Fernando Birri: A constructor of utopias
The Argentine filmmaker Fernando Birri, 81, talks about the transition from the present films to a new 'imagery' broader support of advanced technologies
“The word ‘cinema’ now sounds conservative to me. The audiovisual image has other possible forms besides the cinema. I am talking about a new machinery of images, of new phantasmagorias, new and unsuspected electronic shadows, or rather, electronic lights that for the time being we merely glimpse.” On the stage of the immense hall 1 of the Latin America Memorial, well lit only in a small area intended for the personage on stage, Fernando Birri, 81 years old, thus viewed the future, in his plenary lecture at the end of the morning of July 14, straight after being presented to the auditorium by the president of the Memorial, Fernando Leça.
Actually, the majority of the people gathered there to hear him, an extremely wide age range, between under 20 and over 80 years old, knew very well who that venerable figure was, with his long white beard, reminiscent of a Northeastern prophet, in the view of some, or Leon Tolstoi, in the eyes of others. Because to fans of the cinema produced outside the mainstream, as was the case of almost everyone there, the name of Birri, an Argentinean filmmaker and citizen of the world, is nothing less than a metaphor for the capacity for resistance and for multiple renaissances of Latin American cinema, in over five decades. With certain frequency, the paternity of the New Latin American Cinema is attributed to him.
The plenary lecture was part of the 1st Latin American Cinema Festival, promoted by the Memorial and by the São Paulo State Secretariat for Culture, which, coincidentally, is headed up at this moment by the filmmaker João Batista de Andrade. The event had been opened on the night of Sunday 9, with the most recent film by Fernando Birri, the documentary ZA 2005. The Old and the New, a mega clip, as he himself defines it, a collage of scenes taken from some of the best productions of the continent at different times. In it, excerpts from such classics as Memorias del Subdesarrollo [Memories of Underdevelopment], by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Vidas secas [Barren Lives], by the Brazilian, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, and Tire Dié [Throw me a Dime], by Birri himself, considered a founding masterpiece, dialog with scenes of recent cinematographic works by pupils from the San Antonio de Los Baños International Cinema and Television School, in Cuba (EICTV). As critic Luiz Zanin Oricchio said in O Estado de S. Paulo [The State of São Paulo], the film “is the perfect image of its author – it talks of the dream of a Latin American cinema that imposes itself for its rigor, for its strength and quality, and grows aside from the great worldwide entertainment industry.”
Fernando Birri, for 46 years married to Carmen, is, let it be registered right away, far more than a filmmaker: he is a theoretician of the cinema, a professor and an educator who has planted multiple experiences in teaching cinema and television, amongst which the school in Cuba is without doubt the most glittering and advanced. He is a painter, writer and poet. He is a visionary, a libertarian – and a fine sample of all this together lies in the compact and vigorous text of ‘Acta de Nacimiento de la Escuela Internacional de Cine y TV’ [Birth Certificate of the International Cinema and TV School, which is part of the book El alquimista democrático [The Democratic Alchemist], the Brazilian version of which should be published shortly, thanks to the endeavor of Sergio Muniz, a Brazilian documentarist, EICTV’s the first teaching director. Birri is, finally and above all, someone who has never given up his right to construct things based on his most utopian dreams, with method and rigor.
Below, the main excerpts from the interview that he granted to Pesquisa FAPESP.
I would like to begin by the end of your lecture: you said that there is something new emerging in the panorama of the image, that may go far beyond a new cinema. How is this?
I still see it as very cloudy, the crystal ball is still dim, in a mist, we do not know it entirely, because what has to come is never know for sure until it comes, tautologically. But my feeling, my intuition is that there is something, that is glimpsed more than seen. This festival, very serious, very fine, has acted a lot for this perception. On the other hand, Brazil has always been an environment of quests, disquiets and concerns, capable of signposting directions. Here, the theoretical elaboration of the cinema has reached a very high level, compared with other countries of Latin America.
In the universities?
Yes, in the universities, in the criticism, amongst filmmakers like Glauber Rocha, Nelson Pereira dos Santos, Roberto Santos, Leon Hirzman and so many others, is that not so? I would have to do a list of names, with Joaquim Pedro de Andrade, Cacá Diegues, Ozualdo Candeias, Geraldo Sarno, in short, all filmmakers who have had made their work be accompanied by supremely important theoretical developments. This injection of theoretical material characterizes the new Brazilian cinema.
