July 23, 2012

July 5, 2012

António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro

The Los Angeles-leg of the touring retrospective of the films of António Reis (1927–1991) and Margarida Cordeiro (1938 - ) begins tomorrow, Friday, July 6th, at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. This program has already screened at Harvard and in New York as curated by Haden Guest, but is also part of a general international effort by festivals and archives to show their films, at long last...

The living evidence of these fantastic unknowns — the films of this Portuguese couple Reis and Cordeiro — have been long-awaited by the author of this blog and many others who have, at best, only heard or read their names. Their films, sight unseen, are already preceded by a mystery: Why have they gone unseen? Is it national rejection? International rejection? A curse? A secret?

It is with great excitement that Kino Slang will present a handful of texts on the films of Reis and Cordeiro in English translation over the next year's time.

First, below, is a translation of the complete 1977 Cahiers du Cinéma interview with António Reis about the couple's first feature Trás-os-Montes (1971), and on the region and people of Northeast Portugal, where the film was shot and after which it was named.

We present this interview, with more texts to follow, in an effort to further the discussion and archive on Reis/Cordeiro in English, even (or especially) in the face of the scarce chance to see their films; to perhaps make a small contribution to the struggle against the Portuguese government's disinterest in cinema, i.e. its reprehensible budgetary cutbacks to the Cinemateca Portuguesa and to the funding of cinema in general; and most of all to begin a slow and long bow to António Reis and Margarida Cordeiro and those who have sought fit to write, speak, and make films under the spell of their work, in addition to those who've chronicled, restored, subtitled, screened, shipped, and projected their work. We don't know all of their names but our profoundest thanks and appreciation go to those who are attempting to give Reis and Cordeiro their rightful place in film history:

— The Jeonju International Film Festival for their 2011 Reis/Cordeiro retrospective which has surely helped initiate the current export of Reis/Cordeiro's work.
"To my knowledge, these will be some of the very first screenings of António and Margarida's films in Asia. I envy all of you, now about to discover these treasures. As it happened to me thirty years ago, I know you'll 'stop breathing, suddenly' as the screen lights up with the children of Trás-os Montes, with Jaime's nightmares, with the face of mother Ana. Those evenings, I'm sure a lot of dazed, happy creatures will be wandering the streets of Jeonju." (Pedro Costa)

— the editors of the António Reis blog, a superb, multi-lingual archive of texts

— Gabe Klinger and Dennis Lim for their recent critical illuminations of the films and filmmakers' biographies;

— Luis Miguel Oliveira

— Haden Guest at Harvard, and the programmers at UCLA and Film Forum Los Angeles (where Mudar de vida, directed by Paulo Rocha and written by Reis, will be screened on July 15th);

— André Dias, Cristina, Hiroatsu Suzuki, and Pedro Costa who first revealed the existence of these films and figures to me;

— Ted Fendt for his revisions on the below translation;

— and especially Sílvia das Fadas and Kelsey Brain. Without Kelsey the following translation would not be possible, nor the stills with which it is illustrated, presented here as they were in the original Cahiers du Cinéma, in black and white. Her dedication and attention to the Reis/Cordeiro cause is an inspiration... to anticipation itself.


An Interview with António Reis

by Serge Daney and Jean-Pierre Oudart.
Cahiers du Cinéma, no. 276 pp. 337-41, May 1977.
Translated from the French by Kelsey Brain, Ted Fendt, Bill Krohn.

Cahiers. What can you tell us about the shooting, about
the conditions in which you worked with the peasants of

A. Reis. I can tell you that we never shot with a
peasant, a child or an old person, without having first
become his pal or his friend. This seemed to us an
essential point, in order to be able to work and so that there
weren’t problems with the machines. When we began
shooting with them, the camera was already a kind of little
pet, like a toy or a cooking utensil, that didn’t scare them.
So using their lights in their homes or setting up reflectors
in the fields to have indirect light wasn’t a problem. It was
a sort of game at the same time. So it was possible to insist
on certain things, most often with tenderness. And if we
were having a problem, they understood very well. A very
important thing: they were able to confirm from our work
that we were also “peasants of the cinema,” because it
sometimes happened that we were working sixteen,
eighteen hours a day, and I think that they liked seeing us
working. And when we needed them to continue working
with us, even while leaving the animals without food or the
children without care, they didn’t feel, I think, it was a
constraint. It was admirable to see this.

