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The Pathology of Each Image: The Work of Paula Gaitán

Filmmaker Paula Gaitán speaks with curator Francis Vogner dos Reis on the occasion of her new film and an online retrospective of her work.
Christopher Small
Paula Gaitán in Memory of Memory (Paula Gaitán, 2013)
The following interview was granted by filmmaker Paula Gaitán to curator Francis Vogner dos Reis at the request of Universo Produção in December 2020. It was originally published in the official catalogue of the 24th Mostra de Cinema de Tiradentes, Brazil in January 2021. It was translated into English by Christopher Small and Juliano Gomes in June 2021 for Sheffield DocFest to mark the premiere of Riverock (2020) at the festival, her leading role in the international competition jury, and the release of Paula Gaitán: Acid Portraits, an online DocFest retrospective of five of her films. Many of the ideas in that retrospective and in Gaitán's work as a whole spring up in the discussion: the tricky idea of portraiture; of an incremental, intuitive filmmaking process; of sound and music as a fundamental part of each work, and of memory itself as something not easily catalogued.

The term "artistic pathology" has dropped off the radar of the critical repertoire and from filmmaking, perhaps because the term pathology has become too closely linked to the negative imperative of illness—something that one refuses, that one does not want, that causes suffering, that from which one demands a “cure.” But in the work of creation, pathology has to do with affectations in the complex system of a work and in it its anatomical and physiological singularity. Paula Gaitán says, recalling Julio Bressane, that each image is like a body that has its own anatomical logic, sometimes deviant, its own functioning outside the norm; each image has an anatomy, and therefore, a pathology. Pathos (illness) and logus (science, study).
The term is rich for stimulating a discussion about the artistic work, for considering a logic of creation which is not from the past nor ideal, but which depends on the images, on the singular body of images and sounds in which what may be considered an error, an accident (of chance, of its photochemical or digital process) may in fact have a specific diagnosis. Paula does not speak of the images, of the films as living bodies, for the images would have a life of their own, they are the consequence not only of their originally foreseen excellence, but of their flaws: again, of their pathology.
At a time when in the discussion about cinema we see a certain abstraction of concepts competing with the materiality of the works (and rejecting them), seeing an artist talk about her work with thoroughness and conceptual and practical intelligence is not only dazzling because she is prodigal in intelligence, but it is vital. Art is a craft in which the meanings, the whys, are often not elucidated upfront. It is a quest, not a mere exercise in abstract principles. The artist's work is her imagination settling in the world and, reciprocally, the threads of the world finding an aesthetic expression (which is not inscribed in nature and the naked eye. That is: a look and an intervention). In this work the dichotomy of cinema versus world does not arise, for art is a product of the world, it exists in it, reflects it and returns to it. Who is interested in this separation? Cinema will only have a political importance when this dichotomy is overcome. Paula Gaitán’s cinema has been and is made on this path. The interview with her follows in full.
—Francis Vogner dos Reis
FRANCIS VOGNER DOS REIS: Paula, let's start from the beginning: you are Colombian and, although you were born in Paris, you are Brazilian because you have lived here for a long time. Daughter of the Colombian poet Jorge Gaitán Durán and Dina Moscovici, who was a playwright, theatre director and also a filmmaker. To what extent, in this transnational origin of yours, did your parents influence you? How was the origin, not only of your taste for art, but also of your artistic practice?  
PAULA GAITÁN: Ah, I say I am Colombian and Brazilian, but I never say I am French because I never felt French, even though I was born there in Paris, on a winter day, in the middle of a blizzard. I came in 1952, but Mostra de São Paulo put 1954 on the register once and it stuck. I was born when Paul Éluard died, and that's why my name is Paula, because my father was a poet, he was in love with Paul Éluard. I have a book here that was my father's, with a dedication from Paul Éluard and Picasso. It doesn't mean that my father was one of those millionaire collectors of things, he was a man, a poet, who was called “the poet of death and eroticism”. He went to Paris, and being a poet, a writer, exclusively, was one thing.
He was not from the oligarchic families of the capital, the privileged four hundred families, but was from a family from the interior of Colombia, from the "farthest place on earth", called Cúcuta, which is on the border with Venezuela. His culture came from the interior of Colombia, he was not from the capital, which meant a lot at that time. He died prematurely in a plane crash returning from Paris at Pointe-à-Pitre. But his time in Paris, his meeting with my mother, who was Jewish, the daughter of a family of Jewish immigrants, was fundamental. My maternal grandfather, Emilio Moscovici, was an anatomist and my grandmother, Rosa Podval, was a teacher of Russian and other languages—perhaps this is the reason for my fascination with sound and the use in various films of the multiplicity of languages and even of some non-existent and invented languages. They came from Czechoslovakia to Rio de Janeiro during the First World War. My mother was born in Brazil, and curiously my mother's sister and my mother also went to Paris, with a scholarship, and there they met their future husbands, two Colombians. The fact that they were in Paris does not mean that they came from wealthy families or families that went, as I see the Paulistas here, to their Parisian castles. They were always quite radical artists, both of them; that is, they broke with the traditions of their family environments, my mother studied cinema at Idhec, she was one of the first generations, I think she was from the same generation as [filmmaker] Ruy Guerra. And my father wrote books of poetry, but what made him an important person in the Latin American sphere was the creation of a magazine, which, together with [José Luis] Borges’s Sur magazine in Argentina, brought together the whole boom in Latin American literature. It was there that [Julio] Cortázar started publishing his first things; my father was a good friend of Octavio Paz, who was a generation above him. My father, Jorge Gaitán Durán, did a brilliant editorial work on that magazine.
VOGNER DOS REIS: Which magazine?
