Crista, Carloto and João are building an airy greenhouse for butterflies in the garden.
The three of them share household routines, day after day… And they are not the only ones.
© O Som e a Fúria / Uma Pedra no Sapato
© Telmo Churro
© O Som e a Fúria
© O Som e a Fúria / Uma Pedra no Sapato
INTERVIEW WITH MAUREEN FAZENDEIRO AND MIGUEL GOMES
To surrender oneself, fully, to the flow of time; to surrender oneself with delight to the majestic power of the river Chronos – such is the incomparable, unparalleled power of cinema. Yet, let's take it up a notch: Going backwards in time is, by the same measure, one of the great challenges of the Seventh Art. We have already seen it, haven’t we? And not long ago. From the inverted flow of time in Vertov's Ciné-Eye to the famous invention of the flashback by Orson Welles, at such moments the power of cinema measures up against the incommensurate, defying the inescapable flow of linear chronology. What divine power to walk backwards at will: to navigate the mysteries of time in either direction is to free oneself from the fateful destiny of moving in a single direction, towards an end, towards the end. It is to deride the sinister “The End”. Better still: It is to transform the conclusion into a darn effective boomerang.
Thanks for the history lesson. So what?
Well, here's a simple film with an even simpler budget that ventures into the luxurious lands of a future that has already become the past and of a yesterday that's turned into tomorrow. Here is a film as incredible in its sophistication, as in its simplicity. A diary and an anti-diary of the lockdown. Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes have invented a new use for this sci-fi device (take note of the man in the DIY astronaut costume towards the end of the film): and it serves as a means for the sheer joy of filming, that is, of creating shots and living together while making a film.
Going back in time, here, is turning the disastrous COVID experience back into the invention of a Paradise where, for the duration of a shooting, one makes room for all: from the actresses and actors to the Moldavian workers, to the domestic staff and technical crew, not to mention the animals. Narrating an inverted lockdown diary means inverting seclusion into an exercise of paradoxical collective freedom, of sharing and of beauty.
Miguel Gomes has shown that seclusion, imposed or voluntary, is a context that can be desired more than feared and that it can lead to the flourishing of cinema ever since his first film, The Face You Deserve. That Gomes devotes the month of August to sensuality and to collective adventures free from worldly concerns, has been established since Our Beloved Month of August. If The Tsugua Diaries reconnects with the spirit of childhood and mischief of both these earlier films, it’s not a matter, in this lockdown fiction, of dancing on the village square to the sound of local variety performers. The sharing of life and cinema will take place exclusively within four walls: those of a large farmhouse somewhere in the Portuguese countryside where a film crew self-isolates to make a film in three weeks. The method? That of Arabian Nights, on a small-scale, or the one demonstrated by Maureen Fazendeiro in the fabulous Motu Maeva, her first mid-length film: keen to grasp what comes along, what is already there or what comes about. Here, it will take place in a farmhouse cut off from the world, in a garden, among the members of the cinematographic fraternity; to make of found, chosen stuff, the material of daily craftsmanship; improvising shots and scenes, day by day, as if to hold in a calendar the fleeting but remarkable things of life. These things are all acts of care and attentive gestures: the caring for plants and animals, attentiveness to the emotions, questions, doubts and desires of each and all. Seldom has a film been able to share with its viewer the care and attention given – and the pleasure taken – in the creation of every shot. The material woven by Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes is like that of the tropical greenhouse built by the three actors: light and lustrous, but tight enough to capture butterflies and all the ephemeral beauty distilled by a shared life.
Thus a 70s utopia, no less, comes to life: with life determining art, and art changing the lives of its practitioners. How to live and make cinema together? It is by being able to disrupt, albeit gently at times, the production concept. Freed from the imperatives of narrative and psychological consistency by the inversion of the course of time, the concept finds here its fruition and luminescence: Utopia comes about, but as a playful, happy revival. For here, life is that of a community of friends – filmmakers, producers, technicians and actors. It is above all the life of the filmmakers making their first film together during Maureen's pregnancy. So if the couple has to go to the city for an ultrasound, let the actors and crew go ahead and shoot without them. And if the health situation requires separation and discussion at a distance, here's a close-up of a talkie that transforms Maureen into a recumbent Olympian deity talking to the rest of the crew with the immeasurable gentleness gleaned perhaps from Pavese.