You know, I don’t have a tautological conception of
people, but I believe that in the Northeast, they have a very
special way of treating people. If you arrive – suddenly –
they greet you, they open their door to you, they give you
bread, wine, whatever they have. At the same time, they
are not “kindness personified” because they are also very
hard. Only they go abruptly from gentleness to

Cahiers. What relationship did they have with cinema,
or television?

A. Reis. In the village where we shot, I can tell you
that there was neither cinema nor television. (He makes a
drawing on the paper tablecloth.) Portugal is like this,
Spain is like this, the Northeast is here. Here, there is a
town named Bragança and, there, another named Miranda
do Douro. All the villages we shot in are situated near the
border and in the vicinity of these two towns. So the
peasants know that there’s cinema and television in
Brangança, but that’s all. In many of the villages, there is
still no electricity. The connection to cinema is still a
connection to photographs, quite simply.

Cahiers. How, as soon as you had had the idea and
the project of the film, had you thought to avoid looking at
these peasants through an ethnographic lens?

A. Reis. You know, I believe that the ethnographic
way of seeing is a vice. Because ethnography is a science
that comes afterwards. Similarly, we did not see the
people of the Northeast from a picturesque or a religious
point of view. We were obviously very interested in the
anthropological problems posed by the region, in
Celtic literature, etc. We read all of your Markale
(the French writer -Ed.), because the Celts are still there. We
studied Iberian architecture because the architecture of the
homes there was not born by spontaneous generation. But it
was always with the aim of choosing, of intensifying. Because
if we read a landscape solely from the point of view
of “beauty,” that’s not very much. But if you can read at
once the beauty of the landscape, the economic aspect of
the landscape, the geographical-political aspect of the
landscape, all that is the reality of the landscape. The
integrated land, without any transformation, the cultivated
land, etc. So, on the subject of the Northeast, we treated
dialectically everything we knew, everything we learned
from the people, everything we discovered ourselves.
Because it was also possible to discover things. Margarida
was born in the most violent part of the Northeast. Even
today, she remembers the taste of the wine, the childhood
legends and the nightmares. All this became material, with
a certain depth.

Cahiers. But for someone who lives in Lisbon, what is
the Northeast?

A. Reis. It’s very far. It’s from there that electricity,
almonds, good sausages, hams, iron, etc, comes. What the
peasants of the Northeast say about the capital is what is
said about the Northeast in Lisbon , except for emigrants
from the Northeast in Lisbon. To them, even if they’ve
lived for twenty or thirty years in Lisbon, if you say the
name of a tree in their subdialect, they still tremble.

Cahiers. Something that’s striking in the film is the
absence of the Catholic Church, of religion. Because
according to what we know in France about Portugal after
April 25th, and particularly about the North, it seems to us
that the Church played an important role…

A. Reis. I can tell you that on this subject, we adopted,
Margarida and I, a principle of tabula rasa. In the film, we
never deal with institutions. Because Catholicism is a very
recent religion there. You sense in the film that there are
much older religions and among the people themselves,
Christianity is a very superficial thing. It’s not an
exaggeration or a poetic liberty to say that they are druids.
If you hear them talk about trees, about how they love
them…there is there something very old that has nothing to
do with Christianity, which had to be made present through
its absence. The film is a fresco, an epic of the Northeast,
it’s vaster than a small chapel in an artificial world, with
the village priest, etc. I think that a film with all that as a
subject should to be made differently than the one we
made, with other implications.

Cahiers. But you can’t deny the Church’s influence
recently in the North of Portugal. What did it use among
the peasants in order to make them move politically?

