Brazilian filmmaking duo Melissa Dullius and Gustavo Jahn began working together in 1999 in Porto Alegre, and since 2007 have been based in Berlin, operating under the title “Distruktur”. The two also have some experience in acting roles: Jahn is perhaps most recognisable from his appearance in O Som ao Redor (Neighbouring Sounds, Kleber Mendonça Filho, 2012), and Dullius appeared alongside him in Os Residentes (The Residents, Tiago Mata Machado, 2010). Since their earliest collaborations in Brazil, they have shot mostly in 16mm, and today maintain a strong interest in the materiality of their medium as part of the analogue film collective, LaborBerlin. After producing a number of shorts – as well as works that involve live performance and sound – Dullius and Jahn have recently completed their debut feature, Muito Romântico, which premiered in the Forum Expanded section of the 2016 Berlinale. It is a film that combines a punk sensibility with calculated risk-taking, consolidating the pair’s affinity for celluloid, as well as their ability to breathe life into the archive. I spoke with Distruktur about their practice as filmmakers, and their relationship to the materials of cinema.
Your work is very transnational in tone – you are now based in Germany, but hail from Brazil. Muito Romântico was filmed both at sea and in Berlin, but it also strikes me as a ‘Brazilian’ film in some ways. How do you situate your work, geographically-speaking?
Gustavo Jahn: We self-produce our films, so we can choose all of the technical information like time, the material that was used, the colour, the sound, and the country of production, and we always put “Brazil”. We have even done this for films where we didn’t have to have the name “Brazil”, like the film that we shot in Cairo, Triangulum (2008). In that case we weren’t using Brazilian money, nor did we have other Brazilian people working on the film.
Melissa Dullius: When the two of us were doing Muito Romântico we considered ourselves the Brazilian material. We don’t use a lot of money, so the human aspect is what counts in the production. For the final part that was shot in our house, many of the crew were Brazilian, one third or perhaps even half of the crew. It helps to have this familiarity. We started doing films fifteen years ago, and have been here almost ten years, so it’s a longer career in Berlin, but we didn’t cut any of the connections we had in Brazil, we kept all of them.
GJ: We have a script in development that would be a feature shot entirely in Brazil, in Florianópolis. We still have our main audience in Brazil – the attention that our work gets in comparison to here, and other places in Europe, it’s still Brazil where our work resonates more. So we are very connected there. And we have a wish to go back there and shoot there again, to see what’s changed there.
Do you still feel a connection with filmmaking in Brazil today?
GJ: The way we produce films is very near to how we learned or how we begun to make films in Porto Alegre, and is very affected by the way people were making films there. There was Giba (Assis Brasil) and Carlos Gerbase, they made some shorts and feature films in Super 8 with a group of friends, and they would even distribute their films across the country, traveling and showing the films in many cities. They actually made money with one of those films, Deu Pra Ti Anos 70 (Enough of You, 70s, Giba Assis Brasil and Nelson Nadotti, 1981). I remember seeing it and for me it was very strong, to see the environment that I knew, but also a way to make cinema that was really possible. I think when you hear people talking about why they make or where they began making cinema, they have this moment when they see something and they think, “OK, this is possible, I understand how this is being done,” not about the plot and not about the aesthetics, but in production terms. And so we also began making films with this idea of having a collective, that each one would support the other. That’s how we began Sendero Filmes (a production company in Porto Alegre), with another seven or eight people. After that we formed another collective, Avalanche, and in this collective we produced Éternau (Gustavo Jahn, 2006), the last film we did before coming to Berlin. When we arrived in Berlin, I remember telling Melissa that we were too old to have a collective, that we had to find our own way. And then the first thing that happened was that we joined the collective here, LaborBerlin.1
MD: And we started work as a duo, which is the smallest form of a collective. But I think that what’s also really important when we met about 1999 or 2000, was that we were watching a lot of films. We didn’t have a film school in the city, and I don’t know if I would have studied film, but we were very interested in cinema, and we started to watch a lot of films on the weekend. And at some point Gustavo was working in a cinema, working as a substitute programmer, so we were also writing about films. We were teenagers, we were very enthusiastic about it. Now we don’t watch films with that kind of curiosity anymore.
Did you have any problems with access to films?
