Self-Portrait of an Exquisite Corpus: An Interview with João Pedro Rodrigues (Part Two)
This is the second part of an interview I conducted recently with the Portuguese filmmaker, João Pedro Rodrigues. In the first part, Rodrigues spoke about the process of creating his short film, “The King’s Body” (2012). In this part, he discusses his most recent work, “Where Do You Stand Now, João Pedro Rodrigues?” (2017) a film commissioned by the Centre Georges Pompidou for a 2016 retrospective of the director’s work. This short film offers a poetic summation of a vibrant career to date, and might serve as an introduction to a filmmaker frequently driven by the pull of reinvention.
Your most recent film, “Where Do You Stand Now, João Pedro Rodrigues?” plays with the conventions of appearance, and more particularly with the conventions of how we look at ourselves.
The idea with the film was to make a self-portrait of sorts. I think it’s hard to talk about yourself, but I had this basic idea that in this self-portrait I had to show myself in a way. But I also played with this idea that usually a self-portrait is of a face — that’s the tradition in painting. A painter like Rembrandt made self-portraits throughout his life: you see him when he was young, and then you see him when he was very old. Some painters inserted themselves in their paintings like Hitchcock, when he put himself in his films, like a series of small self-portraits, showing how he looks. But I thought of it as a playful idea: that I’m not going to show my face, or that I’ll just show my face reflected. What I wanted to show was something less modest, something that you usually don’t show when you show yourself — my naked body. And I thought I had to start with that, and then go in another direction. I also wanted it to convey this idea of playfulness. It’s something that’s very important to me when I make films, sharing something of myself having a good time making them.
It’s interesting to see you here because we see you in some of your other films as an actor, but this is quite a different way of seeing you now. The film begins with those naked reflected images of you that were captured recently, but there’s also some candid footage of you from 20 years ago at the Venice Film Festival.
When I shot that footage, I didn’t think I was going to use it. I shot it more like a record: it was something that I did when I started making films, and then I totally put it away. I usually had a small camera back then, but today I don’t even take photos, or at least not many photos. Perhaps it’s a reaction against this current obsession people have with constantly taking photographs. When they asked me to do this film, I went back to those tapes to see what was in there. And I discovered all these images that portrayed the moments when I presented films: when I showed my first short (“Parabéns!”, 1997) and my first feature (O Fantasma, 2000) in Venice. I didn’t even remember that I had those images, but I decided to use them in this film.
The first shots of me naked were filmed at Le Fresnoy, where I was teaching at the time. That was the room where I lived, that had that spiral staircase. When I started the film in 2015, I was also editing The Ornithologist (2016), teaching, and working in post-production at the same time. So, I think of this self-portrait as an appendix to The Ornithologist. I also like this idea that my films in a way, even in a hidden way, talk about myself at the time I made them. Because I think my films would have been different if I had made my first feature O Fantasma now; I’m sure it would have been different than when I made it 20 years ago. That’s also perhaps why my films are so different from one another. They are always personal, but not autobiographical. If they are mine, they reflect how I lived in the world at the time I made them.
They are personal to a version of you at a certain point in history, not necessarily the same “you” as exists now, but at least there is a past version of yourself that is in those films. Did you go back and watch your films when you were making this short self-portrait?
No, that’s something that I don’t generally do. I cannot forget them, because I made them, and I’ve watched them so many times, and remember them very accurately. But my idea is always to forget them in order to pass on to the next film. In a way, I have to kill each film to be able to make a new one. I have to put them away. I don’t get a particular pleasure seeing them. Not that I regret them; but there are so many films in the world. I’ve seen mine so many times, why would I keep on seeing them? I think you have to detach yourself from your own work.
All of us will die, and I hope the films will stay in some way. I’m not so important. If you think of painters or writers who lived many years ago, there wasn’t nearly as much written at the time about the people who made great work. Now you can read their work or see their paintings: these are the important things, not the author or the painter who made the works.
I wonder if you could say something about the paintings in the film, which have a close connection to The Ornithologist?
I’m always thinking about posters. There was a point when The Ornithologist was selected for the Locarno Festival, and I had met a very young painter called João Gabriel, whose paintings and energy I liked a lot. He’s a very obsessive guy, just as I can be very obsessive. I like this idea of someone who works, works, works until they get something. I showed him the film, and I asked him to make a painting, with the idea of making a poster out of it. He made several paintings, and we ended up choosing one, but the others that he made I used in the self-portrait.
In a way, The Ornithologist was also an approach to what a self-portrait could be, because I appear in this film too. So it made sense to go back to those paintings, and put them in this small film where I was trying to portray myself. This idea: where do I see myself? I see myself in many places, not just in my face, but in these paintings, too.