GAITÁN: Mito magazine, which recalls the editorial work that Mário Faustino did in Brazil, creating a critical thought based on Latin American and world literature. In fact, they have somewhat similar stories, they both died in plane crashes, didn't they? Mário Faustino directed a literary supplement [the section “Poetry Experience” in the Sunday Supplement] in the Jornal do Brasil. I wanted to make a film about that, because I remember Glauber [Rocha] used to say to me: “Paula, you have to do something about Mário Faustino, because he has a great connection with your father.” They were intellectuals, what was called intellectual at the time, they were people connected to the history of their peoples, countries, political history; my father has a book I have been studying recently about violence in Colombia. In other words, they were people who wrote essays, novels... In fact he didn't write a novel, he wrote an opera, Los Hampones, another book on the Marquis de Sade, which is called Lelibertinet la révolution... He had a strong personality and marked a break, in Colombian literature—to this day he occupies a very special place. He and my mother were married for a while and then they split up, so I stayed more with my mother. But that's it, they're people who don't come from the elite, or the economic elite or anything, they're people who had advanced political, aesthetic positions for the time.
My mother was a feminist. So I think that this marked a certain political coherence in me from a very young age. I didn't have traditional moralistic and religious guidelines that I had to follow at home, I was always very free to decide. So much so that when I was little I went to a school where it was compulsory to attend religious class and I said I wouldn't stay in the class—I said: “I am atheist.” My house was a house very similar to the houses I live in now, it didn't have a lot of furniture, but it had pictures and books. It didn't have bourgeois objects. So much so that when I went to my friends’s houses I wanted a sofa, because my house was very informal, it was a house with paintings, books, any bed, but a good bed maybe, but it was very similar to how I live. It is a particular taste. And a taste also for sight, for looking, for the idea of consulting books from a very young age. I have art books that I've had since I was very young; I would look at paintings, even before I studied visual arts. And it's not about a culture of making you a socially cultured person, but it's almost about being in the world that way. It's not something like, "Oh, I'm going to send you to study the history of art. I'm going to make you study French, ballet."
VOGNER DOS REIS: Yes, against convention. But at which point did you recognize yourself as being an artist?
GAITÁN: Always. I have always painted and I have always written. So much so that I had poems published. I am in several anthologies of Latin American poetry. That's because I don't talk about that side of myself...
VOGNER DOS REIS: I didn't know.
GAITÁN: I never got to publish a book because it coincided with my coming to Brazil, and my desire to publish my first book of poems, which was an object book, never materialized. A book of poems and photographs made by me. And it ended when I got into filmmaking, and when you get into filmmaking, that's all you can do; it's so crazy, it demands a total dedication that will encompass all the other arts. It’s funny that I'm not much of an email writer; prose is not my thing, but I have written prose texts. But the language issue was complicated because I wrote in Spanish. If you put “Paula Gaitán poems, poets,” I'm in some anthologies of Colombian poetry, aged 15, 20, 24...
VOGNER DOS REIS: It's news to me.
GAITÁN: Yeah, but that's also something I don't talk about much myself. But since you asked...
VOGNER DOS REIS: It's because in the 1970s you studied art in Bogotá, you took photographs. What artistic works do you still have from that time of your studies?
GAITÁN: I have a lot of things. A lot of photos. When Glauber met me I was already a photographer. People think that I met Glauber Rocha and it was passion; well, obviously it was, but it was also admiration, both his admiration for me and mine for him. When I met Glauber, I was in Bogotá and I was a militant in the university cell of the Revolutionary Independent Workers Movement, I was already a well-known person, very young, so 23 years old. It's not that he found a cute girl. No. I was a person who already had a history and was studying philosophy and visual arts, and as I told you, I had no experience in cinema, but I already had a lot of experience with images.
VOGNER DOS REIS: But at that time you were producing more photographs, painting or engraving?
GAITÁN: It was photography... I can send you a lot of things, it was drawing, it was engraving, it was photography, it was all visual. And writing a bit within this idea as if it were an object, as if the poem were an object poem. There is this tradition in Brazil, of Pignatari, of Arnaldo Antunes himself.
VOGNER DOS REIS: Poesia concreta.
GAITÁN: Yes, poesia concreta. I was already doing these things when I was very young. I have several projects like that; it's nothing new to me, that's what I used to do.
VOGNER DOS REIS: But you start working with cinema right there in Colombia? Do you do anything in art direction, anything with moving image?
GAITÁN: Very little. At that time I did installations, video installations, I worked with moving image, but always...
VOGNER DOS REIS: So you were already working with video in the 70s?
GAITÁN: Yes, I did get to do some things. So much so that my first film, which, by the way, Ava [Rocha, her daughter] says is the most beautiful, is Olho d'Água. What I did in Days in Sintra, I had already done in Olho d'Água.
VOGNER DOS REIS: What year is Olho d'Água from?
GAITÁN: Effectively I started to make the video in 1982. This is material I made with photos, which I started to make when Glauber was alive; I don't remember, I think I did it little by little, you know? I talk a lot about Glauber because it was with him that another period of my life here in Brazil began, and that period was fruitful, precisely because of the look he put on my work, because I could have been just his girlfriend, or doing other things too, but he started calling me to work with him. The book The Birth of the Gods, which has just been published, has both his and my drawings.
VOGNER DOS REIS: Your first collaboration was on The Age of the Earth?
GAITÁN: No, before that I did the poster for the film Cabeças Cortadas, which Glauber had filmed in Spain, and the cover from the book Riverão Sussuarana.
VOGNER DOS REIS: It's true, Riverão Sussuarana is earlier.
GAITÁN: I was already a person, I have the impression, very similar to the type of person I am now, somebody who worked from an idea that I wanted to develop, added to it a lot of intuition, with the ability to make associations of images very quickly, and I came from this transit of the passage from one form to another, from drawing to photography, from still image to movement, from photogravure... I haven't changed much, Francis.
Poster for The Age of the Earth (Glauber Rocha, 1980; art and costume design by Paula Gaitán)
VOGNER DOS REIS: The art design in The Age of the Earth is very expressive, it is a very evident collaboration because it is the work of Glauber's that has the most pictorial force. I think that this expressive force of his work is something that comes with a visual artist, a painter; plastic work with colors and textures. I think that this is all in The Age of the Earth and that it is the film of Glauber's in which this aspect is strongest. How was your partnership in The Age of the Earth?