MD: It was a completely different time: we couldn’t download anything, so it restrained our research for sure. But this is very common as we are very isolated in South Brazil, even more than in Rio or São Paulo. We had many films in our mind that we didn’t see, but we just read about them. Before shooting Éternau (2006), we had a break for a year, and we just watched Brazilian films, trying to see everything we could find that we had just read about in books.
GJ: At that time, we could finally access a lot of films by downloading, experimental films we were only reading about. The icons like Jack Smith, and Stan Brakhage: these were names we knew about but we could not find in Brazil, and they were never being shown there. I was really glad and surprised when I found out about the relationship between Smith and Hélio Oiticica, because I didn’t know about it. I remember that the first film by Jack Smith we downloaded was Normal Love (1963-1965), and I thought immediately about [Rogério] Sganzerla: I thought it’s impossible that Sganzerla didn’t see these images, because while they don’t share in everything they at least share the same aesthetical universe and sense of humour. And then after that I discovered that Oiticica knew Smith, so Sganzerla and Smith were also connected, maybe through Oiticica.
These connections are intriguing, especially considering your own artistic practice: like those artists, you exhibit some of your films in gallery spaces as well as in more conventional cinemas, and you always emphasise the material elements.
MD: This perhaps started for us with Cinema Esquema Novo.2 There they proposed that you could have films made to be in the cinema on the one hand, and films made in a very personal or limited way, on the other, which could be as small as one idea or one frame. They were showing all kinds of formats – video, 35mm, 16mm, and Super 8 – in the same programme block, and this was super revolutionary. I remember ten years ago we would have this discussion that I don’t even understand now, about whether a film was for the cinema or for the gallery. The options for screening were divided into a “black box” and a “white box”, and I never think about that now. Our films go on duration and they always begin and end. They are time-based but they suit both environments.
GJ: I think it has to do with the material also, and it’s always been a point for us especially in Berlin, as we started to work more closely with 16mm. It doesn’t matter which material it is, but when the material becomes one of the main aspects of how you produce, you are more free to experiment, and it’s natural then that you grow into this visual art context, which is more open in comparison to cinema. ‘Cinema’ has more rigid rules in terms of what a film is, and if you go to the visual arts then it’s more open. I think the material gives you a lot of ideas; it’s a dialogue, so when you start working with any kind of material you learn to listen to it.
What do your live performances add to your films?
MD: In our performances we try to find an outlet for what we learn at the lab (at LaborBerlin), and how we experiment there. Making live sound came about because we could not make sound negatives at the lab at all, so we started to work on live soundtracks. We had a workshop where we experimented with loops and filters during the projection, and we decided to put it on the next presentation, so it’s quite organic: learning at the lab and finding outlets for the things we learn.
GJ: In our live cinema we try to synchronise – we play a song in a certain scene – and it’s a bit like a race, it gives you a lot of adrenaline when you’re doing that. You can’t stop because the projector won’t stop.
MD: We went to São Paulo to do a show in the basement of Paço das Artes, a very nice museum. We had this basement with columns and a huge space. We wanted a lot of 16mm projectors, so they found every projector they could, and finally with a lot of effort we had eight 16mm projectors, even though they were not all in the best form, and we also brought two loopers with us. A guy from there was installing a looper, and we were doing all this screening, and hanging all the screens ourselves, so in the end you have this huge space with the projectors running but in a very dangerous way. But everything was fine. The sound was just a soundtrack, so everything was looping for many hours. Then a friend came to us and said: “when does the performance start?” Well, what do you want us to do? To be naked? To jump from the ceiling? But we were already performing at our highest capacity, running around the whole time. There was even one projector that was super dirty, so I was cleaning it live! This idea of performance in a way makes me feel like a racehorse – “how much can I give?” It’s a challenge.
When you perform your films live, you have the potential to alter the work every time you exhibit it. But Muito Romântico is a more finished film?
GJ: Muito Romântico originally had another name – Fluxus et Refluxus – and it was a film performance that at one stage was projected on three screens. It developed as we produced a lot of text and music for it, and many of the elements from the performance made it to the final edit of the film. I think some projects would never have this finished form for the cinema. Muito Romântico we knew from the beginning we wanted to have something for the cinema. But the performances are also a way to keep feeding each project, each film, even when you don’t know what the final form will be. Filme de Pedra (2012-ongoing) which we have been doing for three years now, keeps on growing and we can play with it and change the editing, changing things about it without having this responsibility to say “now it’s closed, now it’s done.” We keep it alive, it’s the idea of work-in-progress but with film.
