Every Look Can Become a Poem: Pedro Costa Discusses "The Daughters of Fire"

From Cannes, a conversation with the Portuguese director about his phantasmagorical new short, a disrupted musical on a volcanic island.
Christopher Small

The Daughters of Fire (Pedro Costa, 2023).

Three square images, placed side by side on the screen. The full frame is as wide as CinemaScope, which Fritz Lang famously said was only suitable for snakes and funerals. 

On the left, a woman stares forward as she stalks, like a Jacques Tourneur character, toward no certain destination; as she does so—singing, half her face shrouded in shadow—she passes through a seemingly endless corridor of ash, an ever-rotating carousel of clay streaked with wisps of fire. In the center frame, another woman lies prone, bent over on the shores of a volcanic beach. The sea laps in apocalyptic, dusky light behind her, the horizon stretches out to the limits of vision; uncertainly, she heaves her body upright to sit as she sings. In the far-right frame, another woman peers out from around a doorframe, staring into the camera, also singing in direct counterpoint with the other two women, whom we come to understand are her two sisters. This close-up, the simplest of the three, calls to mind Kenji Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame (1956), the master’s fatalistic final film, in which people are always looking around corners to face whatever avatar of fate might be heading their way.

In English, the title of Pedro Costa’s new nine-minute film is given as The Daughters of Fire (2023), but it’s important to note that the Portuguese, As Filhas do Fogo, names a volcano, Pico do Fogo, and the island it occupies, Fogo in Cape Verde. Costa’s phantasmagorical vision of these three women in these three places will, startlingly, in its eighth minute, open out into documentary images of the island itself. We go from three shots together onscreen to handheld archival footage, shot by a famous Portuguese ethnographer, Orlando Ribeiro, after a devastating eruption in 1951.

This isn’t Costa’s first musical, but it’s the first where the melody isn’t disrupted. When characters in Pedro Costa films do listen to music, it’s like they’re searching for a waning song in a fatally disrupted world, all against an off-screen cacophony of deafening construction work and muffled neighbors’ conversations. In his earlier musical Ne change rien (2009), this subtext is very much text: we witness Jeanne Balibar and her band recording an album, falteringly, imperfectly, with many interruptions, repetitions—of a bar, a verse, or an entire song.

In The Daughters of Fire, the film is altogether more regulated and rigorous, at least on the level of the music, which flows harmoniously between the three separate screens and sisters. Amid the chaos of the Cannes Film Festival, this nine-minute incantation was a balm, almost medicinal. A tripartite screen test for a feature—also about the daughters of the Fogo—still yet to be made by Costa, The Daughters of Fire is no less self-contained or beguiling for being a fragment. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say that the three images—and this was the feeling in the room at the Cannes premiere—are like no others being produced today, awesome in their absolute strangeness and density of detail, and yet they are also part of a grand continuum with the phantoms of film history.

I spoke to Pedro Costa at the edge of a beachside restaurant on the Croisette, where we spoke about both this short film and the feature-length musical Costa intends to make from it; working with musicians in cinema; and cherished movies by Ernst Lubitsch, Jean Grémillion, and Straub-Huillet.

NOTEBOOK: The film has shown two times in Cannes, right?

PEDRO COSTA: Two screenings. One with Wang Bing’s Man in Black, and then one with [the short by Jean-Luc] Godard. 

NOTEBOOK: Did you have an impression of the difference between the two screenings? 

COSTA: Yeah, they were quite different. But it’s also about the specific theaters, of course. The Salle Agnès Varda is not the best room, at least for this film. My film is music, it’s sounds. There, the room is very open to outside noise, the helicopters, birds, and so on. Which can be fun sometimes, but not here. The film is very compact; the sound in that space is not very detailed. 

With the Godard [film], it was much better. His film is just notes, an essay for what he wanted to do. Papers, slides, pages from collages. There’s that melancholic aspect in Godard’s film that keeps up with the intensity of mine. A kind of melancholic echo. If Daughters of Fire is going to be shown in festivals, it will always have to be screened with something else. Actually, no. I just had two invitations to do a screening and then talk after. 

NOTEBOOK: As far as I’m concerned, the perfect screening would be the film, a discussion, and the film again.

