‘What the fuck did I just watch?’ A conversation with Portuguese director Edgar Pêra
This year’s retrospective of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) was dedicated to the oeuvre of Portuguese director Edgar Pêra (1960, Lisbon). Olaf Möller, who programmed the retrospective and the Laboratory of Unseen Beauty, thought it was about time a proper overview of Pêra’s brilliant work would be shown outside of Portugal. And rightly so. After seeing most of his films at the festival, it is hard to comprehend that his cinematographic work is not more widely celebrated. Theatre, music, poetry, 3D and literature are all very much intertwined and connected in most of his films, as he manages to restructure the world within his artistic vision by creating a beautiful interplay between these arts. Especially literary texts and poems by Branquinho da Fonseca (see O Barão or Caminhos Magnétykos), Alberto Pimenta (see O Homem-Pykante – Diálogos kom Pimenta), Fernando Pessoa (see Mar Portuguez 3D, Lisbon Revisited 3D or Zombietown 23), Robert Anton Wilson (see Who Is The Master Who Makes The Grass Green? or Manual of Evasion LX94) and H.P. Lovecraft (see Lovecraftland or Cinesapiens ) reappear in most of his films.
There were two events that especially stood out from the retrospective, namely the film Kinorama – Cinema Fora de Órbita/Beyond The Walls of Cinema (Self-Propaganda Mix) (2019) and Lovecraftland (2018/2019). Two works in progress in which Pêra invites the spectator to become more than a witness to the spectacle.
In Kinorama Pêra approaches a form of popular culture (3D) in a very exciting new and poetic way. In a world in which visual imagery is everywhere, we are more and more deprived of our ability to critically reflect on what we see and of our ability to feel empathy. Kinorama is a very interesting play on this, because of its density. The film consists of an overload of images, words and colours and can quite rightly be called a maximum overdrive. Not only do you have the layering of images over images, the use of vivid colours and the highly interesting interviews with established film theorists, but there is also the 3D aspect. And the interesting part about the use of 3D and the visual images in the film of the use of virtual reality, is the fragmentation that occurs between body and mind, which is very similar to the concept of dreaming. Throughout the film, the audience has to repeatedly take off and put on their 3D glasses. While all these effects create a certain alienation, the film still immerses its audience and manages to create a certain dreamlike state. Yet, even Pera does not know what the final result will become, with new shootings and all.
Lovecraftland, is a unique ‘cine-concert’ that is a good example of this interplay between the arts of live performance, live theatre, (live) visual imagery and live music (played by Randolph Carter – Paulo Furtado, who is also known as The Legendary Tigerman). Being a part of the audience at this event does not involve the passiveness that is usually inherent to the cinematic spectator, as the audience becomes a part of the performance by simply being present, by interacting with what happens on screen (taking on and off the glasses) and by being filmed live. Pêra uses his camera to make images of the actress Iris Cayatte and actor Dominique Pinon who are performing live, while simultaneously filming the audience watching the spectacle. Thus the camera becomes the epitome of the audience’s desire to see everything, while simultaneously, the camera voyeuristically looks back at them. This is a reoccurring concept in most of Pêra’s work.
SM: Voyeurism is often present in your films. The camera is floating through spaces, always on the move and tracking everyone’s movements from various angles and through various fabrics, or windows, or prison bars. Where does that preoccupation come from?
EP: Well, actually I think that it is both voyeurism and exhibitionism. Because the actors often play directly towards the camera. And so they make the spectator aware of themselves. And in these moments the notion of voyeurism disappears completely. There are some films that are made with the assumption that the spectator is almost invisible, such as Lisbon Revisited (2014), and there are others that always make the spectator aware of its presence. Actually, I like this kind of cinema of attractions a lot, because it is much more performative. The relationship between the film and the audience is much more present.
Is that also based on Bertold Brecht’s theatrical ideas about Verfremdung?
Yes, you could say that. Brecht, Godard… this notion of some kind of distanciation. But a distanciation that does not repress emotions, emotions are always present. Yet at the same time, the spectator is aware that something is being re-enacted.
During the live performance of Lovecraftland you mentioned that you prefer theatre to cinema, because it captures so much more life than cinema. So why did you decide to make cinema and not theatre?
