João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata
Since 2011, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata have built upon their long-time collaboration as writer-director and art director, respectively, with a series of projects exploring the relationship between Eastern and Western culture, most notably in their Maya End of Days noir-essay The Last Time I Saw Macao (12). Their latest short, IEC Long, shot in and around a fireworks plant in Macao, is another highly personal look at the evolving legacy of colonialism in Asia and the 20th century’s legacy of altered landscapes, both material and intellectual, viewed by the light of our current era’s fetishistic anxiety surrounding moments of catastrophe, be they real or perceived.
These shorts and features are somewhat serene works, with scenes and characters that reappear with slight differences in each film, connected with a current of wry conceptual humor that could be called hopeful. In a sense, the best exhibition space for these “Asian films,” as Rodrigues and da Mata refer to them, would be a large gallery room in which each would play on a loop, both side by side and across from each other, producing multiple echoes and possible view points, and producing a wonder peculiar to travelers.
This summer, Rodrigues is shooting his next feature, The Ornithologist, in Portugal. FILM COMMENT talked with Rodrigues and Guerra da Mata at the Film Society of Lincoln Center about the common strands running through their shorts and features, just before the U.S. premiere of IEC Long in Art of the Real.
Even though it does seem like you’re in a new period with these “Asian films,” these are still city films to a large degree.
João Pedro Rodrigues: I think my films are always in between the city and the countryside, or they’re in this border zone, because they also talk a lot about metamorphosis, how a city becomes the countryside or how the countryside becomes scenery. And in To Die Like A Man, when Tonia and her lover decide to go to the countryside, in a way it’s to escape the city or to get away from the city, because she can’t stand all the tensions within herself anymore. I also felt that I had to leave the city where I always imagine my stories taking place. Because for me, many fictional ideas come out of locations, and perhaps this is why we called these films that we have been doing in Macao and in China our “Asian films.”
Macao was a place where João Rui had lived as a child with his family. The circumstances in which they left Macao are connected to our own Portuguese history and his personal life. And so this film is a return to where he lived as a child, and it’s also a reflection on his own memories and then by a kind of osmosis into my own memories, because João Rui told me many stories about Macao. Most of those stories and most of his memories are the memories of a little child, and as you know, throughout your life, you reimagine and you rethink all these memories and they become fictions. And I myself had a vision of what Macao was, because it was a Portuguese colony, basically through films that were set there, were made there. You learn about Macao when you’re in school because Macao was Portugal’s last colony, and the handover back to China was even after Hong Kong in 1999.
The IEC Long Firecracker Factory was already somewhere we had shot when we were making The Last Time I Saw Macao—the second scene of the film is set there.
João Rui, when you were working on the voiceover for The Last Time I Saw Macao, how did the writing process evolve? The voiceover draws on your actual memories, there’s this fictional version of you, and then there’s this apocalyptic scenario.
João Rui Guerra da Mata: The Last Time I Saw Macao started as a documentary. We applied for some money, and we got money for a documentary, which is a very small amount of money compared to the amount we can get for a feature film. So we decided that we would get a very small crew—five people on a good day, including translators—and we went to Macao. I still think that the first time we were there, we were thinking about doing a documentary on memory, my memory as someone who had lived there 30 years ago and hadn’t been back. As João Pedro was saying, a fictionalized version of the period I spent there. The memory of Macao from someone who had never been there, but who had heard about Macao from Portuguese history, films, classic cinema, like von Sternberg’s Macao, for example, though it’s a fiction. I’ve known João Pedro for twenty-something years and that is something I’ve always talked about. Those years that I lived in Macao did influence the way I am, this attraction I have for Asia. Every time I travel, I always want to see that place’s Chinatown, how that place is compared to other places’ Chinatowns all around the world. But João Pedro had never been to Asia himself.
We were basically shooting the places I remember. And, again, this goes back to what João Pedro was saying about how important places are in his cinema and how from places come stories, fiction. But from precise places. So there we were, shooting my school, my house, my memories, and then suddenly, we understood that we didn’t want to do that. I don’t know exactly when the “click” happened. We were shooting places that I remember, and then we were imagining fictions in those places.
JPR: Or those places were telling us stories.