MD: We like playing with the idea that Filme de Pedra is a generational film, that we will grow older with it, that there will be some people also getting older on screen. We’re always shooting some things, so it’s always growing.
It’s true for Muito Romântico too that you filmed over a long period of time, that you had breaks and then you went back to footage?
GJ: Yeah, we began shooting when we moved to Berlin on the cargo ship, so those are the oldest images in the film, almost ten years old. Then when we arrived in Berlin we continued shooting for this, and in between we did many films and many projects, but we were always constantly shooting or researching for this film. After we had the script we had this structure of three levels: one would be the ship, the past; and the other one would be the restaging in more conventional cinematic language of our coming in the first years, and this would be limited spatially to our bedroom. So we had the bedroom, the ship, and a third level that would be this space for the experimental work that we have been doing through the years to enter. So we would play with these three levels in terms of time, space, and also materiality: the more documentary images of the ship, the well-staged images of our life in our bedroom, and then this experimental material that is like the dialogue between me and Melissa. And we had that, but we couldn’t see the face of the film, let’s say, aesthetically which kind of position it would take. And then at one point we started to see it as a collage. And it was at the same point that we began to look at our material as an archive, as our own archive that is a living archive, that you can always access and reorganise. Because when you work with film you have all of this material in front of you, it’s a bit different to digital information. In a way it’s more appealing to take it and open it and see what’s there, to put a new label on it and organise it according to this or that category, according to the ideas you have at the time. And then we went back to it and shot everything with restaging, and in the editing we were really open to it, to things that were not at all shot for the film, and then we put them together.
MD: We were open to seeing it as a collage, but we were still trying to find a form for it, an organising principle, because we needed to have a common language to speak when we talked about it. During the editing Gustavo was saying: “how can we know it’s finished now?” So we painted a graphic of the categories, and it looked right, so we thought it was ready. The first blue part is the ship, then the red is the experimental parts, and the new home is the yellow, and the black is the cosmic part. So we start in the blue and finish in the black, with a lot of red and yellow in the middle. We always tried to think about this idea of a graphic that is very abstract, because I see one thing in my mind and he sees another. We need that a lot because we are a duo. When you are two people you need to find a way to talk about the ideas. We think in a very analogue way.
GJ: When you start thinking and working a lot with the material, you start to have these ideas. You start to see materials as dimensions, and you go from one to the other. When we were editing the material for Fluxus et Refluxus, to cut we would give one word to name each scene, and with these names we made the lyrics to the song that appears in the film. So through these dimensions, you create new things; it’s not the same thing, it’s a different object that transforms itself as it goes through different dimensions.
MD: In Muito Romântico there is a certain object that represents the will towards using everything in an organised way, to not throw anything away, but to find a new form for each thing. It teaches you in a way to use what you have, because film is very precious, so you don’t throw away the rest, you always find a use for everything. We have a very big reel for the ‘rest’ of film, everything that is neglected can be put back into a new film. When you develop film from negative to positive, you also produce some positives that are just tests. They are nothing, but you cannot throw them away, they are precious one metre and two metre pieces.
With your own archive are you careful with preservation, or do you allow some of the film to be exposed or change over time?
MD: Until recently, there was just one room with all the negatives that we shot until now, so it wasn’t really safe! But in April 2016, we took a great part of our original negatives to be stored at the Kulturquartier archive in Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art. After you process the film loses colour or it can develop a fungus, things that aren’t very good. Even though we try to be very exact when we’re processing, many things can happen. We call this chain of events the “effect-defect”: something can become an effect if you don’t see it as a defect, and it will have meaning. You don’t even need to open for chance and for trouble – they come anyway.