COSTA: Well, when I'm out of this hellhole I will think about a pairing. There’s things that can be done. A [Jean] Grémillion film that I like very much. Or any short by Griffith, Godard. I just have to concentrate, think of a pairing. Not even a musical. Nothing to do with music. 

Trailer of the Film That Will Never Exist: Phony Wars (Jean-Luc Godard, 2023).

NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting to think about the relationship of your film to Godard’s posthumous “trailer for a film that will never exist,” which, as you said, is made of notes for a film that doesn’t exist. And Daughters of Fire is also, as I understood it, a sketch for a longer film.

COSTA: Yes, well, I simply planned to do some tests with the singers. This all began with a musical stage production that we did. Me and this musical baroque ensemble, Os Músicos do Tejo. We did it in Lisbon, then in Madrid. Now we’re going to do it in Galicia. We changed it a little bit, but the singers, they belong to this world. They come from this oratório, that’s what we call it. For a long, long time I’ve been thinking about doing something with music. Then I thought of this, doing something with these girls that I like very much. Most of them are Cape Verdean, from Cape Verdean parents; they share the same stories. So I thought of doing a test of sorts. A short camera/music test to see if what we’d been doing could work on film. Even if it’s very different—the visual background doesn't exist in the show. The show doesn’t have sets, it’s just the stage. 

The thing that amused me, and the thing we worked hard on, was this idea of doing a musical counterpoint, baroque counterpoint. Naturally, I thought about how to make a film where each of the singers could be separated while they sing. We shot three tests, shot each of the singers separately for a week. We did a week in total: three days for one, two days for the other, two days for the last. And then it’s very easy to compare things in the editing program. You see them side by side. Like collages. You put your screens, your shots, all of them, on your computer screen. And when I saw it with the sound over the images, flowing from one to the other, it seemed it worked in a lot of ways. Three screens at once. So it began as a test for a film I want to do. 

That is exactly the opposite of Godard’s film, which is an assemblage of something that doesn’t exist and won’t exist. Even if Fabrice Aragno told me after the screening that he has more material and he's going to work [on] around a half hour of material that Godard left behind. Some new shots even, shots that are not in the film that played here.

NOTEBOOK: And this is somehow edited already by Godard?

COSTA: I think it’s edited, but not mixed. And Fabrice told me that Godard left very detailed directions for the sound mix. 

NOTEBOOK: I wanted to ask you about one detail spotted in the credits. As I—and several others—understood it, the composer is Ukrainian.

COSTA: No, well, the basis for the music is a piece called a “Passacaglia,” which was an ancient form in the Baroque [period]. Passacaglia: to walk the streets. A divertimento. An offering. A Baroque designation for this piece composed by Biagio Marini, [who lived in] Venice in the time of Vivaldi. The film starts and ends with this piece. Then in the middle, there is a sort of suspension, musical suspension. At one moment, the girls stop singing and they talk. And that was me really thinking already about the full-length film, because it's not going to be in a Jacques Demy mode: dialogue, questions and answers, réplique. I wanted to try to go from singing to talking, reciting. So we produced this text and I asked the musicians, in the middle of the Marini, to try to create a sort of drone, so they can say these four or five lines. And Denys [Stetsenko], who is a violinist and who’s Ukrainian, an immigrant [living] in Portugal since a long time ago, said, “Oh, maybe this will help.” And he started playing on his violin a lullaby that his grandmother used to sing to him. So he played and sang in Russian, I think. But the words were, you know, “Sleep my baby…” and so on. We kept the music only, the lullaby, the melody, and that’s the middle part, two or three minutes in the middle section, where the girls talk, they say those things. 

Being Ukrainian or seeing the word “Ukraine” caused all kinds of delirium here [in Cannes]. I was just reading a text about the film by one critic; apparently he liked it. He describes the girls, the volcano, and then he talks about the music, this Ukrainian lullaby that became a symbol of resistance in the war against Russia. [Laughs.] No… A lullaby to resistance. Well, why not? It’s a nice idea that a lullaby becomes a symbol of resistance.

NOTEBOOK: The idea of a lullaby in that way makes me think of one of my absolute favorite musicals, Broken Lullaby (1932) by Ernst Lubitsch, which in a way isn’t a musical, but it is precisely about that. A war, and the only way that these two people can come together is through this lullaby. A broken lullaby.