GAITÁN: He gave me the script, which by the way was a script with characters that were not exactly the same as the ones we see in the film, but it had visually very powerful elements. And then I remember I was pregnant with Eryk and we went to a production company in Urca, they installed me in a room and I did all the visual survey for the film. This material was lost, it must have remained in the Urca production company, owned by Tizuka Yamasaki. So I made the storyboard and drew character by character. When I bought the fabrics, I researched the chromatic question of the fabrics, of the props and many of the things, for example, that Antonio Pitanga uses in the film. A very beautiful memory of [Carlos] Petrovich's character, the devil, dressed in a Mexican hat and a singular colorful make-up, was the fact that I painted his clothes and his face by hand. Which is a bit like how I work to this day. In fact, I work very similarly to this day. The costumes for my films are always available, they go with the actors to all the locations. We always take all the costumes with us. Maíra Senise and Aline Besouro, who work with me, know that in fiction films I work with a huge range of possibilities, and depending on the specific light of that day of shooting, and the location, the character's costume may be rethought.
There are predetermined colors in the research, it's a bit like painting, there are colors that prevail, color plans, you work these color plans, I do not see costumes as clothes that methodically correspond to a historical period, a specific era, I work archetypes and colors, as if they were color plans. That is, if a costume designer comes to work with me saying “ah, this is incorrect, the period costume has frills like this, buttons like this”, he is out, there is no need to talk. So, it is a very different vision, even from what I do. I still work with different logics: spatial, color, texture, movement, fluidity, strangeness, experimenting with juxtapositions and contrasts, and very strict in the choice of what is really indispensable, and not that naturalistic costume design. So this also permeates The Age of the Earth, where I came up with a concept after reading the script and, for example, I was inspired by a photo from Leni Riefenstahl's book, which she took in Africa, to make the cowl helmet that Pitanga wears in the film.
In reality, my work is collage, association, sensibility, understanding these forms through very broad research. So nothing is random, and everything is a creation that takes place after prolonged research. That's how it was also while making The Age of the Earth. I'm telling you the case of the helmet, which is this helmet made of cowrie shells, of Pitanga's clothes with these red and white fabrics, and the zebra print, and the fact that it's also a kind of parangolé. What is interesting is that Glauber also knew exactly what he wanted, so I would try it out and at the time he would take out some detail or add something... But Glauber was the most generous person I have ever seen in my life while working and he offered the greatest freedom to the team.
VOGNER DOS REIS: And how has he influenced you in your work? What do you think comes from this collaboration with him that you have incorporated into your work? Some procedure, some relationship with creation, what would it be?
GAITÁN: I think that the speed of problem solving. But also this rhythm of speed in the creative process is something I picked up from Glauber, because we would go to bed and the next day he would change something in the agenda, for example, in the sequence in Pelourinho with the nuns, when the police arrived, how do you incorporate this, this unexpectedness? It is a bit like the idea of incorporating chance into the aesthetics, and how you also incorporate chance and also the speed with which this happens, including in the mise-en-scène, how you create this open stage theatre. This dynamic between the actors and the dialogues, I also learned this from him, that the dialogues almost happen half an hour before. This does not mean that I arrive like a crazy person and invent, no. I arrive on the set with a wealth of experience in researching and mapping out texts and images. When I finish one of my films, the teams are left with a vast amount of visual material. The work I do with the crews is very deep, with the art team... The art team led by Diogo Hayashi is almost the first team to work with me, they are the ones who find the locations together with me. For me, a location has life. You can't do the artwork after the script, make the storyboard and then imitate it. It's the opposite, you go looking for the spaces, the whole process is inverted. First comes the location and I have a vague idea of an action. But that action is completed when I find the location and from that a sequence is born. The sequence can almost be born, because I am interested in that space, that symbolic space, that historical space, whatever. So, I don't think I am a good apprentice, because Glauber has another type of cinema, he is a great playwright and brings a much stronger political question than mine. The political with me came in a different way.
VOGNER DOS REIS: How do you think the political comes into your work?
GAITÁN: I think it comes from the formal radicalism sometimes and the associative way. I don't know, I don't know, because I don't know how to talk much about my work, but it is more like that: in the way I exercise this freedom. I think it is more, perhaps, what I also learnt from Glauber, is that you must have no limits in exposing yourself and must not be afraid of mistakes and of taking risks. This courage, basically, is fundamental, it guided me, his courage, in all aspects, guided me. It is a courage that inspires me, and much greater than mine; he has lived things that are very different from my own life and probably much more radical, right? But let's say that he is a person who has marked me deeply, marked me for that, marked me from various places. But that's it, I also feel that he found in me an empty ground where he could plant something, a blank page without many cinematographic references too, because I wasn't a film buff. He found an artist who was a little naïve, talented and very curious and I think that my porous way of receiving things also made it easier.
Since I don't have an academic training in cinema, all this would have required, perhaps, a more critical personality. I imagine that his relationship with Juliet Berto or Helena Ignez were very powerful, he was from the same country and from the same generation as Helena Ignez, so they lived many intense things and discoveries together. With Juliet Berto he was living a little of what European cinema was, what the Nouvelle Vague was, thus, personified in the body of this woman. My story didn't have that weight, you know? I came from a different tribe. I was a Latin American, much younger... Not so much, I was 14 years younger than him, but at that time it was a big temporal distance. And he found a freshness in someone who did not bring those references. That's it; I think it's interesting that I didn't live much in those days. Understand?
VOGNER DOS REIS: At what point in time did you live together?
GAITÁN: The fact is that I was his last companion, I did not live through the golden years of Glauber's life. Cannes, the festivals around the world, Cinema Novo... I came, that's why I tell you, more from a freshness and a person who was not in dispute with him, who was there... I wasn't disputing territory, I was there in a far more humble way in terms of listening, of understanding, of letting myself go, you know? And that's also important. So, this is good, and on the other hand, I also absorbed these good, positive things, which I took with me for the rest of my life. Which I still carry with me today.
