← Part of the Collection: Pedro Costa

Interview with Pedro Costa

The Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa made his first film, Blood, in 1989. In 1994, Down to Earth followed, which was filmed in Cape Verde. Costa came back from the island with a number of parcels and letters from Cape Verdeans he had met there, addressed to their relatives and friends who had emigrated to Portugal. His task as a postman brought him to Lisbon’s Fontainhas neighbourhood, where many migrants were living at the time. After this first contact with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, Costa kept returning there, filming Ossos in 1997, the first instalment in a series of films he would make with the inhabitants of Fontainhas. 

After Ossos, which was filmed with a fairly large and standard film crew, Costa decided to radically rethink his approach. He returned to Fontainhas, alone this time. Unlike his previous work on 35mm, Costa started filming on MiniDV with the newly released Panasonic DVX-100, which resulted in the three-hour film In Vanda’s Room (2000). To date, three more full-length films featuring the residents of this neighbourhood have ensued: Colossal Youth (2006), Horse Money (2014), and Vitalina Varela (2019). In this interview, conducted on 7 and 8 January 2014 on the margins of a three-day masterclass by Pedro Costa at Birkbeck University in London, of these five films, Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth are discussed.

Besides his feature-length films, Costa has also made a number of short films with the inhabitants of Fontainhas. In 2001, he also made the feature Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie?, in which he filmed Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet during their third reworking of the montage of the film Sicilia!. In 2009, he made Change Nothing, a portrait of the French singer Jeanne Balibar.

(1) Juventude em Marcha [Colossal Youth] (Pedro Costa, 2016)

Ruben Desiere: In the lecture you gave today, you spoke a lot about how important it is for you to make and produce your films in a certain way. You emphasized the importance of paying the actors, the technicians and yourself equally. Could you elaborate on this?

Pedro Costa: Before In Vanda’s Room, I made a film called Ossos, which was a normal production with a producer, involving the complete machinery of fiction filmmaking. During the making of Ossos, I didn’t know anything. I was disengaged from the money, payments... all of these kinds of relations. Everything was done through the production team: producers, assistant producers, and so on. But at a certain point, it came to my attention that the production, itself, was paying for everything. Every problem we encountered was solved by paying it off, which is considered “normal” in the film business. If you want to shoot in a certain bar and they say “no”, you pay them and they will say “yes”. Or they say “five hundred”, and you say “four hundred”. It’s business.

Because Ossos was shot mostly at night, we put up lighting equipment. Film lights are very strong, and in the very small houses and rooms of the neighbourhood Fontainhas [in Lisbon] where we shot, with walls, doors and windows full of cracks, light gets in very easily everywhere. When we turned on the lights it was like the sun was coming up. One day, a construction worker who I knew got really annoyed and angry. It was two o’clock in the morning. He got out of his house and said this couldn’t go on. There was too much light and noise, and he had to get up at four because he started working at six.

So here you have the normal procedure in filmmaking: You pay the guy, and you not only pay him but you put him in the best hotel possible. Solved. That is how film works. But there is another solution. And that is to turn off the light. So, I decided to turn off the light and nothing bad came of it. It is really exemplary, but it’s the best example I could give you of how this often works, of how I became aware of these things and decided that I didn’t want to continue like this.

The decision to pay everybody equally comes from the same sentiment. I decided that I wanted to get rid of the secrecy around fees. You cannot pay someone a certain amount and someone else more. Because they will talk to each other and they will say: “Why are you getting more?” When I speak about paying everybody equally, I am talking of course about paying the same amount to the people who work with us every day. During Colossal Youth for instance, I decided to pay Ventura the same as myself because, even when he wasn’t in the scene, he was with us on set every day. Sometimes another actor was with us for weeks, acting with Ventura. He got the same wage when doing the same job. When he stopped, his payment stopped and Ventura continued the film. It’s much simpler like this. There is no secrecy. I pay people monthly, whereas in the “movies” it is usually done weekly. We do it monthly because the shooting takes so much time. When I say everybody gets the same, it also means I get the same. It is not much but sufficient to live, to pay the rent, etc. It is a bit more than what, for example, Ventura would get in other jobs. 