GJ: We can see at least three levels on which time can affect the way we perceive and make images. The first level is the time involved in waiting for some images to reveal their meaning. For us, it’s not always like shooting a narrative film, where you’re shooting a scene and you have a clear idea about how it should turn out in the end, and how it will also be used in the whole film. We produce a lot of images, and we constantly shoot having an idea about which project they will go in, but not how exactly. We have to wait for the images to grow meaning. The second level is the time the material itself has. We shoot a lot with expired film. In one part of Muito Romântico, the whole ship section was shot originally on video, and then transferred to 16mm, using film stock that was produced in Mexico in the ’80s, so it was outdated, having expired over 20 years ago. We used a Crass animation stand camera to make the transfer and expose the material properly, with a long exposure time for each frame. It’s really nice on this level: you see that the blacks are a bit purple and the red and the blue are quite special. So it has this time of the material itself, which is already old.And the third level of time is when you shoot but you don’t develop. There is one scene in Muito Romântico that we were shooting regularly, probably once a year, across a field covered with autumn leaves, and we were doing that in the same spot for five years. And sometimes we would shoot and develop only one year later. So this time that the image was exposed and not processed also affected the image. Time was working on the image, the unformed image.
I know with some of your films there’s not only the unplanned things that happen to the film stock, but also things that you do deliberately yourselves, afterwards.
MD: Normally, you have an idea that you try, but you can’t repeat it because you can’t be completely scientific. At the time we made Cat Effekt (2011), we were more consciously trying to alter the film, but at the same time we were learning to process negatives, so it was quite risky. We were learning alone and not really using the right chemistry, not knowing exactly how to clean the film really well. So there were some effects like solarisation that worked quite well, and we didn’t have any lost film. The noise in the film was not really how we imagined it at first, but now I see that it had to be there.
GJ: Cat Effekt really began as the idea of repeating an accident, an effect that happened during the process. When we returned after shooting Triangulum in Cairo, we asked the cameraman, Michel Balagué, who was staying a few days more to shoot a street cat, because we wanted to use it in editing. There are many street cats in Cairo. And so he shot it, he came to Berlin and he processed the material himself. Then he called us and said “something strange happened, it looks really nice but it also looks really different.” And then we saw it and the cat, which appears in Cat Effekt, is glowing with a yellow-gold colour, almost as if it was burning. Theoretically, that happened because he used chemicals that were exposed to the sun. With solarisation, you normally do it during the processing: when the film is in the developer, the first bath, you throw a bit of light before the image is completely developed, exposing the film to light once again. And if you do that normally you will affect the parts that are darker. So the classic solarisation in black and white films makes the black become silver. But here it happened because the chemicals were exposed and not the film itself. And then I went to a workshop in Lithuania, and one of the people that was there, Vilius (Mačiulskis, the Director of Photography on Cat Effekt) was really fascinated by that image of the cat, which we could not use for Triangulum because it was too different from the rest of the film. And then Vilius said “this is the cat effect and we have to do it again.” And so we tried to repeat it by flashing the film, and doing a few different things. At the time Vilius was living in Moscow, studying at this film school VGIK, where Tarkovsky studied, and he was also telling me many stories about Moscow, about how life was there. So when I got back, I talked to Melissa and together with Vilius we said “let’s make a film in Moscow, it will be called Cat Effekt, and we’re going to try to repeat this glowing effect.” So that’s how the film started, this mixture of a desire to go to Moscow and see life there, and a way to justify making this film, repeating the “cat effect”.
And you were able to repeat it, to reproduce it?
MD: Not really! The way that the real cat effect looks is completely different.
GJ: Also because in Moscow we shot on negative, and the original cat effect was shot on Ektachrome, so we were working with a different material. If you solarise negatives it will look different to solarising reversal film. But in the end it was more a way for us to put things in motion, a way to say “let’s go this way” to make the film, so it was not so important to have exactly the same effect.
MD: In Cat Effekt we had very mystical experiences in the lab sometimes. There was some solarisation present that we didn’t do, that we were not controlling at all.
GJ: It was the film that we most consciously wanted to change the image during the processing of the material. We don’t normally work with many “tricks” during the processing. For In the Traveler’s Heart (2013), which we made in a residency in Lithuania, we also processed everything, but we tried to hide that as much as we could, and to do it as cleanly and as stably as possible. But it still has the vibration of the image in each shot. During one shot, the colours shift because the temperature of the chemicals was changing, and I like that idea a lot. In Cat Effekt it’s a bit like the opposite, you really see it and you ask yourself “OK what’s going on with the image?” And in In the Traveler’s Heart, you don’t see it so much but you still feel how the grain is moving and how the image is changing, in a subtler way.
