in conversation with Pedro Costa
Is life dramatic or tragic? Internationally acclaimed and award-winning Portuguese director Pedro Costa talks to four by three magazine about the nature of reality, ethics, the responsibility of an artist, his working unique methods, time and death, tragedy and drama, music and sound and the importance of criticism.
Vengeance has long established itself as an eternal theme in various dramatic works, but the impressive oeuvre of internationally acclaimed Portuguese director Pedro Costa doesn’t belong to genre of revenge films, as his films avenge his characters and cinema as a medium is his way of taking revenge on life itself. Revenge speaks to Costa’s deep seated sensibility and his desire to revisit crucial moments in history and question the already established narratives we have come to tell ourselves.
Costa is the director behind the films Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth. His latest film Horse Money won Best Direction at the Locarno International Film Festival in 2014. Previously Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called Costa "the Samuel Beckett of cinema" and this comparison highlights Costa as an uncompromising and visionary director, whose work grounds cinema as an artform independent from commercially driven ideas or forms of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. Removed from the constraints of conventions, Costa’s films are both challenging and enigmatic, close to cinematic poetry and musical compositions. Situated in the Fontainhas slums of Lisbon, his work falls between fiction and reality, allowing life to write itself into the materiality of his films through the close and growing relationship with his non-professional actors, which shed light on the perpetual tragedy of the individual in the context of history.
We spoke with Pedro Costa about reality, time and tragedy.
What is the purpose of cinema in this current moment in time?
Pedro Costa: To avenge, to revenge.
What made you become a filmmaker?
PC: Well, certainly it was not a vocation or something like that. I saw a film when I was ten and that was when I knew I wanted to be a filmmaker. No, it would actually be more accurate to say it was by chance, a coincidence. When I was growing up a lot of things mixed: books, music and, at that moment in time, politics, because I was growing up when the revolution in Portugal was fading, but even in fading it was still very intense. Hence, it would be more accurate to say that it was this boiling pot of things at a particular moment in time that brought me to filmmaking. I became interested in films, which I did not watch as a cinephile amongst other cinephiles, but alone, which I believe to be very important.
Then one day my best friend and I were bored with almost everything and we saw an ad in a newspaper for a new film school in Lisbon. So we just decided to go and have a look at it. We hadn’t seen any Portuguese films, or maybe only one or two, till we were around 24. So we went there with no kind of rationality behind it. It was really irrationality that brought us there. We went there a bit arrogantly, wanting to make fun of intellectuals, showing them just how bright we ourselves were! At the school I met a teacher, who was a filmmaker, António Reis, who had made three films and who actually died not long ago. It was due to him that I stayed in school and learned things beyond the technical aspects of films. He showed us his films, which in fact opened up the possibility to me to make films in my country and in language.
What do you hope to achieve in artistic terms as well as on a societal level or do you find it misleading speaking about ‘achievements’ in what you’re doing?
PC: It’s film by film. In the way, I work there’s no preparation, as everything is done day by day. What happens in my case, and perhaps some other filmmakers too, is that my films are very much connected to one another. It’s nothing that I think about and it’s not a plan that I have, but for me, it has to be done like this and not in another way. It happened a long time ago that I decided, or something decided for me, that I would work in a certain way, so now it’s just thinking about one film at a time. I see my films as very connected to a particular moment in time, a particular place and those people part of it. Each film takes very long to complete, often around three to four years. I do the best work I can, yet I wouldn’t consider this to be artistic. If you’re lucky then someone will tell you that your work is nice or even artistic, but only if you are lucky.
I don’t say there should be, but there could be some criticism that you aestheticise the marginalized. Your films are dealing with issues around race, around class and other politically-related things. What is your approach to this and how do you relate to it?
