“I DREAM OF A WORLD WHERE EACH MEMORY COULD CREATE ITS OWN CAPTION” CHRIS MARKER. FILIPA CÉSAR IN CONVERSATION WITH DOREEN MENDE. VENICE / BERLIN, NOVEMBER 2009.
Filipa César, Memograma, film still, 2010 (c) Filipa César
Filipa César, Memograma, film insert by Marco Martins, 2010
Filipa César, Memograma, film insert by Marco Martins, 2010
Doreen Mende [DM] That’s a good point of entry, because your artistic practice could also be seen like a sending of stories to come. It seems that the structure of your projects emerges through the work that is at work in itself. What makes you realise that a particular topic evolves within a diffuse texture?
FC This question involves unspeakable matters. It’s as if you wanted to describe how to fall asleep or fall in love. It has to do with an action of falling, letting a weight be pulled by gravity, or the awareness of a gap: you let yourself fall into the breach and enjoy the fall. In Alice in Wonderland, Alice enjoys the long fall down the rabbit hole, and she gains great insight and discernment while falling. I have just read the book The Fall of Sleep by Jean-Luc Nancy and will quote a little: “The time of wondering whether I’m dreaming or waking is the time most suited for an awareness that knows itself without knowing what it knows by knowing itself thus. [...] But the instant just before, when eyelids have slipped over our eyes and they for one more moment have remained seers behind their curtain [...] that is the vault, the curving dome that seals space from sleep. [...] What it saw was nothing but the absence of all vision and all visibility. Even that it saw. [...] That is like seeing the invisible, surely, but is only like its other side or its negative. To sojourn in just that other side, not to try to discern the invisible, that is the blind task of sleep.” So going back to your question, I want to sojourn with what puzzles me rather than discern it.
DM What led you to sojourn in Castro Marim?
FC I wanted to re-encounter my former anthropology professor Eglantina Monteiro, who moved to Castro Marim. When I first went there, in January 2009, I became curious about the density of the past of that place. Eglantina and her husband Francisco Palma Dias were involved in recovering the value of the local culture and it aroused my interest. Later, googling Castro Marim, I found the title Where the Inquisition Transformed Sin into Salt in Portugal’s Algarve. For me the place became a rich fabric into which Portuguese history is tied: starting with the Inquisition, a rendering of sin into a key product: salt. Castro Marim was a strategic destination for degredo, a banish punishment applied from 1550 to 1850, where people would be banished from society and sent to work in salt production, under very hard working and weather conditions. I knew that degredo was a punishment procedure applied all over the colonies but didn’t know that it was used inside Portugal too. I really decided to fall into the subject when I realised that there had been an actualisation of this penalty in our recent history. I read in an article that the Estado Novo (New State, officially 1933–1974), sent homosexual woman to Castro Marim during its fight against “deviation” [desvios] and “in the name of security”.
DM It sounds like a topic approaches you while you are drifting around, and then a relief evolves or maybe a crack to look through.
FC That’s the way a texture of interest gets interrupted and something starts to unfold. So I started reading books about the subject. The most comprehensive research on degredo in Castro Marim is by the American Timothy Coates and the Brazilian Geraldo Pieroni.
DM Harun Farocki once mentioned the books one has around during the making of a film as a ritual that will bring an influence to the process.
FC Since we can’t talk about a work that is not ready by the time of this conversation maybe we can talk about what is around it.
DM Let’s move to a main thread in your work in general. Rapport (2007) emanates from the mechanisms of neuro-linguistic programming. It’s a kind of psychological therapy that trains business managers to optimise their productivity by staging themselves as figures in a film. Thus the practice of filmmaking provides tools to reflect on social roles within labour patterns while it also reflects the means of production of a moving image like Rapport itself. When did you start to pursue a “reflexive” approach in your work for the scenes we have seen, which was the title of a recent screening of your work in Berlin?