But life also consists of impulses and whims. Miguel's appreciation of the blue tractor sleeping in the barn is enough to provoke one of the film's most beautiful sequences: the actress at the wheel on a tour of the garden, the filmmaker, members of the crew and spectators in the trailer, their joy magnified by a slo-mo harking back to the adventurous days of Epstein and Vigo.
Cyril Neyrat & Jean-Pierre Rehm
Interview with Maureen Fazendeiro & Miguel Gomes
We're delighted to have news, and such bright news, of Portuguese cinema. We knew that after the impressive Arabian Nights trilogy – impressive in its cinematographic scope and also its political purpose (reporting in detail the effects of the economic disaster in the whole country without ever abandoning the fabulous) – Miguel Gomes had several projects in the pipeline: one about a con man, an epic film in Brazil... Instead of these ambitious and production-laden projects, here is almost a family film. And also, it's important to note, a feature debut, actually, since it's co-authored by Maureen Fazendeiro, whose shorts have been widely distributed to international acclaim. A family film indeed - we also meet again Isabel Cardoso and Carloto Cotta from Tabu. Was the lockdown the only reason for you to make a film in such an economy of means? Can you tell us about the conditions of shooting within this particular context?
Yes, this film was born out of the impossibility of making the other films we were working on. It was also born out of a discussion with Crista Alfaiate, who plays Scheherazade in Arabian Nights, and her partner, Rui Monteiro, a theater lighting designer. They were the first people we met when we finally were able to leave our house in May 2020. That evening, we discussed the terrible way in which the Portuguese Ministry of Culture was handling the artistic sector’s crisis. We decided that we had to make a film TOGETHER to escape our isolation, as soon as possible. The economy of means come from this spontaneity, or, as we can even call it, this urgency. Our producers went along, even without a script, a story, or characters. There was no time to search for financing. But somehow they managed to persuade the Portuguese public television to commit to the project. And so, less than two months later, we all made our PCR tests and, again, locked ourselves down but this time in Sintra, a few dozen kilometers away from Lisbon, in a property that had once been a poultry farm. We were sixteen humans – including three actors – and five dogs, and we stayed there for six weeks – four of which were spent shooting. The production companies were supposed to drop off food and film stock in front of the property’s gate every day, but it wasn't quite as idyllic as that…
The Tsugua Diaries: The purpose of a diary is usually to follow the passage of time, the thread of life. It's a strange idea to rewind this thread and offer a diary in reverse. How did the idea come to you?
The pandemic and the confinement altered our perception of time. After what we had just experienced, we had to make a film that challenged linearity and that worked through repetition, suspension and discontinuity without, however, embarking in an overly complex or baroque structure. With an inverted diary, we were able to achieve the sensation of altered time in the simplest way possible. It's really a very simple film. We knew from the beginning that we were going to shoot in a "normal" chronological order and then edit it backwards from the last day to the first. And we also knew that we were going to end the shooting with a kissing scene. By this time, we’d been locked down long enough for the risk of contamination to be very low… Kisses are common in cinema, but they've become a taboo due to the pandemic. When editing the film in reverse, we started with the famous kiss scene. This kiss is the sketchy outline of a fiction that never becomes real. As a matter of fact, the film inverts the chronology in order to move from this promise of fiction to the fiction of the day to day inside the house. Such is the dramaturgical "crescendo" of our film.
Last but not least, during the lockdown, we made up for the impossibility of going to a movie theater by organizing retrospectives in our living room starting with a director's last film and ending with his first. With John Ford, for example, we saw John Wayne growing younger day by day, which captured our attention. We didn't have John Wayne with us, but we did have a quince...
Otsoga in Portuguese, Tsugua in English: The "beloved month of August" spelled backwards, sounds very exotic. The location, the setting, the action: building a butterfly greenhouse. But also the visual choices, the play of light and color, everything contributes, especially in the first sequences, to producing an exotic atmosphere. One thinks of "Paradise" in Tabu. Why this choice of color, this tonality? Is it a paradise at the heart of a catastrophe? Is it a way of adapting the Pavese novella referred by Maureen?