PC: It used to follow me like a dog! But not anymore. There are so many idiots doing that kind of thing and I don’t think I’m doing that. Maybe I was, I don’t know, but I wouldn’t have thought so. I always liked to discuss these issue, but not on some profound or philosophical level, but by trying to discover perspectives and issues that documentarians don’t find interesting. But this is a long time ago, as now everyone talks about fiction-documentary. Some films take a very long time to research, often around a lot of aspects that actually don’t end up being shown in the film, at least not in any obvious way, but more in a very subtle way. I feel I have to do this research, both for sociological and anthropological reasons, more than the rehearsal with actors or location scouting. I would say that the films I am making reject certain traditions within cinema. And if you belong to this flow, I don’t see how you cannot take care of formal aspects, which is a problem. There’s nothing besides the rectangle, everything comes from it, which isn’t meant in a formalist way. You have to think about what’s inside your frame, what’s outside and what’s your own angle. If you are lucky the point of view of the camera will be in balance with what you are filming. So I am always looking to have behind and in front of the camera, what’s inside and outside the frame, in tune.
You just touched on the distinction between fiction and documentary film and in relation to that I was wondering what reality means to you? Is reality something that happens in the space between documentary and fiction or is it altogether different from that?
PC: It’s difficult to say, yet it doesn’t seem complex. The reality that I’m working with now, say Vitalina for instance, continuously shifts. The reality of our relationship is something that no one knows. I could explain or describe the relationship, but then the reality of shooting is something else again. Sometimes you see it in the making of art or you can describe it in technical terms. But the reality of the film is something different, which naturally is the sum of its parts. Plus, if you’re lucky, again, if you work well, a certain kind of transfiguration can come about, which seems a heavy word to use, but it’s just like that. Of course I aspire to reach a certain elevation. That’s the reason why they were so mad when I brought In Vanda’s Room to my first documentary festival. I was used to discussing my films in terms of fiction, but suddenly I was asked questions, such as ‘Is it real, the drugs?’, ‘Is it real, the money?’ and ‘Are you paying them?’. So my response was: ‘You really want to know if she’s high or if she’s telling the truth? Who knows?’
What I find fascinating is that you don’t judge or pity your characters, which I think really sets you apart from a lot of other filmmakers. How do you see the relationship between ethics and cinema, in the way you’re approaching your characters and the way you’re representing them?
PC: I think it’s actually quite easy and simple to be on the right side. Within film that is, as I’m not talking about everyday reactions to Trump, unemployment, social injustice etc. You have to think, you have to see and have to put yourself not in their shoes but try to share their point of view, sometimes allowing for things to happen that you don’t like or that can be problematic for you. I experienced this in In Vanda’s Room and my other films. They still are problematic and troubling, but I don’t think I can get off track or I don’t think I lose myself because of this. Realism is film and film is reality - the reality of film. It is ingrained in the medium that film can only show reality. I don’t think it shows anything else. If you turned on the camera right here and right now, it would record this restaurant and not something else. You have to work from within each moment and you have to be decent, the same decency that started with Chaplin.
So you do feel within you a sense of responsibility or a moral compass when you say you have to be on ‘the right side’ …
PC: I don’t know if ‘the right side’ is really what I am trying to say actually. I certainly try to be on ‘the right side’ in relation to the individual shots or scenes, but I don’t know what the film will be when we start out and I don’t know if there will be fifty scenes, if he will take the bus, if he will sing - I just don’t know. I depend on the actors’ text and their proposals, as everything comes from their experience. Sometimes I don’t know if it’s a truthful experience, as in something that really happened or not. If it’s interesting I don’t care. So the process of making the film, which is writing, shooting, preparing, all at the same time, that’s also one of the reasons I think why I chose this method or I would have risked, like some other filmmakers, to avoid the deeper questions which naturally emerge. It’s not running away, but taking care of these questions, from my point of view, in the proper way: moment by moment, scene by scene, choosing, rejecting, there’s nothing written, there are no words, no guidelines. So we work from within each moment, always present and perceptive and not from a script or a screenplay. For us it doesn’t exist, which makes the invention and the construction very present. You depend on that, you are dependent on research, the making of something solid. When you work like that questions concerning ethics, morals or decency is before you in plain sight. Trust is more important than responsibility. It’s mutual trust and you just feel when something isn’t right.
