The Brazilian director Ana Vaz is steadily building a portfolio of experimental works that address in equal share the lasting impact of the spread of empire, and the felt effects of the anthropocene. This summer, MUBI is screening Vaz’s 2014 short film, Occidente
, a captivating work that deftly layers sound and image, taking aim at Portugal’s colonial legacy and strategically drawing past and present into fresh and unpredictable relations. I spoke with Vaz recently about her filmmaking process, and about the philosophical implications of her work.
NOTEBOOK: Your film is immediately striking for the diversity and material density of its images. Watching it again, I was particularly taken with the way that so much is concentrated within its 15-minute timeframe, just as there is a tension at play between all the different components. The most dissimilar of scenes somehow all cohere, while at the same time I feel a centrifugal force acting on the film, pulling us away from the screen by suggestively presenting various historical, geographical, and sonic avenues that demand exploration. It’s a work that certainly meditates on live political issues, but is there also a politics involved in the way that you arrange the images here?
ANA VAZ: Occidente comes from a desire to bring disparate things together which are seemingly not together but somehow belong together, a collagist impulse to approximate that which has been disassociated through power, logic and reason, Enlightenment praxis to account for a history in which things are smoothed out, and linearly organized. In the film there is a desire to disorganize, to run away from this logic, to bring heteroclitic objects and subjects together: temporal, social or material. The film is composed from a series of materials which range from extreme sport footage to National Geographic images which are sown together with 16mm images that I shot on expired stock. So yes, it is dense and diverse for it needs both as allies to analyze and account for all that it points to, to analyze in intensity.
NOTEBOOK: There is a strong dialogue in the film with other media. Is there a particular reason for this?
VAZ: The film was initially made in the context of a group show at a small artist run space in Lisbon. This film was made after I had spent almost a year dedicated to exploring and exploding the cinema I was making into different mediums and directions: sculpture, installation, text and video. During this period, I had stopped making films for almost a whole year, and at the end of that year I was hungry and ready to return to cinema, yet to a cinema that would be reflexive or re-enchanted by the other explorations I was engaging with during this interim. A cinema that brings different materials together, a cinema that considers objects as characters, a cinema that could explode or implode from the space of the screen itself. And finally it’s as if these diversions from cinema had brought me closer to cinema.
NOTEBOOK: With the imitation of other art forms perhaps leading to the rediscovery of what cinema is?
VAZ: So much of the thinking behind my films comes from other forms, often poetry, literature, philosophical texts and ideas, a painting, an intuition. Therefore, often what the films are trying to do is to animate, to give life to that which was once fixed upon paper, rock or canvas—animating the ‘inanimate.’ If I was a novelist or a poetess, how would I write in a way that approximates temporalities? How would I punctuate? Why use—or not use—a capital letter? How would I compose an imagist poem with objects and sites rather than words? Occidente is a loose critical reading of Fernando Pessoa’s poem of the same title. Yet, I had decided from its very start that the film would have no language, and hence I had to be very precise about what objects, actions and environments may infer, suggest or inflect so that every shot would be a phrase and every cut a punctuation.
NOTEBOOK: One such punctuation mark is in the scene of the meal, when the maid serving the food stares straight down the camera.
VAZ: It’s an unexpected gaze, I could have never scripted for it. As it appears for the first time it confronts me; as it appears again it asks me a question; as it appears for a third time, it answers the question, in silence. Lis, whose gaze I am speaking of, is the only participant who acknowledges and disrupts the naturalized theatre at work. Her gaze confronts us, and this gesture of looking back is particularly meaningful. Eduardo [Viveiros de Castro] speaks of the moment in Through the Looking-Glass, where Alice crosses the mirror and looks back into her room, now completely disorganized as she sees it from the other side—a living metaphor for the work of the anthropologist. Occidente is a film made through the looking glass, a film that constantly looks back in an effort to disorganize what it sees and reveal it otherwise.
NOTEBOOK: Another unexpected sequence in the film involves the introduction of photographs from Google Street View, which seem to present a different kind of gaze altogether.
VAZ: The Google images reveal the de-historicized and consumable rendering of sites and monuments into touristic trinkets. The Praça do Comércio (Square of Commerce) becomes an animated sequence made from a number of images taken by user-tourists. In this case, all perspectives conjure up the making of one image, as if all perspectives contributed to the creation of a domesticated monument, with no asperity, with no history. The sequence throws us into an inescapable and recognizable present revealing its machinic desire to transform realities into virtualities. And it is this process of rendering consumable and accessible through virtual strategies that lies at the heart of Occidente: sites become coordinates, lived experiences encyclopedias, tamed and silenced. All that is alive becomes an exchangeable good, all bodies reproduced as an object of exchange, a trinket, a fetish, in the all-encompassing commodification of all things. Yet all virtuality is subject to change and hence can be re-configured, overthrown.
