This is one of the great stories of 21st century cinema, how Pedro Costa returned home to Portugal after making his second feature in Cabo Verde, with messages and gifts in tow, how he was asked to deliver these items to Cabo Verdeans living in the ramshackle labyrinth of Lisbon’s Fontaínhas and discovered the place where he would forge something new. He was still making films, however unusual they may be, within the conventional means of production, with generators, lights, crews, and craft services, and by the time he’d wrapped Ossos (1997), he’d had enough. That film, which traces the paths of several characters in and out of Fontaínhas, including one who endeavours to sell his newborn child, is haunting, funky, appalling, deadpan funny, at times perplexing, and, photographed by former Robert Bresson collaborator Emmanuel Machuel, gorgeously crafted. The performances owe something to Bresson’s dictum of the actor as model, but Costa lingers upon stillness until it yields unexpected riches, and allows the personal experiences of his cast to imbue their stark performances. The film’s compositions are dominated by corners, rippling across the frame with insistent angularity and depth, suggesting dilemmas, a constant potential for grand dramas that never quite arrive. But despite its tremendous merits, Ossos didn’t convey the Fontaínhas Costa wanted to know.
Prompted by Vanda Duarte, among the most darkly luminous locals in Ossos’ cast, Costa started going back to Fontaínhas every day with just his Panasonic DV camera, passing time, using the minimal available light to create elegant chiaroscuro chambers of domestic activity, patiently working through hundreds of hours of tape, trying to get closer to the actual flow of life through this place that fascinated him and was now slowly being demolished by the municipality. In Vanda’s Room (00) documents a world undergoing it’s own private apocalypse, nearly three hours of people in tiny rooms, waking up, taking drugs, selling things, coughing, talking and talking, while the bulldozers rumble just outside. It’s the product of skeletal resources, years of hard work, and deepening friendships. It led to Colossal Youth (06), perhaps Costa’s masterpiece, in which he returns to Fontaínhas to find a world largely vanished, relegated to memory, in which the graying, oracular, strangely charming Ventura, a man with ghostly eyes and stiffened limbs, pays visits to a number of individuals—including Vanda, who’s given birth and gotten clean since we last saw her—whom he claims are his offspring, though whether or not they are the literal fruit of his lions is difficult to determine. The landscape he traverses is largely white, vertical, and featureless, loomed over by the housing projects erected in the wake of Fontaínhas’ collapse. Old Fontaínhas seems to have survived as one last hovel, occupied by a woman named Bete. At one point Bete and Ventura sit on her floor, marveling at the things they can read in the gloom of Bete’s crumbling, well-lived-in walls, things they’ll never be able to see once they’re relocated to the white towers.
In Vanda's Room
A formal motif that runs through all of the Costa films I’ve seen—including Casa de lava (94), the Cabo Verde project, an elliptical remake of I Walked With a Zombie (42), featuring Ivorian actor Isaach De Bankolé—is the employment of a kind of portraiture, the typically static camera holding enigmatically upon a face—or, in Casa de lava, the back of a head. I note this particular motif because it both alludes to Costa’s formal rigour as well as his fundamental interest in people. It’s this investment in individuals, rather than some vague “social problem,” that makes In Vanda’s Room as powerful and accumulatively moving as it is. Yet newcomers to Costa should be aware of the fact that these films can be difficult in ways that mirror the arduousness of their genesis. They are long and slow, and Costa has a special disinclination to provide context. By far the best method of really understanding and enjoying these films is to simply spend a lot of time with them, to gradually make sense of how the whole ambitious project fits together. Thankfully, after years of international acclaim and virtually no opportunities for anyone other than festival attendees and major centre cinematheque-goers to see this work, the Criterion Collection is releasing Letters From Fontaínhas: Three Films by Pedro Costa, which collects Ossos, In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth in a single box, along with a wealth of illuminating supplements.
I’d already heard Costa speak once during a post-screening Q&A session and knew his responses could be as circular and loquacious as his films. Even though Costa granted me twice the amount of time I was supposed to have been allotted—in fact, I was the one who unfortunately had to draw the conversation to a close when I ran out of both tape and battery power for my phone—I think I might have asked him perhaps two of my long list of prepared questions. As with the experience of watching and listening to his films, speaking with Costa rewards deeper and longer investments. I hope the next time we talk it will be face-to-face, without time limits and an economy pack of micro-cassettes.
JB: Could you talk about where you were at in your life when you began work on Ossos?
