Two Questions for Marta Mateus

An exchange done via email for MUBI in November 2020. — J.R.

Jonathan Rosenbaum: What were the personal (or autobiographical) aspects of your film Farpões Baldios (Barbs, Wastelands), and what were the less personal aspects?

Marta Mateus: In any art, everything’s autobiographical, isn’t it? This film is based, first, on the experience and history of the people I grew up with, on the stories they shared with me since my childhood. These stories are in their hands, their gazes, in what binds us together, perhaps also in our blood and in our dreams. Landscapes also participate in it: it’s the source, the roots, a matter of fertility, hope, grief, shadow, solitude, birth, rebirth, joy, struggle. Therefore, there is also collective experience, historical memory and the landscape has its marked wounds, just like us. Thousands of years of exploitation, of nature and of man by man. There was a very clear route to follow, for us all, but no need to be spoken. Filming was a form of communion, in search of our other selves and each other–maybe a ritual, not “recreation” or narration but action. It was a very long process but made in a state of emergency; we only became aware of some things afterwards. We made this film four years ago, but it seems to me that it comes from the future. 

Like many others, I ran through those fields and climbed the trees when I was a child. I was born in a house in the countryside without electricity. This was a reality for the vast majority of the people who raised me, who lived in conditions of extreme poverty, knocking on doors to ask for food, workers since childhood, especially in the fields. Many were unable to go to school to help their families, their childhoods were stolen from them. Portugal lived through 48 years of dictatorship and Alentejo was one of the poorest regions, with the highest crime rates. One of the crimes was destroying agricultural machinery because they threatened to replace manual labor and take their jobs, which were already scarce and seasonal, because just a single part of huge properties were cultivated. That is also why there was strong revolt, and the Agrarian Reform was an extraordinary collective movement in the following years of the Carnation Revolution, in 1974. Of course, established powers put an end to it.

I felt these stories in my bones. They came from their voices, timbres, and emotions, the calluses on their hands, their deep tenderness and solidarity, their hopeful eyes. You can’t find these narrators on Twitter, which isn’t a book of haikus. In this respect, the film is also my memory of their shared memories—so it’s second-hand.

Maria Catarina, who tells the story to the kids, is telling her own story and that of almost an entire generation in the Alentejo. It was with this intimate conscience of a real urge to recall and remember that history of these people that she became an actress, a spokesperson. She doesn’t know how to read or write but was willing to do the remarkable work of memorizing the text and facing a camera. To speak out and shake the ghosts. It’s a moral issue for her, because there are still many vestiges of these dark times, a need to transmit it to the youngsters. No one believed, with our history, that the extreme right would be reborn in Portugal and dominate the speech as it has today.

Most likely I’m inventing this, but before I saw any cinema, I had already discovered it at home, with my people and within this landscape. The rest is patient work and resistance, to find material for ideas, the spirit through the body, seeking a certain youth, breath,  suspension.”Realism as a state of mind”, also a work for mystery, miracles, maybe mystical things to happen. So every tree and every bird whistle is personal to us.

JR: When you say “resistance,” I think of Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet, because the way you film people and places sometimes reminds me of them. Did you regard them as guides–even though, unlike them, you aren’t working with literary texts? I also remember telling you after I first saw your film that it reminded me of Charles Laughton’s The Night of the Hunter–which in some ways suggests an expressionistic view of a child’s perceptions, practically the reverse of Straub-Huillet’s brute realism.

These two contradictory approaches seem to come together in an amazing shot where you follow a boy walking backwards down a path, then have him joined by a girl who enters from the foreground and walks forward, linking their arms together. This seems to embody your notion of the past coming from the future, and it also exemplifies for me “a work for mystery, miracles, maybe mystical things to happen”. But this is my reading and not necessarily yours. I’m very curious what sort of ideas and/or feelings might have led you to create such a startling and beautiful shot.

MM: I mean resisting death. Straub-Huillet films are of course very familiar and important. They guard a rigor of essential elements, words, concrete gestures… an infinite becoming. The writings of Vittorini and Pavese, from brother peoples of Alentejo, also echo hereI believe there’s no contradiction recalling Laughton’s film and there’s probably a thousand other encounters. Tales, legends hold the gravitas of life. A film is an offering, it belongs to the people who open and widen it. 

This shot came from Saint Anthony’s proverb: when you lose something, you must walk backwards to find it. We need the company of others in this solitary path. It seemed a good cinematic image to link times of history, generations, forces. Children are not yet resigned, but still devoted to astonishment, opening fields of possibility that we have blocked or forgotten. We owe them that confidence, to let them also be our guides. Sometimes they’re the ones who more clearly perceive the false prophets, the hunters in our night.

Adults try to stop them, when they realize they’ve lost track of the children, but something is out of their control, something prevents an interference. There is this paradox, between surrendering and breaking certain conventions. Life also conjures, reveals, the unpredictable and imponderable sometimes saves us. Nature helps, imposing its laws.

Before, the girl had escaped from a kitchen, to lead the boy to hear what she already knows. In our “civilized societies”, these women’s footsteps are still seen through prevailing paternalism, covered by patriarchy standards: we just reproduce “men’s work”. There are still burning witches…The world of cinema has strongly fueled violences. The film culminates in a “ceremony of transmission” which is also a healing moment, to clear the eyes: how can we look at history, ourselves as community, nature, as being part of it?… It’s not a preoccupation of capitalism to reveal its own failures. If we close ourselves off at home, allowing the spread of TV’s and Netflix’s hegemonic virus, global control, totalitarian coups, we’re digging our common catastrophe. Freedom is responsibility. Dream and joy are absolute rights. We must bear in mind that art has been a fundamental lung since the beginning of humanity.

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