The Last Time I Saw Macao
JRDM: Right. Then we went back to Portugal. The way we were shooting was so free—altogether we have almost 200 hours of Macao. We would go back to Portugal and we would catalog all the images we had. So with trees, for example, we would catalogue everything with trees—trees at night, trees during the day, trees with birds, trees without birds. And while watching them, we started thinking about possible stories if you start connecting images. We then went back to Macao, already writing a script based on our first impressions of the images we watched in Portugal. Back to Portugal: we continue to catalog all the images and by then we had the script. Back to Macao: we shot things we needed for our story and then back to Portugal—so we went to Macao three times. While in Portugal during the editing process, we understood we needed some extra things that were missing, to make links and create characters. So we took the liberty of shooting in Lisbon several things we show as being shot in Macao, although in the credits we tell all the places we shot—Macao, several places in China, and then Lisbon. So that was the process: editing, writing, writing and editing. The voiceover—well, we really didn’t have actors. João Pedro and I did play the actors. Sometimes it was me, the guy with the black gloves, and sometimes it was him.
JPR: I think you were always the guy with the black gloves. I was always the other guy.
JRDM: Well, it really doesn’t matter since you don’t see the face, just bodies and actions. Going back to film noir, we all know voiceover is the best way to tell a story without showing action. You can introduce and describe.
JRDM: And we really wanted to do that, go to the film noir idea, the B-movie idea, which also is a very economic way, because the budgets were small. We still think that The Last Time I Saw Macao is a documentary. But, as João Pedro often said, we wanted to be playful, so these ideas, that I can be a detective, or a guy who goes to help Candy, and I can be a character but a character with my own name, then we can take all these liberties with my real story entering the film with the fiction. And these dialogues that happen in the film when suddenly João Pedro is talking to me instead of to the character asking: “Isn’t that the place where you used to play?” With those things we felt that Last Time I Saw Macao needed that first idea about what memory is and, again, how you can fictionalize, even if you don’t want to, not consciously, at least how to do fictionalize your own memories.
And then there are a lot of coincidences. Because of Sternberg’s Macao, I was reading a Jane Russell biography and how she regretted the majority of the films she made and how she felt that she was being cast purely for her body. That was when we were shooting Red Dawn, our short about the market, and suddenly there was this idea about flesh in the markets and the flesh of a body in cinema. Then while we were shooting that film, we read in the Macao papers that Jane Russell had just died.
In the final shot of IEC, when you tilt up to the top of the building, there’s something in the presence of that building that seems apocalyptic or at least “of a new era”—suggesting some kind of an ending and a beginning. But it’s also very playful because you have these sparkling windows in the top right of frame—they’re like the firecrackers.
JPR: Oh, it’s absolutely true. That shot came very late in the editing. The idea to end up with these kids that just play pool outside in the street, there was this contradiction or complementarity about what was there then and what is there now, and we liked this idea. The last shot is uplifting, in every sense of the word, and [it evokes] this new skyscraper obsession that they have in Asia, you know, “Who has the tallest skyscraper?” So the fact that it also shines in the light—it’s like a light, it’s made out of light. We thought it would connect with the firecrackers in the beginning.
JRDM: We have the guy [in voiceover] talking about what happens and what happened behind those walls. It’s a precise place. Because during our research about firecrackers, we could find out how many men and women died, when they died, how they died, but we never found anything about kids. Then suddenly we found all these black-and-white photographs of kids working there. Even in Europe and I suppose in America until not too long ago, kids would help make money for their families, and this still happens in China and it’s also a part of their culture. But you have to think about how this was happening during the Portuguese administration. In a European administration, was it permitted or known that children were working, were there any laws? Because child labor was not legal.
JPR: But until very recently in Portugal, there were shoes being made in the north, at these small factories where a lot of children were working.
JRDM: But we couldn’t really find any numbers on how many children worked there, how it was.
JPR: Because it was illegal.
JRDM: Eventually. Because it became illegal. We were shooting at the factory and… not that the place is haunted…
JPR: It is haunted.
JRDM: Well, there are “ghosts,” but it’s not haunted. For us that place had so many memories, so many “ghosts,” that we really wanted to talk about those “ghosts.” That’s why all those pieces of classic Chinese poetry are so important. We wanted the last one to be, as it is: “Okay, enough about me, let’s talk about you.” And “you” is the future: the kids who can actually play pool [instead of working in a factory]; the future is a bright skyscraper, a huge one.
JPR: With all the contradictions that this suggests.
This approach reminds me very much of something out of Chris Marker or Borges. Especially when you talk about going to a place, brought there by memories, collecting footage, basically creating a library of reality, permutations of objects and places.
JRDM: It is a library of reality, you’re absolutely right.
JPR: I’m even reading his name right there [on the Amphitheater screen at the Film Society of Lincoln Center]. I think it’s impossible to make a film that’s dealing with memory and not think about Chris Marker.
But the intricacy with which these movies relate to one another gives them a deeper relationship with Marker than most documentaries that might be termed “Marker-esque” just because they experiment with memory and form.
