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Sculptural Dramaturgies:
Interview with Paula Gaitan

by Marcelo Miranda and Pedro Henrique Ferreira

         On the penultimate day of the 26th Tiradentes Film Festival, on January 27, the editors of Abismu, Marcelo Miranda and Pedro Henrique Ferreira, sat in a bakery with filmmaker Paula Gaitán for a conversation about The Song of the Amapolas, one of her new films, screened in the section Free Eyes. The film was awarded the Carlos Reichenbach Trophy by the Young Jury. In the conversation, Gaitán, one of the most complete, instigating and talented artists in Latin American audiovisual production, also talks about her work processes and how she thinks about the making of each film. 

Marcelo Miranda - Right away I can say that The Song of the Amapolas reminded me in several moments of Sintra's Diary".

Paula Gaitán - Really?


MM - I am referring to some elements. Memory, life, affections. One had Glauber (Rocha), had his stay in Portugal, this one has your mother, her life, art. Looking back and reconfiguring those things through memory, through images, through sounds.


PG - They are such different experiences. Of course, I really like Sintra's Diary, a family experience, the relationship with memory. But there, I worked a lot on the idea of involuntary memory. And  I connected the archival materials. In Canto das Amapolas the only archival material is the sound material. And there is a distance between having made those Super-8 materials in 1981 and coming back to them in 2007, when I went back to Lisbon. They are the same devices in fact. But in Sintra's Diary, the photos are more installationist, in the water, in the trees, there is a relationship with nature. And I take photos of Glauber and put them in the hands of people in the regions where I go, and then they try to identify Glauber's image, one thinks he is a peasant, another thinks he is a movie actor... To give a new meaning, to multiply this idea of Glauber in the reconstruction of a new fiction. That house where they say it was our house, it wasn't, that whole sequence where I go up the stairs and there is Glauber's voice saying a lot of things in Spanish about Marxism, and the camera comes in... Man, I am remembering, I haven't thought about this for a long time, the camera goes through the room as if it were our house. So there is "fake news" (laughs), there is something that doesn't matter if it is the same house, it is not about that. It is a film through Glauber, but it is closer to involuntary memory that speaks more about me than about Glauber, right? In O Canto das Amapolas, the movement is different. In fact, photos have been permanent in my other films, a kind of obsessive thing of working with this device. I think O Canto das Amapolas has more dialogue with Vida, my film with Maria Gladys, with the question, for example, of identifying, within a space circumscribed to an apartment, some points, like curtains, windows, that will serve as a narrative. I don't see films in relation to the theme, I see much more through the devices and through what interests me that is the protagonist of the film. For me, spaces are as important as humans. The windows, the voids, the pictures. And there (in Canto das Amapolas) was the apartment where I lived in Germany. When I went to the residence, I took a handful of photos of my mother. In fact, there was an intention to do something with my mother, who died during the pandemic, and I couldn't bury her. But I don't talk about this in the film, it would seem that I would be asking the public to join me, but the film is not interested in this and I don't work with this logic. I say that it is a conversation with my mother, but evidently something happened in the meantime. I wanted to hear my mother's voice, that was my first move for the film. This was archival material, two materials from different times. One, that she herself says I was 52 years old (actually I was 54, but she wanted to diminish her idea as well). I recorded with a cell phone, when I was in Germany I didn't have these shots that appear in the film, everything was filmed last year (2022), absolutely everything, including the Super-8 images. The photos I took all with this "little camera" [holds a small camera in her hands] of 30 euros and a negative. Except for the (old) photos that appear in my mother's album, of course. I used the whole material, everything out of focus, the interruptions, the accidents, there is no manipulation at all, not even the blue ones at the end of the film, the material came up that way, there was a mistake and I didn't manipulate it. So this relationship with the material is very different from that of Sintra's Diary. There I connected the materials by association in a more apollineal and delicate exercise, while here, in Canto das Amapolas, there is no rigor in the manipulation, it is something more brutal, with another procedure. It is interesting that my mother, at a certain moment, talks about (Jackson) Pollock, about the issue of "action painting", and the film suggests a more brutal attitude with the materials and an exploitation of the moment, of a direct, real cinema. 


Pedro Henrique Ferreira - So you shot a lot of things without necessarily knowing if they were going to be in the film.