FC A specific reflection on the medium itself has always been essential for me. In my first videos I was testing the instruments of montage and revealing its assets in relation to acting. I wanted to show that acting is not required to create fiction. In Romance Re-edit (2003) people react to the presence of a camera. I was always interested in the medium inscribed in human behaviour. With the means of montage I was able to fictionalise more or less efficiently the exchange of glances. Rapport goes further, here the acting is really the instrument par excellence and of excellence. It is a documentation of a procedure demanding acting.
DM In his essay “Bazin as Modernist”, Colin MacCabe has written about the “commitment to the real” which conjugates “technology and sociology, the author and the audience”. The question is not a rendering of reality but the rendering of a reality made more real by the emphasis on the devices of filmmaking itself.
DC I understand film as an epidermic interface connecting the world around you with your inner body. It is this feeling of knowing that there is an internalisation of the politics that forms you and on the other hand the cinematic experience that shapes your behaviour and perception. I wanted to touch these subjects through film, creating distance and yet also treating film with this concept of realism. For example the images I produce through montage in Memograma (2010) are images of the contemplation of the eye when the mind is articulating thinking and the eyes follow a parallel reality.
DM Can you say more about your use of montage?
FC I think what fascinates me about montage is what you cannot control: the use of montage allows the film to outdo your expectations, as if it were cleverer then the director him- or herself. But I also think that the images that I produce follow a kind of a rule that is not arbitrary: the medium is present like its subject. Another point is the cracks of meaning one can open up through montage, by leaving blank spans for the viewer to finish up the editing. So you can jump between the borders of reality and fiction, jump between subjective and objective perspectives. These gymnastics are very efficient ways to smuggle in awareness and criticism of the established orders and conventions of perception. So I think for me montage is an instrument to concatenate what is not expected to be concatenated. It always goes against the order of reality, against the continuity of the as-fabricated celluloid and the video time-code sequence. Montage is a fracture, a bridge and a border at the same time. It becomes a passage.
DM In fact, smuggling is also a key concern in your recent work Le Passeur (2008): a judge as a representative of the law reports on his illegal activities during the end of the Estado Novo regime in order to conform to his own vision of justice.
FC What interests me about smuggling is the illegality that defines a space of individual responsibility and individual law. Alexander Kluge says that Ovid’s Metamorphoses only survived to today because it was secretly and illegally copied by Catholic monks when it was a banned work. Castro Marim is also a border, and as borders are always artificial scars on geography there must always be marginal activities. Because Castro Marim was a place of degredados and a lot of smuggling, Marquês de Pombal decided to construct another town, Vila Real de Santo António, as an ideal town reflecting the Age of Enlightenment, a police town to control the border and to cash in the taxes. This new city totally overshadowed Castro Marim.
DM Can we trace the title a bit? Memograma – an etymological reading holds Latin memo for memory and mindful and the Greek gramma for what is written, the letter.
DM The name Memograma came from more than one association. The words the weight of memory came into my mind. Gram is what is written and put down on paper and we also use it in connec•tion with measuring weight. So gram is not only writing but is also weight. Memograma became something between a mind map and the weight of memory. It’s interesting to be aware of what language activates emotionally and not only etymologically. For example in our research at the national archive called Tombo Tower, I always felt that something had slipped there and fallen, since tombo means slipping and falling. Of course tombo has also the meaning of that what is conserved and archived, but since childhood you associate the sound of the word tombo with falling down.
DM How do you relate memory to the history of Castro Marim? Can there be memory without history in relation to Estado Novo?
FC I would turn your sentence around: I think that in Castro Marim, there is a lot of history without memory, there is a lot of potential history but nobody remembers it. From my experience, in Portugal there is very little awareness and concern about a certain past – maybe we lack the proper instruments for memory. Maybe there is no history – there is only geography but very little of it is mapped, and there are not enough geologists to look into so many layers of sediments. Chris Marker would say in Sans Soleil: “Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility”. In Germany, for example, awareness about the past is an imposition and you cannot evade the work of digging in the past because you are sitting on your own graves. Portugal is not seated on graves, because they are mainly in other territories: the colonies.