Does this ‘new’ that you are now catching sight of have more to do with filming techniques, with esthetics or with theoretical reflection?
The truth is that I would never be capable of separating all these things. I think that they are only separated as an object of study, when, for example, Leonardo da Vinci dissects a body and analyzes a small muscle that runs towards a finger that moves. But you have to analyze the man himself, and I believe that one and the other are indispensable, the small tendon of the fingertip and the soul of the man that moves the finger. In this sense, what is going on now is that there are things that are coming with regard to all of a material, a background that the new Latin American cinema has drawn up in almost half a century of life. And, yes, what is happening, with all sincerity, is that many of the things that were drawn up are no longer valid, or rather, they are valid to help one to think, but in the circumstances no longer suffice. For example, there are two things that are arising from this encounter that seem to me very important. The first is that here is being launched, with great insistence, not the new Latin American cinema, but cinemas, half a century later. There is a plurality in this movement, and that is absolutely new. In a poem called Horizons that I wrote in the 80’s for a large encounter in Germany, a prolog for an enormous catalog, I did this ‘Poem in filmographic record form’, in which I said that we are one in diversity and diverse in our unity. I said that this characteristic, this tao, this dialectic, always had to be kept, which definitively enriched this moment, antidogmatic par excellence. I mean that this diversity is now taking on much more strength, more evidence, and in a simplistic explanation we can say there are many more cinemas. 50 years ago, to talk of cinema in Latin America was to talk almost exclusively of the Argentinean, Brazilian and Mexican cinemas. Afterwards, in the 60’s, Cuban cinematography appears with great force. But today there is no Latin American country that does not have cinema production. And I would not limit the word ‘production’ to the cinematographic set, but use it as production in all the cinematographic senses, thus extending it to the production of magazines, of criticism, analyses.
And of television?
…And there comes the critical point, and it is precisely that the word ‘cinema’ is no longer enough.
That was the most instigating thing in your talk: how do you mean that the word ‘cinema’ isn’t enough, what has to be created in its place to expand the very sense of what it names?
A word has to be invented that pre-dates the actual invention of the medium. For now, we can settle for tying up a few that exist for this, such as, for example, audiovisual ‘imagery’, which I find very pleasing. Or imago, image, which has a very great prestige, almost phantasmagorical. It’s like an audiovisual phantom, perhaps we may even say an ectoplasm, a nebula that is being completed in various forms and of which the cinema is only one expression…
Beyond cinema, you see something that shows itself by various media…
Of course, but let’s not exaggerate, let’s stay a bit closer, and to begin with we can keep to all these forms that there already are in fact, not in an anticipatory way. And in this sense there is what Pasolini called contaminatio: the contamination of genres. Accordingly, even in the cinema seen on the normal screen, it is often very difficult to separate things, what is a documentary, what is fictional… And there is at once in many films an intersection, an inter-influence of the traditional genres with things that we do not yet know.
Hence the idea of ‘docfic’.
Of course, docfic is that, it’s a reformulation proposed by Orlando Senna in the Cinema School of Cuba, at the beginning of the 1990’s, which I adhere to, because it really does seem to me that it attains an intuition that in some way defines a thing that is already in being. But let me conclude what I wanted to say: where it seems to me that it is really pointing to all this, like a distant point, like a new frontier at which some have now arrived and which they are occupying, to set off afterwards for other unknown territories, is virtual cinema, is the virtual image. What for the majority of spectators, of enjoyers, still remains something secret and prohibited, that exists for a super-specific minority, for example, in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a place where it has been practiced for decades… it is a very special cinema, which you can truly touch, and a few other things that in some way follow when new technologies are made. And here we have a question that you put to me before: it is that the new technologies, the new expressions, the new criticisms, they carry on together, they are not things that point some in one direction, others to another. Yes, it is possible to separate them with the purpose of vivisection, of study, like anatomy, but for the body to walk, live, breathe and love, it has to be complete.
Are we talking here, amongst other things, of the experiences of the MIT’s Medialab?
Yes, of course, they have one of the most advanced laboratories in the aspect of the virtual image, and, one assumes, of all the anticipations that in some way overturn the current classifications, or that we consider present-day and that are old to the cinema.
Is what you seeing as new in some way bound up with the work of half a century of teaching cinema on the continent, which begins with the Santa Fé school? How are these dots joined together in your reflection?