VOGNER DOS REIS: I would like you to make a synthesis of your trajectory, subsequent to these episodes narrated now, of the ‘80s, in which you work with video. What do you think is the most relevant thing to say about the course of this decade about which I have not found much historical information?
GAITÁN: The Olho d'Água project is from that moment. But do understand something simple here: it's not that early in the eighties, because when I went to shoot the feature Uaká, let's say it was in ‘85, ‘86. I spent two and a half years editing. I edited in moviola. The film was finished in ‘89. I won the CTAV [Centro Técnico Audiovisual] public notice, but before that I had written various scripts for CTAV and they didn't work out. And then I won the first public notice. The film was called Agosto Kuarupe and that was Uaká's script. That was my process.
Uaká (Paula Gaitán, 1988)
Let’s say Glauber died in '81, and until '82—it was a difficult and critical moment, I was widowed at 28, with two small children, so I spent a year, two years, a little while finding a place to raise my children. In parallel, I started to make [my first film] Olho d'Água, which is this beautiful film, about 40 minutes long, and so much so that Leon Hirszman [Brazilian filmmaker, one of the main figures in the Cinema Novo movement] saw it and fell in love with it. Leon was very important, he saw it in an art gallery, at a screening, and fell in love with it. That was in 1984. On the other hand, I did things with photography, I took part in photography exhibitions. I had this relationship with video art, I did some experiments, and let's say that until I wrote [my first feature] Uaká, in ‘84, I was already on my way to the Xingu, I went there for the first time to do research, I came back, and then the filming took place between 1986 and 1987.
VOGNER DOS REIS: How long did the filming of Uaka last?
GAITÁN: It lasted a month and a half.
VOGNER DOS REIS: And the whole process? Because you edited the film too, didn't you?
GAITÁN: I edited it with Aída Marques. And the process that took the longest was the sound editing.
GAITÁN: Because sound already seemed more fascinating to me than image. At that moment it already seemed to me that I had this peculiar sensibility with sound, so I worked on it, I became more interested. I found it more fascinating to work with sound than with images. But I liked working on the image. But let's say that I spent two years editing in moviola, this whole process, I think I spent almost a year working on the sound.
VOGNER DOS REIS: You said something that is important, that in Uaká the sound seemed much more interesting to you than the image, and the question of sound in your work has a sophisticated, complex aspect. When did you realize that it was more interesting, and what made you want to experiment with sound? What was so stimulating about it that you didn't find in the visual material?
GAITÁN: Well, to build an off-screen space. Half of Uaká's sound was gone. The sound technician, who was very good, dropped it in the river. So it returned to us with noise. What I had was more diminished than the image and we had to work a lot on the idea of this sound being reconstructed in various ways, like making a salad with lettuce, tomato, onion and potato, which was something I used to eat in Cuba. At the time of the shortage, I spent New Year's Eve in Havana, which was the most beautiful experience of the Cuban people. That experience of food taught me many things, that you are at Christmas and New Year's and scarcity can be very productive. So, when you went to the table, because we were invited by a Cuban family to spend New Year's Eve in their house, the table had a tomato salad with onions, with potatoes and with lettuce. All the salads had the same elements, but all cut in different ways. So it looked totally different and you ate it with great pleasure. In other words, it's the same thing as the editing, it doesn't have to have a thousand elements, there were just a few, but visually it was so beautiful and rich and powerful.
So that's it, we learn that with sound and with the raw material of what we film, each image has an extraordinary power. So each shot, each sequence, I learned to use everything. Everything, everything. There is no material, there is no hierarchy within the material. And the same thing with the sounds. It was extraordinary in the sound editing bay, because I realized that this could not be the failure of the film, that I had to construct the sound precisely... So, since there was no sound from the lake, from the lagoon, I began to spatialize the sound. So, what would they hear? They would hear the sound of the Uruá flutes in the distance. Then I would take these Uruá flutes that were already in the film and I would modify them, I would make associations. So I learnt to work with the minimum and the maximum, and the maximum is in the imagination, in the way you associate the elements, how you associate sound and image, how you create these extra-fields, how you work the power of the image. Or in the repetition of the image. In other words, you can make a feature film with five shots and ten sounds. That’s it, it depends on the way, everything is an articulation. That is why I say it is an aesthetic articulation of the elements you have in your hands and the way you organize and conceptualise them. The concept is the most important thing.
VOGNER DOS REIS: The use of music and the work with sound in your films are both very special because they constitute a real soundscape inside the sound field and outside the field too. It is as if the sound affirms the abstract nature of it all, but your work also strives to find the origin of that sound, both the search for its abstract aspect, the mental concept of music, the very experience of fruition, and in the material, its production, its work. In the sense, for example, of the artists' work, in the case of Arto Lindsay, Arrigo, Negro Leo, but also in the effect of that music on bodies and spaces. For example, in Night Box. So your image is a kind of pure visual rhythm. How does the sound determine or help to compose the work with the image?
GAITÁN: Sometimes it comes first. It comes in a sound; I hear the sound and I already imagine how the montage will be. It is not that it pre-exists. The sound is, again, a matter of finding these rhythms and these discrepancies between sound and image and going on making these associations, as I have been doing and did in Opera of the Dogs, with my voice, and this is a craft and also associative work... It is a bit like the relation between the poets of that tradition, André Breton, Paul Éluard... That automatic writing, through the camera, the hand, the image as an extension of the eyes, all coming from Stan Brakhage's text, “Metaphors of Vision.” So it is the artists that interest me.
VOGNER DOS REIS: Your work with sound is a really special thing; of sound as a work of poetry. I find that very interesting, because poetry is the word, and especially the written word. Sound is an abstract thing. The Puppy Opera is just that, it is a poetic work in the dark, and on the dark screen it creates one, several sound images. Landscapes. It is a film without a visual image, but it has many images, it has many layers, it has a composition of mental images.
