For Those Who See: Correspondence with Marta Mateus

Farpões, Baldios by Marta Mateus appeared like a fresh wind that has always been there into a possible presence and future of cinema. The short film by the young Portuguese filmmaker is a rare renewal of a basic trust in cinema and a sparkle of hope for all of us who believe that cinema is related to the way we look at the world. As I have the honour to talk to Marta Mateus at Encontros Cinematográficos in Fundão on Friday, April 27 we exchanged some mails. They will be published in Portuguese within the framework of the festival. We are very grateful to Ivana Miloš who helped us immensely with our language.

1. Can you tell me a bit about the language spoken in Farpões, Baldios? I mean the words that have such a metaphorical, yet deeply grounded way of narrating life to my foreign ears, as well as the manner in which they are spoken in your film. Here I refer to your work with the people in your film and how you found their stories in their voices, the way they articulate themselves.

The dialogues in the film were written, I could say, in my mother tongue. A very particular Portuguese, the Portuguese spoken in the Alentejo, which was where I learned to speak. It may not be a dialect, but almost. It was only during editing that I understood that in the ears of others the dialogues sounded very differently than in the ears of an alentejano. I do not know how it sounds to a foreigner, but to a Portuguese from another region it will not sound very differently, even if it does not need translation.

In that region language is closely linked to gestures, to a way of life. It was from their sayings, their spoken word, which is intimately related to nature, to the movements of the landscape, to the expression of tales, to poetry, as their own testimony, for sharing their wisdom and knowledge, it was in these links that I wanted to construct the film. This is their way of putting their views into words, it is how they reveal their way of looking at others and the world. This is their manner of speaking, in this place the flight of a bird has different meanings. As you say, at the same time, it’s very down-to-earth. There may be no metaphors, but there is an openness to other fields of understanding. This is how we speak in Alentejo.

I wrote the dialogues very fast, as if they were dictated by my heart. This idiom, its rhythms and timbres play with the time and space of that place, and I had and have it in my ears: their stories, that which is part of the History of that region, with its enigmas, with what remains of their memory, the lives of these people. Already involved in a certain construction of memory, mine and theirs, perhaps I did nothing more than organize it and offer back to them the stories they had told me: to give them a voice, to make it sound and see it again in the space and time of the film. It was only after I heard other people’s comments that I realized that the film would perhaps have a poetic tone. This interpretation is possible, but it will be based on the experience of those who listen. The risk is run, but there is no literature in this film. It certainly didn’t emerge from written language, especially because many of the elders in the film, who still hold the deepest roots of this language, do not even know how to read or write. To hear their thoughts in the sharing of their views will probably be the greatest treasure of the film, so it will be a good risk. To this day, I still sometimes learn a new word there, or a new way of reading the wind, a mood, a joy, all through the way they construct a sentence. If there is poetry, they are the poets.

The rehearsals were very long, with many repetitions, especially with Maria Catarina. Maria Catarina cannot read, so we repeated the text a thousand times until she decorated it. In these repetitions, Maria Catarina was commenting the dialogues, many times to share with us terrible episodes, other contours of this history, to tell us that their life was really like this. We kept some of those sentences in the film, as they were better at telling what we wanted to be told, as well as some variations she suggested because it was easier for her to say the same in another way. She is a very wise and brave woman, she knows what work is very well, but it was admirable to follow the way she committed herself so strongly to the film. Not least for accepting this extraordinary challenge: a woman of her condition, at her age. I used to call her the director of production. She was always there to help in every detail, talking with people and arranging things, sharing her clothes and instruments of work, doing all she could. And always with a beautiful and energetic smile, bringing us orange cake with chocolate. She always says she’s younger than us, and she promised to leave me this energy in her will.
She became aware, very quickly, of how important her voice was in this story we were working on. She didn’t know anything about cinema, but her complete trust was shown in her incredible readiness; she was probably much more ready to work than a professional actor. She wanted to repeat and repeat until we all thought it was done. I understood that, more than anything, she wanted so much to tell her story, their history; that it was so important to her for it to be heard. And we were there to hear it. She appeared to us as a voice of her many brothers and sisters, of the Alentejo people. She had been there, so she could do it and did it, just as she gave herself to the labors of the fields, as she did all her life, until the last harvest. If there is one thing I can be at peace with concerning this film, it is knowing how happy and proud she was with this work. How lucky I was with all the actors. The children, so impressively concentrated. They all committed to the film as a great family that protects itself. They did not quite understand everything we were doing, but they intuited „where“ we were working. We had all their trust and each one offered what they could to be part of this work, to build it together, with all their strength. Over time I realized we just got all those people together, remembered parts of their own story, and gave them the word and the space to regain their own landscape, a voice in cinema.