Well, I think that everybody has their shortcomings. You know, if you have lemons, you make lemonade. Theatre is a much more alive medium, that gives everything only to the specific spectators of a show, while cinema is not a singular live event. Cinema is beyond time, and theatre is the (narrative) art of the moment. I have a way of dealing with reality through the use of a camera and editing. Cinema is the more natural way of expressing myself. I always want people to feel that the film is also alive. That awareness and that presence of the spectator is to remind them of the consciousness of the moment; these moments that you are really living, when you are there and when you are listening or looking at another person.
I think I understand what you mean after having been part of Lovecraftland at IFFR. As a spectator, you are present as a witness of some sort, while at the same time you are an actual part of the performance.
Yes, even taking on and off the 3D glasses, is something I really like to see when I am looking at the audience during the screening. Then I shoot the spectators and (the VJ) Claudio Vasques transforms those images so that the audience will see themselves differently.
In relation to that, your cinema is quite impossible to fit within the traditional cinematic boundaries. Olaf Möller was absolutely right when he wrote that that is something that the established film culture dreads very much. Most of your films stand completely separate from the representation of reality and are preoccupied with the constant change of reality and the reversibility of time. What is your view on cinematic reality?
I think there is one thing that is really important, and that is the divide between prose and poetry in cinema. I never realized that, but most of the time I am leaning towards poetry, because with poetry you never just show things as they seem to be, you never try to reproduce reality. That is what poetry is for me. And cinema is most of the time poetry, for me. But when I see prose cinema, and that can be fictional or documentary, I always think that what we call realism is more of a genre of cinema. It is just one of the many ways of portraying reality. There is this conventional thought that realism is the real way of showing reality, but I think that idea is ignoring the spectator and we are all spectators of reality. So we can never talk about reality without talking about our perception of reality. That is something I always want to include in my cinema. Because reality is not realism, I think the real realism is what I am trying to show in my cinema. I only made some experimental films that were steps in order to do others, but most of my films are not experimental. Yes, they go in different pathways, but they investigate in depth the best way to portray imagination and its relation to the real. They are more experiential, or perhaps immersive, such as Caminhos Magnétykos (Magnetic Pathways, 2017) as they are a tsunami of images and sounds, because it is difficult to absorb everything at the same time. Life is just like that. This is the real realism, because life is a mess of information in which we have to choose and to select constantly. The theory on reality tunnels, by Timothy Leary, that Robert Anton Wilson expanded in my film Who Is The Master Who Makes The Grass Green?, states that everybody has their own reality tunnel. I just try to show that the real is so much more complex than a reality tunnel.
Most of your films are connected to or based on literary sources, do you think that poetry is in a way similar to cinema and is that why you connect them so often?
I never really thought about that… well, its much easier for me to deal with words than with stories in films, as I create the stories myself. So I don’t really need literary inspiration to create a story. But at the same time a poem can be a great dialogue, a more sophisticated dialogue than the usual and common dialogues we have. So that is something that I like a lot, or for example short stories, for adaptations, as it gives me so much freedom to invent more details, such as in Caminhos Magnétykos. In this film there is this story of a father who sees his daughter marry with a rich and corrupt man and did not tell her anything before the marriage and now realizes that money isn’t everything. I love that I can play with this idea and then develop it to make a feature. Poetry and short stories are sources of inspiration that are very dear to me. Some stories are born from coincidences… Or someone asks me to make a film. Or, in the case of Alberto Pimenta, I made a film because he wasn’t well himself and I wanted to offer him a film on his 80th birthday.
At the Freedom lecture of Agnieska Holland the other day, she mentioned that freedom is simultaneously dangerous and the highest good. Do you think cinema is the ultimate medium through which this duality that the notion of freedom represents, can be expressed or addressed, as cinema itself can work both ways when someone wants to proclaim their own truth?