GAITÁN: They are mental images, but this is important in the work of many directors, isn't it? There are directors who are permeated by this restlessness. There are others who take other paths, which are more rational paths. But the question of intuition is strong in my work. But it is not an intuition without a historical and materialist base. So it is always this contradiction, and at the same time, the elements: it is the concrete, it is the ground, the earth, and suddenly there are these deviations.
Light in the Tropics (Paula Gaitán, 2020)
There is a film of mine that I think is very synthetic, a four-and-a-half-hour synthetic, which is Light in the Tropics, where I did everything I wanted to do all my life, without anyone bothering me, without fear of taking risks. Understand? The last hour and a half of Light in the Tropics resembles what I have become, this moment of mine now. I think it is a rhizomatic film, which is a combination of many worlds in parallel, it is as if they were cutting points between various universes, various different spaces, of you crossing a continent like this [makes a flying sound], you have already crossed. You're already there, you don't need to create a whole narrative to be there. You don't need to have many bridges to have access to these places, to these images that seem impossible to be connected, but they are possible to connect, you just have to want them. Now, talking like this sounds easy, but you have to have this universe inside you. First you have to know the material of a project, and I work with memory. So when I film, as we are always close to the images, I memorize all the images while I am filming, then I go over the material and I am full of this process. It's like a HD [keyboard sound], it's difficult, kind of between action painting and associative. It's kind of a gesture and at the same time, mentally, it's very fast. And of course, all of this with incredible teams that are close by and that are important in the challenges that arise.
VOGNER DOS REIS: Paula, let's try to define a little what this work of memory is in your work, because you have defined memory for me within an artistic process, a conceptual process of mental images that you articulate. But memory also ends up being the theme and subject of works such as Days in Sintra and Memory of Memory, which are films that are based on personal and family archive material. Both construct a poetic landscape, articulating a concept about memory. What did you discover new in an archive material that you already knew? What did you discover new in the editing?
GAITÁN: Yes, first of all I think that memory is always a construction. I am not trying to go against historians, or documentarians. These films that want to be very specific and precise, I recognize their historical value and I think they are very important. But when I speak of memory, it is much more about what is erased than what remains. So, in the same way that visual memory is important to me, my main instrument is my eyes. But it is the way I memorize images. In the same way I don't memorize a poem by heart. I have a very strange thing, to this day I don't know the whole alphabet. I do not learn any text, I never learned any song when I was a teenager, I never learned to sing a song, so I would watch my friends singing music, and I do not know any lyrics by heart. If you ask me my phone number, I have to check it on my phone every time, because I can't even memorize my number. So, it is a strange problem. It is a lack of memory. And at the same time it's a great visual memory. I can't memorize a text, I understand it, I read it and get a concept. But, for example, Arrigo [Barnabé, Brazilian musician], he speaks poems by Sousa Andrade, poems by, I don't know, Octavio Paz, he speaks a thousand poems. I have atrophy in this kind of memory, and I am ashamed to say that I don't know the alphabet. It is true, it is a problem, it is some kind of thing that I haven't analyzed yet, I would have to go to a neurologist, but it is some kind of atrophy that doesn't let me have this kind of textual memory.
VOGNER DOS REIS: But you have visual memory. How does that work creatively?
GAITÁN: The question of visual memory is important. I wake up, I am thinking about a film and I have a mental image and I go after that image, I end up finding it as if I were guessing, that image exists and is there. So the associative question with the image, the memorization, the memory of the image, of the space, this is strong for me. When I went to write Days in Sintra, I erased a lot of things. I erased anecdotes, I erased what people said, I erased all that. But the images, I went after those images, which were not exactly the images I had experienced with Glauber. Also, because I had never been to Monsanto, but I remembered that Sintra had an atmosphere of mist and rocks, and I wanted to find a space that was the Sintra I had experienced before, because Sintra was no longer the same when I returned to film, after 25 years—it was a Sintra full of shops. So, when I found the locations I began to immerse myself in a kind of onirism, and I read a lot of Gaston Bachelard at that time. I remembered a lot about Portuguese women, about women's work, how women used to hang their white clothes on clotheslines. This poetics of space, these elements surrounding space, how this would materialize in images, from a certain atmosphere, with a Proustian temporality, and also with sound. Some sounds that I remembered.
So I travelled a lot to find “nothing,” nothing I would find, everything was elusive, I was totally wandering, we went with the crew to Serra da Estrela, and the crew would say: “But why are you here? Have you come with Glauber?” I replied: “No, I have never been here.” “Did you go to Monsanto with Glauber?” “No, I've never been here.” “That house you filmed in, the bed, did you live there?” I said, “No. It is another house.” But it was finding a memory that is not translatable, but it is a memory, something that permeates a memory of the body, a memory of memory, a smell, an image, a noise, you know? Crossing villages to find the sound of bells, to find the mist, to find a shepherd, as there in Days of Sintra. Climbing mountains to feel again what it would be like to climb that mountain in Sintra. Because that's it, spaces also mutate, so when you go back to those places, those places are no longer those places. So, how can you pass on these sensations, this untranslatable memory? So you go looking, and that's exactly what the film is, the film says “paths that lead to Sintra, or perhaps, to nowhere.” But that's what art is about too, isn't it? When you work with materials, in painting or in art, when you work with color, the layers of color, watercolor, for example, the whole series by Cézanne, of that mountain that he always painted.
VOGNER DOS REIS: The Saint-Victoire.
GAITÁN: That's it. Why does one endlessly want to film the same thing, the same shot, with several lights? That's it, that's a mystery that leads us to create images. Then, when you do things a little driven by intuition, which was the case with Days in Sintra, I went to a seminar, a lecture, an open class on Proust given by Roberto Machado. It was almost at the end of the production of Days in Sintra. So I went there and he talked about this book by Deleuze on Proust, "Proust and the Signs," and involuntary memory. Then I remember that this was a treasure, because I went there, bought the book and understood exactly this associative, sonorous, visual procedure, of a search for an imaginary that would take me to this concreteness, to a real trip, but simultaneously to the construction of mental spaces, mental images, that were not exactly the same places I had gone to with Glauber, but it was all there. It was all there. The feeling, this memory was thus constructed, starting from these gaps and from the impossibility of this restitution. Because we also had that, that can no longer be restituted. So, I find it very interesting when people want to make these historical films, very precise, with statements. But I think that every testimony is always a fiction.
