Pedro Costa: "I Have to Risk Each Shot"

Another mythic element I've foisted on Colossal Youth that I'd like to run by you: in Sumerian-Babylonian mythology the original descent myth is that of the descent of the goddess Inanna. Do you know that story at all?

No.

Innana has a sister named Ereshkigal who is the Queen of the Underworld and, one could say, she doesn't really like her job. She's pretty miserable. It's not so much that Ereshkigal is a bad person; she's just a dark person and it weighs heavily on her. There are many elements in the myth of Inanna but the bit that I'm interested in that I think is relevant to Colossal Youth involves Ereshkigal. She has two attendants. They're like imps or spirits that live in the thresholds of the doors. They're threshold spirits and I see them as the original psychoanalysts, the original therapists, because what they do is they repeat back to Ereshkigal all her complaints. She'll say, "Oh, I have all these aches and pains. My arms hurt" and they'll whisper back, "Oh, your arms hurt." She'll say, "Oh, my back hurts," and they'll whisper back, "Oh, your back hurts." That's all they do. They repeat her complaints and it comforts her. I felt this with Ventura, that he was a liminal spirit moving through all these doors and rooms, listening to everybody, but never offering advice, just listening and sometimes repeating what people have said.

That's nice. I like this comment you're making. It's important because he never really gives advice. He's not a doctor or a psychoanalyst. He's not even a father. It's a bit like myself when I make a film with these people. The thing is I cannot rob them, but at the same time, I cannot give them anything. It's very sad sometimes. It's very ambiguous, but I don't think cinema can give that much to these people, but anyway, cinema is not there to rob them or dispossess them of something.

You've honored them.

I think so. It's done with some dignity. But we're equals. I'm not quite sure who is gaining in a profit sense and neither of us lose also.

Ossos

 

When you talked about meeting Vanda Duarte and trying to get her to work on Ossos, you said she didn't want to at first because she was too "busy", she had too many "personal" things to attend to. What made her change her mind?

It was my insistence. Every day I came and I insisted and I said, "I think you'd be great. I have this idea." It was just a matter of time. I was almost, more or less giving up. I already had the idea, "Well, I'll have to search for someone else," and I was not very happy about that because I had the feeling I was going for a second choice. The essence was there. She's the one who was so clear and so sure. I think it was just sheer insistence. I wouldn't let go.

We're lucky for that.

Yeah, because I saw no equal to Vanda in that place. Other people could do other things. Some other girls could have done their thing, but not like Vanda. She could show me. She could give the film a lot of things that were the neighborhood, that were the collective. She's a little bit like Ventura. There's that quality some people have of embodying other people. They're not just one person; they're already ghosts of people. They can have all the dead people behind them, behind their backs, and that's very clear to me with Ventura: he carries the weight of a lot of tragedy. There's a bit of the hope of the pioneer in him and the beauty of that gesture of the immigrant who comes alone, but he's also the tragedy of all that inevitable damnation. When I see him, he has this double side. He's a very strong man and, at the same time, a very destroyed man, a broken man. Vanda has the same thing. I could see no other doing what she does.

Recently, I read Alexander Nemerov's Icons of Grief, which is about the films of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton. I'm looking forward to seeing Casa de Lava, which I understand is somewhat a remake, or a reworking, more a riff, of I Walked with a Zombie, which is one of my favorite films. Nemerov's thesis - and I can apply it to your films - is that, like John Ford, like yourself, the extra, the character actor, the minor role, the marginalized role, is almost the true story. The lead actors are primarily there to drive the narrative forward, but it's the brief appearance of minor character actors that carry the weight of unspoken grief and tragedy. Nemerov describes them as iconic. Especially in his collaborations with Tourneur, Lewton would film these minor actors standing very still, almost pictorial, invested with presence.

In many of the reviews of Colossal Youth, Ventura is described as iconic and mythic. He embodies, as you are saying, the grief of ages, the ongoing tragedy of a displaced, enslaved people. In Colossal Youth I noticed this iconicity was achieved through your camera placement, which is very low, looking up at him. Was that conscious? Why did you do that?

For me it was more about the daily work. Before starting every day's work, for me it was more about, How can I meet this man? This very big man that I had met and with whom I had talked and who had accepted my proposal to make a film? Then came the moment in the first weeks of the shoot where I had to find how I could be as - the words are not enough - how can I put myself at his height really with my camera? The camera came down and down and down because I could not be at his height. I had to be lower. It was not instinctive, but for the first weeks of shooting, I adopted this height, this position, this respect perhaps - but it came like that and stayed like that. It seemed good for me. It seemed good for him, especially for the image, and it seemed good for him in the space. He was the one who was more or less the designer of the space. He crosses some things that make you aware.

Colossal Youth

It's my feeling that when you see him at some doors or in some places like the museum, Ventura is a man for a museum also when everyone says no. There are some people that are not for the museum. This is also a metaphor. Of course he fits very well in this Louis XV chair called the "Canopy of Confidence." Ventura is more or less the designer or the architect and it is because he designed the neighborhood. All these men, these pioneers, they made this medina, this place.

So it's because he crosses the shots or he enters and gets out or just being in the shot, being there, made me be at this height of camera position. If there's not a living human being in a shot, the shot does not exist today. It's very strange. Even more with Ventura or with people with this mythical quality, I tend to be respectful. My camera wondered and was a little bit afraid of him. A little bit. It's not fear; it's...

Awe?

Yes. So that was my feeling every day when I came to the place, when I arrived and saw Ventura, how can I do it again? How can I do it today? How can I go on? Because he seemed much more than what I imagined. And that was good because we both worked with imagination, especially the other's imagination, which is much more rich, confronting this other person and you have to begin the work with him, this challenge between him and you. This is what's going to be the film, the imagination and the void of the film, the ideas. The whole film is about me and him and it's also about space. The way we are everyday. Ventura is a very polite, elegant man that does not seem a man of today, you know? I have the feeling that some people are not of today. It's rare but sometimes you see someone who seems from the past, who has the force of the past, like our grandfathers, and Ventura is this kind of man. It makes you wonder.

 

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