2. One can clearly feel this sense of giving a voice as well as the connection between voice and landscape. Can you tell me a bit more about the people in your film? How did you find them? Were there also some you wanted to film that refused to be part of cinema? Was this step into cinema always as gratifying as with Maria Catarina?

This landscape is the place of those voices, of those words. The light and shadows of this territory, this brave nature, its melopeias and echoes are the ground of these words, this way of living. This was, for me and the actors, a first step together in cinema. I knew many of the actors for a long time, others I met while preparing the film, especially the children. How they become actors, I don’t know. What happens here, to actors, the experience with actors, has no name. It’s an encounter that takes place in the space and time of the film, with the landscape, between people, with the text, with the director, with the team. It’s a mystery. We spoke very little of what we were doing. They observed the work of the team, where the camera was: you are here, you go there, when you are more or less there you can say this sentence. We were discovering a way of working while we were working, by repetitions, understanding each other’s work and finding what we were looking for, what we thought was right. We all grew up on this land, we have this relationship. Perhaps we were just trying to find this somewhat forgotten language together, which all of us somehow know by heart. It’s like singing the first two notes of a song we all know. Maybe I just invited people who speak in this alphabet. With children, especially, it’s like a game, it’s playing. I just wanted to give them the time and space to play this game, to all of them, to find themselves there with their bodies and their voices.

Almost everyone immediately accepted to be part of the film, and all of them participated with a very special attention to this construction. They realized that this work was very difficult, it required a great commitment and concentration and we had to repeat many times. They were impressed with the enormous work of the team, which was very small. They thought cinema was very easy. It was hard work, very intense for everyone. Besides, it was a difficult summer, one of the toughest in the Alentejo, always over 40 degrees. But some fled… One because he couldn’t reconcile our work with his, another because his wife didn’t want him to be there. These people have their tasks, their concerns, their lives. We have always taken this into consideration, it could only be a rule. Respect their daily lives. Some came to film when they were finished harvesting or off from their other jobs. This was a very clear rule. They could not lose their routines, like the village party they attended every year. Everyone was committed to the film, but the film could not compromise their lives. We would finish this work and their lives would return to normal.

It was a very difficult film to do, as every film is difficult. This was often a battlefield… So some friends came to help me. We always had to solve the most incredible problems, something in the air was against us… We were almost convinced, we took this as an inconvenient truth, that perhaps we were touching on very sensitive issues, that „we spoke of the devil and he appeared,“ as the girl says in the film. Why did I write this? It was happening… It was kind of an anecdote, but even the most skeptical of us accepted it as a very clear fact. Nobody doubted it anymore. It is very curious to think that the film, fiction, was affecting reality and vice versa, as if we had, in reality, gone into fiction. In any case, these considerations also helped us ward off the evil spirits and laugh at these theatricals.
And miracles began to happen, and they all came from the actors at our side. It was from them that we always drew and regained our strength, in being among those friends who helped me immensely in making this film. The actors and that raw nature, their vitality, were saving the film from all these disappointments and difficulties. When one does not struggle against all the difficulties, all the obstacles with this energy, with life, cinema also suffers from this emptiness. We have to fight it, and we did it every day in this film. And it’s just a little film… I am very grateful for the generosity and confidence of the actors, it was certainly the most gratifying part. When children played in the fields, their joy, the way they moved through nature, when the elders told us about a tree or a coming cloud, the light of the day, how they experience the landscape: This empathy was our resistance. So we recovered the main principals of the film, with their more tender gestures. The last shot of the film is invaded by the flight of black swallows. They had made their nests in the silos. In Alentejo it is said that the swallows come to protect us. I was very grateful they came into the film. We had a feeling, almost mystical, of having found some peace.

3. It sounds like a protected place you found with your actors. How was it elsewhere for you as a first-time filmmaker? I am not sure if that is even a category one should think in but as you have hinted at difficulties and disappointments I want to know a bit more. Did cinema change for you with the making of this film?

