Leonor TelesA place to live in: An Interview with Leonor Teles Susana Bessa January 2024 Interviews Issue 108 Leonor Teles’s mirror-surfaced, headily constructed Baan opens at a moment of contemplation. Against the backdrop of a lilac-infused blue cityscape of the King Power MahaNakhon, the legendary Bangkok skyscraper, the shadowed profile of a woman looking out of the glass-paned windows of her room doesn’t so much breathe as it procures to expand what a moment of pause may feel or look like. MahaNakhon looks corroded, from the inside out. We’ll soon find the woman framed by it is not emotionally that further away from such sentiment. Seconds go by, and we see her holding onto the body of a man while uttering the lyrics to Banks’s Fuck Em Only We Know. Cut to and we’re at a convenience store with her picking out store bought noodles late at night. That same night, she will be on a club’s dance floor in Lisbon, only for us to watch her be transported, without any notice or warning, to sunny Bangkok. And it will be inside this non-time, free of tenses, and its ever-bending anonymous space we will find L (first-time actress Carolina Miragaia), a young Portuguese architect, and K (Meghna Lall), a Thai-born Toronto-raised immigrant in Lisbon looking for a place where she can feel like herself. Two different sides of the same coin, innately gravitating towards each other. In a neon-heavy whirlwind that stacks up the identity-seeking beginning of adulthood phase in one’s life with an ever worsening housing crisis, dealing with heartbreak and the prospect of a new relationship, Teles builds a visual and sensory literal representation of what growing into oneself in a city looks like. And questions arise: are we ever in control of what happens to us? Why do we veer towards certain people more than others? Where do we belong to? L (or is it Leonor?) is not only looking for a house to live in (Baan in Thai means “house” or in Portuguese “casa”). She wants to plunge herself into the more aggrandising concept of a home (and its many manifestations), which asks for a willingness to be attuned to a different realm, the only place from where a true connection with the world is struck. Amid universal clichés, all this dispersiveness, fluidity and resistance to rest, Baan feels rather overthought and yet underdone at the same time. And rightly so. It goes with its desire to be hazy but sharp; to open up any possible paths. On the one hand, it is a sober generational document that not only speaks for but shows us what it looks and sounds like to be at the receiving end of losing the freedom of time to grow, and the opportunity to continue that curation and enrichment overtime. The film finds a way, whether through a narrative fend in dialog or character behaviour or even just filmic language, to evoke how the world has been led astray by late capitalism and neoliberal politics, and it does so more soundly than most non-fiction films (that may just be why the film premiered at DocLisboa, considering Baan’s a work of fiction). On the other hand, what’s left to dig away is an experiment in aesthetics and directed cinephilia, namely in how it picks up previously tried and proved successful techniques as references in order to touch on an accented, chopped melancholia (or is it just mad alienation?), which denounces its more personal side. In other words, Baan is a place where the filmmaker relives that which she needs to forget. Baan Moreover, it wants its discordant sights and sounds, allegorical and purposely plastered with the most cobalt of blues (other examples of this blue exercise include Maria Speth’s In den Tag Hinein or Christophe Honoré’s Plaire, aimer et courir vite), in order to fuse into one radiant quilt capable of freeing itself of everything that has any control of a young person’s mind or body. Both an outlet for expression, that ebbs and flows, and an object fuelled to purge the creator’s memory. If she manages to fully stitch it together or not that’s open to interpretation in this second feature film, and first dive into abstraction, from a filmmaker that garnished so much attention by winning a Gold Bear for Batrachian’s Ballad at the Berlinale right at the beginning of her career in 2016. Leonor spoke with Senses of Cinema in Lisbon, following the film’s national premiere at the 21st edition of DocLisboa – International Film Festival and its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival over the Summer, about the many hows and whys Baan is a place to live in, perhaps the only accessible to all right now. The interview has been slightly condensed for brevity and clarity. – SB I’d like to start by asking you about something you said during your introduction of the film at DocLisboa. You said you had lost your home during the making of the film and thanked your friends who welcomed you into their homes. In your words, “I’ve lived in more houses during the making of this film than in the rest of my life thus far.” Do you mean that as a literal or figurative loss? Literal. It really happened! I was kicked out by my landlord while we were shooting the film. He called me up and said I had a month to evict the premises. That said, the starting point of the film was motivated by the emotional loss of a home, not a