A. Reis. You know as well as I the priest’s game with
the peasants. He manipulates them with death, the afterlife,
he scares them. He uses the fact that the people, for the
time being, need certain fetishes, so it’s easy to impress
them. But does this mean that deep down the people are
what they say to the priest, what they do with him? No.
All that we feel, when we’re in contact with the peasants,
about their revolt, about their philosophy, about their daily
life, is that there are very different religions, more

Cahiers. That would be in keeping with the feeling at
very the beginning of the film where we see a child, a
shepherd, who sees an inscription on a rock, an inscription
that refers to a very distant past.

A. Reis. You know, there are three shepherds in the
film. All three are different. The first, the one you’re
talking about, is a force of nature. He is like a Fulani in
Africa or a shepherd in the Middle East, a shepherd who
has a profession, a code with his sheep, who walks in the
night, who still belongs a bit to the Neolithic age. What he
says to his sheep is a code where it is difficult to separate
the music, the phonetic and lexical aspects: you feel a
shock between these elements. And he speaks a subdialect
older than Portuguese. He is very different from the last
shepherd. He’s a primitive in the good sense of the term.

Cahiers. How did the idea of the film come to you?

A. Reis. I’ve already said that Margarida was born
there. As for me, I was born in an already eroded province
lacking force, lacking beauty, lacking expression, 6 km
from Porto. So inside me I had the desire to be reborn
somewhere else. And the first time that I went to Tràs-os-
Montes with an architect friend, I felt that I was born
there. So, I’d known the province for several
years and, in working with Margarida, in going there
often, I said to myself that it would be nice to make a
film there because everything came together in a
cinematographic sense. To the point that when we began
shooting, a lot of location scouting had been done long
before. That doesn’t mean that we didn’t plan things, but it
was a flexible plan. In many scenes, for example, it is very
difficult to distinguish what was filmed en direct
from what was not. The dialectic of these two
aesthetic positions was hellish for us. But we believe
we’ve succeeded in making, not a synthesis, but a
confrontation of contraries. Even en direct, on the one
hand, we needed all the speed and all the surprise but, at
the same time, we cleaned up some parasitic things that
didn’t make sense or that were gratuitously populist. And
for that, we needed an insect’s eye.

Cahiers. I had the feeling that, during the whole first
part (the one with the children), you were using the fiction
to progressively bring out more naked information, more
closely related to what one expects from a documentary.

A. Reis. But when the mother is telling the story of
Blanchefleur, is it fiction or documentary? It’s both. In a
village it can happen that an event is fiction. So what is
surprising about a village is that if you are there, you see
only the golden dust, animals at the spring, etc. But if we
can go from one house to another, then to a river, then
through a door, things become so complex that you
can no longer talk simply about fiction and documentary.

In this house, you can hear, precisely, that mother telling
the story of Blanchefleur orally, while working. And the
children of the middle ages are like Blanchefleur in
images. What you understand with these Portuguese
villages is that it’s a vice to separate ancient culture, the
civilizations that came after, and everyday life today. It is
there precisely, in this refusal to separate, that I find a
progressive and revolutionary element. Because I think
that the masses there know how to assimilate from a
critical point of view of the forms of life that owe nothing
to the city. Because these people aren’t inclined to always
lose. They begin to realize, seeing their sons returning
from Europe, that that doesn’t make up for anything. The
sons who return from Europe build a house “next to” the
others, fence it in, and the parents think, “My son has gone
mad!” And so it arises that the old disagree with their own
children. They know very well that they have a richness
and that there is a genocide against them. This is why, at
those times, they can say, “We’re going to cut off all the
supplies, the food for Lisbon.” It’s not only to be
reactionary; it’s that they want their hands and their heads
to still have value.

