It is already known to all that 2020 was the year that the earth stopped, a year of limitations and confinement. However, this does not apply to the imagination. The proof for this is The Tsugua Diaries, the “pandemic film” of the marriage formed by Maureen Fazendeiro and Miguel Gomes, a project that was born only a few months after the global emergency lockdown began.
During confinement, both directors faced seeing their projects put on hold and were feeling jaded from the sensation of living a Groundhog Day existence. Still, they were unable to stop their creative instincts, so they called upon a series of friends, regular collaborators and some new faces, to embark on this minimalistic film project—the only one which was possible at the time. A kind of meta-fictional social experiment that, from an apparent naivete, seeks to portray a specific historical moment while approaching concepts such as friendship, the need for companionship, community, and cinema itself—the ability to record the beauty behind a ray of light, or a fruit or a tree, in its purest form of existence.
After its world premiere in the Directors' Fortnight section of this year’s edition of Cannes, I had the opportunity to have an ad-hoc (as is the spirit of our times) talk with the two directors, who were holding and their newly-born child—gestated during the same time as the film. I was seeking to explore and learn more about the creative process of this inverted summer film diary, which, in its attempt at recreating the experience of daily life, invites viewers to enjoy a light, fun, and idyllic perspective of confinement—in all of its artificiality—that simultaneously questions our perceptions in this improvisational compendium that involves a trio of friends/ actors quotidian adventures.
NOTEBOOK: I was thinking about how to start this, ‘cause, you know, interviews... What a concept! While thinking about this interview, I was reflecting on the kind of mise-en-scène that is required in an interview. I have to structure everything in order to get something specific from the person I’m interviewing. But, while thinking about that, I was also wondering—what do I want to discuss about this film with Maureen and Miguel. What is it that I'm looking for from them... I wrote to you, immediately after watching the film, because it had been a long time since I had enjoyed a film so much, in a way that was full of joy and excitement. And I guess that I wrote to you because I wanted to discover how that worked. In the end, what I was looking for was some help to try to understand it.
MIGUEL GOMES: We’ll try to help.
NOTEBOOK: There’s a quote from Godard that comes to my mind often. I don’t recall the exact phrasing, but the idea was that, for him, a problem that filmmakers face is that they have a strong desire to be filmmakers, but not a strong desire to make films. I believe that The Tsugua Diaries could be regarded as the perfect translation of this phrase.
GOMES: Well, first of all, we have to refuse anyone who fits Godard’s description. We are filmmakers because we make cinema, and not the opposite. And in order to be a filmmaker you have to have the will, the desire to shoot something. Something that is not concrete. I don't understand people that, for example, say that “I want to make a noir film” or “I want to make a Western.” Of course, you can do that. But I think that, sometimes, we need tangible things and not these abstract concepts.
In the case of this film, we, both of us, had different projects that had been completely stopped due to the pandemic. So, we asked ourselves about what kind of film is possible within this context. So after that, we reunited with some people. Some people that had worked with us before, some who didn't, but people who shared the same wish, the same spirit of shooting something. Then, we went to this house that was close to Cintra and we didn't have any concrete ideas except for one…
MAUREEN FAZENDEIRO: To shoot.
GOMES: To begin to shoot a portrait of ourselves…
FAZENDEIRO: ...and of our team…
GOMES: To shoot these people whom we knew and invited to join us in this proposal of living together for four weeks—that was the main challenge, to live in a community, all together, in a self-imposed lockdown. Because we were not able to leave.