flat. That’s where it all began. And so much arose from then on. Once that happens, you start asking yourself how can you ever go back to that same place of trust again. Did that come to influence the film’s course? Yes, even if indirectly, I believe it always does influence where we arrive at, in one way or another. So you had sought out to depict this idea of the search for a home, especially during one’s growth process. Does that search ever end? No idea. While I was preparing for today, I read that you found Carolina (Miragaia) online, on Instagram. Is that true? How did that come about? It was all a bit surreal, actually. I was scrolling through Instagram when I get a notification from someone that had just started following me, so I check to see who it is, and in that person’s Instagram page I find a group photo, where a figure calls my attention among all those people. It was tagged. That’s when I found Carolina and thought there may be something there. Immediately, I found her to have the physical characteristics I’d been looking for for whoever came to play L. But I still had to get to know her, understand if she would be interested in being a part of such a project, especially given the fact she wasn’t a professional actress to begin with. Baan If we think about the context of Baan in your work, you’d been dedicated to the documentary world and now you come up with a tonal poem, free of the structures the others came with. Before, your films had all been about these physical and cultural sites, and you’ve let go of the foundation piles to give way to reflections and echoes. Well, in other words perhaps it’s not about a site per se, but an emotional space. A mental space. I feel Baan is still about working those same physical sites I’d been focusing on before, but doing it in a different way. But herein we dive. Or, we’re expected to as an audience. Otherwise, how are we to enter the film? Yes, I wanted there to be a dive. That’s for sure. That was the hope. I tend to call upon the idea of the rollercoaster, and you must join the ride; to let yourself be taken by the film. What I found to be so curious was the nature of the dialog in the film. It feels very much anchored to the cinema of the real side of things. There are pieces of dialog that don’t always feel necessary…is that your way of making us feel like life is happening in real time? I’m very anchored to the naturalistic side of things. Not everything has to be so ostensibly engineered. I’m looking for spontaneity on screen. Because even when we’re portraying characters, people, living under a certain state of mind, that doesn’t mean life around them doesn’t carry on. It does, no matter how inside of your own head you may be, it carries on. And there are moments when you switch back, and actually pay attention to what’s happening around you. Having said that, there’s an added energy that informs these characters were built with the actresses Carolina and Meghna (Lall). Am I correct to assume that? Yes, that’s true. I tend to take quite a bit from the actresses’ own biographies in the construction of the characters. The character of L had a more musical side to her, because Carolina is a musician. And regarding Meghna, she did in fact live in Canada, and she lives in London at the moment. She’s a bit of a nomad of sorts, much like K. I find that really does help. The more layers the characters have, the closer to them we may feel. Because they’ll be more real. You know, no one has only one dimension. People are chock-full of them. Speaking of dimensions, the space the film inhabits is not defined by any one dimension too. One can fall down in it and search. Was that always your main purpose? Yes, so one can find oneself in it. Or perhaps that doesn’t happen, after all. Is there a definite figuration of saudade, or was that something I brought onto the film? No, it’s there, it’s there. Baan Because it feels like what the film really is about is the saudade nurtured for a lost Lisbon, in order to talk about the current state of things. You touch upon it in a subtle manner, but the Odemira migrant case comes up through a reporting on TV. Save SNS (National Health System) is graphited on the walls of the city. Did you mean for it to have this lyrical-activist side to it, especially in regards to the housing crisis? You’d already commented on it in your previous film. Yes, I’d done Cães que Ladram aos Pássaros (2019) just before, which brings a closer eye into gentrification. For my generation, it’s extremely hard not to think about all of these aspects of our daily life, and it’s extremely hard not to feel suffocated in the midst of this Lisbon and this country’s increasing ineptitudes. The racism, the lack of housing and the SNS crisis. These are merely basic asks other generations that came before took for granted. For us, this couldn’t be further from the truth. And it feels urgent to ponder and to speak about it. But, still, for me the most important thing is that all of this comes in the form of a point of a view, L’s point of view and her meeting up with K, and how that encounter makes her perceive the world. Inside of the Lisbon she knew, there are other Lisbons she perhaps hasn’t had access to. Given her connection with K, she starts tuning into things she