Pedro Costa is a filmmaker unlike any other. The Portuguese director works a collaborative, non-hierarchical set with spontaneously composed scenes and dialogue with his cast and crew, with whom he shares lasting friendships as well as long-standing working relationships. His career has been focused on bearing witness to the real lives of men and women who migrated to Portugal, with his latest film, Horse Money, taking as its subject Ventura, an elderly Cape Verdean immigrant who has appeared in Costa’s previous work, as he experiences a strange and disturbing reality composed of painful past experience and populated by figures from his past, a man haunted by memory in a film that provides no easy answers. In advance of the film’s release on 18th September 2015, we spoke to Costa about abstraction, colonialism and forgetting.
Horse Money seems to me to be a film about the often painful act of remembering. However, you have said in interview that the film was made in order to forget. Could you speak a little bit about the tension between these two ideas?
Well, at the beginning of the idea for the film were some memories or stories that Ventura told me a long time ago when we met in 2000 or something. But always when he told me these memories, relating to ‘74 and ‘75, which were the first years after he came to Portugal, it always felt to me very painful, very heavy and painful. When he talked about those years it was very strange, because they should have been some of the best years of his life, the beginning of a new life, a new dream, more money, good contracts, work, a new country with new possibilities — you know, the immigrant’s dream. But it wasn’t at all like that. When he described these years, he began talking of a nightmare, a long night, very troubled times, especially when our revolution happened in ‘74. So there was a coincidence between what was this marvellous moment for me, and for all of us, and this sickness, this nightmare, for him. It always felt strange and intriguing, and I wanted to know more. But he never opened up much, he just gave some clues. He said “That’s when my trouble began, when my long, sleepless night began,” when this revolution, when this confusion came. So that was the idea for the film.
It’s a conversation we’ve been having for a long time, and there’s a little bit of it in our previous film Colossal Youth, just a small moment, and in this one it really became a big part of it, as a starting-point. So for me, it was about trying to remember, to pull some memories from him, of this night. But for him, it was quite the opposite, it was very frightening to remember and he never wanted to go back. So I imagine — and I saw it — that the making of this film was quite contradictory, for him and me, because I was trying to pull out these things that he didn’t want to remember. The longest scene in this film, which is a confrontation between him and this kind of ghost or phantom of the revolution, was very heavy and very difficult for him. So it’s in this sense that I say that of course every film, or every great film, should be also an attempt to — how can I say — not forget, not forget oblivion. But for Ventura, we really saw it every day of the shoot. It was painful. It was like, let’s dig up these ghosts, but it’s just in order to get rid of them forever.
That scene in the elevator is especially powerful. There’s this sense of the inescapability of one’s past. Do you believe that we are prisoners of what has happened to us before?
I’m not sure about life, but in film yes [laughs]. I mean film is something that captures you for good, forever. In film there is no past. Everything that we conjure or imagine or write or invent, it’s always the present. It’s the present when you see the film, it’s the present when you make it. It’s always the present, film. It’s a curse. So this everlasting moment that you live when you see a film, if it’s an interesting, good film. It grabs you, and you can’t escape this present. It can be very painful, it can be very exhilarating too. But it’s also always in that strange time-frame. It’s always the present, it’s an everlasting present. I don’t know how to explain it, but you can feel it, so… [laughs] In life, I don’t know if I’m that pessimistic or nihilistic. I believe that you can change some things.
With respect to the film, which has as one of its subjects and which is sometimes in the background, sometimes more foregrounded, European colonialism, I wonder that, while for Ventura forgetting is important in order to live a life without pain, in Europe we have a situation where our history of colonialism and fascism has been collectively forgotten, or selectively remembered, and we are seeing in what’s now being referred to as ‘the migrant crisis’ the very direct and horrific results of this organised forgetting. Do you think that it is important for Europe, the West, to be reminded or to remember this painful history?
Yes. Well, in film you can never escape these layers of meaning. It’s not even a problem, it’s part of the history, or the story. In this film or in other films that we’ve made, Ventura is Ventura the guy, a guy I know, a friend, a singular guy here in Lisbon, an immigrant that came in ‘71 like so many thousands of others. He’s a brother, or very close to millions of others in Ireland or Britain or France or Holland or wherever. But in this film, and in the other films, we tried to go a little bit beyond the individual, through the acting and how the film is staged, what you see and what you don’t see. We tried to get to some sort of abstraction, in the acting for instance, in the dialogue and in the way things are presented. So probably Ventura can be ‘the immigrant’, could be what we call today a migrant or refugee, and could even be a slave. I think through this, what I call the everlasting present, the way he moves and talks and the way he confronts people, and the way events and people confront him, it’s about this story, that began in the 15th century for us Europeans and the slaves, and African slaves especially.
There are some historians and philosophers that say that’s when the horror began. We could call horror what you describe: fascism, capitalism, machines, exploitation, etc. We have a heavy history with colonialism, Portugal. We colonised the islands from where Ventura came. So in this film, I think yes, everything is involved: it’s Ventura the slave and it’s Ventura the bricklayer at the same time. It could be a Portuguese or a Cape Verdean or a guy from Guyana or from India. It has this double-face of the immigrant, the pioneer and the failure, the refugee. So there’s a very dark face that we’re seeing today as we speak, a very dark, horrific face, and we have almost forgotten the pioneer, the ones who left everything behind for a dream, a new country… that seems to be a forgotten story, now it’s about the horror. So this film is probably more a horror story than an epic, or something like that.
