Colossal Cinema: The Films of Pedro Costa
Scanning through the yellow pages of a phonebook, searching for the bits of crack residue that may have been left long ago, our hero, Vanda, lets out a cough for the ages. The sound is a proclamation of unbearable junkie misery, and a ferociously lived in human reality—one that the camera and its operator, the Portuguese director Pedro Costa, refuses to romanticize. This moment, and many more bleak fragments of transcendence, make up In Vanda's Room, the second film in Costa's trilogy of life and near-death in a shantytown outside of Lisbon. Next week Criterion will release these rarely screened masterworks as a four-disc box set, called "Letters from Fontainhas."
The series begins with Ossos (1997), the story of an infant in the ghetto, and its ambivalent, deadbeat parents as they try to care for the child through a devestatingly reckless set of decisions. In many ways it is an exemplar of 90s European filmmaking with its combination of stark realism, elliptical storytelling, precisely tuned soundscape and muted, poetic visual minimalism. After reaching that apex through the conventional production avenues of a professional cast and crew, Costa still felt a dissatisfied separation from the world he had explored. LEFT: PORTRAIT BY VALERIE MASSADIAN
Digital video camera in hand, he set off to Fontainhas to spend some time with its residents - the supporting actors and extras from Ossos—and see if he could uncover a less mediated version of their lives. What he found was a place of despair and beauty, of addiction and survival, memory and destruction, real lives to capture and share. From that experience came In Vanda's Room (2000), a minimal masterpiece of drug addiction and family life, and Colossal Youth (2006), a poem-portrait of a displaced society, noosed by its past and in the midst of an uncertain future. Both are towering accomplishments that speak to the untapped beauty of the digital video image and the potential for a lone filmmaker to make something as epic and rich as any Hollywood production. With their intimate access to real lives and thoughtful consideration of formal and structural concerns, Costa's latter films exist on the tightrope between documentary realism and fictional storytelling, exploring a rarely visited territory of cinema. Several months ago, both were selected to Film Comment's list of "Top 100 Movies of the Decade."
Recently, Costa discussed his responsibilities to the neighborhood, and the difficulties of the rock music movie:
EUGENE KOTLYARENKO: Have you returned to Fontainhas to visit the people from the films?
PEDRO COSTA: Of course. After all of this it would be treason not to go there...
KOTLYARENKO: Do you go there without your camera; would that be a treason to yourself as a filmmaker, knowing the richness of the location and the people?
COSTA: Sure, my friends and I, the small crew who did the films, go together. I'm an honorary member of the neighborhood association. My friend who does the sound was appointed a councilor of the new housing bloc. We have these kind of extravagant tasks that we accept, and we go back—without cameras, without mics. I go to community meetings, discussions every weekend, and I'm only away from there when I'm shooting or promoting something else.
KOTLYARENKO: When you were making these films did you think about a specific audience in mind? Do you consider the reaction of the people involved more than your regular international film audience?
COSTA: It will sound pretentious, but I'm not really thinking... Though I am aware I have a certain mixed responsibility to this community. Even if I'm just filming a composition of Vanda or Ventura [the protagonists of the latter two films] alone in a bed, drinking or smoking, I know that she will be judged, he will be judged and I will be judged, as representations of the community. And it's tricky and raises some serious questions, because, as you know, sometimes they do drugs or they are a bit irrational. So there are image problems that are serious. I think about that of course, and I know every time I point a camera at one of them there are actually 5000 guys in that shot. Sometimes the actor feels it too—something proud, something collective, you know a voice—and when it comes across, it can be very nice. And probably more than that I'm talking about 80 percent of our planet—India or the Southern United States, Mexico, Asia, it's not very different. LEFT: STILL FROM OSSOS
KOTLYARENKO: In the second film, In Vanda's Room, there's a certain question of authenticity in the characters' behavior and backstories. There is talk of the construction and destruction of the neighborhood and we hear that Vanda's father operated a bulldozer. Later, in Colossal Youth, we find out that Ventura is her father and a former construction worker. Is his role of construction/destruction something you wrote in, or is that something true from Vanda's life?
COSTA: (LAUGHS) What can I say? Vanda, her sister, her mother, her father, all white from the north of Portugal, came and built this shack in Fountainhas in the 60s. Her father was a drunk who quickly abandoned Vanda's mother and Vanda as a baby. But yes, he actually worked building houses, that was the best pay you could find. I never met the guy, but Vanda told me that he was a policeman for some time. And this is one of those true clichés: that men are construction workers and women, as you see in Ossos, are cleaning ladies or cooks. All the stories in the films are based on these clichés that are true, and we—I wouldn't say create or invent—but we play around with these associations, which sometimes can be funny. Ventura, a black Cape Verdean, claims to be her father, which is unlikely, but he was like her father, and he had the same kind of life and the same kind of connection and understanding.