I would like to, perhaps I could try this for the next film, find more money, just for the wages. Not for the props, special effects, cameras or other sophisticated stuff. It is the only thing I would like to be more generous with. I would like to pay a little bit more. For Ossos, the actors were paid well but in a very chaotic, non-transparent way. “This amount for that guy”, “and him so much so he won’t get angry”, “and the other guy too…” And then came In Vanda’s Room, where I was alone, without a big crew and production team, and I didn’t have any kind of money. I couldn’t pay anybody until I got some money from co-producers when the film was almost finished.

Was it possible to work without paying the actors?

It was possible because I was alone, and because I knew Vanda.

How was it then possible to establish a working relationship with the actors? You shoot in their homes. Without a defined working relationship formalized by money, I can imagine that the moment someone leaves to do groceries the shooting is postponed. 

In In Vanda’s Room that was part of the no-deal. There was no deal. When we shot Ossos, I wasn’t happy and they, especially Vanda, weren’t happy. We talked about it and decided to do something else, to work differently. It was a very vague idea. One day I just appeared with a small video camera, a backpack, a tripod and some Mini-DV tapes. I started like that. Vanda considered it, permitted it and collaborated. I proposed to do something that was more like a documentary. “When you have to do stuff, perhaps I’ll follow you if you want. If you don’t want me to, I will not.” I didn’t know exactly what I was doing; there were no rules. There were moments when she said: “Now I have to leave to sell vegetables.” Sometimes I went with her, to shoot or just to watch. Sometimes, she went somewhere else and I could decide to go with her or not. There was never an interdiction. Sometimes we were tired, of just being there. Sometimes we both felt it was time for me to go. It was a very special thing. There was this contract, this agreement, but there was also a danger, an unknown part. I always say that I didn’t have a producer, that I was alone. This has to do with this danger, no producer would follow me because of this danger. And the ultimate danger was the possibility of Vanda dying.

In a way, paying is neutralizing this danger.

Yes. But I didn’t pay her.

But afterwards, with Colossal Youth, the situation was different.

For Colossal Youth I got funding. At the end of In Vanda’s Room, I got some funding from Germany to finish the film. I took out a little bit of what was going in post-production, sound mixing, colour correction, and so on, and I paid Vanda, her mother and the other collaborators. It was merely symbolic.

I always say the same thing: “Perhaps she spent more than I paid her.” The sound recordist and I always ate at her mother’s place. I had lunch and dinner at their house so many times, at the table you can see in the film. I smoked a lot of cigarettes. I gave her a lot of cigarettes, and she gave me a lot of cigarettes. Sometimes, I didn’t have the money with me to buy a MiniDV tape and she went to buy a tape at the mall. In fact, she should have been credited as co-producer.

What was she expecting of the film?

Who knows? I don’t know.

(2) No Quarto da Vanda [In Vanda's Room] (Pedro Costa, 2000)

I ask because when filming myself I noticed that using the term “documentary” always evokes certain expectations. One of the expectations being, by speaking in front of a camera, you address an unknown public that might offer help.

I had something like that a bit later but not during In Vanda’s Room. In Vanda’s Room was in that sense much more irresponsible and irrational, perhaps because of the drugs, perhaps because my way of doing things was also drugged a little bit. I was in a kind of strange mood. Doing this alone, trying to confront a lot of impossible things, requires something that I don’t have anymore. I would like to do a film like that again, but I can’t. I don’t know if it’s still possible. This is why I spoke about Wang Bing today. He still continues like that more or less. He goes to mental institutions or just to one person in a house. It’s a bit different, but it has some connection. He is the only one I currently see working like this.

Working on In Vanda’s Room was very special. In the three hours the film takes, there are a couple of thousands of euros of drugs used. In that sense, there is a lot of money going around. You never see money, you never see a coin, except once when there is a coin on a plate, to pay for a funeral. Somehow, there was so much money that there was no money. She could buy the tapes for me because she had money from drugs. She wasn’t rich, it wasn’t a rich family, but they were small time dealers. All junkies are in this situation. They all trade something. So sometimes she said: “No, no, no, I have some money. I sold something, so I’ll buy the tape.” And for me, this was enough. It meant that she wanted to keep on going. She bought the tape, so she wanted to keep on going. We never talked about how far she would go in exposing herself. It was my job to set the boundaries.

The finished film has a structure and a narration. There’s a lot that must have been invisible in the fragmentation of the shoot. Did you talk about what the imaginary film should become? 