There are lots of sides to that question! Because cinema is, in essence, a very manipulative medium, where the spectator is constantly manipulated. If you want to give freedom to the spectator you must offer more than one way of showing something first. You have to give them the opportunity to take sides, even if there is a certain point of view in the film. A point of view is something that is very important, as it shows that cinema is never impartial, never. So that is one thing. The other thing is, what people do with their freedom. People, the spectator for instance, can do really silly things. If you give them too much freedom (or too much for them, as there is no such thing as too much freedom), they can be very silly. It always has been very easy to laugh at the avant-garde, since the beginning. There is one good reason for that, as the avant-garde at the beginning of the 20th century added humour to every intervention. They were not afraid of people laughing. But the audience was laughing because they were prejudiced and thought the performers were out of their minds. I remember a phrase by John Cage, which he said when he was talking about his collaborators. He loved improvisation, and he said that people can become very foolish and do very foolish things with the freedom that they have during improvisation. It’s the same for the spectator, because they don’t really know what to do with the freedom. Some really want to be led in a certain direction and they want to look at the map and find the way without having to think about it. They want an all knowing guide that tells them everything. And if you do not tell them anything, or too many things, they become afraid and do foolish things. So for me, cinema offers me the possibility to go beyond our daily life. It’s freedom for the spectator in that sense. But a film can also be something that takes you nowhere. After seeing some films you walk out and start talking about other things immediately and forget all about what you’ve just seen, and that is not good if you want to make a work of art.
Because you just mentioned the avant-garde, your films often reminded me of the surrealist and Dadaist mindset, as they loved nonsense. Dada for example, proved that laughter can be a very powerful concept in art. Does it take on a very important role in your cinema? Is it important the audience laughs either at what takes place on the screen or at themselves?
Well I hope they laugh! I don’t care what they laugh at, because it is their responsibility. I think that most tragedies have a human side. Whether I do a tragedy or a drama, I cannot resist to add humour to it. Even when I think I am very serious, people tell me that nobody will think that I am being serious, that they will think that I am mad. And then I tell them, no, this is a very normal idea and this is how everyone should think about it and then I forget that I don’t think like the majority of people. But I always think that my films should be really popular and I wonder why people are not more openminded to different kind of films. But that is how things are right now, we’re not in the seventies or sixties anymore.
Through the non-representation of reality, you manage to create worlds in which the theme of repression and totalitarianism are very much present through metaphors. Especially in The Baron (2011), your first film that was shown at IFFR and is based upon two books by Branquinho da Fonseca. There were two sides to that repression in the film, both sexually and politically. These two main problems – sexual and political oppression – are still very evident in society today, and a lot of your films deal with subject matter that is still very present and timely.
Sometimes that is very scary, the fact that some of these problems are still very present. The small baron is just any guy who sits in a chair, who is watching television while his wife prepares him dinner. There is this concept called emotional fascism, as described by William Reich. It’s a concept where the politics of repression and sexual repression and political repression come together. It is where real power is, which is in the different relations between people. It’s what happens in reality all the time, it’s how we treat people and it’s what kind of relationship with power we have. If we commit abuses we are emotional fascists, and we can all become emotional fascists. But there are people who do it all the time. So I wanted to discuss this kind of person in my film. At the same time, the baron is also a very immature person. You also have to see the fragility of someone like that and his fear and everything that makes him a bad person. It is not meant as a justification, but it is showing everything. So that you can have some kind of empathy and not being outside of the action, so that I can draw the spectator in so they wonder about whether they ever did that to anyone.
At the end of the interview Pêra mentions that he does not have all kinds of theories when he starts making a new film. ‘The ideas grow and sometimes they only come into existence after the film is finished. Because I don’t have the means to predict the future, so everything is still in my imagination. I wait for the final result, which is unpredictable to me as well. And it should be unpredictable for the spectator, or the reader, as Rudy Rucker wrote in his Transrealist Manifesto (Manual of Evasion LX94).
To make it exciting.
Yes that is the idea, you know, this feeling of what the fuck is happening?
This reminds me of the ending of O Espectador Espantado, when Laura Mulvey explains how uncertainty is a quality that should be cultivated and that was Dziga Vertov who said that ‘cinema makes uncertainty more certain’. This is certainly the case in Pêra’s work, which is impossible to fit within the traditional cinematic boundaries. One of the actors in Kinorama quotes Lovecraft and says that ‘man’s relations to man do not captivate my fancy… It is man’s relations to the cosmos – to the unknown – which arouses in me the spark of creative imagination’. And it is this notion of the unknown – of uncertainty – and creative imagination that is exactly what Edgar Pêra’s cinema is about. It is a huge spectacle of marvellous wonder that consists out of movement, stillness, continuity and discontinuity, but that above all leaves the spectator in an exciting ecstasy. Pleasure is indeed inherent to wonder and after seeing most of his films, I cannot help but happily wonder, what the fuck did I just watch?