COSTA: Those are the Lubitsch films I’ve been watching a lot. I’m super afraid of doing this long film. Because it’s very difficult to make a film with music like that. If you do it like I did [in Ne change rien], filming musicians working, it’s okay. But trying to do something with musical rhythm and musical construction, with its own tension, with its own fabric. It’s going to be difficult. So I'm calming down with Dr. Lubitsch. Taking a look at five or six of his films. 

Ne change rien (2009).

NOTEBOOK: Ne change rien is a very different kind of musical. Jeanne Balibar is really searching for what she’s singing in the film. It doesn't feel like a musical that was constructed in the Lubitsch style: everything is closed. It's provisional, improvisational, something kind of spectral about it. Like she’s summoning something. Whereas here, in these nine minutes, already it’s very precise. And the fact that you’re seeing the sisters separately also means that they’re not intermingling, in a way, even though it’s a musical counterpoint.

COSTA: Exactly. There was a lot of preparatory work, and then in the shooting, we had to be very precise for this counterpoint to work. We mix the recorded music in the studio, but the live singing is recorded when we are shooting. They have an earpiece [playing] the music that you don’t see. In most films, the work is vague, all done on stages. You like it or you don’t; it’s nice. But with music, a note is a note. If it’s not there, it’s not there. Even in very dissonant, avant-garde, or experimental music pieces, a note is always a note. A chord is a chord. If you don’t play it, you don’t play it; it’s not there. 

When [the performers] were singing, I didn’t need to say cut. They would say, “No, stop, I'm not there.” And I would not interfere. When we work together, a communal generosity grows between musicians. That never happens within a film crew. Even my small crews, we’re very focused, technical on image, sound, et cetera. Of course, we are four or five, we talk. It’s not a machine, the war machine, et cetera. But with musicians, it really counts whether one is playing or singing, the other must really be hearing, curious, expecting, anxious. Because it will be his turn, and because he will be at the precise tempo. So sometimes it’s the case that even the guy who is not singing or the girl who is not singing is the most important one. The anxiety, the expectation, the tension, in a good sense, is very high and I want to feel it. 

They liked the work a lot, the girls. One was a bit more experienced, the one on the left. But they are amateurs, they sing in churches, they do small things in the neighborhood. No, nothing to do with cinema, TV. But they liked it a lot. Even if they still didn’t act together in this case, they are very much looking forward to that [in the feature]. I think it has to do, as always, with embodying the characters. That’s new for them, like in opera. They’re not used to singing opera. But it’s scary. It’s scary because, of course, there’s Lubitsch, there’s Godard, there’s Straub. Music in film is very, very up there [gestures] for me. I’m very afraid of a lot of things. But not the techniques and these things we have been talking about.

NOTEBOOK: Presumably, when you make a feature-length version of this it will be in quite a different way to almost all your other films. In all those works, you started with nothing and you had to find the film. You had to search every day for an image, or a structure, or a sound. And in this case you have a libretto.

COSTA: Of course, yeah. Not only that. The singers cannot sing for 40 or 50 takes, as I’m used to [filming]. Seven is already very demanding. The girls start saying, I need to rest. And that is important. I don't want to damage their pencils or their brushes. 

The film will be very structured and organized. I never did anything so planned, at least recently. That’s another thing that I’m a little bit anxious about. Whether it will happen with space for the things you mentioned. Search, find, not find, accident, chance. I’ve been thinking a lot about Jean-Marie [Straub] and Danièle [Huillet], because they always said, no, it’s in the most constructed, constrained, prepared forms that you find chance. It’s their grace. And they always talked about music as the perfect art, that filmmaking should work like that. We should practice, practice, rehearse, rehearse. Because for them, it was the only way to find a little bit of freedom, inside the limitations. It’s like with Gustav Leonhardt on his harpsichord [in Straub-Huillet's Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach]. It’s because he kills himself working every day that he can fly.

NOTEBOOK: I also wanted to ask you about the archival footage at the end. It’s credited to Orlando Ribeiro. Do I recognize the name? He’s a filmmaker?