The color came from Rui Monteiro, Crista's partner. He's a theater lighting designer and we had to invent a position for him. That's how we decided to film the nights in very artificial lighting and the days in natural light, playing with the contrasts between light and shadow in 16mm, all thanks to the delicate work of DOP Mário Castanheira. But this isn't paradise, this is cinema! And cinema creates territories with its own sets of rules. In our "Tsugua" world, there was day and night, and what one sees can be as exotic as it can be banal, artificial or natural. It's both paradise and hell since it was a place of cohabitation and collective creation, but also a place of isolation... It all depends on one's perspective.
As in the previous films, a "Central Committee" is responsible for its writing. How did that work, how does one write such a film?
The first week we explored our set with Mariana Ricardo, the screenwriter with whom we worked so as not to write a script. We laid out the basis of a two-part structure made of repetitions and variations on a large whiteboard. In the second week, the actors joined us and we worked with them on improvisations. In the third week, the technical crew was gathered and we started shooting.
Towards the "end" of the film, we see this whiteboard with its workplan, the sequences to be shot, day by day: a sign of preparation, of previous writing, which contradicts the story, fiction of day-to-day improvisation. Is this way of filmmaking, this freedom to improvise, to play with what comes along which the film itself extols, nothing but a dream? What was the practical expression of stated intentions and improvisation in the making of the film?
Practically, you mean? The whiteboard allowed us to see the progression of scenes going forwards by order of shooting and backwards by order of editing. When a new idea came about or when something happened that had to be included in the film, we made space for it on the whiteboard. Either we didn't cheat at all and integrated the scene into the following day (day 16 if we had just shot day 15, say). Or we cheated a bit and integrated the scene into a day we'd already shot (in said case, in addition to filming day 16, we'd also film a scene to be edited into day 7, say). The whiteboard was covered with ideas for scenes: it was just a matter of figuring out how to do them, by working with the actors and filming them. Some scenes were scripted but only a few and, generally speaking, these scenes contained phrases or situations that arose from improvisations with the actors.
The small film crew consists of faces familiar from Miguel's work. Not just the production team, but the technical crew, too: Vasco Pimentel who, as on Our Beloved Month of August has his final scene. But also the actors: Carloto Cotta, Crista Alfaiate... How were the members of this lockdown community chosen?
It's the family film aspect, isn’t it? It was a matter of living, but also of directing, an intimate experience, which began with the decision to co-direct a film. None of us had done this before. We invited people we felt close to, accomplices. Yet also others with whom we had never worked before.
Both manifest and eloquent is the film's great pleasure in observing beings, animals, dogs and butterflies, fruits and plants and objects (the splendid tractor, the swimming pool…) in space and under extremely varied lighting conditions. As the Central Committee explains to the actors during a team meeting, these beings, these objects, and the film itself, are liberated from any form of dramaturgical development or psychological construction by the inversion of time. Is this ultimately the film's purpose, the realization of its own utopia?
Actually, we think that the directors are somewhat mistaken because even though the film runs backwards, the viewer does have a sense of narrative progression. Even though we didn't assign roles to the actors, they became characters with distinct personalities. So what the directors say in that scene needs to be put into perspective. We wanted to film the elements of the house, human and non-human, animate and inanimate, and to capture their grace and beauty. That's a director's job, both in this film and in all others. The beauty of a tractor, say, before it has a (here retroactive) story.
During one work meeting, the three actors confess their perplexity and sense of confusion to the "Central Committee" with regards to the way the shooting is organized and what's expected of them. What do you expect from viewers of The Tsugua Diaries?
That they don't get too stressed out when they understand that the film is running backwards and that they don't think they should be very intelligent to watch a film like this. You don't have to be very intelligent. It’s enough to be just a little sensitive...
The film begins and ends with a party, to the sound of The Night, that wonderful song by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Can you comment on this choice of music, which describes the end of a love affair?