No. To put it a bit stupidly, I wanted to make the best film possible with that camera [Panasonic DVX-100] and a girl in a bedroom. That was what I wanted. It was the only thing I had in mind. It all started with Vanda. And during the long process of filming, I slowly realized I had to build something around Vanda’s bedroom. I began imagining, fictionalizing, constructing, as we all do. I started to work with the two boys you see in the film and they became important. But in the beginning, I just had the intention to make the best I could. I think it was a little bit like Warhol. “I’m going to make the best movie ever made, the sexiest, most beautiful, interesting, powerful, sentimental… film.” I decided to work with Vanda because she had all these qualities that I thought where needed, not acting qualities but real, human qualities.

She was going to help me achieve this film. I wasn’t sure about the technical aspects. I had some doubts about the image. I always thought it would be a documentary because of the image quality. A film for television, perhaps, because of the very low image and sound standards. I thought it was a shame but also interesting to keep on going. Then, suddenly, I realized it was much more than that. All these notions, or differences – the idea of documentary truth versus untruth or fiction – became non-existent. What began to exist was narration. It wasn’t there at the beginning. First, I thought: “With this machine, myself, alone, this will be a documentary.” But then, suddenly, it became something else. There was this narration, a story behind every door. The neighbourhood had a story. It was going to be told by this woman, in this room. She would be a voice. Then I started to think like a writer, a fiction writer, a screenwriter… “Perhaps you need this boy to help her formulate some things.” “He has to come here. But what kind of life does he lead? His life is a bit different. Is he alone? No, there is this friend that passes by every day.” I started to think like that. It doesn’t mean that everything that is shown is true. Everything is true but organized, and with a twist.

Yesterday you said you started filming in Fontainhas because you liked the colours, the food…

No. First of all, I was very sad, or not sad, rather exhausted and angry. Angry with myself because I shot Ossos in Fontainhas the way everybody else shoots films. This doesn’t mean that I don’t like the film in itself. But I made it in a certain amount of days. Not the days that I appreciate and like but these kind of “professional days”. I lost myself in the beautiful, lovely, wonderful, surprising world of filmmaking where assistants and producers stand between the director and reality in a way that makes a real confrontation impossible.

Fontainhas is a product of social problems. Isn’t there a risk that, by making films like Ossos or In Vanda’s Room, inspired by a fascination for that place, these films neutralize these problems?

My idea is that, if I look at this girl the right way, her situation will remain problematic.

I understand.

(3) Ossos (Pedro Costa, 1997)

At the start of In Vanda’s Room I didn’t have the intention to analyse and study all the layers, to interview, for example, some old ladies before setting off to film. But with Colossal Youth there was, in a certain sense, the ambition to analyse and to study everything. Every time I think about those two films, I think about In Vanda’s Room as a fiction and Colossal Youth as a documentary. It is the opposite of what people think. For me, In Vanda’s Room is complete fiction. Colossal Youth should be a documentary that started here, in London, in 1820. When the first factories arose and the first guy had no money to rent an apartment or house and had to build his first shack with four planks of wood. It started, more or less, here.

Fontainhas is, indeed, the product of something, of the factories here, of people moving from some northern Scottish village to Sheffield. That is what it’s about. Vanda’s family moved from a village with goats and rivers to Lisbon trying to get a better life and they failed. It is a cliché, but it is a universal cliché and a sad one at that. In Vanda’s Room started from my interest in one person. I was a friend and I was fascinated. That’s the essence. I was really fascinated by her. I believed that if I approached her carefully, with patience, she would tell me all those things. The whole story would appear, but in another way.

Looking at the formal qualities of Colossal Youth, it seems that it’s more closely related to Ossos than to In Vanda’s Room. The decoupage and the mise-en-scène come more to the fore, are more openly presented.

I don’t know if I agree. What I would say is that In Vanda’s Room is really more of a prototype. It is more of a singular film, a strange cell, a body… Colossal Youth, even if you consider it good, original or interesting, will remind you of something else. In Vanda’s Room is a bit stranger. It has no brothers or sisters.

Why did you choose to move from the more “straightforward” approach of In Vanda’s Room to the low-angle shots of Colossal Youth?