Life (Paula Gaitán, 2008)
VOGNER DOS REIS: You have made films that are essayistic portraits around the persona of actresses, filmmakers, musicians, artists in general. They are digressive portraits measured in time and in the friction of images in the editing, and also in the friction between the material and the performance. We see this in Life, which is with Maria Gladys, in Agreste, which is with Marcélia Cartaxo, in Subtle Interferences, which is with Arto Lindsay, and in Riverock, with Negro Leo. Memory of Memory is also a portrait, a self-portrait. What stimulates you in making this portraiture?
GAITÁN: I think that portraits also have this desire to be earthy, to live among others, which is important to me. So much so that I manage to produce a film like Riverock, and a film like Light in the Tropics simultaneously, because there comes a time when the substance of one starts to run out and to exhaust me, as was the case of Light in the Tropics. It is because in that you are managing many different imaginary worlds, and sometimes you just need to descend into the terrain of words. So, I parallel [Negro] Leo's film, which puts me on the right track, “Oh, you are here, you are here at this moment, you are alive, we are in Brazil, this is the Brazil we are living, Paula, we are here.” Isn't that right? That is it. And sometimes I think this is always oscillating within my projects. It is an immense curiosity to listen to others too, because until now I only say “me, me.” I am very self-referential. But, on the other hand, I feel that it is very important to listen to others, to stop yourself and reconnect with the world that is there. That's it. I think that the fact that I also came from another country reconnects me in a way, a bit like we talked about, a certain purity of information at the level of everything.
So, purity is like that, it is not that I am pure, I am not pure at all. To understand Maria Gladys without necessarily being Maria Gladys's friend. Because everybody thinks that I was Maria Gladys' friend. No, I was never a friend of Maria Gladys, nor of Marcélia. I met Marcélia on the set. Leo I knew, obviously, but it is also curiosity that leads me to meet people without doing, for example, a lot of research on them. But the impact Marcélia had on me through the films I saw with her was enough. Sometimes an image with Marcélia, a photo, an image was so impactful that it led me to her. So, with Marcélia, in the case of Agreste, we met there. So it is like this, it is a bit of a risk you take, because it is a work of persuasion, it is also a seduction that takes place, it is a relationship that is built on the very level of the filming process, of you filming the other, but also of the other approaching you. It is a mutual work of recognition, of two bodies, me, my body, a woman with another woman, so it is a kind of understanding this side of the feminine also in my body through this woman, and understanding it in a more general way in Agreste, because it is not only Marcélia. She is a starting point to understand other things.
VOGNER DOS REIS: What things?
GAITÁN: That the characters are there, too, not only to talk about their personal history, but to be the ones articulating new spaces. To be mediators. They also mediate with other spaces. Do you understand? Like in Marcélia's case, the film is called Agreste, it came from her and she was supposed to do something much smaller, and little by little she took care of everything. She led me to these other places. So I think this film Agreste is beautiful. And at the same time, it is her memory, but also being able to reach other territories, other places, so much so that at one point we see a moment of a demonstration by women, by peasant women from the MST [the Brazilian Landless Rural Workers’ Movement]. Agreste is also appealing, through Marcélia, to my grandmother and to many other women. And I include myself in this. So they are half portraits and they are not, no?
VOGNER DOS REIS: It seems to me that in each film you rewrite the filmic script—in the sense that from work to work you invent new aesthetic gestures, specific codes, which seem to arise from a particular relationship between the characters and the spaces. But no matter how stylistically different the films are from one to another, it seems to me that there is a cohesion in Agreste, The Volcano Exiles, Light in the Tropics, and others... Is this dynamic of always inventing new aesthetic gestures a quest of yours, or is it something you become aware of during the creative process? How does it work?
GAITÁN: Both things, because there is a clear intention, it is not only performance and not only improvisation. What I am telling you has a very concrete starting point, a concreteness that comes from research. It is different if you are intimate with the person, or if you know them, or if you do an interview. No, I don't do that. Or things like that, investigative, of getting to know the other person's work exaggeratedly to arrive with some kind of points already clarified, to think that you understand enough. I did that, by the way, you know who, and I got a thrashing? With Renato Berta, who is another film you don't know.
VOGNER DOS REIS: No, I don't know.
GAITÁN: Man, over the years I have made about 50 documentaries with characters, based on characters. In Colombia I made many, many documentaries, which I am trying to recover now, and I made the series The Resisters. The first one in this series was Renato Berta. And I arrived there knowing that he was an incredible director of photography, and I was very scared and I studied Renato Berta's whole life and did something I had never done in my life, a lot of little questions, very formal, very formal, about photography. He first made an appointment at a place that was the most unaesthetic café in the world. It was a street café in Paris, in Bastille, as crowded as it could be, like in Lapa. I don't know, a place like that, full of rubbish on the side.
So I came in all neat and tidy with my questions and he looked at me and said: "So many uninteresting questions. You're here with a series of questions: go there, Google me, I'm not going to talk about that. Why are you here?" Then I said: “Well, I'm here because I don't know why I'm here. Do you know why I am here? Because I am a Latin American woman, because you treat me like this, because you say that my questions are like this, so I am here for a fight, so let's discuss. I am not here for anything. If you want to talk to me, then we can talk. But then we zero in and you talk about whatever you want.” Man, he loved me, and it's a beautiful documentary, it's a feature, it's an hour and twenty minutes. We became friends, but it showed me why I was there. I just wanted to talk to him and get somewhere unknown. And for the first time I did exactly the opposite of what I was used to and I got a scolded big time, I looked like a fool there with a lot of questions. So it was beautiful, because when you give yourself up to not knowing, to really getting to know little by little during this process and not being so severe and so firm, you discover hidden things. And he began to create an atmosphere in which what he was talking about, he was talking against French cinema, he was talking about everything that wasn't written on paper, you know? Well then, this is an example of how to reach an unknown being, that you are not exactly a journalist, so you go discovering, you go with less certainties and more doubts and more curiosity, I think that things happen in a more interesting way.
