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Breaking the Porcelain: An Interview with Leonor Teles

Talking frogs, Super 8 film, punk energy and more with the youngest ever winner of Berlin's Golden Bear.
Born in the quirky town of Vila Franca de Xira in Portugal, Leonor Teles’s story of how she fell for cinema, as a young girl about to finish high school with a passion for photography is, in her own words, “clichéd-free” and “organic.” Her second (or first, for all intents and purposes) and most recent short film, Balada de um Batráquio (Batrachian’s Ballad),has changed her life, even if her modest manner would never allow her to denounce it. Stemming from the evil symbolism surrounding the image of the frog, her film is one to be watched before spoken about. And above all, it is a guarantee that there is good cinema being produced in Portugal, a country where the direct metaphor for seeing in the land of the blind still applies. 
Sitting outside of the Lichtburg Filmpalast during the 62nd edition of the Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, Leonor’s attitude towards my proposition of an interview is refreshing. The interview that was proposed had turned into a four-day conversation (originally motivated by our shared nationality); and here we were now, beneath the German sun and in-between screenings, trying to collect all the pieces together. Very much like her ballad, Leonor has a punk quality capable of traversing time. She seems fully ready to take on anything, and the premise of who she might be to someone none the wiser is simplistic but straightforward, thus never touching the predictable. At only 24 years old and in summery clothes, she smiles embarrassed when I first suggest this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. At the Berlinale, not only did she win the Golden Bear for Best Short Film with Batrachian’s Ballad, but she also reminded everyone of the unheard voices that are still smothered by the very best of us, unwittingly feeding the fire. “Do not tell them what is it about,” she warns me at some point about her prizewinning short. “People are unaware of it, so be subtle.” And apart from the fact that our little talk, if ever shot in film, could suitably be soundtracked by a Kusturica’s celebratory punk-rock hymn, as Batrachian’s Ballad is, I promised Leonor that she could entrust me with her request, so that her work remains bound by audible secrecy.