That house was our home for that amount of time and the décor of the film, our limit… and we didn’t know this, but later on, we discovered during the process that the main reason for the film’s existence was the desire to be with others, to share everyone together at the same time. The film is born from our wish to look for something that we were missing during the first lockdown. We were living in this imposed isolation, meaning that everyone on the team was on their own, so what we proposed to them was a kind of alternative lockdown, but together this time. The film is not about COVID, about lockdown—yes, it’s a portrait of a moment in time but it’s also a film about the desire for community, of working together, being together, of the wish to create a document of this shared time, and also of the individual time of each person that was there—the workers, the actors, the team. So the film is about recording this state of co-living, with its good things, solidarity, warmness but also its negative aspects, the small conflicts—like the actor that steals the socks of a technician—discussions about how to have breakfast ending up as discussions about the individual and the collective, but well…
NOTEBOOK: The film could have occurred at any other moment in time but yeah, it’s limited by its historical time. This year we have seen many pandemic films, but not as many as I had expected. We could say that, in a way, this film may fit the label, whatever that means. But it’s not a record of the pandemic lockdown, like, I don’t know, a diary-film shot on a cellphone, talking about how everything’s so hard… It’s all the contrary: this was shot on 16mm, in a collective effort—a joyful spectacle. I feel like it’s an attempt to recover something that got lost in those months. For example, a kiss, something so basic, becomes the riskiest or most punk act imaginable.
FAZENDEIRO: Yes, when we were thinking about the film, one of the first things that we did was to read about the new rules imposed on film shoots. We began with this while everything was on pause, thinking about the possible film. And the kiss, as you mentioned, was one of the things that we were forbidden to shoot. So we had to create new rules to be able to shoot this, to shoot the impossible. When we went to the house, in the beginning, we didn’t have anything, we didn’t have an argument, nor a script, but we had three ideas.
The first one: we wanted to shoot a kiss. And to be able to shoot a kiss, it had to be the last thing during the shooting. But we wanted to begin the film with it. So, that’s where the inverted chronology of the film comes from. Another idea was to shoot a construction. And that ended up being a deconstruction, due to the inverted time. The last idea was to make a film that worked with real life, with whatever happened to us in the house in our daily lives.
The first time we met at the place, before the 40 days of the shooting, there was this apple next to the door. A month later, when we went to the house for a few days to think about the film, we saw the apple there but it was completely rotten.
GOMES: That’s where the idea of inverted time came from, this diary, from the beginning to the end, and we knew we will be working with the idea of time. But the idea of shooting during the time of the pandemic wasn’t enough for us. Thankfully, we could count on these extremely intelligent actors that can suddenly start talking about mammoths, extinct animals… Those are things that we didn’t set out to do. It was just Carloto [Cotta, the main actor] who came up with it suddenly, out of nowhere. And at that moment we became aware that the time that we were living in was so unique, and it was beyond the limits of the pandemic—it was about sharing it. ‘Cause, we were also inevitably shooting other moments, and the film has this cosmic quality of being so simple, that we became aware of. An essence that has to do with all those times that are recorded in the film… the times that for example, this little baby that is right here with us didn’t exist, it was only a concept, an idea that forced Maureen to rest for a long time, to sit on a couch, thus forcing us to structure the film differently but that now is here, listening to us talking about a film that was made during a time in which she didn’t exist but that was thought for a time in which she will…
NOTEBOOK: I share your outlook about this cosmic perspective of time. For me, the justification of the temporal structure within the film was about more than the kiss, but more like a discursive idea about how to discuss the perception of time during that specific period, that is, the lockdown.
FAZENDEIRO: Of course, I guess we all experienced this sensation that you mentioned. During the lockdown, we all lost the notion of the future, we all had the sense of days repeating themselves. So we had to find a way to translate this to a cinematic structure and yes, the reason for the diary within the film comes from this.
GOMES: Yes, and it also comes, as you said, from this altered temporal perception, and we would have really wanted to record the belly of Maureen as it was diminishing, according to the film’s logic. But nothing happened to Maureen’s belly on a visual level during those days, so that’s why we needed to change and shoot the fruit.
NOTEBOOK: In a way, this is also like recording a home movie. One for which your girl will be thankful in the future. And speaking of improvisation and spontaneity, I’m really amazed by those elements within the film.
