Vanda at Twenty


(Versão em português aqui)

From Vanda’s room, one doesn’t leave anymore. As been said: the 21st century was opened with In Vanda’s Room. “There’s no drug: we can’t stop seeing”. “We will ever be able to stop seeing”. – João Bénard da Costa in 2000

As a rule, I’m not a big fan of anniversary essays, particularly now that so much of cultural journalism seems to have decide older movies should only be deal with every 5 years. Yet, last Friday the very good Portuguese newspaper Publico gave the cover of its weakly arts magazine Ipsilon to the 20th anniversary of the first public screening at the Locarno film festival of Pedro Costa’s In Vanda’s Room and that felt like an occasion worth celebrating. It is not simple that Vanda is a great movie, but that Vanda feels like a genuine turning point, the start of something and not only an exciting new period on an important filmmaker career. There’s a certain idea of filmmaking as it developed through the past two decades that feel fully indebted to In Vanda’s Room, some of it is good, some of it is bad, almost all of it misrepresents Costa’s achievement in a way or another, because like most greats Pedro Costa creates a specific gaze that feels far too unique to belong to anyone else, yet the shadow of Vanda remains lurking large.

Pedro Costa has open acknowledge it as a new beginning, he discarded the professional crews from his early works, follow Vanda Duarte’s invitation and shared her room for a year, filming her, her sister Zita (who for some reason always get forgotten) and the comes and goings around it. Costa once describe the experience in those terms: “In a certain way it’s my first film, because it’s the first time that I found the possibility of a family”. One of the beautiful things about In Vanda’s Room is that while it remains hyper-focused on Vanda Duarte, there is a strong sense of a community moving around her. It is a modest film in the best way, Costa, his sound guy, Vanda and Zita there in her room. There’s a strong sense of labor involved in this meeting, and if the movie started with an invitation from Vanda Duarte, it never leaves the implications of this possibility. At the time of the film first Brazilian screening my friend Juliano Tosi said something in a roundtable that always struck “it is like the filmmaker is an artisan for the movie”, that is a complete inversion for how movies are perceived in the film festivals market place, how auteurism is imagined today, but it fits, Costa as the humble worker for a movie that must happen somehow. There’s obvious some form of essentialism involved here that one should be suspicious about, Costa isn’t exactly after some Bazinian truth exactly (even if Vanda does suggest in its own way an updated of both Rouch and Warhol post Bazin experiments), Vanda is a work of exploration with a very strong auteurial hand, but there’s a humility involved in how it gets to the place that Tosi’s description captures. If In Vanda’s Room is a recording of Pedro Costa’s impressions of the world around Vanda Duarte, the central element is impressions and not Costa himself.

I’ve said In Vanda’s Room in retrospect feels as a beginning beyond Costa’s own work and to disccuss that it might be useful to return to a couple of things. First, to go back to year 2000 and the debates around digital cinema happening them. Those were different times, there were a lot of anxiety at the time, an intuition so to speak about how the new format would soon be central to filmmaking and what to do with its ugly flat surface, it was still far different nature than a few years later when film would be near complete disappear and the anxiety become much more a cinephile than a filmmaking one (after Jean-Marie Straub abandoned film, the matter was set), much more a matter of making sense on the radical changes on film texture. At that point what to do with digital was a filmmaking question before anything else. 2000 was a key year on those discussions full of decisive films like Alain Cavalier’s Vies, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, Agnes Varda’s The Gleaners and I, Nam Gee-woong´s Teenage Hooker Became Killing Machine in Daehakroh and Jon Jost’s Six Easy Pieces. Similar experimental treatises, movies that move between radical surface and intimate near diarist quality, they were intense objects that couldn’t come out a decade or so ago at least not as close to the mainstream as they were (some super 8 movies that take Welles comment about the format as a filmmaker notebook like Jairo Ferreira’s work might be the closer 20st century cinema had to it).  One might observe how most of this films have a draft quality to, notes a filmmaker is composing, a movie that ignores the industrial dor a more direct link between the filmmaker’s gaze and ideas and the actual producing of images, at this point digital hasn’t yet been industrialized, it is a genuine handmade way of making movies.

Among all of those, In Vanda’s Room is the best and the most radical. As Costa left film crews complete behind, he remains gifted with one of the great eye for light and the relation between face and background on movies, but the lightning here is less intensified than in the later movies starring Ventura and Vitalina Varela. In Vanda’s Room isn’t quite as mythic as those future works, so the approximation between Costa’s digital camera and Vanda Duarte daily rituals are pushed first. If Costa regarded the lights and tableaux of Ossos as going too far, In Vanda’s Room is among other things a movie about finding the exactly fair distance, of making good on Vanda Duarte’s initial invitation, on how to bring cinema into that space.

