April 1, 2010

Interview: Pedro Costa gets the Criterion treatment

Acclaimed Portuguese filmmaker see his Fontainhas Trilogy released in a DVD set this week

Two features into a steadily accelerating career, Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa switched gears with his three challenging portraits of a Lisbon ghetto in different stages of demolition: Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (2000) and Colossal Youth (2006). The movies would become known as Costa’s Fontainhas Trilogy, compiled and issued this week on DVD by Criterion. Colossal Youth was recently included in TIFF CInematheque’s Top 50 Films of the ’00s. Yet, by the time the third film was released in 2006, the neighbourhood was a memory. 

Fontainhas and its inhabitants will not soon be forgotten thanks to Costa’s distinctive vision and a company of non-actors playing variations of themselves, as is the case with Vanda Duarte, who appears in all three films. Criterion’s box set makes the trilogy available on home video for the first time in North America and includes commentaries, interviews, documentaries, short films and more. Costa spoke to me on the eve of his achieving Criterion status. 

Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth form what has been called your Fontainhas Trilogy. Can you explain their associations?
It was never intended as a trilogy. Before Ossos I was having an artistic crisis and was questioning my position in cinema. That film was a discovery of this particular neighbourhood in Lisbon, Fontainhas. It was a very secretive place and I had to prepare carefully. But I was too fascinated by the aesthetic part of it, which sets Ossos apart from the other two. Not that I don’t like the film, but it was a bad decision to shoot on 35mm with a big crew in a normal way. Bringing cinema to that place was a good decision, but not with the usual clich├ęs.

How was this new-found ideology initially received? 

It took me two years after Ossos to find a new aesthetic and that required a cut from the system. I had a big fight with my producer, who wanted me to do another Ossos, but bigger. This was impossible for me. Seven weeks wasn’t enough [time], and it was too much money. It’s a lie that filmmaking is very expensive. It’s actually about knowing how to spend it. I was completely cut off, so I went away and stayed in Fontainhas.
Right. It was a political, economical and philosophical move. After shooting Ossos, my DP (Emmanuel Machuel) told me that it was great working together, but I no longer needed him. I remember at the premiere of In Vanda’s Room he came up to me and said, “See, I was right, you don’t need me.” It was very moving.
How did shooting on digital video shape production?
It was completely different and helped a lot. I never thought of doing what I [ended up doing] with the scope and colour and richness. I thought I would do a small documentary and then go back to the old approach. But then I saw that it worked and was even more organic. I also had to search for the film in the editing, which can be a bit frightening. That’s why I shoot so much — it’s out of fear.

At a glance, your films appear spontaneous, but they’re crafted with a distinct precision. How do you maintain the balance?
Balance is the right word, because you have to find a balance behind the lens and in front of it. Between you, the people and the landscape. That balance was very hard for me to find with the crew, money, lights, pressure and time constraints. Jean Renoir said the same when he was working in America. He thought his films in America were bad, and they’re not at all, but you can see the difference. I had to find this balance, so I took all the time I needed to search for my craft.
Do you see your work as a cross between sociological study and narrative film?
It’s that special moment when true and false don’t matter. You have to be true in other ways. The relation between people has to be true. I can tell you that a lot of things that Varda says and does are not true. I’ll never say what and when. Withholding it amuses me.
How does that play to your audience?   
Whenever In Vanda’s Room is shown at a documentary festival, people get really angry. I’ve had ferocious Q&As. The argument is always, “You cannot do this in a documentary. It’s too vague, too poetic.” Those statements bore me to death.
Your films often reject dramatization. This is noticeable in Ossos and extremely evident in your later work that somehow feels more detached, yet more private. 
 is about taking something private and turning it into a public thing. It’s been done before. Warhol, Bergman and a lot of artists did it. But Vanda was a bit special in form. This kind of form never really became public before. This kind suffering done this way was prototypical. I could never make a film likeVanda again. Even if it feels brainy or arty, I can assure you it was made with blood and tears. It’s my personality and Vanda’s personality.

As an early adopter of DV, do you believe that film is becoming obsolete or does that depend on the production?
Now I’m editing on Avid and Final Cut, but it’s exactly the same. My craft never changed. I approach it with the same respectful attitude. It’s not about cold machines. It’s about the brain and heart behind the machine. For me, the small DV was as serious as the big 35mm cameras I worked with before. I don’t think there’s a language specific to video or film.

It’s interesting that more filmmakers are switching to DV for artistic purposes, like Abbas Kiarostami and David Lynch.
It’s great that Lynch found something. But when he comes into this plane and says the things he’s saying, there are a lot of lies. He’s a sincere guy, I’m sure, but this question of freedom that video brings or will bring is mystifying. Kiarostami is a bit different because he didn’t change. Like me, he always preferred to be alone and private with his subjects. There’s a ridiculous thing about a film crew; it’s a circus, in a bad sense. You lose so much purpose, reason and objectivity. Roberto Rossellini was the first to give us something from the private domain of human sensibility. His films were a shared secret.