GOMES: That’s the thing, for example, with Carlotto. He’s unpredictable. He waits for us to say “Action!” to just surprise us and do whatever he wants. Sometimes he simply talks about things that you’re unable to understand. Other times, he comes up with these wonderful things. But that’s the thing about working like this, you have to use the camera to capture this unpredictableness. Especially with Carlotto, with whom you may expect that a particular thing will happen and then the exact opposite occurs.
NOTEBOOK: And what about the process of selecting which events from daily life events were going to be shown in the movie? Because you had 30 days and the experiences of so many people to tell...
FAZENDEIRO: We lived for six weeks in the house. The first week, we only stayed there with the scriptwriter to think about the general movement of the film. There was no script per se, but there were movements. The first week, this movement, this one for the second week, etc. We also considered the elements that the film will rely on. In the second week, the actors arrived to improvise in the places that we had in mind and after that, we wrote some dialogues and worked on some more concrete ideas, all of them invented by the actors during the improvisations—like the party dialogue, for example. Later on, we had only 4 weeks to shoot. One day of shooting for one day within the diary. We had the structure that actually appears on the film on a board. We had many ideas and well, only a few of them were going to be shot because we were unable to shoot so much in such a short period, and the process of selecting the scenes was really simple, exactly as it appears in the film, like when Miguel and I discuss shooting a Pavese adaptation or the tractor, and at the end, we shot a quince. And it was because at that moment we found it talking about what to shoot and well, the quince stayed. And many times this selection was made this way, not based on chance, but rather, it was based on an atmosphere that was guiding us to these choices, to create this chance… something really simple.
GOMES: We shot in chronological order. Day one, two, three… and at the end of day three, we imagined what we would do the next day. As for shooting in advance, we discovered that we may need new things for the before, like we discovered a discarded thing would be cool for day four so that day we shoot day 15 plus something extra, to adjust.
NOTEBOOK:: Like live editing?
GOMES: In a way… but, coming back to the Godard phrase… and about the real reason for the temporal structure. With the inversion of the timeline, we were not doing an inverse artistic creative process, let's say. The artistic creative process begins with the collective, with people gathering, talking, rehearsing, and working to achieve the final project, the film. And this film is the opposite, it ends with people gathering to think about doing something. So, coming back to the Godard quote, for us the climax of the film, because we wanted to record this ability to share our lives for some weeks, the climax was to arrive at this point. Not to the creation of an object, of a film, of something that’s finished. For us, cinema is a pretext. The kiss is a pretext, a fiction that is not true fiction, but a symbol of fiction. All of this is a pretext to arrive at that moment of sharing, of being together, of being able to shoot like the Lumiere brothers at the beginning of cinema, just to shoot really simple stuff. People peeling potatoes, washing their dogs, discussing what to eat for breakfast, things like that. That’s the climax—when you are most able to feel the interaction between them. If you want to be a filmmaker before making cinema, to arrive at that, you have to discard things in order to reach the essence that was there at the beginning of cinema, this desire to capture people and their times, doing the most…
GOMES: Mundane and simple things, yes. And to shoot this during such a hard time, when everyone was so desolate, we needed to come back to this primordium of the creative process. The primordium of cinema: to shoot an actor that doesn’t want to shoot a kiss, but to shoot a scene in which he bathes his dog. Because Carlotto wanted that too—he even proposed it. He said “Hey, I wanna wash my dog. You wanna shoot?” Of course, we said yes!
NOTEBOOK: Now that you mention the hard times, the desolated spirit of that period… I wanted to ask something that I felt, and that is if Diaries was an ideological posture towards the world. The world is this thing, that could be caught in the worst-case scenario, but we also have this, the fiction… a fiction in which you can appreciate color, light, the people you love and you wanna hang out with. The pleasure of shooting a quince because it deserves to be shot, because it was there, because quinces are delicious, just because… I don’t know where I’m going with this. Like the film was a coping mechanism for dealing with hard times, cinema as a way to enjoy life. I mentioned this because, for example, if someone calls me like, “Hey, wanna come and see Haneke's pandemic film,” I will never go, you know?