never considered or came across with. And I feel once we see or get to know a certain other reality…how are we to go back to where we came from? There isn’t a way to do that anymore. So does that mean it’s imperative to find a person in order to find a sense of home? No, not at all. I think that really depends. It changes from person to person. Each one of us will determine what home feels like. But it doesn’t have to come in the format of a person, no. Now, the one thing I can say is that a person can definitely open one’s horizon, that’s for sure. The communion with people you’ve yet to meet can take you to new worlds, new paths. That’s why I find the film quite simple, actually. It has layers. L is somewhere between Lisbon and Bangkok, always between one thing and another. It does. Delving into those, my intent will never necessarily be the same as another’s reading of it. What’s astounding in cinema is that creation is a whole wide world for each one of us watching it on screen. Still, no matter the physicality of layers, there’s a side of suspension present. And an examination about memory, a moment that remains the same forever. When we’re going through heartbreak, the way we perceive time changes. And it was crucial the film could visually accompany that alienation, that radical perception of time. It may be slower or quicker, or even both sometimes. Questions such as, “how is time really felt when we’re falling in love?” or “how does it go through us when we’re recovering from a deep loss?” were all I thought about. It may all be just inside our heads. No matter the case, that was the criteria. To bring all of that out of its shell. Is that also why you fill the breathing spaces with Wong Kar Wai’s step printing technique and a very close-knit reference to Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Millennium Mambo opening sequence, to that female character, and how she looks at us as if she’s daring us? Did you reach for them from your cinephilia because they became a part of your language? Yes, for sure. But the reasons are manifold. I’m very enamoured with Asian cinema, from Southeast Asia to Taiwan to Hong Kong. It is very dear to me, and it’s not as if its language comes closer to my own artistic sensibility, but precisely the opposite. I bring myself closer to these authors. It’s precious to me to use them as inspiration for Baan – they’re clearly references – even if only to draw them near to audiences. Bring them back to the spotlight. Millennium Mambo and Chungking Express and In the Mood for Love and Taipei Story, by the lesser known Edward Yang, they were all films that shaped me. Before my going to film school, the only Asian cinema in my horizon was kung fu or martial arts films. It was when I first saw In the Mood for Love that I realised that that too could be cinema, and from then on my outlook on cinema was forever changed, especially because of how they work emotions on screen, how they convey the lives of these isolated people in these overpopulated dense major cities and how they behave without being able to connect. It may seem so, but it’s not at all different from what we’re going through over here. The only difference might just be how we choose to express such interiority. At the end of the day, we all feel the same things, and we’re all looking for much of the same too. It was very important to me to grab hold of what’s being made over there, very heartfelt, very touching, and attempt to do the same myself. These filmmakers are especially honed to examinations about melancholia and love, which is where you were getting at too. Or disaffection, which is nonetheless about love. I’ve read something many times about how in Wong Kar-Wai’s cinema the true form of love is that which is… Unrequited? No, it’s more than that. It’s the love that is yet to strike. It’s “forever” stuck in its what ifs, as are we. Baan Right. What if it had happened? The road not travelled. In other words, saudade. (Laughs) Yes. We are very close to Asia, even if only in that regard. But going back to what you were asking, of course I wanted to talk about love. Akin to that love, I wanted to delve deep into loss. But keeping on with saudade and the many layers and readings to the film, whereas Portuguese people will read it as such, I’m waiting on what will happen when I show the film in Thailand. What will people read over there? What will be there for them to interpret? Because there are some things that are only open to some. Others will only see them if they know they’re there. Do you know what I mean? Well, yes. The imaginary of Almirante Reis Avenue for one! Touching on that, the film is made of the non-places that L goes by everyday. There are taxi rides, lifts, alleyways, bridges for pedestrians, dance floors…all of them not prepared to be inhabited, but then they are! They help the characters cross and reach another realm. My question is, do you consider Baan to reach any kind of definition or does it remain a passageway? Of course we get somewhere! Because I see my film as being about growing up, reaching adulthood, reckoning with the fact that you may die soon enough, that you can’t possibly survive all of it, but continue living regardless, and one day you realise, ‘wow, I’m actually here, I’ve made