Pedro Costa: I had a period of five or six years as assistant director on lots of films, so I was very close to directors, actors, producers. This was after not even two years at film school, which I never finished, one of the reasons being that working on production crews seemed more useful. Those years I spent as an assistant gave me a very bad feeling of things to come. It wasn’t the work I’d wanted to do. I started wondering, without finding an answer, how I could make my films without falling into these traps. Filmmaking seemed to mirror the worst relations in our society. I went into my first films always thinking about that. It was only on the second one, Casa de lava, that I started taking measures to change this. It provided the key to opening the others. It shot it in Africa, in Cabo Verde, the islands from where all the people I’m working with now come from. It’s funny, but I had to go to this faraway land to stop these games. I grabbed a camera, I grabbed two or three technicians and a crew, and I shot what I wanted. This gave the film a very strange form. You can see it in the acting. I’d written that this girl is lost, this guy’s in a coma, that one’s crazy, and I did everything possible to ensure they became really crazy and lost and in a coma. [Laughs] I’d left them with the script to think about, but our contract did not require them to think. By the time I went to make Ossos it was clear that Fontaínhas could be a studio for me, like in the old days. I had the actors, the set, the props. In a sense I had screenwriters writing all the time. In that place life is in charge.
JB: Did the story emerge from Fontaínhas and the people you met there, or did Fontaínhas influence Ossos only as you were making it?
PC: There’s a lot of answers for that. Sometimes I say that the beginning of Ossos is really Casa de lava. Without it I would have never found that place. I had no reason to go there until I came from Africa with messages to pass onto people who lived there.
Casa de lava
JB: I wonder if this process of discovering the inner margins of Portugal via its outer margins was important in itself.
PC: I think the answer to that exists a little bit in Colossal Youth, and is starting to reveal itself more and more in the film I’m starting now. It’s getting to a point where the levels of the political and the religious, where all levels are balanced. There was a revolution in my country in 1974. I was 13, very young, but I was conscious. For three years I was involved, everybody was. Before there was fascism and now there was some kind of freedom. I was discovering politics—and film and music and books. Everything was mixed. It was the punk rock movement. When you have the streets filled with people and you walk into a cinema showing a Godard film, or even a John Ford film, I think you see it differently, read it differently, feel it differently. I wasn’t just a cinephile locked in a cinematheque. These films had a correspondence in the streets, in our lives. So I’m trying to tell you that the aim was to do films that were everything, that could be tragic and funny and political, and serious and strong and beautiful. Sometimes you read that some filmmakers want to do a film because of actors. Others want to do it because of the urgency of the theme, or something. Never happened to me. It’s something much more subterranean, more invisible, something you have to discover slowly. What I was not willing to do was discover it alone in my room, facing a blank page and writing stuff. That’s something I can’t understand, even today. This probably isn’t answering your question, but it was important that my approach to Fontaínhas was not pre-conceived. It didn’t come from searching for poverty or a reason to say something or defend something. I was really pushed by these people in Cabo Verde who said go there and see my mother, go and see my brother, tell them hello, I’m okay. Please bring them this tobacco. And when I went there it wasn’t misery that was in front of me—it was humanity. I have to confess I was absolutely fascinated by appearances, by surface, by colours, by smells, by sounds. I discovered an aesthetic world to which I could relate, finally. So I had to think a little bit about that. How to go beyond this fascination. And it was mutual I think, because they were so fascinated by me.
JB: What is it about you that fascinated them?
PC: We still talk about that. I’ve been there for years now, we’re brothers and sisters. The way they talk about meeting me is like the way I talk about them. “We saw this white guy coming alone, trying to be cool”—because I was afraid—“to speak his rudimentary Creole…” They saw me falling into this seductive trap they’d put on me. It was a spell. Their fascination was: “What does he want from us?” That was the preparation for Ossos, to come back to your other question. There wasn’t a script. There weren’t ideas. There were feelings. I felt I wanted to film the walls, the colours, some faces, then perhaps some feelings. It took a year to put all of that together. I remember I was hearing stories, reading things in the paper while taking the bus from my house to their place. I’d read something about a baby being sold, and then started trying to bring out ideas from the neighbourhood guys I was working with. But it’s still a very controlled film. I was doing everything according to the rules of cinema. It took time to get rid of that. It took getting to know Vanda, especially. During the shooting of Ossos I had no time to know them, and that’s the painful thing, that’s the old mistake. You don’t have time to know people, or you know them only very superficially. Often your experience of discovering something is so much more interesting than the result.
In Vanda's Room
JB: You’re weighing the values of process over product, but one of the extraordinary things about this body of work we’re discussing is that, as you alluded to, we see the process of one film reflected in its predecessor. We see the process of In Vanda’s Room reflected in Ossos. We see Colossal Youth reflected in Vanda.
PC: Yeah. For the first time in my life, working in that place with those guys and girls, sometimes I get a glimpse of something collective, something that happens because we took a lot of time. Sometimes it’s boring. Sometimes it’s painful and there’s lots of takes, lots of trying this and that, and then it works and something materializes, something brief. I don’t know if it’s there in the films, though I hope it is. For me, In Vanda’s Room, which has this extreme, expansive form, has the feeling of two scientists researching something. I even see myself in the film, researching something. I see Vanda and her sister discovering something for the first time, how to say something about their mother, how to say something to this guy, how to walk through that door. It gives this very laboratorial air to the film.