You speak about the different levels of meaning, levels of abstraction that the film welcomes in terms of interpretation. How important is it for you for your films to resist didactic interpretation, or direct metaphor?
Well, I don’t really think about that, or I do think about it, but in other terms. What fascinates me, what I’ve always been more fond of… I *like* being with the people I’m working with at the moment, I really like it, because it goes beyond the film. If it was just a film, I don’t know if I would do it [laughs]. I really found some people, I found a place where I belong. It touches me and moves me and provokes me, etc. Today for me, preparation and location scouting and shooting and production, everything is just one moment. I don’t have this separation that my colleagues have. For me, everything is just the film. Going to the pharmacy, going to the hospital with Ventura, taking care of some passports, doing the shots, building the set, everything is done by us, and everything serves the film and the story and the script and the lights and the way Ventura acts. So what I really like is the way we build. It’s the construction. It’s how very strange and apparently removed elements can come into the building of a film, and make it complex and interesting and intriguing.
Provoking this mystery by interesting means, that’s what has been fun for me, working in film. Ventura, and these people that I work with, even if they are not on screen, let’s say this community, all the things that I imagine or all the things that I know, there’s two realities…. there’s a lot that I know now, or that I think I know, but there’s a lot more that I don’t know, this empty, blank, black space, that I have to fill up. And this also builds the film, nourishes the film, everything that I don’t know, that we can’t talk about. For instance, there were a lot of things that I could not talk about with Ventura, because we’re too shy, or polite, or we just sensed we can’t talk about, or can’t approach, because they are in very dark territory. But perhaps it’s more this that makes the film than the sociological, or the pure reality that we have in front of us. So I’m not worried, there are some films that I have made that are probably more sociological, or realistic, but this one is maybe a little bit less, for some people, but you could say you could learn more from this one than the realistic one; this one is more “documentary” for me than In Vanda’s Room (2000), for instance, which is a film I made a long time ago and that people call very documentary. I think this is the one that comes closer to what we’re living, what they are living, this mystery, this insanity.
This is an interesting idea, that what you don’t know, or what you can’t access, informs the actual making of the film. I’ve read you say that death, despite your wishes, always creeps into your filmmaking. This idea of the emergence of repressed material….do you think that filmmaking itself is an act of exploring, or indeed mitigating, what is repressed?
For sure, yes. What can I say? Freud began working at the same time as the Lumière brothers began experimenting so there’s a connection there. And, you know, what I’ve just told you, going deeper or digging inside the soul of man, it’s a kind of work that I think film can do. I don’t know whether successfully or not, but it seems that one of the major directions that cinema can go is down. It’s not up, it’s down. It’s down and it’s deeper, trying to raise to the surface some… in my case it’s always something that is a problem, a nightmare, a torment or a torture, something like that. It could be more on the side of the dream, or the positive side of things, but I think film still could serve this kind of, well, research. I mean that’s why I get really afraid or frightened, because I see that my films have this kind of lab, research lab, side to them. There’s always a chamber, like a lab, of torture, that you have to go through a lot of pain to get to the surface or to say something or to get to some sort of light. In all the films I’ve been making there’s always this chamber interior experience, research or experimental side to them. While I’m doing something, while I’m trying something, the people you see are trying something else in front of the camera which is thinking about themselves, or what is around them, the reality around us, and the main thing about movies, when they are great, is that they don’t want to escape reality, they don’t want to escape their reality, the films’ reality, the reality they set up in order to see. It’s very important that the film for me never forgets its reason; the reason that is presented at the beginning of the film should be there at the end. You cannot abandon things or escape with tricks of light and stuff. Cinema is a very deceitful art, it gives you a lot of tricks and money and show and stars and stuff. It can make you oblivious of things. I’m not saying that this is a problem. It’s not problematic, that way of working, it’s where that problem touches us, it’s the connection. Sometimes you don’t see it, you don’t know what it is, it’s in between, it’s in this dark space.
You mention money, film production and the contingencies of film production. You’ve said before that in order for the film to be decent, the contract for the film must also be decent. Aside from your unorthodox, collaborative way of working being a financial imperative, is this also the only way for you to make film for artistic reasons?
Yes. It cannot be otherwise. My story, I have been telling this story for a long time. I found, or I was drawn to this place or to this community, to this part of town, to this part of the universe. I don’t know if it’s by chance, or just because I went onto the wrong bus or train. Thomas Bernhard, an Austrian writer, in his autobiography he says that he wrote like he wrote because one day he just took the wrong bus, and he went to the other part of town and he saw some stuff that was interesting, and troubling, and he stayed. And he stayed and then what he wrote became that part of town. So for me it’s the same story. That part of town or that part of humanity, you cannot leave there with cinema, with the usual phony diplomacy of cinema, with the rules of that game. It’s not allowed there. This is a place that has already been massacred and cheated by everything. So bringing all the exploitation, the falsification or the forgery of cinema, it wouldn’t be decent, but it also wouldn’t be possible. So I thought I had a problem to solve, I thought that problem was artistic, or it was what I had to say, could say and how I would say it. I was wrong, it’s not that. What I had to solve was the production, the cinema production problem. How to produce, how to distribute the money, how to pay people, and why and when and how. How are we doing the film, and for how long, and are we going to take the risk of waiting… But maybe I could have been a more successful filmmaker if I hadn’t taken the wrong bus that day.
Horse Money is released exclusively at the IFI from 18th September 2015.
Words: Oisín Murphy-Hall