Lamentably, for now, they do not join up. We are still not at the moment of synthesis. If you allow me to say, like you, I am still trying to understand, there is no prefabricated reply to that question. Let us all thing together in this direction… in some way, though, what may perhaps really help us to think out a little the production of the cultural phenomena of Latin America is one of the most revealing and illustrative of them, that is, the religious phenomenon, I would almost say anthropological-religious – in concrete terms, I am referring to syncretism.
But you don’t refer to the new religious movements, neopentecostalism…
I go a little further back, let’s put it that way. The concept is the following: what we are using, the image in some way, in that perspective in which we are trying to catch sight of it, is still a syncretic appreciation, it is a moment prior to the analytic moment and still more prior to the synthetic moment, which I believe is the one in which the eclosion of the phenomenon as a social, collective phenomenon will be produced.
That is, we are at the moment of the flowering of varied things, far before one reaches a new form for the old cinema, although, however, we do not know what it is.
Yes. I believe that the virtue and the risks of this moment is that it is an anticipatory moment. And before any moment at which the new presents itself in some form, is perceived intuitively, the human spirit has various attitudes, but there are two fundamental ones: the first is to dare, to throw oneself into a double somersault without a net in the void… and to fly. Then, anything can happen. The second is to go backwards.
And what is, in this case, to go backwards?
To carry on talking about cinema.
But do we run that risk?
Yes, of course. Not only do we run it, but today we still practice it concretely.
In ZA 2005, was the concern to show a bit of this possibility of collages, of syncretism, in Latin America? What is the relation between the film and everything that you see as a panorama of contemporary imagery?
There are two questions in one. The first answer is: in this film, I am looking for what I want in all of them, but a bit more, because I try to embrace a historical period by facing some sequences of the founding films of the Latin American cinema and films from theses produced by the students of the school [in Cuba] in these 20 years. So, that gives me a reason for putting some before the others, like mirrors, firstly to see whether one production reflects another, or whether, on the contrary, they do not look at each other, they repulse each other, they break up entirely, or, the last alternative, they turn their backs on each other with indifference and, instead of mirrors, they are simply surfaces of glass and mercury that do not reflect anything. That is the concern of the film, a verification of something that one tries to understand. And let each one take up his position, draw his own conclusions. In this sense, the film does not have the pretension of imposing anything, it tries to propose. The second question: what does this film have to do with what we were talking about before? A lot, everything. Because, by doing this kind of balance, in some way we are also closing a window and opening a door, which means to say, that is from one way we are going to another. Cultural cycles begin and reach their conclusion, they end. I consider that, in this sense, the film also fosters this kind of concern that I have at the moment, and, as I say in the beginning, it is a question of sharing all this with a sort of didactic and collective mega-clip, to try to understand something – look, not to teach, but to try to learn something, collectively. As nothing is born of nothing, the part by Zavattini was much present, not in sequences, but the name and the spirit. Also very present is another Italian director who in the last few years of his life worked a lot in this direction, who was Rossellini. The great director of Rome, Open City and Paisan, of fine films, in the last few years of his life dedicated himself to television (1970), making films one hour long each, like Socrate [Socrates], Atti degli apostolic [Acts of the Apostles], like La Prise de Pouvoir par Louis XIV [The Rise of Louis XIV]. They were films of one hour, very simple, intended to disseminate the life, the paradigm, the point of reference into which great personages of humanity constituted themselves. And very open, not very academic in their way of telling the story.
With all the repression that cultural expressions have suffered in Latin America, how is it possible to see this new thing, in the ambit of image, emerging with such vigor? What are the roots of this strength?
It’s a question that is very difficult and very easy at the same time. Very difficult, if we apply a close-up. But if I take it with a telephoto lens, it becomes a bit easier, or at least more gratifying to answer it, because like that I am talking about 500 years of history and a bit more before that. So, seeing Latin America in this inverted perspective, shall we call it that, it becomes easier to understand that in these 500 and so years of history, including the pre-Columbian phase, of an impressive wealth, this continent shows itself to be physiologically destined to be what it is being, that is, to do the chemistry once again. Because that is what it is.
How did your experience of teaching in the area of cinema begin?
It began precisely because I wanted to learn to do cinema in Argentina, back around the 1950’s, and there was nowhere to do it. So, the only possible way was to go to a studio, work with someone who was making films, and learning in practice, by the side of this person. But when I tried to do this in Buenos Aires, by all means, possible and impossible – I even offered to work sweeping the studio floor –, I didn’t succeed. That didn’t work, it wasn’t usual.