PG - Everything. Everything, everything. I thought about how I would shoot, but I didn't define which shot I would use in the film. I shot 50 shots of the curtains without knowing which one would go in, obviously there were some points in the space that I was investigating, but never a certain shot, the choices were made during editing. For the poppy sequence, I went out for a walk and suddenly we passed that place, the crew was filming and obviously I knew it was going to be in some film (laughs). And it is all very fleeting, very fast, it is really a 'cinema realité' (laughs), a film like O Canto das Amapolas has the materiality of those records, as if it were an iron plate sculpture, following my logic. There is dramaturgy in this method, which is the dramaturgy of the moment. And when I film, in a certain way I am already editing, I just don't know exactly... In the case of O Canto das Amapolas everything that came from the house, those inanimate objects, would modulate the film and gain some movement from Betina's character. There are moments, then, that were accidents of fate and others that were more planned.

PHF - I was thinking about a multicontinental issue that I think is present in O Canto das Amapolas and in other of your films. Light in the Tropics, for example, has multicontinental and multilingual spaces. 

PG - I feel that the sonority of the text was interesting, in O Canto das Amapolas, it is a text by (German philosopher) Friedrich Hölderlin. Since this film was made in Germany, I thought it might have a German audience. And when it came time to translate it into Portuguese, I thought that the incomprehension of what was said there, after that long conversation about languages, language, the subtle differences between German and Yiddish and Hebrew, and my insistence on understanding this subtlety... throughout the film Dina talks about incommunicability or the wandering through language, because of the occupied territories. It was really an aesthetic decision, to leave this text as a sound layer, to which we don't have access, neither do I. She speaks, for example, about my life. She talks, for example, about my grandfather, that he was from a region that was occupied and divided, and he spoke German, and she is surprised when I say that I didn't know (laughs). This is fantastic, because it is actually a discussion about not-knowing. I feel that a lot of the things she says in the film I still don't understand, it's very crazy. The question of going to something more hermetic, that discussion about sound, is there, raw, it doesn't need any more translation. 


                                                            Scenes of Paula Gaitán in "Days in Sintra" (2007)

MM - At a certain point in the film there is a song by Bernard Herrmann, from the soundtrack of Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1958).

PG - I was a little afraid to use it, out of respect, but I also thought it would be interesting. It was kind of a strange decision, but that's how it is, I felt. Because, in a way, I'm chasing my mother (like James Stewart's character does with Kim Novak's character in Vertigo in the scene where the music plays), I chase her through the still life of the apartment until I get to the apex of her face. And she talks a lot about her sister's escape, the horror stories she heard in her sister's playful games. I felt that this song was also a love experience with my mother. Then comes a Jewish song in the credits, and there's that one at the beginning, by Béla Bartok. And there is an electronic song by my daughter Maíra, which she wrote for my hands. The hands are always characters in my films, you know, there is always my hand, because it is very expressive. 

MM - The sound mixtures in your films are always very unexpected.

PG - YEAH... It's a little irresponsible, right? 


PHF - A provocation that you made a while ago, of hiding the loss of your mother in the film, in order not to appeal to that and to work with the materials based on that. How do you see your film, or in fact your cinema, within this lineage, this panorama of works that eventually appeal to the sentimentality of events. 

PG - I have horror for these (appealing) films. Horror, first of all because every memory is first of all a fiction. Even interview films. Apparently the person is there trying to reconstruct the past, telling anecdotes about someone who is gone, but it is always what the interviewee wants to talk about and what interests him/her. It is talking more about him than about the person who left, so this is very dangerous, isn't it? I prefer to wander through these spaces of death and life in a more subtle way, thinking about how to make the person come back to life, to be reborn, which is what I do with dead materials, for example, photographs, inanimate objects, through photography, through images. For example, the sequence of the sea, with Hölderlin's text, are frames then covered by hand movements. These passages from movement to immobility, this interests me a lot, as if you could return to life. My mother's moments in the apartment are as if she were really there, I feel her walking with me, seeing the images, sometimes her presence becomes a mystery. Many people think she is there with me, there are people who say 'it is so beautiful when she walks and opens the window', and I say that it is not her there, it is me. So some people think that the subjective images are archive material that my mother filmed. It's strange, because I also felt this ambiguity making the film.