Perhaps one of the most common characteristics of the filmmakers is that of complaining a lot… We are always between tragedy and comedy… It was very difficult to make this film… But there was also many joys! There is always a restlessness, an endless dissatisfaction that comes from the certainty that we have not yet looked well at a person, a tree, a house, the sky, from knowing we are far from understanding it all. Cinema is just over a hundred years old, we are not at the beginning, we are continuing. We have to accept that we do not know how to do it. One must doubt a great deal. It’s very difficult to make a film. Anyone can scratch a piece of paper and say they made a drawing or shoot five minutes of a horse climbing a hill and say they made a film. Maybe they did, but most likely they did not. One must resist the exhaustive paraphernalia of images that we are offered every day and counteract what is blocking our ways of seeing and imagining. It’s the process that matters here. When we say “repeat” in a film, we say nothing other than “try again,” because nothing repeats itself. With luck and much work, in these attempts, we discover something, something that surprises us. But for this we must always fight against the most absurd imperatives that have taken over our lives, and over cinema, like „time is money.“ It will not be like this for everyone, but for me, in this kind of work, it takes a lot of effort and great patience. Patience here is not synonymous with acceptance, but with a struggle against emptiness. Everything is very fast; the rush is increasing every day. We are always late. The architect Niemeyer said: „Life is crying and laughing, life is a blow.“ No other filmmaker showed us this as well as Chaplin did. Saying that Chaplin has given us the best lessons about cinema, at the same time the best lessons of life, still doesn’t do him justice. Chaplin tells our whole story. This dissatisfaction, the difficulties and disappointments were always at the root of his films and in the ways he found to make them… He was the greatest of the giants. And if it was like that for Chaplin…

I never studied cinema. I decided very early that I wanted to make films, I do not know how or why, but it was a certainty. However, it was inconceivable for me to study cinema in a school. This came from a certain horror I had for schools from the first day. I did not want anyone to tell me how to do this. I learned a lot from my film experience as an actress or from assisting in some productions. But we do not know the heartache of a director, we can only perceive it… We do not know from what he or she suffers, why they suffer, and perhaps their evil is even that of not knowing too well either… We can understand what animates and moves them to make a film, but it will all be in the order of the irrational. A director, alone or accompanied by a team, is always between the solitary silence and an endless horizon. From there we must draw the rails, choose paths, go and find. If we are really working and not just putting a technique into practice, everything happens between joys and sorrows. In a film crew, if the director says it’s done, many start picking up the all the stuff right away. If the director escapes, as João César Monteiro once did – an impulse I understand very well! – nobody shoots.

In painting, in drawing, in sculpture, the extension of the look and body appear in the work. In film it’s the same, but with a huge difference, a decisive peculiarity, and that is why it can only be done with friends: it involves other people, actors, the sun and the rain… There are many bodies and many looks, their encounters. It is the opposite of the pencil in the hand in the quiet of the atelier. In the case of cinema, it will always result in a struggle, more or less fierce, against the most violent impositions that can lead the film to suicide. I knew it already, but this time I was the director, and there is one thing I know: the director is the first to die. It is a process of constant rescuing of the necessary time and space to work, to repeat, so these encounters can happen and surprise us. With digital it is very easy to film anything, but the most difficult thing is to feel empathy with what we film. In this film, I unfortunately made some commitments that I cannot forgive myself. Here there can be no compromises, no halfway terms. But I also put my foot down every time it was needed: we do not go there with soft words. A woman often has to do away with diplomatic ideals altogether if she wants to be heard. We don’t want to hear any fairy tales; we must admit this at once, so that something finally begins to change. But I was lucky enough to be accompanied by people who gave everything they could and could not do to this film. Maria Catarina, on the last day of work offered us a lunch of „sopa de cação“ After lunch we were at her café in Veiros, and she asked me: „So, everything is done?“ I answered that I thought so, even if it is never done, I didn’t want to disturb her more, we needed to give her a rest, I thought… „Couldn’t we do a little bit more? Maybe we could go to the fields and do a little more… “ And we went. The children, tired of running up the hill in that panorama, the light fading, said: „We’ll do it again, it’ll be better, we’ll do it again. It has to be well done.“ These people know everything about cinema.

4. Would you say that the people in your film are taking part in a sort of theatre, in a form of representing themselves? I am asking because the dialogue between presence as a form of being in the world and re-presentation as a form of coming back in the form of a ghost, perhaps like cinema itself, is very apparent in your film.

