Teresa Villaverde is one of the most important contemporary directors to have emerged from the school of new Portuguese cinema, which includes filmmakers such as João Pedro Rodrigues and Miguel Gomes. Her forceful early film, Os Mutantes (The Mutants, 1988), premiered in Un Certain Regard in Cannes, and her latest feature, Cisne (Swan, 2011), had its premiere in Venice. Yet in spite of the high regard in which Villaverde’s work has been held, it continues to be difficult to find outside of Europe. Villaverde’s name is virtually unknown in the United States. She has had more exposure in Canada, however, where her sixth feature, Transe (Trance, 2006) was screened at the International Film Festival in Toronto, and has established a more constant presence in Argentina and in Portuguese-speaking Brazil, where she was recently a guest at the two largest Latin American film festivals, in São Paulo and in Rio de Janeiro, where the following interview was conducted.
It would be difficult to speculate as to why Villaverde’s films are yet to reach a wider audience, outside the international festival circuit. Her work certainly does not lack universal appeal, if we consider the wide range of social issues it tackles: from the vivid portrayal of marginalized youngsters, subsisting in a brutal and alienating world, between violent death and a life spent fruitlessly in a juvenile institution in Os Mutantes, to the startling, excruciating journey of a young Eastern-European girl who is kidnapped and coerced into sex trafficking in Transe. In nearly all of her work, Villaverde has explored situations in which social contact and human solidarity and kindness are seriously, often irreparably, broken. In her earlier work particularly, kindness and love are splinters that appear sporadically in a vast bleak landscape. Family ties are precarious, with friends or strangers acting as familial substitutes. The precariousness of human relationships—in spite of our innate desire and unbound capacity for unconditional love—is also one of the major themes in Cisne (Swan), the film that Villaverde showed in São Paulo last year and more recently in Rio, where Portugal was given a national showcase. In the context of the Portuguese films shown in Rio—a retrospective of João Pedro Rodrigues and Miguel Gomes’s post-colonial drama, Tabu (2012)—Villaverde’s work emerges as deeply concerned with societal ills that plague Portugal and Europe, but even more so with psyche and sensuality, emphasizing the importance of the subconscious. Villaverde shares with Rodrigues and Gomes a tragic vision of eros, as both redeeming and wounding; but where the other two filmmakers approach their material via whimsical satire (Gomes’s Tabu), or genre-bending melodrama and camp (Rodrigues’s Odete (2005) and Morrer Como Un Homem (To Die Like a Man, 2009)), Villaverde’s method is more emotionally grounded, and yet, at the same time, takes great artistic leaps, some of her imagery bordering on surreal. In Cisne, a singer suddenly bleeds from her eye. The eye-bleed is a medical condition, but more importantly, it appears to be a symbolic manifestation of psychic pain, its beauty reminiscent of religious icons. Such intense visual lyricism, and long takes in extreme close-ups, has led some critics to characterize Villaverde’s films as lacking in plot—when in fact she expands the common notion of action, to include the internal life of her characters, in moments of illusory calm, when past and present, world and self, reality and fiction, collide.
I’d like to start by discussing your third feature, Os Mutantes, which in many ways propelled you onto the international stage. It’s a devastating portrait of young boys and girls who are cut off from any family support, and who grow up to be “mutants,” as the title suggests—criminalized outcasts, while they are also victims. Was the film shot in an actual juvenile facility? How did this project come about?
I started by wanting to make a documentary about childhood in Portugal, in all sorts of social environments. I had heard a child from a small town close to Lisbon asking if in the capital city we had spaceships, and I was amazed that for these clever kids, who were so close to us, Lisbon was this incredible place, full of extraterrestrials. I was interested in their way of thinking. So I spent almost one year doing research, without shooting, talking to children and to the people who worked with them. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to raise money for the documentary. Without thinking, I then started to write fiction, based on the knowledge that I already had. I’d had quite a bit of freedom previously, so I’d seen that, for example, at that time, you would find in the same institution kids who were victims of abuse and a kid who had killed someone. Nowadays that’s changed, but that’s how it was back then. I had met a lot of kids, so I already had the actors in mind for the main parts, because the story had to do with them. But when the government read my script, they didn’t allow me to go back to shoot with those kids. I had to do a real casting with kids from other institutions that didn’t depend on the government—church sponsored, and so on.