You render time in very metaphysical ways in your films, as past, present and future tend to collapse into one another or in the case of Horse Money seems to be an illusion altogether. What are your thoughts on time?
PC: For me, a film is always in the present, because of my way of working. Because of this, the work doesn’t start with me as the director, but we work together from the start, everyone in front and behind the camera. In order to work like this, one actually requires some form of innocent faith or a kind of naivety. We aren’t going into it thinking we have to make the best film in the world because what is at stake are the different and shifting relationships between us.
We are going into this state together, trying to experience work in a way that was previously unbeknownst to us and was never made in this form before, which is obviously a slightly utopian idea. Our working methods are actually very Communist and we, in fact, aspire to that. The films that aren’t that feel much more sober and desperate. Sometimes I say these are not the films that I should make, but it just turns out this way, which can be problematic. When we thought we were doing something light, we realize during the edit that what we’ve created is actually quite heavy.
It’s just so important that you’re making the films you do because it’s very hard to films like yours nowadays. Your films hold a very special place within contemporary cinema...
PC: I do not admire a lot of filmmakers, but I do see the point of their work, as they have some tricks and don’t go off track too much, which makes it suitable to be shown in multiplexes. However, I just cannot do this or work in such a way. My films go off track, are slow and don’t have any tricks about them. I cannot shake the belief that the films we are doing and how we are doing them, tells a story in a different way, in a way which will avenge all the bad stories that were told in film and books about the Portuguese revolution.
For Horse Money, I had the idea that the revolution or this historic moment was much more complex and strange than we thought. Ventura, like an oracle, helped us to reflect on it anew. The film doesn’t tell everything but shows certain elements, which puts some or a lot of elements in a new light and thereby makes certain things problematic that might not have been perceived this way before, both the fate of the revolution as well as our dialogue about and around it.
What was striking to me about Horse Money was that constant underlying theme of death, at least in some capacity…
PC: Let me just comment on that because I’m not sure if it’s death. To me the film is always in the present, as I said, there is no past or future. Well, of course, Ventura is traveling, but it’s still in the present. A lot of films are like that or at least they used to be much more than they are now. I don’t believe that we as people and as viewers or even films themselves depend on drama and it is clear that neither Ventura nor Vitalina depend on any form of drama. Horse Money is not a dramatic film, it simply isn’t built or structured in such terms, but you might argue that there is a sense of tragedy. It certainly is possible to associate tragedy with death because the point of resolution in a tragedy is death. This will always be the case for mankind: we have a sense of living according to an irreparable tragedy, repeating itself every day on every corner of every neighborhood or in every kitchen, which brings about this melange of time. It’s a deep-seated sense of perpetuity and of permanence, of it having always been this way, always will be and always is. It’s a tragedy, but it’s not a drama. In a lot of films, only a few people have managed to escape this. Sometimes Jean-Luc Godard escapes the dramatic way of filming, but only a few other filmmakers have done so. The scene, the dialogue, the script - everything tends to the dramatization of situations. We, I think, are free of that. But the tragedy of the present, of the minute and of the second that we lose, is there. That’s why Ventura is so moving, I think because he is the face of the trembling man. His is not a dramatic situation, it’s a tragic one.
You mentioned that music is very important to you and the sound that you use in your films, as well as the sound for your films, is very minimal but also very pronounced and provocative, carrying so much meaning, life and giving so much movement to your films. How do you approach sound?
PC: In fact, that used to be my main view. In my childhood, I lived much more in sound and music than with or in images. At some point, though I started to seriously watch films and the hundred of films that I saw and admired, American films of the classical period fascinated me the most because of their use of music, which is now, unfortunately, impossible to do in the same way. Later Godard and Straub happened to me and I saw that something had to be done with music – the music was already in the sound. I could feel the music in silent films. Some of the modern filmmakers gave me the confidence that it is important to return to music as part of cinema, but not in a conventional way. I was always very afraid of doing too much, but then I also like to go for things that are complicated and difficult. But if it holds together through dialogue or silence then you just don’t need music.