KOTLYARENKO: Further discussing these issues of realism, in Ossos Tina listens to the band Wire. As I watched, I wondered "Does she legitimately listen to Wire?" In In Vanda's Room we hear the song "I've Got the Power," first in the background and then louder in subsequent shots. Even though it is so perfectly ironic to the disenfranchised situation in Fontainhas, I never questioned that it was really being listened to by the residents of the shantytown.
COSTA: Of course with these movies, I showed their lives, but they show a lot of my life too, as a filmmaker and as someone who lived there and evolved there. Definitely they didn't all listen to Wire. What was playing all the time was hip hop, rap or Metallica and Pantera [LAUGHS], things that I will never put in my films. So I brought the CD first to the community, and I played the track "Lowdown" before the shoot, and everyone who heard it wanted a copy of the CD. After that, they all had CDs of Wire and the Buzzcocks. Of course we exchange things.
KOTLYARENKO: You end In Vanda's Room with an uncredited piece of classical music. What was the idea behind putting a scored piece of music at the end of this very spartan, unconventional film?
COSTA: The music is by a living Hungarian composer, [György] Kurtág. I had this record I used to listen to and I remembered his piece, "Elegy for a Departed Friend," a 1-minute, 13-second fragment that I liked a lot. The decision was to give the [people of Fontainhas] something from our side. Saying, "I was not born here, I am not black, I am not poor, I am not from this social class, even." It's like an homage from everybody behind the camera, taking something from a Hungarian classical composer who studied with Schoenberg in Vienna, and seeing if this thing has a place in the film and this world, with these guys who use heroin and crackheads and Cape Verdeans. I think it has a place. I think it ends the film in an unexpected way and it's very moving for me. In music you have a conventional piece called an "offering," the music you give to people, and even though we didn't compose it, we still gave it to them.
In Colossal Youth I did something similar when Ventura goes to the museum and we show paintings by Rubens and Rembrandt and Van Dyck. Ventura is at home there and he should be, he built the museum; it's his floor, it's his ground, his walls, his stones. He's just lucky they hung a Rubens there.
Those are the kinds of meetings between famous men that I like. Like that beautiful book by Walker Evans and James Agee, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. I mean Ventura, Rubens, Rembrandt, Vanda... it's a beautiful thing with film, if you can abolish class and status, it's very utopian. You can still accomplish some revolutions in film, but not in life I'm afraid.
KOTLYARENKO: There is a solitude to your filmmaking process. Do you feel akin to certain other contemporary filmmakers? LEFT: STILL FROM COLOSSAL YOUTH
COSTA: We all know each other because in the last 20 years the festival circuit has developed, and we all go on it. Just the other day I saw Harmony [Korine] and we had a drink and he's a great guy. It's nice to know that we are contemporary to some things, that we live in the same time. With my friends in China working and working well, like Jia Zhangke. The films are like letters that we send to each other. But we are very shy, we cannot talk about our films, but we go see them and it's comforting to know that far away some guy is trying to do something with a girl in the room...
KOTLYARKENKO: You have been working on a project outside of Fontainhas.
COSTA: That's finished and came out in several European countries. There will probably be a small commercial run in America. It's a musical film [Ne Change Rien] I did with a French actress and singer, Jeanne Balibar. It's something I've been filming every weekend for five years. I shouldn't say this to a magazine because everyone thinks rock music in film is a marvelous story, but it's a very sad story. Rock is always there in the background to illustrate robbing a bank, when you're killing your mother or taking drugs. The rock soundtrack comes up when the camera turns upside down and becomes psychedelic. I don't use music a lot in my films. I'm not Tarantino—I like Tarantino's films—but we are working in very different situations. The scene shouldn't have the need to have a crutch of music to hold everything together; I'm trying to see if it holds together without that. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn't, but that's not a reason to go search your CD collection and see what about this, or what about that.
And with films about rock, it's very poor what we have, besides four or five movies, Godard with the Stones [Sympathy for the Devil], Robert Frank with the Stones [Cocksucker Blues], two or three things with Bob Dylan (not Scorsese's No Direction Home), and I like the Neil Young film he did himself, playing just on video, which is very beautiful.
KOTLYARENKO: Which Neil Young, the Jarmusch film [Year of the Horse]?
COSTA: I'm not saying anything bad about that film and Jim Jarmusch is a nice man, but that is exactly what I wanted to avoid. These kind of films-the Jarmusch, the Scorsese, hundreds of rock films—there's nothing to take away form those movies. I wanted to do something different. I tried. At least [in Ne Change Rien] you see how a song is born, and the joy, desperation, and suffering of that moment. That's the film I made and that's the film I hope you can see in NY or LA. It's far removed from my other films but it's done in the same method: small crew, no money, everybody's happy, no police, no guys shouting silence; just four musicians hard at work. All of the movies have a laboratory mentality—In Ne Change Rien it's a studio and you see people searching for something: a chord, a sound an idea. And In Vanda's Room it is the the same thing. She was searching for an emotion, a word, something that could express her feelings. At the same time I was searching for a shot, the composition, a spot for the camera, my place in that room.
LETTERS FROM FONTAINHAS COMES OUT ON DVD MARCH 30.