Going back to what you said: in fact, there is a turning
point in the film. This turning point is the lyrical quality
that is always threatened. Even when the children amuse
themselves at the river, they discover death with the frozen
trout. The big dusty house or the deaths or the child who
plays with the top (who is the one who goes to the mine),
it is always a threatened world. I believe that the film is
always transforming. The so-called “finale” has to act
like a boomerang: viewers need to be compensated by the
lyrical space and time of the first part in order to support
what follows. When the blacksmith regrets that people are
leaving the village, this refers precisely to the mutilated
children and the deaths from the colonial wars, these are
them. Those who are going to come to Lisbon, to Europe,
in the slums, in the factories, etc. That’s why we treated
these young children with so much intensity. If you go
there, you’ll see, they’re like that, there’s no naturalism,
they’re still sort of angels.

Cahiers. There’s also the feeling that it’s them who
are the link with the past. The adults are kind of in the
background. They appear through the voice over, not

A. Reis. Because there are no adults there. The voice
over you hear, a little violent, a little oppressed, is the voice
of a character who we see for a brief moment in the film.
It’s a miner’s son, an executive. His father spent fifty
years at the mine. The voice of this man is traumatized.
He speaks of the old community of miners who were
former peasants. Never in our film do we talk about the
communities of villages, but you have to feel that they
exist. We do the dance, we walk in the dark communally.
The voice over counterpoints the life of the miners like the
train whistle counterpoints Pergolesi’s music that we hear
for a moment. There is always a crossing, a dialectic of the
sound with the image that interests me a lot more than all
these stories of connections, of ellipses and other rules from
film manuals.

Cahiers. At one point in the film you quote a text by
Kafka which says that people are far from the Capital,
therefore from the Law, which they try to guess but which
they never manage to do because the Law is possessed by
a small number of people, etc. Can we consider that this is
shorthand for the historical situation of Tràs-os-Montes in
relation to Lisbon?

A. Reis. Yes. We translated the text by Kafka into the
subdialect and, as a result, this text became very guttural,
very expressive, endowed with an extraordinary force.
They have a marvelous word designating the manner in
which the nobles use the Law to their benefit: “baratím.”
Because the laws of the community are flexible, they are
transformed by historical change. These are of course oral
laws, they aren’t made once and for all, they are flexible.
And it is precisely because of this flexibility that they were
liquidated by the written Laws. One day, it is such and
such a shepherd who leads all the sheep to graze, another
day it’s another shepherd. There’s a sort of primitive
communism in this region. And we feel that at times
they are closer to the future than people in the city. For
example. if Lisbon lacks water for twenty-four hours, there
is a collective neurosis! How, given the toughness of his
life, does a peasant face snow, fire, heat, etc. With what
endurance. Even when certain peasants were imprisoned
by the PIDE [1], they succeeded at resisting. Why? And how
many friends have I known in Porto who spoke a lot and
very loftily and who, when they were imprisoned… I don’t
want to say that the peasants are more courageous and the
other more cowardly. But why, for example, when the
peasants of Baixo Alentejo were arrested, did they have an
endurance that people from the cities did not have?

Cahiers. We get the feeling that your film is made of
image-sound units against which you refuse all cheating…

A. Reis. We have made the sound synchronous,
obviously. We have, like you say, organized the units, as if
it were possible to have a symphonic sound. These are
units which will sometimes echo further on. I’ll give you
an example: when the old woman in black has just told the
child who has fallen, “Do not cry I’m going to
sing ‘Galandun’ (a song from the Medieval Ages) to you,”
there is a voice that says, “the dancers who rise up, who
rise up…” And she is already working to memorize what
she has lost and we see then the men who dance close up,
blurred, and then from far away, like on a postcard. We
allow the spectator the attention to think: “Look, a
postcard!” Because the peasants never actually danced at
that place. It’s what we ourselves imagine today. But pay
attention: you have to to wait until the end of the film to
really give that shot meaning. Because later, we see the
old woman who watches and you might believe that she
watches the dancers, but that’s not true. These are
successive disillusions, but not traps. Often people say of
the film: the rhythm is too slow. This is because you have
to wait until the end of the film to say certain things. And
how the different units proceed dialectically, for us, is very
important. What’s bothered us a lot is that we edited in
black and white and we haven’t had enough time
afterwards to work on the color. Working twelve months
at an editing bench assembling in black and white a film
that we should have seen in color!