GOMES: Wait, wait, does that exist?
NOTEBOOK: No, no… Well, I hope it doesn’t. But well, do you feel like there’s a responsibility regarding the creation of images in delicate times? To defend this hedonist perspective of living.
GOMES: Yes, because we have no choice. There’s no alternative. The days are long, with good times and bad times. When you have a camera in your hands, and there’s wind, the wind is really important, because it moves trees, leaves—and that’s incredible. From the beginning of cinema to now, it is still really beautiful. Shadows shot on film are beautiful. Light. So we focus on recording those moments of light in which there was something gracious.
NOTEBOOK: And not to generate it, but to record it. To remember it. And speaking of remembering: While watching the film I remembered a quote by Samuel Fuller, his line in Pierrot le fou, in which he says that for him, film is a battlefield… Watching Diaries, one might say it’s the opposite, no?
FAZENDEIRO: Well, there are days when it is actually a battlefield.
GOMES: Maureen came up with this theory that this film works as a mirror of how the people experienced the lockdown period. We have three possible reactions that may come up: One, people won't like the film because nothing happens so they think that it’s shit, which we respect. The other possible reaction is to feel that the beauty of the world is real, that there are many beautiful things in life and cinema, no matter how hard the times are. But, there’s also another one, in which you may feel that the film is really dark, sobering, oppressive… Not in the Haneke way, of course, but on a different level. And we understand this feeling too, of course. Because even though we are shooting together, trying to capture the grace of the world, at the same time, we were trapped, unable to leave… and the film captures this tension.
In many situations, you can feel the loneliness, the presence of a hidden force that we felt during the shooting, and actually, watching it too. Diaries is also a film about loneliness, melancholia. It’s a film with two dimensions. And there’s one that wins, I think.
NOTEBOOK: The jubilant one.
NOTEBOOK: But as you said, it’s jubilation that needs the other in order to exist.
GOMES: Yes. Like, for example, in the scene with the watering of the flowers. It looks like she is in the middle of nature, but she is really in a cage… It’s all about perspective.
FAZENDEIRO: About the things that you can appreciate.
NOTEBOOK: About these two essences of the film, the loneliness, nostalgia, the joyful spirit, the cage in nature: It’s a film about freedom inside structure, about improvisation with rules, an anomaly low-cost non-narrative film, presented in the big-budget, ultra-narrative structured selection of the Festival de Cannes, creativity struggling within a specific period of time. I feel that its entire essence is based on contrast.
FAZENDEIRO: That’s a very important thing to say, especially regarding our film coming into contrast with other productions. Honestly, the freedom we had for this film is super rare. Nobody produces the film of a couple of directors that just come and say, “Hey, I want to make a film. I have no argument, no story. I only have the idea of wanting to make a film.” And we did count on the support of some producers to achieve it, and that’s not an easy thing to say. This film is possible thanks to the period in which we were living, in which there was no work available for technicians and actors, so this compelled the producers to take the risk of making this film. There was no time for funding, for anything. So yeah, this hard period of time gave us freedom.
GOMES: I also think that what you mentioned is really important because I had this sensation in Cannes, while watching what was happening there, that what was really counted at the festival was to set the industry back on track. Because there’s this big Hollywood industry but we also have this big auteur industry, and well, we have projects in this industry. And The Tsugua Diaries is a film that visibly takes distance from what this other industry is looking for.
But another lesson from this period is that it makes us think that what’s more important is to make the cinema that’s possible to make, and, second of all, the one we want to make, too. And that’s what matters the most when you make a film. To question yourself: Is it possible? Do you really wanna shoot this? In the beginning, we may have had no clear idea of what we wanted to do but well, we made the film in order to discover it.