Because I thought documentary needed this kind of things. There is a part of Colossal Youth that is, in a special way, very informative. Everything in that shack with Ventura happened almost like it truly happened. The record playing, the drinking, waiting, playing cards… everything was filmed like Ventura remembered, sometimes with almost exactly the same timing. He told me he played cards for two hours and then went immediately to sleep. So that was what we did. I shot this tension, this after work time. Everything after work is there. For me, Colossal Youth was much more informative. But I thought: “I cannot shoot this like it’s a documentary.” So I set up a different decoupage. I thought through and made those decisions step by step. I decided to place the camera a little bit lower than eye-level. I thought the film needed that to raise up Ventura so he could become the colossal person I wanted him to be.

In Vanda’s Room is much more face to face. There is a face to face with the viewer, which is first and foremost the director’s view. Because the director is the first spectator. There is a confrontation. It is like in Hitchcock, there is a counter shot that is not there but is essentially you. Vanda is there, but the other image is you. It is you facing that suffering, anger, silence… and it works. If not, the film wouldn’t work. I think it needed this simplicity.

And with Colossal Youth you tried to do something else?

Yes. I built something more sophisticated in a way, because I wanted to go against the documentary quality of the film. Colossal Youth is a documentary. Everything you see with Vanda, the boys… is their problems, at that day in that place. It is just not shot like a documentary.

I wanted to follow the epic movement that I felt in Ventura’s life. I wanted to go with that. The problem with documentary sometimes is that it works with a weak form, not structured or thought of.

Which form are you talking about?

An object with a weak form falls down. It has to be thought of so that it stands; it has to have some qualities, some energy or movement… Everything that Ventura told me about his life had a certain quality. Everything was very difficult for him. Going from one place to another, from one country to another. Immigration is something huge; it’s a big story. I found it important not to be weak with this information and to think about it as an epic story. I thought about it as a western, a story about pioneers, about founders and this excluded the interview form. It’s mythological. 

Colossal Youth contains two periods of time. One is in the past. Everything with Ventura in his house, with his partner, playing cards, thinking, reciting this letter… all those things are set in the past when he was alone, twenty or thirty years ago. There is another period in which he visits Vanda or the boys visit him. That is the present. If you watch closely, most of the things in the present are different. The moments with Ventura alone are dark and filmed at those strange angles. The other parts with Vanda are very much like In Vanda’s Room. She exposes certain problems or situations and he listens, like a reporter. At that moment of the film, you are watching a piece of sociology. A television reporter would probably move the camera around Vanda to have a nice angle, in order for it not to be boring. I didn’t, I just stand there and let her talk and expose... I don’t think a little bit of fantasy, as far as the form is concerned, harms the information.

I believe that you have to think about two things when you make a film. Be interested in the subject, the story, in what they are telling you, and be interested in what you are doing at the same time, in the filmmaking itself. If not, it is not a film, it is what exists. Television does this. As a filmmaker, you are supposed to make something strong and interesting. Something with a value. Not in terms of money, but value. Because there is something behind you: people who tried and succeeded, and those who’ve tried and failed. I always have these two things in my mind, and they are not artistic but they help with the form, with the shots and the composition.

Fritz Lang often repeated that he thought of cinema as a courtroom. Justice is involved in filmmaking. Chaplin always said that too. You make a film, somehow, to revenge something, to get justice. I think Ventura is much greater this way than he would have been sitting while talking to the camera. I think it’s much more possible to imagine his pain, his greatness, his failure, his madness, his misery, his genius within this form. This is a way for me to avenge his life, because I think he doesn’t deserve what happened to him. No one deserves what happened from the factories in the 19th century up to now. His life is the result of an awful machine. It might be pretentious, but I try to take revenge with poetry.

Let’s take the museum scene in Colossal Youth for example. While watching the film you see poor people in a poor place. Then suddenly, there is this moment of incoherence when Ventura enters the museum. It comes out of nowhere, a vanity. You can wonder why he goes there. It’s part of the film, and it contains information. He says: “I built this.” Then he points. “And I fell down from that scaffold.” It’s in the film because it balances things. I don’t care if he likes Rubens or Van Gogh or if he cries in front of Matisse, but he has the right to go into the museum. He should simply have the right to go there. When I say it is a class struggle, I mean there is a class that should be here and the other right next to it. This involves culture, film, museums, money; it involves everything. It involves film. It involves filmmaking and that is what the museum scene says. It is much more about justice than about art. It’s not about Rubens or about being in a museum. Ventura says: “I built this thing. I have the same pleasure as you have. I built these walls, and they are part of me.”