And in your voice, too, perhaps? In the film, we hear you reading texts by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry David Thoreau, with which you seem to have a close connection — there are also shots of their graves in the film.
Yes, of course. I was living in the U.S., in Cambridge, Massachusetts at the time: I was a Radcliffe Fellow at Harvard University in 2014–2015, in between shoots for The Ornithologist. I had shot the film’s animal images first — the birds — and then I shot the actors the following summer, and in between I was at Harvard, working on the script and rewriting it. I had read Walden a long time ago, and Walden Pond is nearby, and I went there several times and re-read the book. Hawthorne also lived in that area, so I went back to those authors.
I had also shot some images with a Super 8 camera. Once when there was a snowfall, I went to Concord, to Walden Pond, and to the cemetery where Thoreau and Hawthorne are buried. And it’s impressive because they are buried one in front of the other. I went back to those images I had shot then — I didn’t know what to do with them, but it all made sense: The Ornithologist, Thoreau, nature. I had also shot the butterflies that appear in the film in Mexico when I was there for FICUNAM. And I had this idea of a very tiny figure that makes a huge voyage, the migration of these butterflies.
These real butterflies have an interesting connection to the artificial ones that appear in the film, which you take from your noir short, “Mahjong” (2013).
Yes, and in that way, China is in the film, too, because it contains these artificial butterflies invented by the Chinese. We were filming “Mahjong” in the Chinatown in Vila do Conde, and discovered these butterflies that we thought were ingenious but strange, funny, amusing. They’re these strange things that apparently have no purpose. And so there are these parallels in the film of artificiality and reality. Also, the butterfly is an insect that is known to change: it changes from larvae into this beautiful creature that flies. So, this idea of metamorphosis is there, which is also something that is present in my films.
So, how is your own work metamorphosing now? The Pompidou commission asks filmmakers to portray their past body of work, to give a sense of where they are now, and where they will be in the future. At what we might reductively call your “mid-career” point, do you have an idea about the next direction your work will take?
I don’t like to see my body of work as a whole; I think each film is different. But there are connections, of course: while my first feature was about a lonely garbage collector, and it focused on one actor, The Ornithologist is also about a lonely figure and his adventures in nature. I think there is a cycle that’s been more or less closed now, from O Fantasma to The Ornithologist, which both concentrate on one figure, one actor.
At the moment, I’m working on another film connected with more recent Portuguese history. We Portuguese have trouble looking back on our recent past. There have been a lot of examples in different artistic disciplines about the [Carnation] Revolution we had in 1974, about that very dark period of dictatorship. Portugal was very closed, very much apart from Europe, a very poor country; and then it suddenly changed. But what I’m interested in is reflecting on how these changes were not really changes, that everything remained the same. There was this new freedom but at the same time, in many ways, Portugal remained very conservative.
The film that João Rui (Guerra da Mata) and I are writing now will be set in that time. It’s a period film about a teenager who is living through those changes that Portugal was undergoing. So he’s living through his own changes alongside the country’s changes. It’s an interesting period to go back to, because it’s still very recent. But while people more often think about the right side of the revolution, they don’t think deeply about how many things are only changing just now.
I wonder if there’s already some sense of that period in your films about Macao, about Portugal’s relationship to its colonies, and how that changed after the fall of the Salazar regime?
Yes, perhaps, but more so in relation to Africa. If you think about the Revolution of the 25th of April, it’s mainly because there was war in the African colonies, in Angola and Mozambique. You cannot forget that the revolution was led by the military; it was people that didn’t want to go to war in the colonies. It was a revolution in which very few people died, but then, as any revolution is, it was idealized. In the period following the revolution, Portugal was in turmoil for almost two years, veering to the left, and then back to the right.
There was a time when people — especially the Communist Party — saw that Portugal could have a regime similar to what we saw in the USSR, which we knew already was not such a good idea… When the Berlin Wall fell, people here in Portugal were regretting that it happened. Even nowadays, some orthodox communists still regret that the Wall fell, saying that “back then it was much nicer.” There are remnants of conservatism even amongst people who were supposedly “progressive.” Sometimes it’s very striking how things didn’t change. The mentality remains the same.
Is there a working title for this new film?
It’s called O Sorriso de Afonso (Afonso’s Smile). Afonso is the name of the main character of the film.
It’s not another reference to Dom Afonso?
There’s something playful with that, too. I made “O Corpo de Afonso” (“The King’s Body,” 2012, and now I’m dealing with his smile. It’s something deeper. It’s not the same character, of course. But I like the idea that he has the same name.
João Pedro Rodrigues’ “The King’s Body” and “Where Do You Stand Now, João Pedro Rodrigues?” are now available to stream on Kinoscope.