February 21, 2011 - Leave a Response

Film editing is a monster. It eats you alive, it regurgitates you, it spits you out, and then it licks you sensuously without shame or remorse.

As the monster swallows you, it makes you trust that you will find your way out, that you will somehow get to a place that is zillions of steps ahead. Inside its belly, the monster makes you solve puzzles of 2,635 million pieces.

Down in the dark guts of the monster you can hear its rumblings and the sounds of the outside world but you know you can’t come out just like that. You know you are going to have to look into yourself first. You know you are going to have to crack several pieces of the big mystery before you can even think about anything else.

The monster makes you sleepless and then it makes you sleep too much. It sucks all the energy out of your body until you are sure you can’t move another finger and, right after, it makes you get up again at full speed, with great inspiration and joy.

Sometimes the monster throws you up suddenly and you think all is lost. But then the monster kisses you and embraces you so tenderly that you see clearly you are part of everything that exists, that you are connected with the entire universe.

The monster is chewing on me right now.


Jungle Books

January 7, 2011 - Leave a Response

I am reading two books at the same time and somehow they are becoming more and more related to each other (and also to my film) in ways I can’t really grasp. The first book is Werner Herzog’s Conquest of the Useless, made out of journals he wrote when shooting Fitzcarraldo in the Peruvian Amazon jungle between 1979-81, which I am reading for the first time.

I am in perpetual awe at Herzog’s unwavering strength and commitment to make a film in conditions so extreme that I can’t help but feel, just for a second, that I can do anything myself. I am forever in debt for the inspirational power of his energy, mad determination and courage to look inside himself.

The second book is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, which I have read many times and, being so celebrated as it is condemned, is hard to pin down in a few sentences. Owen Knowles (Penguin edition, 2007) describes it as a major literary work of  “apocalyptic symbolism and existentialist uncertainty” that continues to “divide opinion sharply, particularly in its treatment of race and imperialism,” and that keeps on fascinating readers “by virtue of the subliminal power at work in its treatment of collapse and breakdown.”

As I read it, I try to find signs of Conrad’s racism or lack thereof, eagerly looking for evidence of his condemnation of the entire colonial project, of his denunciation of the organized loathing of the Congo and the genocide of its people, of his disgust at witnessing the bleeding of Africa, the immense violence of it all…  And reading it I look for signs of my past in Conrad’s trip up the Congo river just a few kilometers away from where I lived.

I carry both books with me all the time and I read them interchangeably when riding the New York subway after a big snow storm paralyzed the city  – their impressions of tropical jungles and steamy rivers becoming more and more unreal and mesmerizing…

In both books I find an indelible impression of the inscrutable jungle, of the silent and timeless power of nature, of the unknown  universe of the visceral force beyond any humanity or sense of justice. In both books I find a microscopical and cinematic sense of observation. In both books I find an intuitive understanding of the tragic nature of man’s solitude.

Conquest of the Useless, Werner Herzog:

A fairly young, intelligent-looking man with long hair asked me whether filming or being filmed could do harm, whether it could destroy a person. In my heart my answer was yes, but I said no.

Outside the sun is rapidly drawing the night after it like a curtain at the end of a play. The daytime birds are falling silent. For today the farce has ended.

An enormous insect, searching for a favorable angle of attack, is buzzing around; the feverish oppressiveness in my somnolent state makes it seem as large as a helicopter, and though I am watching it the whole time as if through billows of fog and know that it wants to destroy me, I cannot summon the energy to get up and murder it with a dull blow.

We sailed up the Rio Momón for about an hour, turned off the motor, and let ourselves drift back down in the almost imperceptible, languid current. Such a sense of peace came over me that I felt I was discovering something that had been missing from my life.

The two newly hatched chicks had been put in an empty rabbit hutch to keep them safe from the cat. One of them drowned in a saucer containing only a couple of millimeters of water. The other chick slipped through the woven wire to one of the albino rabbits, which, murderous through and through, wanted to devour it instantly, and bit off a leg and a piece of its stomach. […] Why do these animal dramas preoccupy me so? Because I do not want to look inside myself. Only this much: a sense of desolation was tearing me up inside, like termites in a fallen tree trunk.

To fail to embrace my dreams now would be a disgrace so great that sin itself would not be able to find a name for it.