Cahiers. Who has the film been shown to? What
reactions has it provoked?

A. Reis. First we showed previewed the film to the
peasants who we shot with. In general, they liked the film,
they reacted very well, including to the “connotations.”
We’ve had some negative criticisms but they were from
reactionaries like the kind you find in Lisbon or Porto.
They reproached the absence of the Christian religion, of
not having shown dams, the traditional cuisine, the poverty,
etc. They even wanted to burn the film and to destroy the
negatives. But that’s a very limited reaction, coming from
people I know and who spend their lives in cafes. The
important thing, for us, was the peasants…

Cahiers. But exactly how can a film contribute to
helping these peasants who are otherwise so cut off 
from film?

A. Reis. Of course, there are cinematic language
problems. They don’t possess this language there. But
there are elements which are very important in their
everyday lives, things which relate to the theater of the
middle ages. They live in a space, at home or in nature,
that is already cinematic. I’m certain that if they study
film, they will become filmmakers. A peasant said to
me one day, “What? You’re leaving for Lisbon without
ever having seen the light which goes from such-and-such
kilometer to such-and-such kilometer? How can you?”
With difficulty I find people in Lisbon who talk to me
about the light on the bricks or on the streets. So when the
peasants saw the film, they recognized these things they
liked and that belonged to them, even if sometimes our
imagination or our freedom of expression bewildered them.
For example, the snow scene. They’ve never eaten snow
like you see in the film but they’re affected by snow, by
the beauty of snow, by the glare of snow. So, as there are
people who eat dirt or straw, I made them eat snow.

Cahiers. I would like to ask you a more general question
about the cinema of Portugal. First, does a “Portuguese
cinema” exist? Then, what has changed since April 25th?
And you, what do you think is working and not working?

A. Reis. My position on this subject is somewhat like
that of Seixas Santos. We think that there’s no “Portuguese
cinema.” We ourselves manage, whether during fascism
or after April 25th, in a situation which is characterized by
a lack of connections with world cinema, a lack of control
over our means of production, a lack of real and sufficient
experience. There are isolated cases, like the case of
Portugal since the 19th century. We have some quality
but we don’t have quantities of quality. In that sense, you
can’t talk about a Portuguese cinema. Even the generation
of 1962, whose efforts were very important, knows
very well that these efforts have been very individual.
Sometimes they unite in order to defend themselves, in
the name of a certain political engagement and not in the
name of romanticism. I don’t believe that things have
changed much since April 25th. These are cooperatives
and independent filmmakers, but it’s still with money from
the state. We make films which are neither seen, nor sold
and we don’t have any more money to make others. It is
regrettable that we work like this, always wondering: “are
we going to be able to make another film?”

Cahiers. What kind of reactions did your film provoke
amongst filmmakers?

A. Reis. On this subject we rather like enfants terribles.
Margarida and myself. We don’t recognize any influences.
Even when people want to compare us to Manuel de
Oliveira, we refuse it, even if we have great respect
for him. Even if it’s only for the way he works, for his
standards. Otherwise, the films that we want to make are
perpendicular to those of Manuel de Oliveira. Because
there is a tendency leaning towards the metaphysical in his
films, remnants of Jesuitism, which don’t interest us.

Cahiers. What is striking is that Manuel de Oliveira
and you, you have a point in common, you are both from
the North, from Porto. And not from Lisbon. Is there not,
in the cinema as well, a sort of overdevelopment of Lisbon
which doesn’t produce great things…

A. Reis. I believe so. I think that the life in Lisbon
doesn’t leave filmmakers a lot of time to go deeper into
what they say. I don’t want to be hard on them because
they’re my friends, but I believe that sometimes their way
of life blocks them. I think they’re adult enough to know
the fundamental reasons for why we are engaged in cinema.
I believe that cinema is a matter of life and death. For us,
we can’t cheat.


[1] Polícia Internacional e de Defesa do Estado (International and State Defence Police)

July 1, 2012

"Our dream is worth as much as our sleepless nights"