The other major aspect is one about Vanda’s world, Fontainhas as a place and more important as a community. Jacques Ranciere once pointed out regarding Costa’s politics that the way the filmmaker sees the Cape Verdean immigrants, low class whites and junkies that populate his work proposes an existence that is far apart from the proletariat, “explored and militant” one might found in 20th century leftist cinema. “Their way of life, more than one of exploitation is of been abandoned for themselves”. The struggle is now a state of abandon. On Costa’s movies one lives in the ruins of the neoliberal project, his subject is all the dispossessed left behind. The aggressive new forms of exploitation brought in new mutating matters and Costa’s cinema tries to think a new way to observe and share them. In Vanda’s Room is one of the first films to serious stop to ponder how to imagine this form of struggle and existence after all that the 90s so called third way let go to waste. A lot of first world modern cinema after all comes under the light of the post war years and the illusion of a safety net and Vanda positioning how one survives when such illusion is exposed (Costa is also the rare European filmmaker with a good grasp of imperialist notions as Horse Money made clear). From the conditions to the world it let its gaze on, Costa locates a freshness, the sensation of something new as João Bénard da Costa perfect describes.

The achievement of In Vanda’s Room is one of finding the perfect middle point between intimacy and imagination, of creating a form of fiction out of such direct immersion. There’s two paradoxical movements on Costa’s camera, one is its distance, a radicalization of all previous process of erasing editorialization in movies, it’s the least moralizing film ever made about junkies, Costa observes Vanda and those around her and that is more than enough. The editing is shocking in how radical it is, anything can go in In Vanda’s Room among other things because the movie isn’t tied to any early conception, it goes to places promised by a mix of what that world offer and what Costa’s curiosity picks on. The other is its dedication to fiction. In Vanda’s Room is firmly dedicate to create a world out of Vanda’s surroundings. It is not a documentary even if Costa’s is more discreet here than in his later work. In the Ventura/Vitalina films, it is always clear how Pedro Costa project involves the idea of filming the dispossessed like John Ford filmed the American cavalry. The mythic sense is a given the moment Ventura gets in the frame. Vanda Duarte gives less of herself to Costa’s camera, the negotiation is tougher. It is still a matter of creating a fiction, but Vanda is a less mythic, more reserved presence.

The way fiction is crafted in Vanda isn’t that far away from the documentaries Eduardo Coutinho started making around the same time. A matter of shared space, an intimate partnership between filmmaker and the people in front of the camera and an idea of performance.  Inácio Araujo once described Coutinho as the creator of the “fantastic documentary”, one might say something similar about Vanda, call it a fantastic non-fiction fiction. It is in both cases an art of portrait that is always taken by mystery. Most exercises of auto-fiction that come out after Costa’s film seem to take the act of finding those characters an end on itself, but not Vanda whose every gesture has a weight and is ready to be investigated, reconfigured and reimagined, positioned as part of a larger world. She isn’t a case study, not a junkie, not a poor woman, she is a movie character always ready to generate drama even if she is happy to most stay in her room.

There’s usual a sense of supernatural to Costa’s work, his shadows, his manner with his actors. Cinephiles often described the 90s movies in term of zombies (I remember in the old Ossos DVD, Serge Kaganski just lighten up when he gets to talk about the movie connection to George Romero) and the more recent work is often invoked in terms of ghost stories (I know I have) because there’s so much sense of hunted history around Ventura and Vitalina. In Vanda’s Room is hunted too and it is not like it is impossible to think about Tourneur while watching it, but it is so focused in existing in the moment, so given to Vanda’s immediate reactions, the experience plays different, a more materialist and less cosmic Costa movie.

All of this is captured as the space disappears. It is a recurring complain among Costa biggest supporters how more mainstream coverage of his films act like Fontainhas is still a place and not one of the many neighborhoods sacrificed for the God of Urban renewal. That is fair and most of writing on this vein betrays a profound ignorance and deserves criticism, but as materialist as Costa’s work can be, Fontainhas is more a community than just a place. The power of those films are linked to how they imagine this belonging outside of society. The displacement of the immigrants, but also the connections they make, “it’s the first time that I found the possibility of a family”, as Costa said. One of my favorite things about In Vanda’s Room is the direct sound, how even when the movie is there with Vanda, one also has a strong sense of life going outside of the room. Fontainhas feels a life even as the government moves towards erasing it, our occasional travels throughout the community always arrive with a sense of revelation and even when we remain in Vanda’s private world, it is never an insular isolated one, but placed in a larger space through light and sound. On Costa’s work existing is a form of resistance and to be able to propose a fiction to react against this government sponsored erasure is cinema’s attempt to defy it, to proposed a different world.

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