NOTEBOOK: So, the frogs. When did you first discover them?
LEONOR TELES: I must have been about thirteen or fourteen and I went into a café with my mom. There was this ugly heavy-looking porcelain frog and I remember asking my mother what it was. And then from that point on, every time we would come into a shop or a restaurant, we would joke around and say to ourselves that one day we would go to every one of those establishments and break all those frogs sitting at those glass windows. Now, fast forward ten years and I was just fresh out of film school doing an internship and I was about to grab dinner with, well, now the producers of the film, and there was a frog sitting at the entrance of the restaurant. I asked them if they knew what that was. They didn’t, so I explained and told them how I had this joke with my mom and how we had always wanted to break them. And while I thought I was only enriching their curiosity, they had something else on their minds and that night, on our way back, they started speaking of the possibility of a film. But I was quick to reject even the thought of it. Come on, who wants to see a chick break porcelain frogs on screen? It was such a silly idea. But of course , after much nagging, who wouldn’t consider it?
NOTEBOOK: Was that why it took you two years to get those eleven minutes out there? Because of how silly it presented itself to you?
TELES: Not so much because it was silly, since that actually became the point of the whole thing. But because we’re talking about something very alarming with such urgency, but in a dopey kind of a way. And I never once thought about influences or places to take it to. I just followed my instinct. But yeah, it took me a while because I knew if it wasn’t well thought out, it would easily cast itself as ridicule or even sketchish when on screen. Besides, I knew from very early on that I wanted to shoot on film. And even though I shot very little footage, maybe half an hour or forty minutes, it was crucial to try it out and see what it would morph into during post-production. In the end, it all amounted to hard work and my instinctive notion of the power of the image.
NOTEBOOK: Which you chose to translate into Super 8, the one format that has given most filmmakers their start. Why super 8?
TELES: Yeah, because that’s what their parents used to gift them. Now, we get digital cameras [laughs]. I honestly think I dreamt about it. When I was at the early stages of the project, I was writing and thinking about how to develop it and it just came to me. ‘This has to be shot in Super 8.’ First, because we’re being silly and for me, Super 8 is the silliest of formats. It’s rugged and wrinkly and rainbow-ish colorful. And then, being that the film has a fable side to it, Super 8 takes me back to a different time frame, to a past imaginary. With Super 8, I would be shooting something that is happening now, but doesn’t feel like it. Besides, every time my grandma used to tell me a fable, I would imagine that world with a bright-colored, vibrant but all the while old in texture. And ultimately that’s what I wanted to achieve.
NOTEBOOK: Yes, but however juvenile it may seem from the outside, it conveys its political message insidiously. And it is an eye opener. Did you start with the same activist intent that has subsequently been attached to the film?
TELES: Not so much…It has that dimension, of course. But that came later. All I had in mind at the beginning was to break the frogs, because of what I knew they meant. Nothing more. The project was my wanting for myself—me being infuriated by the whole thing. It was never about doing a political piece. That’s what people added to it. And I’m glad they did. Sometimes when you want to do a film as much as I wanted to do this, you lose sight of every other dimension the film that may be tiptoeing into it, and all you think about is yourself and this thing that you’re doing. And eventually, other modes of address get closer and closer to a place I had at the back of my mind, but I was never quiet enough to be able to listen to it. And especially because I work through associations, for someone to look at a little fable as a social interventionist piece is the biggest compliment I could get. One that I am always too flattered to even properly react to.
NOTEBOOK: I think it works so well because you never show the shop owners or café owners whose frogs you break chasing after you, thus increasing the whirlwind of the already present racial ambiguity…
TELES: No, I never do show them. Well, if you understand Portuguese you’ll be able to hear a little yell from the owners here and there, but showing them would break the wall and I wanted the life of the dream to persevere. And ‘ambiguity’ is very much a key word, through it we established the shrewdness of the humor to thereby lead the audience to the film's message more easily.
NOTEBOOK: Meeting you here at Oberhausen and seeing you react to the world around you did add a lot for me. You have a punk, carefree energy that I have found infused onto your work. The structure of your film comes from the outside going in to what’s most personal to you, and even if one might not be paying attention, you knowingly take us there. Perhaps we may feel cheated, since the film catches us by surprise, but the ending is glorious as it all but forces self-consciousness.
TELES: Oh jeez, thank you. You know, I’ve told you that I’m very much about the image, its language. That’s why I work a lot as a director of photography in projects. I just direct when I actually feel like I have to. I believe in what the project is saying so effervescently that I can think of nothing else. It’s everything at the same time, life and what we can detract from it. That’s what Balada de um Batráquio was and still is for me.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe that’s why its documentary space bridges between the batrachian’s dreamlike tale, the real life tale you want to tell us, where both subjects join, and then at the end your own at a more intimate level, almost questioning emotion and nature.
TELES: Yes, and we come full circle. It is not a typical documentary. But it is one nevertheless, because we intervene in the reality. And the display of that dynamic only really works within the short film. This, as a feature film, would’ve been a disaster. The short is so free of a standardized form, tone or pattern that you’re not surprised if you happen to run into a three-minute black screen with raunchy voices on top.
NOTEBOOK: Now, we cannot keep from speaking of this year's Berlinale and your emotional thank you speech that was broadcasted all across Portugal for days. What did you really feel when you heard the film’s name being announced?
TELES: Well [laughs], I remember I cursed in Portuguese and I jumped out of my chair. I couldn’t believe it. It was beyond surreal. And I could’ve done a better speech. I didn’t say anything worthwhile, really. Because I was so elated. And then at that moment while on stage, language becomes something foreign. So much so I began thanking everyone in English and then for some reason I was speaking Portuguese and then…
NOTEBOOK: And then the press went mad.
TELES: Yes, especially the Portuguese. “The youngest filmmaker ever to win...” So terrible. What is it with me being young? Wouldn’t it be equally victorious if I were the oldest ever on record to win the Bear? I only spoke of what I knew about. And though where we both come from life experience may play a more powerful role towards successful endeavors, it is quite pathetic to label it. And that doesn’t mean that from now on, because I’ve directed two short films that have done well, I should now update my work to a feature film. The filmmaker is not doing shorts just because it is a premature display of a body of work.
NOTEBOOK: Of course, the film has its own predetermined identity above that of its creators.
TELES: Exactly! Look at all this inspiring work here at the festival we’re lucky enough to watch everyday. These are short film filmmakers. Full stop. It is not an initiation, and people have decided in a way that once you’re done with your first short films you should go up a step and get the feature. But you have to find it in you first. Most of these people we’re meeting daily have never found a feature in them, and that doesn’t make their work any less important. I’m 24, I live day-by-day.
NOTEBOOK: A short film is always, in a way, interpreted as a watercolor where you can take your time to find yourself as a person and an artist. We’ve been told to feel underwhelmed when nothing grows from there.
TELES: Yes. But that’s the ridiculous thing here. Spaces are generated and then characters occupy them and from there we have to clear up who these characters are and how are they going to juggle themselves within those spaces. In short or feature films, fiction or non-fiction. Look at Wong Kar-wai. He looks for the emotional spaces in his films, what those provoke and what characters are called upon. He then applies a narrative to that built architecture. Watching a film of his feels like an emotional expedition, as if that work he's transferring onto us was a first for him, and then he wanted to take us through that dimension fueled by emotions. The film comes by itself.
NOTEBOOK: He’s got a voice of his own, a language the world recognizes. Would you say because you’ve been speaking of this one world since 2013 with your first film Rhoma Acans you have been labeled as a voice of the gypsies back home?
TELES: It is not the same thematic. The two films are very different and while they share the same world, they do not belong together. Of course it can be labeled as such. So much so that it was and it will be. But it wasn’t on purpose. And I can’t say I have a voice. My two films have very distinct energies and languages.
NOTEBOOK: Still, the inherent energy you bring does end up defining you.
TELES: I guess so. I probably think that’s the one thing that has carried me this far. I am young now. I have to take advantage of it now. I could never break frogs at 40. I wanted it to speak for myself, and I am very much like that. I just hope I can still have that energy and use it as a device when I’m older. Wong Kar-wai has energy to sell, in his earlier films anyway. Or Andrea Arnold with her Wasp. It yells through the subliminal. The message is always there looming over, but it doesn’t mean it came wholly through the narrative. There’s energy, space, vulnerability. Those are the crucial tools. But it has to be fun; it has to have a rebel side to it.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe that’s why we’re scattered all across the world. How do you feel about our cinema?
TELES: Well, I think sometimes I’m quite skeptical and critical of Portuguese cinema. And it’s difficult because also it can’t be defined in any way. The filmmakers are very different and it is hard to see a tendency coming together in the horizon. Look at Miguel Gomes and Pedro Costa. Brilliant filmmakers, but apart from their coming from the same place, they do not speak the same language. And yeah, like you said the other day, we need a nouvelle vague, a cultural revolution.

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