Were there cinema studies in Buenos Aires?
Of course, several important studios. Argentina Sonofilm, San Miguel, Lumiton, which were part of the traditional industry, were there. Reflecting on this afterwards, I realized that all things that will have a destiny are born from a lack. Fire, for example, was born of darkness. Afterwards, well, it served for cooking as well, but it was born of the need to overcome the darkness. So the human being, faced by a lack, invents things, with its imaginative capacity. So, I didn’t manage to study in Argentina, and that moment coincided with a very tense political situation…
It was the first period of Peronism.
Yes, a very difficult moment for me, but I’m not talking specifically about Peronism, I’m talking about the situation of the cinema during Peronism. The first is a far more complex political concept, and I would have to express it in another way. I’m referring specifically to the cinema and to the need that a person had, an anonymous lad, without any experience, to learn to do cinema in that country.
Were you in any way already familiar with the cinema? How did your interest arise?
You see, I came from a family of artists, my uncles, everybody, was in some way connected with art, music, painting… My father was a professor of political and social sciences, but this actually was a career that befell him and suffocated his true vocation, which was painting. I grew up in that environment, and the cinema was a bit of a substitute from my childhood, of the activity that dominated my life, which was a puppet theater. Afterwards I would write poetry, I have painted since being a boy. I also began a lawyer’s career, but that created a terrible problem for me, a crisis, in the end I sent that career to hell. Do you know that when the devil presented himself to Luther, he threw the bible at him for him to read? In my case, I didn’t do it with the bible, but with a tome with a red cover. Political economics, by Gide, a French economist. At the height of my crisis, I would read, read and read, and I didn’t understand a word, so I threw it against the wall, like Luther against the devil, and I decided then that I was not going to be a lawyer, but a cinema director.
How many years old were you then?
I little less than 20, I think, 17 years old. Well, I had already founded the first experimental theater of the National Littoral University, in Santa Fé, I had also already founded the Santa Fé cine club, I mean, I already had a link with the cinema, there was already an inclination, but…
So the world lost a lawyer…
It was luck… (reciprocal)
Buenos Aires didn’t accept you…
No, it was the cinema in Buenos Aires that didn’t accept me. The city was fascinating, I found a lot of people, friends, there were Ernesto Sabato, Xul Solar, Mario Trejo, and others, lots of people, in all, a very agreeable climate, and I also worked as an actor in a surrealist work by García Lorca, which was called When Five Years Pass. But with the cinema this difficulty arose, and besides that, all this coincided with a very important historical phenomenon, which was Italian neorealism. We were in the years when the first Italian films were arriving in Argentina, in fact, I’ll tell you, there was a cinematographic culture in Argentina… For example, [Sergei] Eisenstein I knew more for having read him than for seeing him, because The Film Sense, a determinant book, had been translated from the Russian, and that plus Italian realism were the great impulses for me to follow on. So I decided to go to Italy, and it was a first exile, let’s call it that.
The exile of the 1950’s.
Precisely. I left, eager to experiment cinematography, and I studied at the Experimental Center at a moment when other students from Latin America were now arriving, attracted by neorealism, the first two were yours truly and a fellow countryman whom I like very much, Rudá de Andrade, an adorable person.
Who were your teachers in Rome?
At that moment there were fixed teachers at the Center, such as the critic Mario Verdone, for example, a great historian of the Italian cinema, but on the other hand great directors like Vittorio de Sica, Luchino Visconti, or even Roberto Rossellini came to give us a lesson… Renoir, as well… It was very serious teaching, with much education.
And so the two youngsters from Latin America received their education in cinema from the great Italian masters.
Precisely. And afterwards other Latin Americans came, Garcia Márquez came, Tomás Gutiérrez Aléa, from Cuba, came, even Glauber Rocha passed through the Experimental Center, and so many more folks… Tarik Souki, from Venezuela, Julio Garcia Espinosa, also from Cuba… a large number of companions.
And for how long did you end up staying in this period in Rome?
