Pedro Costa, Casa de Lava (House of Lava), 1994
The Need to Be Dehypnotized
Pedro Costa’s films have something that fascinates and entices in a troubling way. "O Sangue" (Blood, 1989), "Casa de Lava" (House of Lava, 1994), "Ossos" (Bones, 1997) and, in particular, "No Quarto da Vanda" (In Vanda’s Room, 2000), "Juventude em Marcha" (Colossal Youth, 2006) and the short "Tarrafal" (2007) are considered masterpieces of the last decade. There seem to be no secrets in his cinema, except—probably—the fact that there are none. What is certain here is that Costa works space in a way that makes it fatally monumental. On the one hand, there is a position grounded in rigour, quality, a viewpoint in which crude realism and sensuality are always in a state of tension. On the other—and therein lies monumentality—each person, place and subject filmed by Costa is a witness of that territory and that community, talking to us frontally and, probably, for ever. Speaking with (and not “about”) a marginal community is what he shows us in such a masterly way, so that the cinema of Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard are ultimately so close to Costa’s.
Andrea Lissoni: What are you working on?
Pedro Costa: Right now I have several things going at the same time: a film, a medium-length film, and I’m putting materials together for an exhibition.
Tell me more about this work approach? Is it dictated by economic considerations or is it a method?
I’d say that I’m free to do this above all thanks to the fact that I’ve been working with the same group of people for over ten years.
What does it involve in particular?
The medium-length film is an omnibus that also involves Victor Erice, Aki Kaurismäki, Manoel de Oliveira and Jean-Luc Godard, and it was commissioned by a Portuguese city—Guimarães—named the European Capital of Culture for 2012. Instead, the exhibition will be with Rui Chafes, and we’ll do it in Tokyo at the end of 2012.
A four-handed work?
Since this isn’t the first exhibition we’ve done together, we have a bit of experience under our belts. The collaboration involves me making five films and him five sculptures. We worked completely separately: I don’t know anything about what he has done and he doesn’t know anything about what I’ve done. That way—and we already did this with the exhibition at the Fundação de Serralves in Porto in 2005—we find ourselves before our respective new works directly at the exhibition.
It seems like the rules of a game. You just go ahead blindly?
Of course. One has to imagine what the other is doing. In a certain sense, it will be a surprise, but we know each other well. I know his territory really well.
I’m intrigued by the fact that you use the world “territory”. It has possible implications with contemporary art: it defines space in sculptural terms, but above all it can also be a way to interpret the real and symbolic space of the work, particularly if associated with something “intimate”, which is something I would instinctively do if I think of your work.
I’m not part of the art world and I love cinema very much. In fact, I would say that the art world was depleted long ago, but I’m also well aware that my position is conservative. Sure, I read, I cross things, I go through them, I keep up to date as much as I can, but a form of aversion has arisen in me. Unfortunately, perhaps.
So what is this territory?
For me the territory is space. It’s tangible, it’s real, it unites all of us. I found it to be a concrete territory. The territory that was very close to me, close to where I was and where I was living, although it was entirely invisible to me. However, it was a segregated territory. I started to work there: that territory became real, and it became a problem.
I know you’re talking not only about Fontainhas, where you made three films [Ossos (Bones), 1989; No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda’s Room), 2000; and Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth), 2006], but also in a figurative sense. How is a territory a problem?
For a director, every territory is a problem. It’s a problem in the sense of having to move, transfer, transport space in time. In other words, of having to transform space into time. And this is specific to a director’s work: producing time from space, a condensed or expanded time. That’s the main distinction with respect to contemporary art. I would say that, as a rule, visual artists don’t push themselves far enough. They don’t move beyond, inside, in depth, with a concrete or real attitude.
Are you talking about artists who make films or installations?
Yes, above all. Aside from artistic disciplines, if you think of yourself as a person, I mean a real person, and you have to deal with a concrete and real space, you definitely have a problem every day. That’s what I mean when I talk about territory. In my case, it’s my land, my terrain, the place that, over the years, I might say has become my studio in a certain sense. It’s where I was adopted. It’s where I was truly able to do a great deal, and it’s where I saved myself from a lot of things, like making normal films. That territory allowed me to practise something very close to life, something that interested me and had to do with history, anthropology, archaeology... But one day that territory collapsed and was destroyed. The people who were there were moved elsewhere, and today it’s an empty space. It’s a place to which I was very closely tied on an emotional level. But it became too abstract to be able to work there. So today we have a new problem that is both a limit and a motivation: we don’t have a space.
Who do you mean by “we”?
The group of people I’ve been working with for years. Ours is a truly collective work. But I understand the question, as I tend to universalize.
You personally have a problem, you all have a problem, we have a problem. And it’s space, or the lack of it.
Godard also had this problem, and I would say that Bresson had it too. You need to deal with reality, but there are too many obstacles, too many barriers. In my specific case, the people I was working with don’t have a house. I mean, they have one, but they hate living there.
And how do you deal with the problem? Is that what you’re working on?
I work. I work with my memory, and I’m involved with the text. In a certain sense, this new territory is a new work. It’s hard to know what to do. However, we can say that it’s a more secret and confined territory, more personal and more tied to stories and people. And people have to imagine their own spaces. In short, people are pushed to imagine more. It will be less documentary in a certain sense. And the only real things are the people: the people continue to be real. It’s also true that whenever I try to do something closer to a documentary, I approach fiction and vice versa. Who knows why, but I’m used to it.
