there was an ethical problem that I dealt with silently and alone, asking how it could be done. It’s not that I want to show the drugs, but I cannot avoid it, and so In Vanda’s Room tries to be something else in terms of production and organisation. I am trying to do something more human though. It was not going to be a film about drugs. It was about the place, about the room, about a kind of family and a world seen through my eyes. It’s not the real Fontainhas or the real Vanda, but it’s my eyes seeing her and her watching me. A lot of people dislike because they don’t feel I have the right to film those people that way. I’ve been accused that the film is too beautiful and criticised because we don’t explain how they get the money to buy drugs, but that’s simply because money doesn’t have a value there. They don’t have money and so they have to find it, and normally they find the money and then they spend it immediately on drugs. It goes up in the air. In Vanda’s Room. In most films that show junkies the camera will start turning as soon as they start smoking and we go into this daze and the characters get stupid. For me this was not the case. They were always thinking about serious things. I did not think and plan all this. I just said let it be, knowing that drugs will be there for Vanda and for a lot of people, but taking care that we were not going to make films like anyone else and that these people will think and talk like other people. A lot of documentary filmmakers think you have to make an ugly film, that ethically I have no right to turn them into heroes, but that’s what I wanted. The lesson I learnt from Chaplin and Ford is that people have to walk out better than they walk in. Ventura has to be bigger than John Wayne.

LWLies: How do you determine the right distance to keep when you’re filming?

Costa: I don’t believe a camera can solve or discover the mystery of anybody. It’s very fake, so I don’t pretend I’m close. The distance I keep is just a focal thing, it’s not meant to say I know this person and I want you to feel how he’s feeling. In the case of Ventura the distance is something I cannot avoid. I could never say I understand him or I know what he felt. I’m not black like Ventura or from the same social class. I was not born on Cape Verde and I’ve never been 20 years into taking Cocaine, and they tend to tell me that every second. He said to me at the end of shooting very simply, “don’t ever think you can know me because you have a camera”. I think that’s one of the best principles and lessons you can learn to make film, to think about the distance that will be created between you and what you want to film, and perhaps accepting that it’s very wide between me and him, a deep and long everlasting ocean of mystery that neither of us will cross. But of course that doesn’t mean that he’s not interested in the work. It doesn’t mean that we’re not friends.

LWLies: Do you plan to work with these people again?

Costa: It’s their expectation. When a film is almost over we’re ready for the next one. It’s about them demanding something, and I’ve no reason to go away. I think my next film with them will be about young kids, a younger generation. In the last shot of Colossal Youth Ventura is lying on a bed more or less moaning something and Vanda’s newly born daughter is beside him making some sounds, and I thought that this is probably a good dialogue. I take it as a sign that Ventura finally rests and this new face appears and has this strange coded language that we don’t understand.

LWLies: Can you speak about the films you chose to accompany the retrospective at the Tate?

Costa: If I do this kind of thing it’s about giving the viewer tools that are really proposals saying ‘you can do a film this way’. In the case of Jean-Pierre Gorin’s Routine Pleasures it’s a shoestring budget, two guys and that’s it. With the Jean Eustache film The Pig you see the most amazing way of watching a very ancient ritual of killing a pig, and you see it’s really about the people, not about the animal. I chose Straub for more practical reasons, because Sicilia! is the film that I documented the editing of in Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? Straub and Huillet are the filmmakers that give you the feeling that films are meant to be worth something. The Warhol film I show is called Beauty, a film I saw recently and it’s just like In Vanda’s Room, the difference being that he made it without thinking for one second whereas I took two years of pain and blood.