I finished my studies at the Experimental Center, which were two years, I graduated, and at the same time I began to work in the Italian cinema, at various things. I worked as an actor, in the first film of Francesco Maselli, Gli sbandati, with Lucia Bose and other people, afterwards I worked as director’s assistant for Carlo Lizzani, a great filmmaker who afterwards was also a director of the Festival of Venice, I worked as assistant to Vittorio de Sica and to Cesare Zavattini, in the film Il tetto. Zavattini was my great friend, he was the person with whom I had the most serious and deepest dialog, and the most determinant for my future career, because he was a volcano, in a permanent eruption of ideas, a great innovator, a precursor of many things, of what was afterwards to be the new cinema, the free cinema, the democratic cinema, the democratic video of which there is so much talk now. He was the first man to have launched the famous cinegiornali liberi, the free cine journals, which were like the newsreels, but absolutely anti-official, against the rhetoric of the official culture, very provocative, in those strongest, most flourishing and productive days of neorealism. To Zavattini, and precisely for that, I dedicate ZA 2005. Lo viejo y lo nuevo, a didactic and collective mega-clip, in homage to the 20 years of the EICTV, which are being completed now.
And, after all, how many years did you spend in this time of Italian studies and works?
I stayed until 1955, so I spent six years, counting from 1950. And afterwards I went back, because it seemed that Argentina was going to take another direction, there was an interest in my experience, and I believed that I now knew how to make a film. I had already done several documentaries, I’d done Immagini popolari siciliane, Selinunte, Alfabeto notturno, I had also worked as an assistant in several fiction films. Accordingly, I decided that the moment had come to go back to Argentina, I came back already with a project for a film, which was Los Inundados [Flooded Out], and had already read, matured and written a sort of first treatment.
You effectively made this film.
Yes, it was my first fiction film, full length. But not even then did I find the possibility of the cinematographic industry being interested in making it in Buenos Aires, so I decided to burn my boats, break with everything that was an institution, the official apparatchik, and I went back to Santa Fé to start from scratch. Then I did a seminar where I had almost a hundred pupils who had never done cinema. There were all sorts: housewives, painters, firemen, university students… We filled a room, and then we did practically the first photo-documentaries, which was the simplest way of doing a film project, with photos and with papers, with epigraphs, going out to talk to people, to ask about their problems, their aspirations, their angers, their desires, their hopes, their dreams… and at the end, after two years of work, we had now organized ourselves as a group in the university, though a Sociology Institute that was very progressive. Tire Dié was practically born then, the first encuesta, the first social research to be filmed in Latin America. It is a very polemic film, which divided Argentina into pro and contra, had enormous detractors, and a lot of people that supported it. It has to do directly with the theme you are asking me about, teaching. Why? First, because there is a paradox, given that I go to Argentina to make a fiction film, and, faced by the impossibility of making it, I go back to square one and do a documentary as a sort of field exploration, which afterwards is going to be translated into the base for a fiction film that I make later on, Los inundados. So, between Tire Dié – which begins to be made in 1955, which was worked on throughout the whole of 1956, plus 1957, and has the first copy ready in 1958 – and Los inundados, there is a total family look, shall we say. But now comes what is directly bound up with something we are talking about: which is that Tire Dié is a film-school. It’s my way to making a school. I have known for ages that you learn cinema by doing cinema. Theoretical speculations are fundamental and indispensable, to the extent that they have their counterpart in praxis. Theory and practice go hand in hand, and then you come up against a formula, which is more or less even the European one, in which theory was much privileged. I do it a bit the other way round: I set off from a praxis, and in it I analyze the theory on which I sustain it. That is what happens with Tire Dié, that it is why a film-school, a film made for the almost a hundred people that are making it to learn now to do cinema. Let them do cinema for the first time in his life. For that reason, besides being a film-school, it is also a collective film. And that is another of my set ideas, of my obsessions – the cinema as collective art.
But you are the director. How is the film, if it is your work, a collective work?
It’s because I was never a director in the traditional sense of the world.
Have you never had an author’s viewpoint?
Yes, of course, the author of all my films is collective, we are all directors. And what I do about them all, and in this sense Tire Dié was determinant, is a function of a stimulus, like a person who provokes, arouses… Yes, an author’s viewpoint, but not authoritarian.
Are the roots of this approach, of this way of yours of doing things, being planted in your case in a Marxist upbringing?
Yes, one part of the things, but not just that. Because I’m a Marxist, but I’m also Tantric, I’m Zen, I repulse the little labels, because I am cronopio, I am fame… But it is true that there are Marxist roots, this conception sets off from a communitarian view of life, or of life as a community and utopian project, two concepts that have animated the whole of my work, and I hope to be able to tirar la pata, as they say, or to breathe my last breath (viva Buñuel!) living within this that I am saying.