(4) No Quarto da Vanda [In Vanda's Room] (Pedro Costa, 2000)

Is this struggle for justice something the actors share with you when working on a film?

It depends on the film. In Vanda’s Room was, again, very special. Vanda had a little bit of experience before because of Ossos. She knew what film involved. How you make it, what the gestures are. She remembered not to make noisy movements while talking because we were working with direct sound and you wouldn’t be able to understand what is being said. In the beginning, she would always say something, move and make a noise, and continue the talking. This reveals two things. She remembered what we discussed during Ossos, and also that she wants to do it properly. She wants to be understood. I am not sure if she was, as you said, addressing someone. I think she wanted to, and that perhaps is the answer to your previous question: she and the others, but Vanda especially, wanted to be understood. More than wanting to show you something or other. Vanda is not, even if it seems so, an exhibitionist, she is a very shy, closed person. She talks and she thinks it is important what she has to say, so she wants to be understood. The noise of her moving around cannot compromise the understanding of what she has to say.

Did you both have the same expectation of the film?

The expectation for me was very simple. To make, for my standards, the best film I could. For my standards. From my point of view. Artistically, technically… everything, I cannot separate things. That was the only expectation I had.

I think Vanda hoped to do something more personal. Not as an artist but in the sense of showing herself, exposing herself. I think she wanted to do this while being truthful too... I am almost tempted to say truthful to a place, a tradition, a family, a history, a history of people like her. People that were not considered. I don’t think I ever talked with her about this, but there is the concept of class-consciousness in Marxism, and I think she has that. She knows she belongs to a class, a community, that needs to be understood. Perhaps in a different way, not just saying we need new houses and windows, better salaries… Not so clearly, not so concretely, something more poetic, something that says: “We suffer. I am taking drugs. I am not even explaining to you why, but you will be so, so annoyed, confused, impressed… by my coughing.” Everybody that has seen the film mentions the pain that is in her cough. It is annoying. It’s disturbing. It says a lot of things. So, in a sense, I think she worked a lot, as much as I did. She looked, searched for a lot of things, as I did. I know she did.

In general, I think they want to pass on something, like a message. Paul, the guy with the crutches in Colossal Youth, told me he wanted to talk to his mother. I asked him: “What are we going to do with you in the film?” I wanted him in the film, and he said: “I don’t know. If I am in the film, I would like to talk about my mother.” His mother was alive, but he had no contact with her. Perhaps he thought she would go see the film. It was a way of passing on something for him. Like a letter or phone call. In this case, it was a very strange medium: it was a film. He would do a scene saying: “Mother, I want to tell you this…”. And perhaps she would go to the cinema and see him.

I was, therefore, very happy that Criterion came up with the idea to call the collection of my films they published ‘Letters from Fontainhas’. A film is a bit like a message. These films are like letters.

In all your films, the scenes seem to arise from a kind of repose. People aren’t rushing. How do you work towards generating this energy? Was Fontainhas not rather chaotic?

I don’t know if chaotic is the right word. Perhaps the people I film are rather tired than calm. Ventura for example is a man who doesn’t seem to have goals. He never says, “I would like to do this” or “I would like to go there”. All that is over for him. It is a double-sided thing. It’s good not to have this rush of aspirations, but on the other hand it is sad because everybody has projects or dreams. I would say that all of them perhaps lack dreams or projects. They don’t have those anymore or they never had them. Vanda talks briefly about this in In Vanda’s Room. One moment she says: “This was a nice place when we were young. It could have been a good place, a happy place.” But she uses the past tense. Then drugs came and everything else.

I would say it is more because they are exhausted. Like if the blood was taken out of them. In Ossos a girl is using an expression that is used a lot in Cape Verde. She says, “Not even death would want you.” That is their state a little bit. They are exhausted and everything around them is exhausted. Even the colours are faded.

So they set the rhythm of the scenes?

It is also something that I feel in those people. So it is something that they bring to my films. In terms of rhythm and movement, all of them, even the youngest, seem very old already. Old in the sense that an old person doesn’t need to hide, doesn’t have the need to make up emotions and feelings. They don’t even need to make up their body. An old man or woman is beyond that. It is over. Seduction has no significance. They don’t have that anymore. Even the young have it. Vanda doesn’t need to show off, to seduce.

How do you start working on the editing?