JPR: Yes, because I hate having this [pre-]set idea. China China was a film we made that João Rui wrote in Portugal for me to direct. Red Dawn was the first of the “Asian films” really shot in Asia. It happened a little bit by chance because we were, João Rui especially, obsessed with that place, by that market. So we thought that perhaps we’d have a film just set there.
JRDM: João Pedro didn’t want to do it at first. He said we didn’t have enough material. And I knew that one day that market was going to disappear. It’s already the last market that deals with animals in this way in Macao. But before now all the markets were like that one.
JPR: There was an exhibition in Beijing last year, with Portuguese and Chinese artists.
JRDM: Called “Where is China?”
JPR: The curators asked us to show Red Dawn there in Beijing. We sent the film and the censors approved it, and the day the exhibit opened, or one hour before, they banned the film.
Did you learn why?
JRDM: Yeah, yeah we have a fax in Chinese, which is translated now.
JPR: It was “too strong” for Chinese audiences.
JRDM: The images were too shocking for Chinese audiences… and it’s about a Chinese market, in a Chinese territory. But I suppose the problem was that it’s called Red Dawn. And Red Dawn is such a Maoist, such a Cultural Revolution title that they thought we were trying to create a metaphor for… something.
They thought you had a political agenda.
JRDM: We were just so fascinated with the way they prepare the animals.
JPR: You can read it however you want, but our idea was to make a film that was a portrait of this market from when it opened until it closed.
JRDM: It’s called Red Dawn because it’s the Red Market and it opens at dawn—it’s as simple as that. It’s a catchy title. But it was banned an hour before the screening. The Portuguese president opened the exhibition and he didn’t react. But they were smart because the curators said: “Okay, we have a black room here, with the artists’ names on the wall and a black screen over here and if we’re not projecting anything, I’m sure people will ask questions. ‘What is this piece of art that is not happening?’” So the Chinese censor said: “I’m going to choose one frame from the film and we’ll project that frame.”
JPR: And that’s all they did.
JRDM: It was static and it was that shot of the old woman looking. That was it: “Red Dawn, João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata” with that single shot projected. And the Portuguese government didn’t react to the fact that two Portuguese artists had been censored.
That image seems unintentionally confrontational—there’s some kind of poetic justice in that image. It’s as if she’s looking back at the censor to say: “Our daily reality is not something that needs to be cordoned off or kept from us to watch.”
JPR: Yeah, it could be seen that like that. Unintentionally.
JRDM: Red Dawn happened as a bit of an accident. I was trying to tell João Pedro that we did have a film and then all these other coincidences happened. This film, IEC Long, went a bit the same way. It’s also about a place that is disappearing. Although now we know that they’re restoring it. But while we were making it, we had read in the papers that, as João Pedro was saying, it was going to be demolished to make yet another casino. It is an island in Macao; it’s one of the few remaining things there from the past. Not from the colonial past but from what Macao was before it became Las Vegas. Although it was always Las Vegas, if you think about it, because in von Sternberg’s film they call it the “Monte Carlo of the Far East.” Now they call it Las Vegas because Monte Carlo isn’t considered strong enough.
With Mahjong, your 2013 film, you have Macao actually “in” Portugal.
JRDM: Macao is more a place in our memory in the sense that. Let’s put it this way, Macao itself is a very “potentially fictional” place. Suddenly you have all these big Las Vegas–style casinos and the Venetian-style architecture. So first you had the replica of Venice in Las Vegas, and now you have a replica of a replica in Macao, where you have Asian gondoleros singing, and everything is so fictional.
JPR: There’s a lot of Hollywood in re-creating an exoticism with these sets. The film Macao was very important to us—it wasn’t shot in Macao, it was shot in Hollywood, with sets. It starts with an overture, an introduction to Macao with documentary shots of the real place. They created a fiction somewhere else with these re-created sets, this re-created place. And what we tried to do was re-create in our own minds this imaginary place, which is Macao for us. We did it with real images, which is the opposite of what Hollywood did.
JRDM: Yeah, I think what Hollywood did was use documentary images to bring credibility to a work of fiction. And we curated a fiction using documentary images.
JPR: Or with most of the images, because there are a lot of staged scenes.
JRDM: If you think about it, China now understands that what they had been demolishing since they opened up their economy—a lot of things related to Mao Zedong, for instance—that’s what the tourists want. So now they’re rebuilding them, things that were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but in the fashion they think that Westerners want to see it. And that’s a funny thing. The Chinese are creating things that actually never existed. If you think about chinoiserie, a very popular style in Europe during the 18th century and 19th century, this was porcelain that looked Chinese and was made in China but according to Western tastes. Fake Chinese items, made in China. Now they are doing the same thing even with their markets: they’re recreating what they think Western people want and it’s a total fiction. It’s incredible.