DM So how is history thought through anew – actualised then?
FC It happens as soon as you realise that the past is acting on your present. I recall a radio interview by Alexander Kluge where he says “we dig on a mine of experiences, we test the material [Materialprüfer]” – he is referring to Heiner Müller who called himself a “surveyor [Landvermesser]”. Kluge also talks of his own experience: in an afternoon in 1945, he was with his family when the bombs fell right next to them on his home town of Halberstadt.
Back then, he was a child, and of course he realised that the city was destroyed, but his first reaction was: “no piano lesson this afternoon!” Then later he realised what these bombs meant to the people and to himself. He gained a kind of distance, and also his memory led to a shift in perspective, which compelled him to search for his past in the present. It is not about doing your work properly or believing merely in your talent. This search is rather about keeping asking the questions without expecting answers, and excavating an interest that comes from your personal experience. Kluge calls it Ahnungsvermögen, the ability to sense something. This is why we pursue something that haunts us, actually wanting it to pursue us: the subtleness and complexity of Salazar’s power on your own life.
DM I would like to ask you about the contradiction between visibility and invisibility by taking up the quote by Salazar that you mentioned in a previous conversation: “what I don’t see does not exist”. This kind of invisibility is both a violent act of authoritarian arbitrariness and a state of protection. How can we think through this fatal paradox?
FC It’s truly a kind of exposed hypocrisy. For me this connects to two subjects: censorship – the people can’t see; and banishment – we don’t have to see those people. This was the rhetorical strategy used by Salazar to uphold his ideal world. So there is a world and a sub-world,
I will quote him: “The level of effective public freedom depends on the capacity of the citizen, not on the magna-concession of the state, i.e. freedoms are interesting in the way they can be practiced and not in the way are promulgated.” Here Salazar inverts the responsibility of the law that he creates, as if the individual who can enjoy the freedom is the one who is able and articulated enough to choose it. It doesn’t depend on a state leader but on the citizen. I think this is the kind of rhetorical inversion that Jacques Lacan defines as the “structure of perversion”. There is a phantasmagoric inversion, where the subject identifies with the object and shares with this subjectivity. Salazar said this too: “I understand that censorship annoys them [film directors], because there’s nothing one considers more sacred than your own thoughts and the expression of your own opinion. I even agree that censorship is a defective, sometimes unjust institution, subject to the free will of censors, to the variants of their character, to the consequences of their humour. [...] Censorship today, even though it may seem paradoxical, constitutes a legitimate defence of free states, independent, against the great disorientation of modern thinking, the international revolution of disorder.”
DM For many years now, you have been based in Germany. What does the distance to Portugal allow you to not see?
FC In fact, the distance made me blind so I could find other instruments of search and articulation. This is not-seeing as if you were seeing something for the very first time. I believe that a state of mind is developed by political experiences embedded in geographical conditions and conditionings. So geography always gives a context that is stamped by the timeline of history. However, talking about something that really affects you is sometimes easier when you have foreign means at hand. It is a process of psychological realism. I guess it also has something to do with me belonging to the first generation after Salazar’s regime. You naturally try to distance yourself from a past that it is acting on you. But it’s that which gives you a reason for thoroughness, as Kluge said [Grund für Gründlichkeit].
DM Your geographical turn brings me to Chris Marker’s concept of Immemory in which he speaks about memory not as a history book but as a constellation of “continents, islands, deserts, swamps, overpopulated territories and terrae incognitae”. How has memory been mapped in Castro Marim?