Horse Money is also your most musical film thus far…
PC: I think it can be there because it’s a little bit more abstract than the other films, I don’t know, maybe. But it’s also something that could have been dreamt by Ventura. Some scenes in Horse Money are a bit like moments from a classical film in terms of producing some feelings, or at least I experienced this, that are not only the result of the camera and the crew but have come into being because of the main actor. Ventura was really building his own frame, closing himself in with words and the camera. To me the music comes from the outside, it comes to rescue him or to comment on something that is present. It’s another breath.
The moving image has the potential to move beyond language, beyond the systematic expression of thought through capturing one’s perception of the world. Arguably music also moves beyond language and has the power to evoking an idea. Do you feel that music has a specific purpose in relation to expressing one’s relation to the world?
PC: As Stravinsky said: Music cannot express anything. I’m not sure whether I necessarily agree, but I think that in the end music is pure movement, which does not have to express. I have the feeling that music nowadays always comes from the outside of the film. In the worst cases, it’s very bad, because music is only there to say something that the actors or the film can’t say, so it fills the urgency to bring some meaning to the scene that otherwise wouldn’t have been there. It’s very convoluted nowadays because there’s so much work of people who try to think about the relation of the image and sound, not only through music that is. I have a feeling that we are going back to a kind of pastiche or nostalgia for the American film, or the American film equals big emotion and comes with music and a certain imitation of the kind of life that we had.
Do you watch contemporary cinema?
PC: Only films that people give me or tell me about. I don’t have the impulse to do so, it’s even something I don’t want to do. If someone says, ‘you should see this’ or I hear about it from a friend or I read something, I am likely to watch it. A friend I trust told me to go and see La La Land, so I will once it’s out on DVD and I won’t even judge it.
Given that there is such a depth to what you portray, I am wondering, how do you relate to the reviews and articles written about your films or the interviews you have to do in response to your films?
PC: I have nothing against discussing my films. I don’t think I have a correct judgment about them and yours is probably much more interesting, or that guy, or that girl, not only critics that is. That’s the reward of doing films because in a way you’re doing it for them. They will be the critics and they will see things in your films that I won’t see because I’m too wrapped up in the work. They see details, they see errors, they see mistakes and so on. For me cinema came late, it came with everything and with the films came the writing. I’ve always praised great writing about films. I have known some people personally and I wrote to them and they wrote back. I have read articles that were as great as the films and comments on films that were better than the films themselves. I have personal notes on my films by Jacques Rivette that are much better than my films - much better! Just five sentences that are much better than the films, saying the film is something, I saw this and that, you should have done it this way … But there’s another way of talking and writing about films – I actually have a lot of friends who write. I like having them – I think I can push them and they can push me. I do not write, so talking is my medium. Sometimes I feel that a level of convention has been established or has manifested itself around film that is superficial and that’s a shame. Film feeds on thinking.
When you take Cahiers du Cinema and this long tradition …
PC: It’s dead.
Well, that’s what I’m saying …
PC: Well, you read people like Chris Fujiwara and he’s amazing, he’s a great critic. He’s complex and when he gets down to write a sentence he takes risks, which you can see as he is trying to find his way around the film. With some people, it’s great. And then you talk with people and it’s the same thing, hopefully.
I don’t go anymore to festivals, but Q&As with people I still do sometimes. There’s always something interesting in that and it’s something that nourishes me and I enjoy it. I’ve never said I don’t want to talk about my films or that they are, as you said, deep and profound. That’s what I can only aspire to. In some sense, there are no more difficult films. People used to say with a level of respect and admiration that certain films are difficult - difficult used to be a good thing.