Is it good to think of life as a communitarian and utopian project?
If it weren’t like that, what fun would it be? I would not have enjoyed myself (and suffered) as I have done so much in this life, with all the dramas and tragedies in which I have taken part and was a party, and I go on participating and sharing, at the same time knowing that it is definitively this that gives a sense to things, at least it seems to be like that.
How long did the Santa Fé experience last?
For me, it lasted until 1963, more or less, a little before, perhaps, beginning of the 1960’s, shall we say. Because then the political situation got very ugly again in Argentina, the fascist and dictatorial virus once again impregnated the whole of Argentinean society. There was a more or less democratic period of President Arturo Frondisi, but the military pulled on their loathsome boots again, trampled on everyone again and did away with everything. And then, to preserve a bit the school whose official name was the Cinematography Institute of the National Littoral University, but that passed into history as the Santa Fé Documentary School, I decided that there was no other option for me but to go away…
Have all the documentaries that were made when you headed up the Santa Fé school been preserved?
Some have, others not. And at the end, now in the harshest time of the dictatorship, in the 1970’s, they ended up closing the school. They closed it, and the military took the things, the cameras, the moviolas… they arrived on one night with two big trucks, with two canvas tops, tarpaulins, they put everything inside and the school disappeared. But all this is not a tragic story, rather the contrary, because the school now exists again. Three or four years ago it was reopened, and it even has an officially recognized status, it’s called the Audiovisual Media Institute. And a new school is going to be inaugurated in the country, at San Martin University, in the province of Buenos Aires. It’s a very new, advanced and progressive university, which is founding a documentary cinema school.
So then you started again at the beginning of the 60’s. This time, where to?
To the only place where I thought that in some way could have doors and windows open. I spoke to a friend in São Paulo, I told him we were in an unsustainable situation, we had to leave Argentina, and I wanted to know whether there was any possibility of our coming to Brazil. And then this friend, who was dear Vlado [Vladimir Herzog], simply said to me “come, we’re waiting”. It was 1963, and Brazil was experiencing an incredible democratic opening. Argentina… well, in a few words, we left the school behind, we were four companions, men and women: Edgardo Pallero, his companion Dolly Pussi, Manuel Horácio Gimenez and my companion Carmen. In São Paulo, they organized a talk for us at the cinematheque, where Paulo Emílio [Salles Gomes] was. It’s Rudá de Andrade who organizes it, and together with him is Vlado, and Sérgio Muniz as well, there’s the whole gang with which, when the talk ends on that same night, we all go out with a single enthusiasm, saying that you have to make films, and so on and so forth – we had shown Tire Dié and other documentaries from the school – and then a gentleman draw close, still young, although a little bit older than us, and says ‘that’s good… I have a photography shop that has equipment”… and this gentleman…
Yes, the great Thomaz Farkas! The São Paulo documentary movement is born then. Thomaz decides to go ahead with this company, takes it on economically, and produces the documentaries. We stay a few months more, then we go to Rio, because I had already been preparing a project with Ferreira Gullar, which was João Boa Morte. I work with him, and then that incredible things is produced, when the land is given to the peasants. These were also the months of the debut of Vidas secas and Deus e o diabo na terra do sol [Black God, White Devil].
Our two masterpieces…
Yes. There is all of a fine effervescence, a unique moment. I remember the commemoration of what ought to have been the beginning of the end of the plantation. The peasants would keep filling the square, they would arrive with their tractors, sickles, sheaves of wheat – it made me think of La tierra [Earth], by Dovzhenko, from the beginnings of Soviet cinematography – something incredible, impressive… It was the beginning of an era, and precisely for that, one week afterwards it is truncated, then comes the countercoup, and for which my Brazilian companies themselves advise me to leave Brazil, we are a complication too for them, because already at this moment there is no more guarantee of security for anyone. So, I have to go away again.
We are in 1964, and you go back to Italy.
First, I pass through Cuba, and there too I can do nothing, because the country’s cinematography is at an economically very difficult moment. So I go to Italy, and there begins a period that in a way continues to this moment when I am talking to. It was a painfully frustrating period at the beginning, very active later, in which I have to become a citizen of the world. And there is a very heart-rending phrase from an Argentinean filmmaker, who was killed by the dictatorship in Paris, Jorge Cedrón, which since then has come to be my motto: “My country is my shoes”. Life obliged me to that, so I accept it, I accept it well, and with dreams for the future. Period and enough.