NOTEBOOK: The monument depicted in this sequence has a particular resonance in the history of the Portuguese colonial project, but it appears in your film in a very contemporary way.
VAZ: Not only the monument per se but the whole site resonates with this history. We see angles, composed traveling shots and fragments featuring the Praça do Comércio, Lisbon’s historical port where trans-Atlantic departures and arrivals were punctuated: of goods and people, of traits and customs. Prior to shooting to the film, I was surprised to find such a detailed and immersive Google depiction of the site as a de-historicized and sensual historical landmark available at the tips of my fingers through a mobile device. This sequence and a number of others that depicted such historical sites were in my croquis for the film: I knew I would visit each of these sites, but I was unsure about how and why to film them. In the end, the Google images I was using for my research were much more telling of a phenomenon of dislocation and de-contextualization than shooting these sites myself. I focused on using the little amount of expired stock I had to film that which I would not find elsewhere, to film from a grounded and present perspective, rather than from the panoptic which these kinds of de-subjectivized images tend to offer.
NOTEBOOK: The digital images here seem to offer us a double-edged sword, curing a nostalgia for the past but introducing new dangers of their own.
VAZ: Yes, the technical, mastered, non-personal and non-subjective quality of these images tend to treat the past as foregone, silenced and tamed, containing the asperities of history to transform them into ecstatic possibilities. This stands in contrast to what the film feels like, as it is mostly shot by me in shaky camera movements, faulty stock and amateurish camera work (I take the term ‘amateur’ in homage to Maya Deren who firmly states that ‘amateur’ comes from the Latin amare, to love, to be lover, hence she claims to persist in being amateurish in cinema, in love rather than in profession). Therefore, in contrast to the images I shoot, the digital images come to confront us with an implacable present, a present in which professionalized images are increasingly consumed and desired. The circulation and accessibility of images through digital databases suffer from this underlying danger of flattening experiences and histories into one homogenous amalgam, you have access to everything but asperities are increasingly smoothed through the ease and flow of your keys and fingers.
NOTEBOOK: And even though it comprises inputs from a multiplicity of people, it’s a space where the personal often goes missing.
VAZ: Yes, it is a space of many narrators, but where these narrators seem to communicate via very similar means; hence if the narrator disappears, what is left are the glossy displays, the empty effects, flattened histories upon flat screens. For me Occidente could not have been made solely via these kinds of images, they appear to poise and conflict temporal and subjective relationships between objects and subjects, sites and sights, orbits where the film gravitates: a lunch table, a street scene, a bird in movement, an action in place.
NOTEBOOK: And of course there are spaces that even Google can’t go, parts of this world that it can’t show us.
VAZ: Yes—the dead angles of its mastered optic. I’m interested in these dead angles and what they can do, what they can bring about as antidotes to poise the optic of the master.
NOTEBOOK: Can you explain your production process in a little more detail?
VAZ: Each film has a process, a language and an ecology of its own. If we are to address the material processes involved in Occidente, I must begin by addressing the question of resources, as all things are dictated by their access to and capacity to manage their own resources. With Occidente, I knew it would be a film made from scarcity, with little resources and yet with great freedom. My scarcity of film material is what dictated the appetite of the film: much to shoot, little material to shoot in. This is what then created the rhythm of the film, short takes in consciousness of the coming end, the coming end of the roll, of the scene, of light—a nervous energy which ties the film together. Initially with Occidente, I felt that the film was almost edited in camera, as I had very little material. Nonetheless, it appeared to me that there were elliptical elements that were necessary to piece the film together, mostly Lis, the maid, and her gaze, which became a gravitational point in the film. A lot of it was edited around that gaze and how it could be analyzed, questioned and put in relationship with other environments, with other location and possibilities. It asked me for other images, images I did not shoot or have. This was a turning point for the film, as I perceived that it should be in dialogue with another ecology of images that could and should come from other sources. I feel 16mm has a tendency to historicize the present, whilst the digital images still place us in relationship to a temporal perspective and this was particularly poignant for this film—a historical and dying medium in dialogue and confrontation with another.
NOTEBOOK: And perhaps the older medium is prized not in spite of, but because of its precarious existence?
VAZ: Well, 16mm is constructed around a community that is shaped by increasing scarcity. Recently, I was speaking with film students at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, and Juliano Gomes, film critic and their teacher, brought about an interesting reflection: that a community only strengthens and raises around a shared condition, often a condition of scarcity. This is a very meaningful reflection, not only for film of course. What can extinction pose to us as a question, to our imaginaries, to our activities, to our sense of togetherness?
Stefan Solomon’s research is supported by:
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