it’. “Hoje eu fico” (“today I’ll stay”). We must try to deal with the adversities we have before us when we reach adulthood. But we remain clueless about what’s coming next. Sure, but we are left assured that today still exists. There’s a character in the film I’ve thought so much about lately. The architect (played by João Miller Guerra) and his speech about how he wants to sell the house he himself built and owns in the city, and move to the countryside. I mean…what a gift, for a house to be built by and for those who live in it. I myself would just love to destroy my rented flat’s kitchen cupboards so that I don’t bump my head on them every time I do the washing-up. The house simply isn’t there to fit me, it’s the other way around. And few remember to mention that bit. Was that speech also nursed by the housing crisis? It’s all connected and intertwined with the housing crisis. If we think about the characters and their identities, what they do in life…they’re architects and they build houses! And the film opens up to all definitions of houses, all its possible physical and emotional realms. But really what matters is what makes us feel at home. For many, that will be the walls of a house. For others, it will be finding peace within themselves. For others, it’ll be a person. According to the different generations and social classes, their desires will be very particular and all very legitimate. During that speech, L might be thinking ‘I can’t believe this guy is actually complaining…’, but from his standpoint, he’s reached a place of stagnation. He’s unsure about where to walk to next. He’s in his 40s. Perhaps he thought he would be content by that point, with his relationship, his kids, his job, his house. And suddenly he realises all of it is still on the table. His home is, as it turns out, collapsing. He needs to start anew. Precisely. And people will judge and perhaps they won’t understand. First world problems and whatnot. But that’s a reality too. And an important one. To have so many dimensions in the characters definitely makes them human. We never like every single side of a person. We shouldn’t blame people for feeling what they’re feeling. We should be focusing on the oppressive system we’re all inserted in. It’s expected of us to be productive, to have money, to have kids, to have a nice house, a nice car, and so on. It’s terribly overwhelming! Growing up and growing old at such a fast pace…and then there are those who do it all and it turns out they’re incapable of dealing with it too! And then, all of it just clashes and collides. Previously when you were talking about that feeling of dying very soon when we’re growing up, it made me think of Ágata Pinho’s film Azul (2022). The film addresses that exactly, that fear (or is it a knowledge?). You were the director of photography on that film and you have a tendency to return to blue-coloured landscapes…there’s this whole cult surrounding the colour blue in modern art, literature, cinema. Why all the blue? It’s my favourite colour. And it’s L’s armour. A place of refuge, where she finds comfort in. And of course the lift to her workplace had to be blue (laughs). I do enjoy working emotions by inserting colour. And that also applies to shooting in 16mm. Because it’s another body (another house)? Very much so. Given how texturally and narratively personal the film is to you then, how hard was it to direct it? Is it painful to direct cinema in lieu of being a DOP? As a director, you’re constantly having to make choices, and to deal with a lot of people over a long stretch of time, managing people’s emotions and ideas on the material…it’s all quite gruelling. It’s asking for your energy all of the time. And that’s just one side of it. The other is expecting a film to come to be. You reach the end of the process very drained. If I could, I would just be a DOP. It’s where I’m most at ease. You’ve worked with people on the film you’ve known for a long time, namely the film’s producers, Filipa Reis and João Miller Guerra that act in Baan. Yes, a lot of people I’ve been keeping close to. Travelling buddies. They were great. We did rehearse a lot (laughs). Does it feel rewarding? You’re building yourself in film, after all. It’s strange to think of it that way, for an audience to be watching me…Well, filmmakers have a very masochist side to them. We tend to forget what was it like, in order to do it again. As soon as I’ll remember this one, I won’t do another. It’s always a struggle, especially considering how there’s never a budget for everything, but that’s what we have to deal with and I’ve come to terms with it. Does making a film help you deal with whatever has happened in your life? What I was going through was so complex that I felt I had to do something with it, just so I could find meaning to what I was feeling. And what I make are films, so that’s what I did. I began writing it in 2017. Gained the production support in 2019. We wanted to film in late 2020, early 2021. But the world stopped. We went to Thailand when the world had reopened. It was brilliant to be able to shoot there. So essentially you reach catharsis. And then you leave it and carry on. I envy that feeling. I’m not so sure you leave it all behind. But I’ll discover that for myself soon enough.