Were all the boys and girls you cast at some point staying in a juvenile home?
All, except the main actress, Ana Moreira.
Why did the government end up denying you access?
I believe that they felt that the institution wasn’t shown in a very favourable light, although they didn’t say that, of course. They said it was dangerous for the kids, because they were too young, which was absurd, since they had already lived through things that had been a hundred times worse than anything I portrayed.
I would agree that Os Mutantes features many painful scenes, including a vicious beating and death of a young homeless boy, Ricardo, who’s turned to thieving to survive. His friend, Pedro, is at the institution at the time of Ricardo’s death, and takes it very hard. What was it like for these young people to re-enact the brutality of their lives?
They really knew what the film was about. They helped me a lot, because I had studied the subject, of course, but that’s just paper and words. It may sound like I’m telling stories, but they really felt that they were doing something important, for themselves and for the other kids. It was their movie; they were really proud to be in it. At that time, I wasn’t living in Portugal. I just came back to make the movie, but I was very surprised when it ended up having a big impact. It opened up a discussion about a lot of issues: Things like having victims of abuse, and the other kids who were also victims but acted more aggressively, living in the same space. A lot of things changed. Today, I don’t know unfortunately what’s going on, maybe things are back to where they were. But at that time they really got better. I recall an interesting story: One day, at a press conference on the general state of juvenile institutions, I was sitting at the table with the actor who played young Pedro, and a few officials, including the Minister of Justice at the time. During the discussion, the boy sat slumped, with his head down. I thought he’d fallen asleep; I didn’t realize he’d been crying. He told me, “I’m crying not because I’m sad, but because I’m furious. I have so much to say, but don’t know how to express myself.” That was Alexandre Pinto. He’d come from an institution, and he has made lots of films since then. So this wasn’t just about me putting a film together; the young people did it.
Your next future film after Os Mutantes, Água e Sal [Water and Salt, 2001], felt very different, much more personal.
In a way, all my films are personal. Even in the later film, Transe, if I hadn’t found something that connected me to the main character, Sonia, I would not have been able to make it. But most of my films have some social theme, which Água and Sal doesn’t have, so perhaps that’s why it feels this way.
I think it’s also because many of your characters are women who struggle to define who they truly are, when they’re not caring for others. And the one phrase you hear a lot in your films is “I don’t know.” Do you think this is a basic human condition, or is it more particular to women?
I don’t know. I think that maybe, because I’m a woman, it’s easier for me to write female characters. For many years, I’ve felt that I’d love to have the main character be a man, but only now I’m starting to work on a project where I think this may happen. It’s difficult. But as far as the issue of not knowing, I don’t think it’s particular to women; but maybe it’s just an impression
Let’s go back to Transe, in which a young woman, Sonia, ends up being sex-trafficked in Europe, and goes through increasing de-personification and degradation that culminates in her being forced into bestiality. It’s one of the most violent rape scenes I’ve seen. Your portrayal of her struck some viewers as shocking, but also as very unusual, being very internal and impressionistic.
I have heard people say that Transe was very internal. I agree but, for me, this was the only way that I could tell the story of sex trafficking. People who survive those situations, I believe, do it only by keeping something of their own self hidden, inside. That’s what I had in my mind when I filmed it, and the main actress, Ana Moreira, understood this as well. I found the reaction of some viewers to the film very strange. It seems that, at times, viewers feel the need for an explanation, so that they can feel that, by the end, they have learned something on a particular subject. But I wanted to concentrate on the character, and to be one-hundred-percent inside her, so that if a woman who went through this kind of a situation ends up seeing my film, I can look her in the eye after the screening. She can like the film or not, but my work comes out of my respect for what a woman like Sonia must have gone through.