In the space of twelve hours we have had two deaths. In defiance of all reason I kept diving in the dark, so the others would not see how depressed I am. The river is as amorally beautiful as ever.

[T]he question that everyone wanted answered was whether I would have the nerve and the strength to start the whole process from scratch. I said yes; otherwise I would be someone who had no dream left, and without dreams I would not want to live.

In the peace of the falling rain the landscape is practicing being submissive. The forest seems to be breathing deeply, and everything else holds still. […] The jungle, existing exclusively in the present, is certainly subject to time, but remains forever ageless. Any concept of justice would be antithetical to all this.

Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad:

The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.

Watching a coast as it slips by the ship is like thinking about an enigma. There it is before you – smiling, frowning, inviting, grand, mean, insipid, or savage, and always mute with an air of whispering, Come and find out.

They shouted, sang; their bodies streamed with perspiration; they had faces like grotesque masks – these chaps; but they had bone, muscle, a wild vitality, an intense energy of movement, that was as natural and true as the surf along their coast. They wanted no excuse for being there.

[T]hese men could by no stretch of imagination be called enemies. They were called criminals, and the outraged law, like the bursting shells, had come to them, an insoluble mystery from over the sea.

They were dying slowly – it was very clear. They were not enemies, they were not criminals, they were nothing earthly now – nothing but black shadows of disease and starvation, lying confusedly in the greenish gloom. Brought from all the recesses of the coast in all the legality of time contracts, lost in uncongenial surroundings, fed on unfamiliar food, they sickened, became inefficient, and were then allowed to crawl away and rest.

The word ‘ivory’ rang in the air, was whispered, was sighed. You would think they were praying to it. A taint of imbecile rapacity blew through it all, like a whiff from some corpse. By Jove! I had never seen anything so unreal in my life. And outside, the silent wilderness surrounding this cleared speck on the earth struck me as something great and invincible, like evil or truth, waiting patiently for the passing away of this fantastic invasion.

It is impossible to convey the life-sensation of any give epoch of one’s existence – that which makes it truth, its meaning – its subtle penetrating essence. It is impossible. We live , as we dream – alone…

The great wall of vegetation, an exuberant and entangled mass of trunks, branches, leaves, boughs, festoons, motionless in the moonlight, was light a rioting invasion of soundless life, a rolling wave of plants, piled up, crested, ready to topple over the creek, to sweep every little man of us out of his little existence.

Their talk […] was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage […]. To tear treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe.

Letters from Somewhere Else

August 3, 2010 - Leave a Response

I just found out that my bank gives me “points,” some sort of accumulated credits that I get each time I use my debit card,  I think…. I have thousands of points and I can use them to get things for free – electronics, DVDs, books, even plane tickets (for the most expensive things you need a lot of points). I immediately browse the DVD section. I can get the complete series of The Wire, it’s 7,000  points. But it’s out of stock. And the collection of Akira Kurosawa’s 25 films, recently released to commemorate his 100th anniversary, is 47,000 points, way beyond my score. And then I came across the just released Criterion Collection DVD set, Letters from Fontainhas, with three films  and lots of extras on the work of Portuguese director Pedro Costa – it’s 11,000 points and I order it right away. I had just found about the Criterion release and I had made a mental note to try to make room in my budget to get it at some point. Now I have it – thank you bank, thank you Criterion, and thank you Pedro Costa for your inspiration, serenity and unwavering commitment.

A South African in Brooklyn

August 3, 2010 - One Response

It’s Sunday afternoon and I made it to the yoga class. The teacher is happy to see me after my time away and asks me where I have been. I explain that I was in Cuba shooting a film. A film? What is it about? This is the moment when I explain that it’s about the Cubans who fought in the war in Angola, a country in Africa, where I was born.

The new manager of the yoga studio is listening to our conversation and he suddenly interjects. He fought in that war. He is South African and he was 18-years-old, went to the war as part of the mandatory military service during Apartheid. This was in the mid-1980’s. He remembers the Cubans but he really doesn’t seem interested in talking much more about it. He says he had to hold a weapon but he never killed anyone and, half jokingly, that he has been in therapy ever since.