It depends on the film. There are films that are more linear, that go from A to B, C, D. In others, you have to find the connections and the path. In Vanda’s Room was very difficult because it didn’t have the order you sometimes need to make a film: presenting the characters, an exposition, and then building up to what will happen. It was more mysterious. “What is this place? Who are these people? What languages do they speak? What do they want? Don’t they want anything?” We had to build this structure.

In Vanda’s Room was shot quite freely. “Let’s do a scene about the old days. Let’s do a scene about the girl who died, about cleaning up the house”, and so forth. It was as if we did a lot of short sketches. As a result, we had to structure the film in editing.

Do you start editing during the shooting?

No. I have to pack up the material every day. I don’t have much time. And when I am shooting, I work long days. Even if it’s winter. I have to be there early and I come home very late. So, it leaves just some hours to rest. I don’t have the energy to start editing. I never did.

(5) Juventude em Marcha [Colossal Youth] (Pedro Costa, 2016)

During your lecture you spoke about how Ventura is “always playing himself”. Can you elaborate on this?

Ventura, Vanda, and the others have a kind of relation with film and theatre that is in a way close to Greek theatre. An actor in ancient Greece was not like a contemporary actor in London theatres or even an actor reciting Shakespeare here in the 17th or 18th century. It was something else. The Greeks never intended to be somebody else. You notice this when reading the plays. Acting was about giving the news about themselves, the city, what is happening, right and wrong. About how the future will be because of this present, and so on. They never pretended to be anything, but they used to be called actors—actually, they weren’t actors, they were oracles. Then acting evolved into this way of representation we know today. 

The actors in my films are mixing their own stories with the social story of their country and their neighbourhood. In the case of Ventura, it was Cape Verde and Fontainhas. The text they use comes from their individual and collective memory. In Tarrafal, a short film I made, there is one guy playing a dead guy. He is saying: “I am dead. I went there and they killed me.” That is what I mean when I say they can play everything. They can recite that, give me news about this incident. It isn’t the moustaches and the wigs, or trying to fake some kind of behaviour, posture and movement. They can tell you: “I did this, then they killed me, and now I am dead.” Which is a great way of saying: “Watch out, this is not true. I am myself and I’m just telling you what happened to another guy who is dead now.”

Do you think this would work in another context? I don’t mean with professional actors. Me playing myself for example. 

I think, probably, you would be less open to that. There is a kind of abstraction in the way they represent something and it can go very far. They are in a way much more modern. They are much more like the Greeks; it is purely a mask that they don. You look at them and there are words coming out and you never know if they’re true or false. Truth or falseness aren’t involved. It has nothing to do with believing, like you have to “believe” in Bruce Willis. In a Bruce Willis film, you need to believe to keep on going with the film. If you stop believing you say that it is bullshit and you walk out of the cinema.

It is a certain way of working. It doesn’t come automatically. I could have given a camera to young guys in the neighbourhood to make a film and it would look exactly like everything on television is shot. Exactly the same shots. How? I don’t know. People grab a camera and they do the clichéd thing. They all do exactly the same. Ask anyone to shoot the talk there at Birkbeck and this person will film the arrival, the stairs, the door, then going downstairs, wide shot, close shot. Why? Why? The same goes for acting. If you tell a young girl here in London to do something, to express herself with a text, for example, she would do the worst vaudeville Madonna or Lady Gaga. If you ask someone to act, they will do it like they think Bruce Willis would do it. Trying to be convincing.

Don’t certain things become too much of a habit by always filming in the same place?

Yes. That is why I decided to do Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? about Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet or the film about music and Jeanne Balibar, Change Nothing . There is a danger in being always in that place. With “that place” I mean with Ventura, Vanda, the others. But there is a danger as well in directors doing a comedy and then a thriller. It’s dangerous because there is no danger involved.

If you don’t search for what the film means and its form during the work, it’s no use. There are films that start with an idea, a conviction… There are films that start with form. Just form. And that gives different tonalities to the films. If you start with an idea, “I am going to do a film about a man that has to give up trying to kill somebody,” it makes for a certain kind of film. If you start with the notion, “I would like to make a film just because I like that girl, the shadow on the wall, the sun and that green flower”, now, that’s something else. These are two kinds of films. Which doesn’t mean that there is a strict boundary between both. There are directors who start their film merely with this kind of feeling, images… and others who prefer to start with an idea, a text. It doesn’t mean that one is better than the other. Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet started with ideas. Godard starts with images, for sure. They are different, but both paths can lead to a good film. For me, sometimes it is difficult to be convinced of something, so I start often with images.