So your goal was to portray the psychological space a woman must find, or create, in order to survive extreme sexual abuse?
Exactly. When one lives such a traumatic experience, if you don’t want to lose your mind, you have to concentrate on something very particular, very strange, or completely close yourself off. I read about a woman who had gone through a similar experience, and had managed to run away. She ended up in Madrid, and the only thing she knew was a number. She had no idea that it was a telephone number for her family. She was really gone, but had hung onto that one thing, through all kinds of torture. In case of Sonia, she’s very obsessed about keeping her name untouched.
She ends up in Portugal?
Yes, but it could be any other place. She’s living in a dream
You work so intimately with actors, and elicit pretty startling performances. I’m thinking particularly of Ana Moreira who plays Andreia, the young girl giving birth, alone, in a public bathroom, in the long, terrifying take in Os Mutantes. She also plays Sonia in Transe. Can you describe your process?
The most important thing is to create trust. If the actors trust you completely, and have things to give, it becomes very easy. At the time of Os Mutantes, Ana was very young. I’m often asked what I did to prepare her for that scene. In fact, I thought of asking a doctor to let Ana witness an actual birth in a hospital, but she was only 17. I had just given birth months before, and remembered it quite well, so I decided not to put her through that. The day we were about to shoot, she said, “I don’t know how to do it.” All I said was, “Don’t worry. Let’s shoot.” No rehearsal. I didn’t say it quite as calmly, but I just started to prepare the camera. … Of course, there are no miracles. If the actor has nothing to give, you could be the best director in the world, and nothing will come of it. It has to come from them. What you really have to do is create tension in the moment. There is electricity between you and the actor. They get wired, and that’s it.
How do you know that an actor has something to give?
It’s a big risk, because it’s very instinctive. Before I picked Ana for Os Mutantes, I’d seen almost 1,000 boys and girls. We were getting ready to shoot and didn’t have either her or the main male character. The producer for that film was very worried; he thought we needed to postpone the shoot, but I decided to keep the date, trusting that I would find someone. With the actors I pick—we just have a coffee, and that’s it. It’s really about intuition, not scientific at all. Sometimes, of course, I would have seen an actor on film.
Do you often mix professional and non-professional actors
Yes. Ana was a non-professional. In Cisne, my latest film, the main actress, Beatriz Batarda, is a very important actress in Portugal, but the man playing her lover is not; it was his first role. The young man playing the driver is a drama student.
And how is it different working with them
The non-professionals don’t have all the actors’ tools, so you must pick them because of who they are. It’s not everyone who can just be them self. I can’t; I’m the worst actress in the world. But I think it’s good to mix professionals and non-professionals; I believe that they can actually help each other, because looking into the eyes of someone who’s just there sometimes forces the professional actor to be better, simply because she’s looking at a real person, someone who’s not acting.
Cisne, which you just mentioned, is your seventh feature. It feels gentler than your earlier films. There is a promise of calm at the end, and solidarity amongst the main characters. Has your worldview changed?
I don’t know. I wouldn’t say I’ve changed; perhaps I’ve evolved. But I don’t know that I won’t go back for my next film to more violent themes, if that’s the right word. I think that this feeling is particular to Cisne, because the main character, Vera, accepts life the way it is, with its good and bad moments. She can enjoy the little things, in spite of the fact that all the characters in the film are deeply anguished. The environment is also very important: The characters are touched by the landscape and by the light. They absorb a lot of what is going on around them. When you’re so sensitive you have to be calmer, or otherwise it’s overwhelming.
Vera is also an artist. Did you want to say something particular about art?