VOGNER DOS REIS: You spoke of a relationship with character that is illuminating, but what about space?
GAITÁN: For example: I arrive and I already place myself from the camera's point of view, so I know that, for instance, in the case of Maria Gladys, the first thing I saw was the window. Then I know where the camera is and what will become a character in the film, which is the window. Then I see the space. I see the vanishing points, the main points. Then I will add elements that are in that space. I am not going to put Gladys in an idealized place. But I will create a spatial perception of where these characters are in order to understand which lens, which image, the place of the camera, things like that, like any director. But this is very quick, you understand? I don't need much time to do that. I can do it in no time at all. I don't know if I am getting where you are going.
Riverock / É Rocha e Rio, Negro Leo (Paula Gaitán, 2020)
VOGNER DOS REIS: That’s a fair response. So much so that the next question is a step further, it is the question of editing. Watching Riverock and Light in the Tropics, your most recent films, I find the tempo of the editing of these two works, the way you edit, to be strange—a strangeness that calls attention to the cut. No cut is gratuitous, no cut has the mere effect of advancing the narrative or indicating a closed meaning, but establishes a particular rhythm, almost as if your edits in these films were rhythmic transformations in a song. What is the meaning of editing for you in your work, taking these two films I mentioned as examples?
GAITÁN: For me it's all concept, so, the fact of taking decisions. I made decisions like that. [Riverock] would be in chronological order, because it would only be possible to understand this logic of his thought without manipulation. This logic seemed important to me, which is a totally anti-cinema thing, because cinema creates from the manipulation of times and things, you create artificial worlds. It doesn't mean that it this aspect totally does arrive in the end, because there are some things that take a film out of this consecutive modality. Meaning, for example, in the beginning the camera is in the street and the film starts looking from outside, which is something I have never done—a character going out onto the balcony, it was something that I realized at the time, that I myself often spoke to Leo like this, and that many ideas could be exchanged like this, Leo up there and I down below. And then there is the montage that is duplicated on the way up the stairs [to his apartment].
There is a climb [up the stairs] that is with [influential Brazilian musician] Tim Maia and there is another climb that is when, finally, the microphone gets in with the team and Leo is sitting down, and he even comments on it all to Ava [Gaitán's daughter]. Because we microphoned him and he said: “Oh, don't be afraid, when we get there we will start talking”. Because Ava was in doubt, she didn't know if it felt right. So this part was apparent, but not all of it. Then also these passages of the movement of the camera, how the camera moves in space, I find very interesting. There is something kind of hypnotic that happened on the day of the filming. Here there is a kind of movement, and the bodies go spinning and Leo goes spinning along with them. This also happens in Maria Gladys' film, people start a little more formal and little by little... It could be obvious, but not everybody has that, you know? And little by little... Well, then in the filming itself you have the temperature that comes from the power of the material. It's something like if you were playing a show, a thing, a musical performance. I am not a musician, but I think that is what it is, you already have a feeling of how hypnotic it is for the crew, for everybody.
So this displacement of the camera is very interesting. And finally there are secrets there too. Secrets about the materials used. When he goes into the light and Lucas starts to say: “Ah, but it is exposed, there is too much light there,” then Leo goes forward. Then during editing I begin to understand that editing is precious to me, that editing is the backbone of any film. These are montage films that come about through montage, right? Editing is precious in all films, even in the most commercial films. But they are films that sometimes start from different places. The films, for example, that have a very well-structured script, I believe are films that start from montages that are very much guided by a previous logic, they have a precision. Isn't that right?
VOGNER DOS REIS: Yes, generally.
GAITÁN: In the case of the editing of the projects themselves, in Riverock, it takes place during editing, in [Negro Leo’s] own time. So it's something that is non-negotiable, nothing more. And they are also political gestures, because the issue of quotas is so hotly debated, screen time, what it is to be centre, what it is to be epicenter, what is on the margin, what is centre and what is on the margin. So these discussions are very interesting, and actually Leo's film puts this, who is watching who and listening, time is in this whole discussion about who listens and the time you devote to that listening. I think Leo is exactly that. But that can't be done with just any material, it can't become a fad. The image has a kind of anatomy. Bressane said this... as if it were a kind of thing, a kind of... When you make a corpse and you dissect it, what do you call it? It's not dissecting, it's when you create a whole anatomical logic for this body. I think that film is a bit like that. It depends on the material, it depends on the images, it depends on what is said...
VOGNER DOS REIS: The film has its own logic. It's not something that is invented, pulled out of the hat afterwards, is it? Films have, let's say, an ecology of their own.
GAITÁN: Yes, exactly. It's a body. It has a precise thing and at the same time it has an intuitive thing. It's a question that has to do with a pathology, that's the word.
VOGNER DOS REIS: A pathology. Yes.
GAITÁN: The pathology of each image. That's it, that's interesting.
Days in Sintra (Paula Gaitán, 2007)
VOGNER DOS REIS: When I was preparing this interview, I asked two friends of yours who know and admire your work, Bernardo Oliveira and Juliano Gomes, what they would ask you. And each one of them asked a question that I'd like to pass on to you now. I'll ask Juliano's first question: “I'd like to know more about you and Brazil. You have an experience, a strong relationship with South America. In a certain way, being in Brazil and working ends up being a choice. Paula's Brazil, the Brazil you are interested in filming. The Volcano Exiles, Light in the Tropics or Subtle Interferences are very particular films, which have a very particular idea of Brazil, one that is not common. So I would like to know a little about the Brazil that interests you, that you film”.