Does calling it a “new dimension” compel you to rethink time?
When I work, my obsession is always to force space. I’m not interested in time. I have no idea of how to conceive of it. Conceiving of time can only come about by thinking of your own time, your personal time in the sense of your own biography. I’m never interested in other people’s time. Time is truly private, and that’s why I say that I simply cannot conceive of time. But spaces, even if truly private, can be or become public. Of course, I realize that sometimes this can be horrific, but I have to do it. I have to penetrate these secret spaces. This is one of the things I “have” to think about. I’m not interested in fighting, especially now.
One of the paradoxes of a conversation is bringing to the fore why it’s entirely inadequate in the first place. “I” think I’m sharing something, I associate every reflection with what I know about your work, but for you it’s inevitably in the past. Moreover, I imagine that the reader will also be able to contextualize, and make references and associations, but obviously that’s not true, nor will it ever be, above all because you’re thinking in the present and about your current problem. Perhaps the only possibility is the path you follow: ruthlessly remaining in your space, listening for as long as necessary—inevitably a very long time—as you did with Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub in Où gît votre sourire enfoui? (Where Lies Your Hidden Smile, 2001).
Everything we do is truly isolated. I always try to forget what we just did. For me, forgetting is fundamental. We try to forget immediately. I don’t think there’s any other way to work. But in filming, there’s something really unhealthy, something sick. So even when I film, if I can, I want to forget quickly. There’s no artistic excitement. The human experience is oppressive, life is oppressive. And in my case, I work with people who are sick, have no money, die or live in terrible conditions. We have extremely small budgets, and I’m well aware that I work with budgets as much as fifty times lower than those of a normal European films considered to be low-budget, if not poor.
How much does money affect how your work?
I’m not a filmmaker with a set, like Wim Wenders; I’m more like Ozu and have to remain seated. I need to be surrounded by people. I started out “normally” and then gradually moved very far away from that. I realized that you can do what you want with very little money (which isn’t actually true: you really do need money, but you certainly don’t need that much). Take Shame. You can make that film paying a hundred times less money. The real subject of the film is money. I’ve chosen this example because it’s enlightening with respect to what I said before about contemporary art. I know my work well and I can see money on the screen. In fact, I can literally see it running in front of my eyes: I know how much it costs to block off a street, to have light even at night—that unique kind of light—and how to use interiors in a certain way, how to work with those actors... These are things I can do directly. but in a completely different way. In short, I’m not interested in time, I’m not interested in memory, I’m not interested in money. I’m interested in space. Space is something I can always recognize. I feel very far removed. Most of my friends have nothing to do with the film industry. A few do, of course, but we don’t talk about filmmaking. I try to stay away from that business and don’t go to premieres. I think about films only when I see them. And I must say that I see a lot of old ones, but very few current ones. In the present I recognize things, places and people, but not films.
How much have your positions changed—if they have changed—since the roundtable with Catherine David and Chris Dercon in 2007 on the relationship between cinema and contemporary art? At the time you were quite peremptory, you thought that for Chantal Akerman, it was completely legitimate to cross over into art, but your art is cinema and that is what’s important to you...
I haven’t changed much since that conversation with Catherine and Chris. The things I like in films are not artistic and they have nothing to do with that specific aspect or those qualities. And I’m sure that most of the great figures of the twentieth century are filmmakers or musicians. In the end, I don’t know very much about contemporary art and I’m really not very well informed. I probably prefer painting, which still exists, but ultimately I think even that doesn’t exist the way it once did. Sure, I’m almost old now and I’m a Capricorn... I’m being sarcastic, but not entirely. With respect to installations and videos, I can unquestionably acknowledge that there are hypnotic works with interesting kinetic qualities, but those types of characteristics hold absolutely no attraction for me. I think cinema is something entirely different. I need to be dehypnotized. I need to return to reality.
What exactly do you mean by that? That, in your opinion, it’s not just about a shared and widespread taste, but also models and narrations?
I think that, in general, people no longer pose problems: people don’t die. Or, if they die, they’re resurrected, reappear, come back to life. But in my life there are no ghosts, while there’s no question that most art films have lots of them. To some extent, I’m joking again, but I don’t find it poetic or practical. Every so often I think I might be able to find it poetic, but actually I can’t. Films become very infantile, in the very worst sense. I am unable to sense Beckett, Bresson or even Rembrandt.
So where is cinema? Or, rather, where do you think yours is?
Cinema is so close to reality. I’m convinced that what’s truly interesting about cinema is meeting people, knowing where they are, who they are... and not thinking about the film. If I were merely to think—and think about film in particular—I would never do cinema. That’s also because I don’t have any imagination, or at least I don’t have enough. And the point is not imagination, but the imaginary. Despite what it may evoke and mean, we all know that “imaginary” is still a term that’s not widely shared, and is mistranslated and misunderstood... along the lines of all those who think that cinema is a language...
What are you completely sure about?
One of the things I’m surest about is that I’m not sure. The people I admire most, the films I like most, share a certain idea of antiquity.
But you believe in cinema.
I don’t know if I believe in films.
Yet you keep making them...
I believe in the people I make them with. They’re very simple people, sometimes almost idiots. They’re lonely people and they’re the only people I believe in. And continuing to work is a good way to spend time with them. I don’t want to get to know anything else. And it’s enough for me.