I wanted to show creative people in the moments when they’re not really creating, because it’s in those moments, when you’re not doing anything, that you absorb the things that you will use later on. For example, Vera is a musician and in the beginning we see her perform, but performing is not creating; it’s not the same as composing. It’s the end of the whole process. What interested me was not art itself, but the moment of drift, of pause, or suspension, in the life of an artist.
Do you yourself go through pauses?
For sure, especially because I’m a filmmaker but I also write. Cinema can be very brutal for the author, because it asks for such extremely different periods. When you write, you’re alone. Then you seduce people with your project, which is difficult. You deal with so many people when you shoot, and then go back to loneliness, when you rewrite the film, in a way, while editing. It’s not easy to be always centred.
What is your writing process like? Do you begin with images
I often don’t know where I’m going to shoot, and from experience, I’ve learned that it’s very dangerous to commit to a specific space, because I can get obsessed with the particular way that a house is set up, or a particular door, etcetera. If I don’t find it later, I have to forget everything and start from scratch. In my screenplays, I try to convey the mood instead, the “colour” of the film. Since I write a lot about the characters’ feelings and behavior, sometimes I don’t need to talk to the actors on the set, because they already know my intentions. People assume that I give a lot of directions, but that’s not true at all. A lot of the meaning comes from the writing.
You’ve also produced Cisne. What was it like wearing both, artistic and financial hats, for the first time?
The film had a very small budget, so it was very important that all the money went into filming. It’s a lot easier if the director is also the producer, but in Portugal, traditionally these roles are very separate. I don’t feel like a producer though; I just did it out of necessity. I don’t imagine myself producing other people’s works.
In Cisne, the young boy is molested sexually, murders his aggressor, and is then taken in by the singer who ends up keeping his secret. What kind of moral questions did you want to raise?
I think it’s important that Vera doesn’t judge the child. She sees that he needs her help, and in a way she’s someone who needs help as well. She knows what happened, but she believes that the boy had no other choice.
Their worlds are so different—she is a famous public figure, whereas the boy is homeless and anonymous. How do these two connect
For her, it’s a question of urgency. We don’t know yet the consequences of her actions. The boy ends up in her house, but can they stay there forever? I don’t think so. We spoke about the pause, suspension. For me, all three, the singer, her lover, and the boy, deserve that chance to do almost nothing, to read, to sleep, be together. I know that in real life this kind of moment is very difficult to create. We’ve lost the possibility of stopping, or even the idea of it. In our society, to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing with your life is considered worse than a weakness—a failure. But I think that if we keep going, without the necessary pause, we may end up in a wrong place. So the film is also partly about the fact that there is nothing wrong with stopping. Perhaps others can only be creative if they keep moving, or learning, or travelling. But for me, having the time to stop is almost an obsession
The title, Cisne, comes from a poem?
I found it in a book by a Greek poet from the 1st century BC. The line said, “One day, the swan sang this with its wings.” The rest of the poem had been lost. I found the fact that we know today that something existed, but we don’t know what, to be incredibly beautiful. Not knowing what it sang, we know that it was something. Something we will never know. The sound, in a way, has reached us—but we cannot hear it. I think that’s incredible.
How does this resonate with the film?
It has to do with the characters’ hidden secrets, and with their hidden love. They all have this potential for love; it’s very powerful, but it isn’t directed at a particular person. There is also a swan painted on the wall in the house where the young boy commits the murder. It’s not necessarily the swan from the title, but it reminds us about the testimony of something that is never clear
For the young boys who live on the fringes of society, experiencing poverty, abuse and shame, what kind of testimony can the swan make?
It’s a silent witness. Swans are very enigmatic. There’s all this mythology about the sounds they make, or don’t make. In the film, it’s all about the silence that is stored up, but perhaps some day will erupt.
Does it erupt in the film?
Not yet, I don’t think. All the characters come together, for something to blossom later, but at the end, there is a sense that something may break their peace. Peace, even when we don’t sense it, contains tension, because it cannot remain forever. And so, in a way, it contains its end.