December 5, 2006

«Camera Lucida» by Nobuhiro Suwa
Pedro Costa Film Retrospective in Sendai
translated by Kumiko Yamamoto
Sendai Mediatheque, 2005

I was once asked to write about Pedro Costa, but I refused, saying, "First of all, Pedro is one of my few close friends, and it's difficult to talk about one's friend since friendship is a personal experience." As a matter of fact, the real reason I turned down the offer was that my words could hardly touch his work, and they still cannot. Even now I'm not able to discuss his work, but his films - I can see them hundred times over. In Vanda's Room is an experience that cannot be exhausted, regardless of how often I see it, and even then I would be incapable of describing just what that experience is. Our works are created using completely different methods: while I have chosen to work with professional actors, Pedro has chosen to point the camera at people living their lives. He spent two years with a small DV camera, filming In Vanda's Room, and a year editing I nearly 130 hours of footage. 1, on the other hand, have just finished filming my current film in only thirteen days. When we first became acquainted, I told Pedro that in making a film, I had to work hard to connect with my staff. He then said to me, "I spend time working on my films. I hate to work with a crew." The way he said the word "hate" impressed me. It made me imagine how hurt he had been by the traditional filmmaking system. I have heard that Bones was shot with a film crew. Vanda was most probably surrounded by a huge crowd: cinematographers, sound engineers, electricians with a lot of equipment, cars laden with machinery and drivers, and those catering for the entire crew. The members of such a crew must have been only interested in their own assignments. It takes a lot of planning to get such a large number of people to work together efficiently. The plans for today and for tomorrow are all fixed. Everyone's task is connected to someone else's and they all contribute to the completion of the film. Time and expenses are carefully calculated. A change in the schedule is immediately reflected in the budget. There is a powerful system of filmmaking in motion. When ordered to stand before a camera, any human being would shudder in awe of such a system. Vanda was not allowed to behave as she would have liked. Nor was the director, for that matter. Pedro has chosen to part with such a traditional way of filmmaking. He has chosen to take filmmaking back to the time of "humane life," a time that is not punctuated by the number of days available for production, the start of filming or the end.

Nevertheless, no matter how small a digital camera may be, there still is a camera. The camera divides the filmmaker from his subjects, placing the latter on the opposite side of the camera and the former on this side. It is a system that does not permit either side to cross over. Therefore, it cannot, by its nature, escape from a structure of one sided exploitation. The world is divided into two. When an image is inserted into this divided world, a window is created on this side of the wall that opens onto the other. The window functions like a magic mirror that lets our gaze pass from this side, without letting others gaze from the opposite side. When viewing a film, we are behind the camera, like the director. We are protected from the risk of being violated by the reality in front of the camera. I have chosen to work with actors because I see them as beings who need to stand before a camera in their life. When my subjects are non-professional actors living their own lives, the camera deprives them of their life without giving anything back to them. But I realize, from the images in In Vanda's Room, that in fact a crossing is permitted from this side to the other, and subsequently a relationship materializes, free from the camera's power structure. I have never thought that the camera could establish a non-exploitative relationship with its subject that seems unattainable. What in the world makes this possible in In Vanda's Room? Why only in In Vanda's Room? To answer these questions, I must continue writing...