Now, really. What are the odds of bumping into a South African that fought in the Angolan wars in  a yoga studio in the middle of Brooklyn? Overcoming my sense of wonder, I feel deeply troubled by the story of this man. Over the last few years I have come to accept my sense of guilt for having been born in a land where my parents where settlers, the product of five centuries of colonialism and empire. I know I was born without blame, just another baby coming into the world. But my feeling of guilt is real and I have come to accept it. I know it’s not a very productive feeling but it is in my mind and accepting it is better than pretending it does not exist. And here he is, this man, who can certainly feel he has been put on the wrong side of History, with a life story that is much more problematic than mine. And I feel immensely grateful that he was so generous to share his story with me, even if only for a brief moment.

Operación Carlota

August 2, 2010 - Leave a Response

Already at the [Havana] airport I had the distinct feeling that something very profound had happened in the life of Cuba since I had last been there a year before [1976]. The change was indefinable but quite evident in the people’s mood as well as the spontaneity of things, animals and the sea: it touched the very heart of Cuban life. There was a new men’s fashion for lightweight suits with shortsleeved jackets; Portuguese words had found their way into the latest slang; old African strains reappeared in new popular tunes. There were more lively discussions than usual in the shop queues and crowded buses, between those who had been determined partisans of the Angola action and those who were only now beginning to grasp its full significance.

Gabriel García Márquez, “La Operación Carlota”, 1977


August 2, 2010 - Leave a Response

Images from the shoot by Rui Simoes:

Back to Brooklyn

June 21, 2010 - Leave a Response

March 25, 2010

Jacinta in Lisbon was terrific and managed to change my two plane tickets so I am able to fly back home earlier. I suddenly feel extremely exhausted, totally drained, my brain refuses to work and my body asks me not to move so much anymore. The shooting is over, the cinematographer is on his way to São Paulo, Rui is flying back to Lisbon with the 30 tapes we shot. Work is done here and the intense effort of the last weeks suddenly hits me.

The trip back is long and dreamy. I fall asleep every now and then, I don’t know what time of the day it is anymore and it doesn’t mater. After the last landing, the U.S. immigration officer looks at my visa and asks about my job title. I tell him I am a policy analyst in a non-profit environmental organization. I am amazed I am able to articulate such sentence. He too looks startled for a second but moves on with the paper work. My bags arrive intact, no hassles, no problems. It’s raining in Brooklyn and the Bangladeshi cab driver wants to know what my film is about, if I know any Hollywood people. It’s good to be home.

On Our Way Home

June 21, 2010 - Leave a Response

23 of March, 2010

The flight from Santiago to Havana is quick and comfortable, very different from the road trip that took us on the opposite direction. The huge Russian plane just arrived from Madrid, bringing blond European tourists looking for a Caribbean vacation. I had never been inside such a big plane. Not that is takes so many passengers, but it’s just so wide. This flying monster has a huge cross-section and the ceiling is way above us, which makes for a feeling of easy spaciousness inside the aircraft. Approaching Havana, the TV screens show an amazing live image taken by a video camera at the nose of the plane. We see what the pilots see, an unobstructed view of the space ahead, the scarce lights of the city below floating in the dark, then the lined lights on the runway signaling our landing track, and finally the concrete surface of the tarmac getting closer and closer under a raw white light. These images are a mesmerizing view, our destiny suspended in these pictures of aerial strangeness until touch down.

While waiting for our luggage, I get a text message from the new driver waiting for us outside.  Florentino, who arranged for this new driver (among many other things), is a true angel: everything with him works, this man has a different brain. The driver will have to wait for a while, the luggage takes time to get out of the flying monster. When we finally get all our bags, we make our way slowly towards the outside, trying to not loose each other in the exiting crowd. It’s late, we have been on the move for the last 12 hours, we are tired and somewhat dizzy.

I have never seen this new driver before and I call his cell, trying to locate him in the middle of the crowd in the chilly night breeze. The man next to me picks up his ringing phone, looks at me, shows me his phone, I show him mine – I have found the driver, the crew is safe, we are on our way home.

Last Day of Shooting

June 21, 2010 - Leave a Response

March 22, 2010

After going through this, I am afraid I will never be able to see films the same way again….


June 21, 2010 - Leave a Response

March 21, 2010