How do you view your roles as actors? Did you think about your performances in Neighbouring Sounds and The Residents in a different way to your performances in your own work?
GJ: It’s more autobiographical when we shoot ourselves, not only because it’s about our own story, but also because we don’t have to construct the characters. I didn’t think about that in Neighbouring Sounds either, trying to make a solid psychological character. I was just trying to move in a certain way, being conscious of my actions. But in our films it’s even more natural. We know exactly what we have to do in front of the camera, we don’t have to construct so much internally. It’s more physical, even though we have dialogue and some dramatic intonations, and we want things to resonate in a certain way dramatically, we know how it should appear when we do our films. But when you work for somebody else it changes completely. Even with Kleber, he didn’t demand a solid psychological construction, it was more on the physical level, but you have to find this point of contact, this dialogue between you and the director.
MD: You’re also interacting with actors who are completely different. This can be good or difficult. Even in our own work, we had this situation in Cat Effekt. The main character is a trained actress, from the Moscow School, who didn’t speak English so well at the time. She was very generous but it was a bit difficult for her because she was only interacting with non-actors. But this has always been the way in the story of cinema: there are figures, and there are actors. You cannot really escape from your figure. I recently did a ten-day workshop with a theatre group, for the first time, and I had this idea that I would go there and I would choose a character and become that character for the period. But you can’t do that, you’re really tied to your figure. People see you and it’s very similar to how you see yourself. I was amazed by that – that I couldn’t be anything else.
GJ: We began very naturally to make the step going from behind the camera to in front of the camera. It happened in Éternau – that was the first time that we appeared in front of the camera, and it was a very natural decision to cross this border. And then friends like Kleber and Tiago invited us to play and it was in a way not difficult for us working with other people because we had this consciousness of ourselves as images, which makes it very pleasant work.
And is it different again when you perform alongside the films that you screen?
GJ: It’s different but not completely. In that case you are a live image. Now we are developing the live performances by dressing up, using makeup. Before we were just there projecting and playing music, but now we are starting to use our bodies and our clothes also to enhance the whole thing. And then it comes a bit closer to acting, because you become an image, you have this distance. In Preto e Branco (Black and White, 2015), we had strong makeup – I was all dressed in white, Melissa was all dressed in black – and people would keep a distance even after the show, because you create a kind of filter in front of you: you are an image. We’re starting to go more and more in this direction, to make acting a part of our performances.
MD: On another occasion, presenting Filme de Pedra, we were in a very nice space, the mezzanine of a crematorium, and we were projecting from the back. There was a little Q & A, and we came down with the normal light, and we had the same costumes that we had in the film, and people were shocked – it was like we had come out of the screen!
GJ: We’re developing our presence more and more. In the beginning, as Melissa said, we were just taking care of the projectors, which was enough, then we began playing music, then reading text, and now we are beginning to dress up. We’ll see where we go next.
Stefan Solomon’s research is supported by:
The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: ancient history, modern dance, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, English literature, design, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98m to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits but also contributes to the economic success of the UK. For further information on the AHRC, please go to: www.ahrc.ac.uk.
The São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP) is a public institution with the mission of supporting science and technology research and development in the state of São Paulo. FAPESP selects and supports research projects in all fields of knowledge submitted by researchers associated with institutions of higher education and research in the state. Project selection uses peer review methodology, based on reviews issued by Brazilian and foreign researchers not associated with the Foundation. In 2014, FAPESP disbursed £315 million to fund science and technology research projects. For more information, go to: www.fapesp.br/en.
- LaborBerlin is an independent, non-profit collective made up of moving-image artists who champion the use of celluloid in film production. Formed in 2007, LaborBerlin provides a laboratory in which members are able to manually develop Super 8 and 16mm film, and runs a variety of collaborative workshops and screenings that showcase the work conducted there . ↩
- Cinema Esquema Novo is a film festival that began in 2003 in Porto Alegre. It began as a means of engaging with contemporary developments in Brazilian film production, and has increasingly incorporated works of expanded cinema and video installations in its programme. ↩