JB: Were there days when you felt like you were getting a sculpted performance and others where you were felt you were getting something more unguarded and immediate?
PC: You should not take this as devaluation of cinema—I’m doing the things I do because I have the highest esteem for film. And I admit I suffer a little bit from nostalgia for a cinema that no longer exists, you know, this feeling that everything was better in the 40s or 30s or 20s. That’s always in the back of my mind, even when the conditions of the day-by-day work is very loose, very on the edge of nothing, because the camera is so small, because I never say “silence” or “action.” Even Vanda asked me many times, “When are we starting?” And we had started already, months ago. Those guys knew what a film was supposed to be, because they saw the shooting of Ossos, which was big, with trucks, with lights, with a 50-person crew, and money and producers. The problem was that I broke completely that cliché, and for the next film I was alone with my backpack and the sort of camera that everyone has, to film their babies and families. It seemed not serious, like, “What happened to this guy?” So I always say, for my sake and for their sake, that I had a double-task. One was to do the film that I wanted to do with them, and I expressed that every day. The other was to declare a cinema possible in this place, but not like Ossos. We have to learn it, this new book of rules. We have to start with less money, less machines, no lights. I had to remind them that cinema could be just a girl in the corner of a room and, I don’t know, some flowers, let’s say. No cars, no explosions, no guns. That was part of the job. All this is to say that I’m always aware of the fact that I’m a filmmaker and they’re actors. There is a ritual. We go into this mode and we do this take and then we try to do another take that could be better. Sometimes I like that they behave a little capriciously, or star-like. Vanda is very star-like. She wants things, like money, but we don’t have them. I like them to be actors and I’m very proud when people say Vanda or Ventura touches them, because of course they were acting. I don’t know if I was directing them. I was organizing something.
JB: Something that’s so resonant in these films is their manner of reflecting a complex sense of place, of home. How has your own sense of place informed your approach to this material?
PC: That’s something I’ve been discovering with these films. I’ve always loved reading interviews with filmmakers. It’s constituted a large part of my reading and learning, not theory or history, but reading something by Erich von Stroheim or Jerry Lewis. They’re very precise, very concrete, not like today where most filmmakers are vague. So I always had this impression that filmmaking was a good way to learn about yourself, about what you like and don’t like, even to learn how to accept or refuse certain things, to let things in that you could never imagine possible. So I’m making discoveries, and one of those has been that, well, what can I say? I’m a product of, how do you call it, a dysfunctional family? I’m a product of divorced parents, of a small city, but one with all the weaknesses of my social class. Everything that I’m trying to destroy, to dynamite, comes from my place in the world, my geographical or mental place. My city, the place I was born, is the antithesis of emotionally strength, its people are ill prepared to live with other human beings, this petit bourgeoisie that regards money as something very dirty, that you keep to yourself. These are things I’ve been trying to destroy because I found the opposite by working among people that lack everything, that lose everything, lose more with each day, these people who I’ve roped into my project. You have a sense that there are some social classes that cheat, and others are cheated. That’s Fontaínhas. It’s a reason not to cheat them with some kind of glamour-based thing that they thought cinema was. To speak in cinematographic terms, I had to focus myself, like a lens—even if my films seems out of focus, which they often are. [Laughs] But I’ve been focused on finding a centre for myself. If I feel that if I’m not having a confrontation with some sort of reality when I’m working, I’m in danger.
JB: You’ve lived your whole life in Lisbon. I wonder if you hadn’t discovered Fontaínhas if you would have stayed in Lisbon and continued your practice there.
PC: I don’t know. I can fantasize. I was told at some moment that my life was planned for me. I was told by a producer, several times, to go home, write, and bring in something bigger, but in the same style as the previous film. That’s what 90% of filmmakers do. You can feel that with Ossos. It’s not that I don’t like the film, but that’s the one where you can see that if the director behaves he can probably just keep doing that same sort of thing for the rest of his life. So in another life I’d be doing that, probably having a slightly more comfortable existence, with more chances to do films with more money and more quickly. Or maybe I’d have gone into something else, some anthropological work, historical work, because I did history in university. I’d be very into the past and stones and people living in deserts. But I saw this chance for me and, this sounds pretentious, but for them too, how this could be great for this girl or this junky guy, and of course when you think of one in those places you think of everybody. The films are a bit like that, choosing one to speak for all. I think we’re almost succeeding with Ventura in Colossal Youth. The most beautiful compliment I ever heard about my films was in Fontaínhas, just after the first screening of Colossal Youth. Two or three of the young guys, the rappers, the activists, they left the theatre, walked straight up to Ventura and said: “This is amazing, Ventura. For 25 years we’ve seen you in Fontaínas, drunk. A bum. Crazy. Saying stupid things. Drooling. Falling apart. And then we see you like this in this film…. How!?” That was great. For me, for them, for Ventura. For everybody.