When you returned to Italy, did you go back to work with the directors of neorealism?
No, my body went back to Italy, but my soul did not go back. My soul went on I don’t know where, and a very hard period began, that some call ‘internal exile’… Well, it may be, external exile, internal exile, everything is a great absence, and, in exchange, I evoke it in a film that took me ten years of work, which is called Org. It’s an invented name (the etymological root of which is in the word orgasm), and it is a film that I dedicate Che Guevara, to Méliès, the filmmaker of La Voyage dans le Lune [A Trip to the Moon], and to Wilhelm Reich, the author of the sexual revolution. Because I believe that they are three emblematic figures who remain from the end of the 60’s, when man reaches the moon, in 1969, and before, in 1967, when the death of Che is produced, and when the political situation explodes, in 1968, in France in May, in the project for a new world and a world that transforms itself. The film deals with all of this, and it is also a manifest “for a cosmic, delirious and lumpen cinema”. It’s an absolutely demential film, but which translates the Utopias (positive) and Dystopias (negative) of this moment of unique dementia. In a way, it is a film that participates in the tensions of Glauber’s A Idade da Terra [The Age of the Earth].They are two brother films.
This time, until when did you stay in Italy?
Until I finished Org, and I went back to Latin America by Venezuela. In the north of Mexico, in Mérida, there was a cinema department of old companions of mine from Rome. The director was Tarik Souki. We met up again, and he took me to the University of the Andes, in Mérida, where, at the beginning of the 80’s, I founded another school, the Traveling Cinematographic Poetics Laboratory. It was something very simple, which we used to say was done making cinema, reading and thinking cinema. I worked several years there, and in 1983 finished my Rafael Alberti, un retrato del poeta [Rafael Alberti, a Portrait of the Poet] by Fernando Birri, and after several years of work I went back to Italy, and from there to Nicaragua and Cuba.
Why were you a traveler?
Because I was on top of my shoes. The laboratory would go where I went, that was the idea. I’ve been in many parts of the world. From Sweden to Angola and Mozambique, passing through Germany, and of course I have traveled within Latin America, in Nicaragua, Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina… half the world and a little bit more. It was a way of going right away disseminating, to go on planting the seeds of the new Latin American cinema.
Could you give a brief summary of the foundation of the school in Cuba?
I would almost tell you that it was born, in 1986, in a logical consequence of the movement of the Latin American cinema, as a project of the Foundation of the New Latin American Cinema, formed by all of us, including many Brazilians, like Cosme Alves Neto, determinant in this process, Geraldo Sarno, Silvio Tendler, now Wolney Oliveira as well, so many companions…. It is an absolutely autonomous, original project, because it recognizes all the experiences, but doesn’t want to imitate any model. When I was charged with preparing it, amongst other people I called to collaborate were Sérgio Muniz and Orlando Senna, afterwards my successor at the school. He introduces the concept of docfic, an esthetic tendency where in some way the old arteriosclerotic forms of fiction are surpassed, on the one hand, and of the documentary on the other. But, when I arrived in Cuba, I saw that García Márquez was already there and had already confabulated with Espinosa, then president of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) and with Fidel Castro. The idea was to put me in charge of the management – more than the management, it was really the foundation of the cinema school. I imagined the great work that we were going to have to do, which was going to mean not doing anything dejá vu. But the work would be collective. We summoned companions from all the countries of Latin America. Sérgio Muniz came as the teaching director, Tarik Souki as production director, Orlando Senna, as professor of the direction staff. And, to begin with, the real name would be School of the Three Worlds: Latin America and Caribbean, Asia and Africa, to contrast with the idea of a Third World, a denomination that I have always abominated, because it seem to me unworthy… but that has remained like a surname. Well, the school was born with very specific and very innovative parameters. Today, it has a great and just international prestige, it keeps a connection between practice and theory, the pupils film like crazy, there’s not a day or a time when they are not involved with cameras and recorders… But I believe that it is time to expand the area of the electronic technologies.
And so we come back to the beginning of our interview. Looking at the future.
Precisely. And that is the sense of the thing: to stimulate an imagery and an imagination that in some way anticipates the future. If the audiovisual, the old cinema, no longer serve for anything, if they are obsolete, if they mean dreaming the old dreams, every night we need to close our eyes to dream the new dreams.