Good question. I don’t know how to answer… This question is given especially by knowing in advance the context of the story that gave rise to this film. But, strictly speaking, this question could be asked in relation to any film, all the actors and actresses who appear in the films. In a filmed conversation, Jacques Derrida talks about cinema as „an art of allowing ghosts to come back, where maybe we have a chance to evoke ghosts.“ While he speaks, he projects his appearance in the film, taking his own present situation when asked if he believes in ghosts: „You are asking a ghost if he believes in ghosts. I was asked to play my own role and I have the feeling that I’m letting a ghost speak for me.“ In cinema there may be several voices of our ghosts, and if the ghosts of cinema haunt me, perhaps cinema somehow appears, as you say, in the film.

The stories we hear within the story of this film are narrated by some of the protagonists of this past history, which is part of the collective history of the Alentejo and our country. Perhaps this cannot be forgotten, but here it is not necessary to verify or explain the contours of these stories that they tell us, so that an experience that goes far beyond the facts can be transmitted. These narratives relate to much broader aspects of life. Here we are right before one of the examples that Walter Benjamin takes as storyteller: the sedentary peasant who knows from experience the stories and traditions. I venture a little here, because Benjamin would not admit that cinema could speak this language. But these actors are not the cinema actors as Benjamin saw them and perhaps they recover a theatrical experience as Brecht imagined it and which was very precious to him. I remembered now that once, a person who saw the film was very surprised when she realized that there was a work of preparation and rehearsal because, as she said, she didn’t think it was fiction, she thought it was a „documentary.“ But I was also asked how the rehearsals went with the sheep… Of course there was no rehearsal there, and that only happened once. It’s the miracles. There must be a bit of everything.

The stories these people tell are singular but at the same time collective. We can guess why these people tell and re-tell their stories: it is in the transmission of knowledge that the community is constructed and safeguarded. These people preserve through memory, the nature of tales, the proverb’s expression that contains ethical and moral teachings, a norm of life, as didactic tools, in the Brechtian sense of the term. These are also their appeals to contemplation, to the encounter of men, to the comprehension of themselves, their warnings so that the blackest of histories and the most heinous crimes do not repeat themselves. There are truly practical interests here as a warning of a danger, a luck, life and death, and at the same time a search for attention and a critical eye. For Benjamin the storyteller figure „is that in which the righteous man encounters himself.“

In the film, these stories, the memories of those people cross the stories of that place that also has its memory, its footprints of thousand other stories. The stories they used to tell me, and their ways of telling, their wisdom, that landscape, structurally shaped my experience, my look. Where is fiction and reality in memory? What is the true story? It doesn’t matter; we are neither journalists nor historians.

The problem of representation is very old, it is a great discussion already among the Greeks. For Kant there is no direct apprehension of reality. The apprehension of reality is not possible without a medium, and for all the mediums that exist, reality is nevertheless much more complex than all forms of representation put together, indecipherable, indescribable. It’s the problem of appearances and apparitions… The problem of not being able to know the thing itself… At the beginning of the Confessions, St. Augustine recalls how he learned to speak: he wanted to express with sounds and gestures his heart’s feelings, so he fixed in memory what the adults named. For Wittgenstein, memory is intrinsically linked to a way of life and to our capacity for linguistic expression. It is in describing, which is also a way of representing what we see, that we learn „all possible language games.“

I wanted to keep in this narrative, to give back, a new voice to these storytellers who were, for me, the best masters. These stories, in the expression of this language, in the voice of these people, take place on this great stage of that landscape that speaks for itself, in the „voice of nature,“ not as a backdrop, but the place these narratives emerge from. I was lucky enough to understand this very early, when I was a child and heard the sun calling or spoke to the wind, when I threw myself through the fields, hiding and chewing an ear of wheat, leaning on the dry dust watching the clouds passing.

Now, when I remember that, I think I lived in those stories, between those stories, and maybe for that reason I thought I could talk to ducks… A child can talk to ducks and that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know that ducks do not actually speak our language. Landscape says things, nature manifests itself, but we have moved away from it, it’s we who do not understand it. Memory helps cinema a lot. Here, instead of re-presentation in a kind of theater, there will perhaps be only presences, storytellers and, perhaps, in the tracks of these presences marked in the landscape, some ghosts of History may rise. They will be there for those who see them.


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