And it wasn't about doing a film, a fiction film about a love triangle. That’s a virtual film that only exists in the mind of the audience. If you play the film the other way, in chronological order, the love triangle evaporates, you nevertheless feel other tensions. The film changes completely. Another reason for the structure is that, by using this inverse movement, we were able to offer two films to the audience. What they watch on the screen and what they construct, in parallel, in their minds.
NOTEBOOK: It’s like a puzzle.
GOMES: For us, it was essential that the film didn't turn into a charade. We didn't want a film in which the spectator has to play the role of the detective, to become Sherlock Holmes. For us, the film has to work in both orders, on both times, so that the audience is able to feel a progression in both ways, regarding time, the characters, and the situations, so that they enjoy the film without having to stop to understand it. And that’s why the film is so minimal and simple.
NOTEBOOK: Was the quince a deliberate choice? A reference to Victor Erice?
GOMES: You mean for the quince?
GOMES: No, no, it was just because we were talking about Pavese and the tractor, as you see it in the film, we were improvising and at the end, we turned around to face the quince tree… So, trying to escape Pavese and Maureen, because my character was unable to think of anything besides the tractor, it just happened due to improvisation. We just stopped in front of the tree. So we said, why not shoot this tree? So, Pavese vs. tractor equals quince. And the quince goes from rotten to normal. And for that process, we didn't know if the two weeks would be enough, but we tried it. We discussed about Erice, though. We said someone will say that we are stealing from him. And it makes sense. But, for us, it was not planned to shoot a quince, it was the same if it was an apple or something else, but well, it happened like this. It was faith.
NOTEBOOK: In the film, there are several leitmotifs that you can find in both your bodies of work, from themes and mechanisms coming from Our Beloved Month of August, The Face You Deserve, and Arabian Nights to structural elements from Motu Maeva or Soleil Noir. I’m curious how you deal with the notion of being an auteur, with this kind of self-awareness of creation, regarding what your work needs to contain. I can predict that the answer is that you shoot this simply because this is what you like, and what you’re interested in, but I would like to know how you work with these elements.
GOMES: You answered the question, yes. It’s the things we like. But it’s true, as we said, that this was an exercise to pass things from reality to the film, but the process of shooting the film was not a documentary, it's not a making-of. It wasn't a recreation, it's not a mirror of reality. We are performing, we are characters. The continuity of our work and this film, it comes to us as you said, because we like these things and what we shoot comes from our personalities. For us, the film, is less meta-cinema than it is about cinema in general, about our work, and even more about life, about being together, waiting for a baby to be born, about making a film with friends and with people who were not friends but ended up becoming ones, all of it an attempt to capture our lives. This is not about cinema, but, well, it’s a film that is a diary of the production of a film—yeah, it does end up saying something about that. But here, it’s all mixed. To live under these conditions while making a film is the limit of this mixture of life and cinema. Beyond that, I really don't know what else you can do. That’s how life passes on to become fiction.
NOTEBOOK: My favorite scene in the film is when you ask the actors to record whatever they want. I want to give that back to you and, well, if I were to play the absent interviewer, what would you like to ask yourselves? I want to ask my editor if it’s possible to publish this text in a version that follows the structure of the film... he’s probably gonna say no.
GOMES: Be careful because, when we structured the film, we thought about working the other way around all the time.
NOTEBOOK: Don't worry, I will do a montage in order to make it look functional. I always do some edits—to make myself look a little bit intelligent at least, and to give a bit of structure as well...
GOMES: That scene, by the way, is true, we had nothing to do with it. It was the entire responsibility of the three actors.
FAZENDEIRO: They shot three scenes. Two of them were completely unsavable.
NOTEBOOK: Well, it’s your time to take responsibility. One question only, no chance for it to be unsavable.
GOMES: Okay... Maureen, you wanna go to the beach after we finish this?