What do you mean when you say it is difficult for you to be convinced of something?

It is hard for me to be convinced of something. I don’t have beliefs.

But they come while working?

I mean beliefs in the sense that Jean-Marie Straub, John Ford or a lot of other people, writers, painters, and such, believed. Some were communists, some were socialists, some were anarchists… They had beliefs. Strong beliefs. They had dreams. They fought for something. I think we are, and I generalize consciously, I think we are much weaker in that sense. We are. Just look around, we don’t have strong beliefs. A Muslim has beliefs. A Muslim believes in certain things and cannot do certain things. I am not religious. I doubt if there is a God; I doubt even of myself. 

Is film for you a way to regain this belief?

Small things, yes. What I do and the way I do it is because I would like to be a part of something.

It is a way to be involved?

I don’t know. I don’t want to go very far in this kind of thing, but I think one of the weaknesses of my generation, the one just before and the one that is coming, is that we don’t really belong anywhere. We don’t have families, communities… sometimes we even don’t have countries. I have a lot of colleagues that travel around the world, shooting films here and there. I have the feeling, in that sense you are right, that you should belong somewhere. That’s why I like Yasujirô Ozu. Not in the nationalistic sense, but more in a nuclear, more atomic, smaller sense. You have to belong to a part of the table. If you belong somewhere, if you feel you belong somewhere, you try to deal with that. That is probably what I need more. In Ne change rien, I wanted to be part of that group at that time. The only way to be so was by doing a film. In Fontainhas, I probably wanted to have that kind of family. A tired and exhausted but very beautiful community. If you spend time there, you start to understand things. But, really, you have to stay around. Time is very important. I think that time is what is often lacking in our work.

Images (1) and (5) from Juventude em Marcha [Colossal Youth] (Pedro Costa, 2016)

Images (2) and (4) from No Quarto da Vanda [In Vanda's Room] (Pedro Costa, 2000)

Image (3) from Ossos (Pedro Costa, 1997)

In Passage, Sabzian invites film critics, authors, filmmakers and spectators to send a text or fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression.
Pour Passage, Sabzian demande à des critiques de cinéma, auteurs, cinéastes et spectateurs un texte ou un fragment qui les a marqués.
In Passage vraagt Sabzian filmcritici, auteurs, filmmakers en toeschouwers naar een tekst of een fragment dat ooit een blijvende indruk op hen achterliet.
The Prisma section is a series of short reflections on cinema. A Prisma always has the same length – exactly 2000 characters – and is accompanied by one image. It is a short-distance exercise, a miniature text in which one detail or element is refracted into the spectrum of a larger idea or observation.
La rubrique Prisma est une série de courtes réflexions sur le cinéma. Tous les Prisma ont la même longueur – exactement 2000 caractères – et sont accompagnés d'une seule image. Exercices à courte distance, les Prisma consistent en un texte miniature dans lequel un détail ou élément se détache du spectre d'une penséée ou observation plus large.
De Prisma-rubriek is een reeks korte reflecties over cinema. Een Prisma heeft altijd dezelfde lengte – precies 2000 tekens – en wordt begeleid door één beeld. Een Prisma is een oefening op de korte afstand, een miniatuurtekst waarin één detail of element in het spectrum van een grotere gedachte of observatie breekt.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati once said, “I want the film to start the moment you leave the cinema.” A film fixes itself in your movements and your way of looking at things. After a Chaplin film, you catch yourself doing clumsy jumps, after a Rohmer it’s always summer, and the ghost of Akerman undeniably haunts the kitchen. In this feature, a Sabzian editor takes a film outside and discovers cross-connections between cinema and life.
Jacques Tati zei ooit: “Ik wil dat de film begint op het moment dat je de cinemazaal verlaat.” Een film zet zich vast in je bewegingen en je manier van kijken. Na een film van Chaplin betrap je jezelf op klungelige sprongen, na een Rohmer is het altijd zomer en de geest van Chantal Akerman waart onomstotelijk rond in de keuken. In deze rubriek neemt een Sabzian-redactielid een film mee naar buiten en ontwaart kruisverbindingen tussen cinema en leven.