José Filipe Costa is a filmmaker and lecturer who holds a PhD in Cinema from the Royal College of Art, London.
His latest film, A Pleasure, Comrades (Prazer, Camaradas!), will screen at the 2019 Locarno Film Festival this month. Set in 1975 post-Carnation Revolution Portugal, the film follows a group of foreigners who come to help out in newly formed co-ops. But their progressive views on customs and sexuality soon clash with local mores.
Q: I understand ‘A Pleasure, Comrades!’ was born out of oral accounts and literary texts. Can you tell us about those resources and what drew you personally to them?
A: Those oral accounts and literary texts are very rich, as it condenses a lot of stories and impressions about a very important period of transformation in Portugal, in the sequence of the Carnation Revolution.
What fascinated me were the stories related to intimacy, habits, sexuality and the role of the men and women. Most of those stories were written by foreigners or Portuguese coming from the city to help out in cooperatives in the center of Portugal, an area called Ribatejo. And they all were struck by the differences between their style of lives and those who lived in rural areas. The Revolution was intended to change not only politically but also the daily life, the conceptions of love and wedding, family, etc.
Q: I admittedly know little about Portugal in 1975. For others who are similarly ignorant, can you give us a taste of the context of this film?
A: 1975 is known as the year of the on-going revolutionary process, after the Carnation revolution – a military coup by the Armed Forces Movement which ended 48 years of a dictatorship. Salazar, who was the prominent Prime Minister of this authoritarian regime, engaged in a colonial war with what they called the “Portuguese colonies” in Africa, such as Mozambique, Angola, Cape-Vert, and Guinea.
Portugal, which was also baptised as the Cuba of Europe, received a lot of foreigners to participate in a left-wing transformation, eager to see the Revolution happening in a little country of Europa. But, when they started to work side-by-side with rural workers in the cooperatives, some tensions aroused as well as love affairs.
My film gives an account of these encounters and confrontations and the foreigners’ strangeness of finding people who were only living part of the revolution and not changing habits – for example, the role of women in society.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you asked your actors to role play rather than re-enact. What is the distinction in this decision?
A: More than rigidly staging a given situation as if they were re-enacting those stories dressed in clothes from those days, I asked the actors to improvise and dramatize some situations, with their actual age. I didn’t want them to fake they were living in the past, but that they were dramatizing their memories, mixing it with the present. The idea was that they give life to these stories, improvising them, with the greatest freedom possible – as if they were embodying a theatre of memory in the present.
To achieve this, the essential part of the work with the actors took place before filming, with exercises of improvisation, readings and conversations. The right atmosphere for the construction of the scenes emerged during these earlier stages, in the prepping sessions.
Q: What implications did this decision have for the actors, yourself and the film?
A: There is an interesting freshness and freedom that comes from the language and gestures of the actors. We don’t mind showing the spectator that we are playing with memory and they can see that effort of actors remembering and having fun in being inbetween past and present. We don’t pretend to be in another time, the past, but rather challenge the viewer to play along with the film. This approach creates some funny and light moments, which are at the same time filled with questions and perplexities.
Q: Does this film relate – or say anything – about life in modern day Portugal?
A: Portugal has very high rates of domestic violence. At least sixteen women were murdered by their companions this year. The film gives context to understand this phenomenon and why Portugal is still fighting against a lot of prejudices related to women emancipation, homosexuality, etc.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from this film?
A: I hope audiences engage not only with the subject of the documentary. but also with its style. One of the purposes of the film is that audiences can empathise with the actors. who are very generous and genuine. It’s admirable how they are aware of this theater and how they play with the elements of documentary and fiction. I hope the pleasure I had working with these actors can define also the tone of the film and how it is received by its audience.
Q: What does it mean to you for ‘A Pleasure, Comrades!’ to screen at the Locarno Film Festival?
A: It’s a novelty to be at Locarno for the first time. It would be incredible to find someone in the audience in their 1960s or 1970s saying that she or he was part of this important movement of Europeans who came to Portugal in 1974/75. It already happened when I presented my last film, Red Line, in Germany. During the Q&A a lady told from the audience some interesting stories when she came to Portugal in ’75, to see the revolution happening.