The music comes from Maureen, but it was immediately adopted by Miguel and the rest of the crew. There are two broad categories of songs: those about the beginning of a love story and those about its ending. This one happens to be about the ending, but it could have also been the opposite.
In a minimalist structure playing on repetition and variation, we chose to include only two pieces of music, The Night – which features twice –, and Legionella by Norberto Lobo – which features four times.
As the marker of the inverted passage of time, you take a quince which, from an advanced state of decay, gradually recovers its freshness. Is your film an ironic, inverted remake of Victor Erice's Dream of Light?
The first time we went to visit the house, we noticed an apple on a low wall right beside the front door. When we returned a few weeks later to shoot, the then completely rotten apple was still there. Our quince was an absolutely honest marker of time. We didn't cheat; its appearance pretty much corresponds to its actual state. But it was fate that led us to Erice's own fruit: in the umbrellas scene, in which the male director tries to convince the female director to film the tractor, and in which the female director tries to convince the male director and the screenwriter to read a book by Cesare Pavese, we ran into the quince tree. It took place during the shooting, we hadn't noticed it beforehand. The idea of filming the quince didn't even have time to make it to the whiteboard – it was immediately included and put to practice. And thus the quince took the place of the rotten apple we'd seen on the low wall by the door when we first visited the house.
Interview conducted via e-mail by Cyril Neyrat and Jean-Pierre Rehm, early June 2021
© O Som e a Fúria / Uma Pedra no Sapato
Born in Lisbon in 1981, Crista Alfaiate began her artistic training at Teatro da Comuna. In 2004 she finished the course in Training for actors at ESTC, and completed the studies at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting, NY. She won a scholarship Inov-Art in 2011, in New York with the Theatre company Elevator Repair Service. In 2013, she joined École des Maîtres international programme, with Constanza Mackras. In cinema, she highlights her participation in the feature films A Espada e a Rosa and Technoboss by João Nicolau, 4 Copas by Manuel Mozos, Arabian Nights by Miguel Gomes, A Fábrica do Nada by Pedro Pinho. She recently participated in Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes Diários de Otsoga, and Um filme em forma de Assim by João Botelho.
Carloto Cotta, b. 1984, Paris, France. Cotta studied at EPTC in Cascais (2000-2004) and the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in Los Angeles (2014). Recently, Carloto was in Goran Stolevski’s You Won’t Be Alone (Focus Features) and Miguel Gomes and Maureen Fazendeiros’ Diários de Otsoga. He also starred in Gabriel Abrantes and Daniel Schmidt’s Diamantino (Best Actor Golden Globes Portugal 2019 Winner and Grand Prix at Cannes - Critics Week), he co-starred in Ira Sach’s Frankie (Cannes Official Selection) and starred in Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (Winner of the Silver Bear and Fipresci at Berlinal), and João Salaviza’s short-film Arena, (Palme d’Or – Cannes). He has acted in the films of João Mário Grilo, Eugene Green, Raul Ruiz, Werner Schroeter, Sotomayor, Ben Rivers, Valeria Sarmiento, Jean Pierre Rawson, Christine Laurent, Paula Gaitán, Manuel Mozos, Jorge Cramez, Marco Martins, Carlos Conceição, Teresa Villaverde, and Margarida Gil.
João Nunes Monteiro
João Nunes Monteiro was born in Porto, in 1993. He studied acting at Academia Contemporânea do Espectáculo and graduated also in Acting from Lisbon School of Film and Drama. On theatre, he has worked with several directors such as Victor Hugo Pontes, Nuno Carinhas, Maria Duarte, Sónia Baptista and Miguel Fragata. On film, he had his film debut when he was 16 in “Aristides de Sousa Mendes”, directed by Francisco Manso. He has since worked with Dennis Berry, Ivo M. Ferreira, João Nicolau, Zara Dwinger and Vasco Saltão. He was the lead role of the film Mosquito by João Nuno Pinto, which was distinguished with the Nico Award by the Portuguese Film Academy.
© O Som e a Fúria / Uma Pedra no Sapato
© O Som e a Fúria / Uma Pedra no Sapato
© O Som e a Fúria / Uma Pedra no Sapato