FC Let me respond with a comment on the nature of crystals – salt crystals –, which seem to constitute a display of memory. The form of a crystal includes the track of the timeline as the movement of the single particles and excrescences give shape to the crystal. The crystal is always in motion, growing against gravity; it emerges from the darkness of the mud. The journey is the shape. At the same time it is a natural process, and man’s role in salt production is just to conduct the waters on the right tracks, those serpentine channels in which the sea water takes one year to arrive in the final basin. The emerging of the crystal is a process of engraving nature. A bit like Virginia Woolf in The Waves, when she says: “I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot.” She structures her novel on the rhythmical narrative of the sea. I am editing to a luminous gradient and not to a narrative.
DM Your entanglement of space with form is useful indeed. It almost reminds me that Gilles Deleuze wrote about the “crystal image” where he breaks with a constructivist montage of images. In a “crystal image”, 1 + 1 is not only 3 but endlessly many, forgotten and unknown ones. It confronts and maybe saves us from a cinema of the self that might produce images in our heads, which we have already seen without actually watching them. While the comparative juxtaposition of images is in danger of resulting in a manifest image as evidence for the real, the “crystal image” moves between the imaginary and the real in the form of an articulation of a relation that points beyond the visible and beyond the exposed image in a singular time. This articulation implies the relations between image, thought, sound, space and time. It does not terminate in a dialectic result of a movement between images, but it rather opens up a relation between different temporalities. That’s what Deleuze calls “Montrage”, which is based in the French montrer, which is close to ‘to show’, and which throws the image and us into the politics of exhibiting. “Montrage” seems to me a very rich condition to think about exposure both in the realm of filmmaking and of exhibiting. It is an approach to images via the combination of times holding different modes of articulation that would set us in motion. That is to say, movement is not the result of time; but movement is complicated by a set of temporalities (e.g., past, present, future) within an image or a space.
FC: This looks like a bridge for our next collaboration called
FC This looks like a bridge for our next collaboration called Montrage. Shall we stop here then?
DM Just one last insert. Memograma consists of different parts. One of them is a 16 mm black-and-white film insert directed by the filmmaker Marco Martins. Why did you abandon your own authorship? And what does the insert enable?
FC I was in touch with Marco when starting the research and in the beginning I was searching for more information about the story of the homosexual women, which in the end could not be proven. The judge who had allegedly sent the lesbians to Castro Marim didn’t want to reveal much, but by avoiding this issue he raised other matters, such as the idea that only a person who knows about the history of punishment would think of reactivating a historical penalty back in the 1960s and 1970s. By quoting history he made use of his own instruments from the past.
DM Is the insert a fictional story?
FC No, not a story, just footage processed by acting and directing. I wanted to retain the unspeakable. The insert is a layer of fictional construction. Given the lack of witnesses’ accounts, the salt marsh of Castro Marim offers a set for the announcement of a forbidden encounter. The insert suggests a different reading of the unfolding map. This also was a reason to drop authorship. It’s another kind of falling. Which is a state of becoming undifferentiated. All sleepers are equal in blindness – this insert could be a projection of what you see while falling.
Timothy Coates and Geraldo Pieroni, De Couto do Pecado à Vila do Sal. Castro Marim (1550-1850), Lisbon: Livraria Sá da Costa Editora, 2003.
Gilles Deleuze, “On the Movement-Image”, in negotiations, 1995 (originally published in Cahiers du Cinéma, 352, October 1983).
Jean-Luc Nancy, The Fall of Sleep, New York: Fordham University Press, 2009.
Colin MacCabe, “Bazin as Modernist,” in Dudley Andrew (editor), Opening Bazin, New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming).
Alexander Kluge, radio interview in German, in http://www.kluge-alexander. de/filmemacher/die-fernseharbeiten.html. Accessed on 5 October 2009.
Chris Marker, Immemory, CD-ROM liner notes, 1998.
António Oliveira Salazar, Como se levanta um Estado, Lisbon: Golden Books, 1977. Translated from the Portuguese by Filipa César.
Published in: Museu Colecção Berardo (Eds.), BES Photo Prize, Lisbon, 2010.