MM - I have the impression that your films, if you think of them as a whole, have three more preponderant lines, and they all blend together: an essayistic-visual line, which would be your work with photographs, memory, nostalgia, archives; the profile films, which deal with artists that you film, like Maria Gladys, Negro Léo, Marcélia Cartaxo, Arto Lindsay, people that you adopt as your characters; and the fictions of a more poetic or historical nature. Does this make any sense to you in the creation? Do you change your posture when you are going to do one or the other?

PG - I don't. It's the same exercise. It is the same exercise, the difficulty is the same, it is always a laboratory of images. It's something I do daily, it's not something like "I become an editor", "I become a director". It is like a painter in a studio every day, or a writer, who never stops. Cinema, because its production processes are so difficult and take so much more time, makes you distance yourself from your subject matter. You spend a lot of time trying to find resources. But it is a constant imagetic production, of researching materials with images, of reading, of researching, of collecting sounds... There is, of course, a previous thought to define lines of structure procedure, I feel this comes a lot from the visual arts, from installation, to understand its concept and how to articulate it. And there is the aesthetic issue, to understand the color, the framing, the composition, and I think I master this very well. In a good way, it is not vanity, but this I am an expert in, I feel this facility, ability, security, I know what will work with the eyes. I know exactly what I want. I mean, it is not that I know, but I understand how it works in the camera. It is a relationship that I establish between the spaces and the image. My body feels and does a kind of choreography with the camera, it is something I have been acquiring skill at. I know how to balance myself, how to breathe, how to understand when to stop in the shot. 

MM - It is interesting because this illustrates very well the difference between the films. Your approach to each material is in that relationship created in the moment of each situation and what makes sense within that project. 

PG - There are decisions that I call conceptual, that don't come at random. Some things I improvise and understand in the moment, which is particular, to have some control and take advantage of opportunities, to walk around with a camera and know that any research material could become, at some point, a shot in the film. 


PHF - And production structures, how are the differences in your films? How do you think about working on big projects, like Luz nos Trópicos, which had several cores, and other very domestic ones, like É Rocha e Rio, Negro Léo, keeping the same unity of image work.

PG - I think I should have more money to shoot big projects because I would do very well, I have very ambitious fiction projects, co-productions with Colombia and all that. I've been reading Edouard Glissant, a philosopher from Martinique, and I want to make a film in that region, where my father died, in a plane crash. There has been a very strong contemporary intellectual art movement in that region. And I started to read a lot of Glissant, which is a beautiful name, you know, it means "to glide". And he has a text that talks about the "archipelago thought", which was already in Light in the Tropics, which deals with several spaces simultaneously and how you go from one geographical space to another. I have a great desire to continue these projects that connect distant geographies. It would be worth having an interesting, intelligent production company for this research. Maybe in Colombia there is this possibility, I am Colombian too and it was a place where I returned last year and my name became more evident. Because that's it, you know, I am a foreigner here in Brazil, I am a foreigner in Colombia, I am a foreigner in France? I still think of myself as a director who has conquered an international space, I haven't given up on this. Because I think I deserve it and I have the possible skills. I remember Adirley Queirós saying that it is very comfortable to say 'ah, it's Latin American, it's peripheral, so stay there', but we make movies wishing to offer the maximum of our creative capacity in experiences that can go beyond borders. 

MM - You are a woman director, filmmaker, who has already been an actress, writer, screenwriter, editor, and you are inserted in a Brazilian historical moment in which more women are finally acting in cinema. We imagine that you are constantly asked about this what it means to be a woman director in the Brazilian film scenario. And you have always had somewhat more critical opinions on this subject. 

PG - It's very nice to see this, women occupying spaces, writing reviews, directing. But that's not enough, right? Occupying spaces are poetic acts that accompany new perceptions of the world, new imaginaries, and it's no use having so much ideology and then seeing conservative films. This is my criticism in this sense: there is no point in being a director, who has a whole series of politically correct issues or a lot of assertiveness, when the films come out and are conservative... The most important thing is the project itself, what is going to happen, how it manifests itself. It's natural, the women who are occupying it are extraordinary, but it shouldn't come by number, or it becomes too bureaucratic, only. This is in the case of women. In relation to racial quotas, I think it is very different, there is a question of class and regional struggles. 


Tiradentes, 27/01/2023

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