COSTA: No, he’s not a filmmaker. That came when I paired the three images on screen as you see them. I began editing the sounds a bit more precisely. And when we got to the end, I felt that—well, I had this idea. This material, this footage, it’s 15 minutes in total, a reel of 16mm. And it was shot by a teacher I had when I was studying history. He was and still is the most famous Portuguese geographer or ethnographer, Orlando Ribeiro. He's the author of the most important work of anthropology in Portuguese, called Portugal Mediterranean [Portugal, o Mediterrâneo e o Atlântico, 1945]. He died in ’97, and I had him as a teacher in the ’70s when I was at university. When I went to Cape Verde to shoot Casa de Lava (1995), I wrote to him and I went to see him. He was already old and ill, and I told him I came from Cape Verde and he said, “Yeah, I did a film there when the volcano erupted in ’51.” He gave me the roll of film. It is a small fragment. You see the eruption and then the day after, which is what I included here. It’s a smaller part of the whole reel. 

Anyway, I remembered this reel and I always liked this footage, particularly this moment in the end, with the goat and the people that seem to wake up the day after the eruption, naked and in rags. Then I said, yeah, we need a day after. Just have a sort of breather at the end of the film. Not to get out of the cinema on such a high note. Just silence. 

NOTEBOOK: As you were saying before, it’s a search for maybe the kind of a counternote, a dissonant note in something that’s so controlled, so precise. You need a disruption.

COSTA: Yeah. Inside this very organized, disciplined art—music—there’s a chance for a lot of feeling and emotion, contradictory and probably surprising. So there’s hope. But I’m very afraid. But I’m always afraid. 

NOTEBOOK: That reminds me of an anecdote that Slim Keith used to tell about her husband, Howard Hawks. About how he would stop his car on the road to the studio each morning to vomit because of the nerves. Always seemed uncharacteristic of our image of Howard Hawks.

COSTA: Oh I can see him doing that. Oh yeah. [Laughs.] Look, when you’re facing a musician, especially a singer, you get afraid. That’s what I felt. And I said that also for Ne change rien. Maybe it’s amplified because you have a camera in-between you and the singer. The thing that strikes me, and keeps me watching very modestly and observing and admiring them, is their courage. It takes a lot of guts to sing. They’ve been learning since being a small boy, a small girl, getting through the conservatory, OK. But it takes guts. It’s something really very special. Singing. It’s very admirable. Of course, in front of Vitalina and Ventura, I feel the same. And probably they would walk the same streets, have the same stories, the same memories, et cetera. But singing them might bring something that was not there before—I hope. 

NOTEBOOK: Where were these three scenes shot?

COSTA: In the studio.

NOTEBOOK: Including the volcanic beach?

COSTA: Yeah, we just did that. Maybe for the feature film too, we’ll use the studio. As for the [budget], I’m just starting to plan it. I’m not saying I will need more money, but this still involves recording and studios. Not just going to the neighborhood. I didn’t have money, so I asked the film school, and they lent me their small studio for three weeks. For the girl in the middle, Alice [Costa], we made the floor, brought some black rocks to the studio. And then we made a rear projection behind them. That’s Mr. Hawks. It has this very filmic, material aspect. It seems to be very striking for everybody, perhaps just because we are all seeing digital crap onscreen all the time. So when you see something like that it’s like, “Oh!” But yes, it’s a rear projection. We projected some sky and clouds behind her. The other, the fire burning. And the third, nothing. Just a door. 

I’m not sure if I’m going to do this kind of thing in the film. It will be three girls, three sisters, and they will be separated very quickly in the beginning of the film, and then the dialogue or trialogue will be done a bit telepathically. They will be separated physically, their bodies, but the voices will continue to counterpoint. 

NOTEBOOK: Like Griffith. When characters have dreams, they hear the voices of those they love in their dreams. 

COSTA: Let’s hope. [Laughs.] So if one of them starts singing something, you will hear her sister or both, but really hear them. Dreams come true. Well, the power, the enchantment of music confuses you. Transports you to another state. It’s obvious in this short, it’s very obvious. It’s what people say, like that critic. He saw the war there. It’s a cosmology. I need that and I want that. I’ve always wanted it. It’s going to be tense. Well, I hope that we can manifest that [Arnold] Schönberg thing, “Every look can become a poem, every sigh might become a novel,” because that's what happens with singing and music, just a note can become your life. 

Casa de Lava (Pedro Costa, 1995).

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