I have previously mentioned the word "free". But the images of In Vanda's Room appear to be strictly controlled. The camera is always mounted on a tripod and never moves. Were this done according to the author's aesthetic judgment, the images could be controlled by the author and the character would then be inscribed in a controlled space. If that were the case, why wouldn't he just approach the subject with a handycam and say, "Now, you can move freely. I will follow you with my camera"? Wouldn't such a relationship be freer? In documentaries, in fact, the frame is always ready for the occurrence of unexpected events. The camera must always be ready to move as required. If a remarkable accident happens outside the frame, the camera will move without hesitation. The images captured in this way are somehow open to reality. As framing is transient and open in documentary films, we are conscious spatially that reality extends offscreen. By always reminding ourselves that documentary films can only capture a part of reality, we seek to suggest that reality extends out of the frame, i.e., outside the cinema. Documentary images depend on the reality that there is an object worth filming before the camera. In Vanda's Room was also made in a manner of a documentary film. There is a town that is being demolished, where the residents lead their humble lives. The existence of this town is a story that will be erased from history. There are objects at which the camera must be pointed. But the images of In Vanda's Room do not rely on these realities. They reject the thoughtless realism that something meaningful can be captured only once a camera is pointed at them. There is no sign that an accident or chance event barges into view, and the rigidly-constructed framing forms autonomous spaces. The sounds heard from behind the wall bring the expanse of the outside world into view, but the images do not readily indicate the world behind the wall. As extremely short exposures are used, the dimmer regions of the image sink into darkness, even depriving our gaze the freedom of movement, The images are never decentered in such a way as to allow the spectator to reconstruct them as freely as he can, as if saying, "Look just as you please!" Rather, they are so centered that they almost function, I might say, as if commanding our gaze. Moreover, they are frightfully beautiful. But then, if such filmmaking were only to create beauty, we would merely need to praise Pedro Costa for his creative talent. Costa would not have needed to break with the traditional crew system and go off by himself This beauty isn't simply for satisfying the filmmaker's aesthetics alone.

Pedro has set up the camera alone. When a camera is placed among people, it brings about many different relationships. Through the camera's violence, people on one side may hurt those on the other and make them unhappy. Some may feel ashamed to expose themselves before the camera, but may still think that they can compromise themselves in exchange for money- Others may run away from the camera to protect themselves. However, occasionally there are others, who may find themselves in a joyous relationship in which the people on both sides can work together. In any case, there still remains an asymmetric relationship between the one behind the camera and the one beyond: Pedro is a seeing being and Vanda a being seen. While actors are always beings seen, they are forbidden to stare back and are forced to ignore the camera, i.e. to gaze. To accept this and behave as if there were no camera at all is the acting. Would this definition on make Vanda also an acting being? There is a camera, but it is not just any camera. it's the camera held by Pedro. Vanda simply ignores its presence. Is it because she has become accustomed to it? Is it possible that she has spent so much time filming, that she has become used to the camera and forgotten its presence altogether? Though she's not acting, she must be aware of Pedro's presence, only that she ignores it. In this sense, she's acting, one might say, and that would be fiction. But Vanda's coughing, for instance, belongs to nobody else but her. It's hers. When she coughs, the image of her body undermines the division between filming and being Filmed. It crystallizes between being constrained and behaving freely, between acting and being the way she is. She has to cough. She's so free that she throws Lip on her bed as she coughs. She's not acting for anybody. She has no desire to show off her usual self before the camera. But she's also not what she is, forgetting the presence of the camera. I can perhaps say that she participates in the filmmaking, in conspiracy with Pedro's camera, or that she avows that she has nothing to hide from the camera. just as she would say to her neighbors, "if you want to come, come anytime. I am always here," she lets a man who wants to film intrude, offers him her own image and provides a place for him and his camera. Pedro isn't just there to bring the image back to his editing room; but lie rather continues to stay there with his camera, taking the attitude that he stays there because lie wants to, the attitude of an ordinary man. He also seems to be saying, "I have nothing to hide, either." He composes her image through his gaze and gives it back to her. Vanda exists with or without a camera, but her image does not require or need our imagining or questioning what she is like in reality. Pedro has not taken advantage of reality to fabricate a pseudo-real world; nor has he attempted to preserve some intact fragments of real life. Vanda signifies both Vanda and Pedro, images crystallized through the interaction with the spectator's gaze. She is the resistance against the division between the two gazes. She is a representation of new gazes that contemplate how people can live together... Vanda is now. She is here just now...

My dear Pedro, I wanted to write about the spirit of your cinema with all my compassion for you. Unfortunately, my review hasn't been entirely successful Hopefully, this text will not interfere with the imagination of those who have seen your films. I will reflect on this unsuccessful question in my cinema. I trust you are going to see my next film. I do hope you like it.

(obrigado: André Dias)