GAITÁN: It is always a dislocated look. A little dislocated, and at the same time we return to the question of the characters, of Maria Gladys, of how these characters, people, women, Brazilian men, lead me by the hand to better understand all these territories. They teach me and lead me to an understanding. But I arrive with a kind of foreign look. "Being a foreigner" even in your own country is a feeling that exists, I find it difficult to erase the edges and historical struggles, I respect the space of the other very much, each one carries their history with them, there may even be an identification, a union between the parts, but I am not Leo, I am not Gladys, that is it, it is not a symbiosis, because there are filmmakers who film the universe thinking that they are these “enlightened” people, which are ambitions that I do not have, I find them a little demagogic and a little dilettantish and a little opportunistic. I want to be together with these artists that I got to know through years of working and filming, but I cannot say that I have appropriated the soul of these characters that belongs to them, which is materialized for example in the prodigious performance of Maria Gladys in the film Life.
I think this is an arrogance, a shame, you wanting to appropriate as some filmmakers do the history of your people, and become the centre of this history. You want to appropriate everything, to devour everything? So my gesture seeks the opposite, it is a gesture of learning, of being able to work on this human matter, this valuable matter, of strengthening this dialogue between and with different artists. But I am not Leo, I am not Gladys, I am not Arrigo, and I crawl in the discovery of this very particular universe of each one of them, remembering here the essay "Metaphors of Vision," by Stan Brakhage, when he says that we have to relearn to observe the world like a child that crawls on the grass of a park through the gaps in the fingers of his hand. These moments when these universes connect or shift are very inspiring. I am not from Minas, but I make a film in Minas. I don't try to be from Minas. Or say that I am from Minas. No, I am not from Minas. So this has to be very clear in my work, I do not possess the other as an act of devouring, appropriation and place of speech. So, “Ah, I am the one who did this”. No, I am not. I am just a body that is a body. I work a lot, so I think that any gesture that seems demagogic to me I remove from any project of mine. Any farce, any use for a thing. I feel that in that sense I am in an exile, in a way.
I would say this to Juliano, that not everything I know, I search for because I don't know, I don't know why it is these people and not the others, I don't know why these connections came before to me, but this is my life. I don't know any of it, there is no premeditated logic like that. It has a curiosity and it has, perhaps, the understanding that this person has a lot to say, as any life is interesting, and that I am passionate about, so I can dedicate myself to working on this project with passion. I don't make products, I make encounters that become a little rehearsal, a little conversation. And it is never something very elaborate, because I go to meet this person, not another. These are not very elaborate intentions in a rational way for me.
VOGNER DOS REIS: The last question here is from Bernardo, he says the following: “Paula's films start from questions not necessarily linked to the cinematographic field. Sound art, anthropology, literature, politics. And I think this has to do with the fact that she is also a female camera-walker, before being a cinephile or a metteur-en-scène. Paula, how much is the road worth?”
GAITÁN: I think that this idea of a walker is just that, the idea of being a camerawoman. Nowadays there are many female “camerawomen” directors. But it is like this, it is understanding that nowadays I have the capacity to produce work on my own, if I want to. Not because I am egocentric. Everyone is a bit self-centered. Whoever says they are not self-centered is lying. The egocentric person talks a lot about himself, but I also talk about the others, because I think that these projects would not exist if it were not for the others, for the people who have accompanied me throughout these years and that precisely because I am a foreigner and do not belong to any specific place, I am not identified with any movement, nor as a iconic character within Brazilian culture, neither as a plastic artist and visual artist, nor as a poet, so it could have been a failure, but I managed. One thing that is important is discipline, I managed to focus on this audio-visual production. But I think that, whether well or poorly, within the audio-visual language, I managed to produce a lot of things, which I think have some special moments, and I think that within each film we will find strong moments. Which is, as a matter of fact, as in the work of any director, right?
Night Box (Paula Gaitán, 2015)
But I feel that it is a life project that was, even though I am a wanderer, that was made with a lot of power and with very firm production strategies. I think that this is important, to think that I am 68 years old now and that I have a very strong connection with the work of young directors, and it is not new. It's a road that I have been following since I returned to Brazil in 2000. So it's not an artificial thing, “Ah, because I'm young, because I'm connected to the wave”. I was never seen as a filmmaker, I was barely seen... I was never seen as anything in the first place. This basically collaborated a lot with this freedom of mine, and with the fact that I was also nourished by these younger forms of production. And one of the things that has affected me very positively is the work of new generations, I am permanently in contact with their productions, I connect more and more with the people that interest me. Perhaps the fact that I was a teacher for 20 years, at Parque Lage, strengthened me a lot. So the space, for example, of Tiradentes [Film Festival], is a very important one for me, because it was there that I really started to create this fabric of letting myself be enlightened by the works of other directors who influenced me much more than this traditional Europeanized cinephilia. And that's it, I don't mystify anything from Europe, because I was born there. I could be French by choice, nor do I want to resemble it. I despise power in all its places, I despise everything that is fashionable, who is in power, who has the say, I prefer to be outside all these institutional things, so I feel like a drifter. And I feel good discovering these new universes with a lot of curiosity. And this is what has enabled me to make films like this as well. Not believing so much in: “Ah, that film is the one that can work and that's the way I'm going to go”.
I have a very good relationship with critics, perhaps not opportunistically, because I read reviews, I like to read reviews. So this is very important to me, because sometimes I read criticism that has an enormous influence on my work. I read less literature than essays, than philosophy, than criticism. I think that criticism is fundamental even for the growth of cinema itself, and I think that there was a generation of critics that I met when I returned to Brazil that was fundamental for my persistence in making cinema. This persistence, this belief that it is possible, I owe a lot to the critics as well, because they supported me. A kind of critic, a critic that I read, that I respect. Because the critic is not a universe, “Ah, the critic”. There are people who write a lot and are not critics. I prefer to be connected to my time, in the fact that I am a Colombian woman myself, to understand these connections, and I think that now in this moment of maturity I am much happier, because I am producing a lot. I am not ashamed of making mistakes, I keep on making, making, and my word is "work". I work a lot too. It is erratic, but you come back and sit down and produce. Because it is a way of being alive.


Paula GaitánInterviewsLong ReadsSheffield DocFestSheffield DocFest 2021
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