Venice 2019: An Interview With ‘Babenco: Tell Me When I Die’ Director Bárbara Paz

“I have already lived my death and now all that is left is to make a film about it”. So said the filmmaker Héctor Babenco to Bárbara Paz when he realised he did not have much time left. She accepted the challenge to fulfil the last wish of her late partner: to be the main protagonist in his own death.

In this tender immersion into the life of one of the greatest filmmakers from South America, Babenco himself consciously bares his soul in intimate and painful situations. He expresses fears and anxieties, and also memories, reflections, and fantasies, in this face-off between his intellectual vigour and physical frailty, which were the hallmarks of his career.

From the onset of cancer at the age of 38 until his death at 70, Babenco made of the cinema his medicine and the nourishment that kept him alive. Babenco: Tell Me When I Die (Babenco – Alguém tem que ouvir o coração e dizer: Parou) is Bárbara Paz’s first feature film, but is also in a way Hector’s last work: a film about filming so never to die.

Ahead of the film’s showing at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival, Close-up Culture’s James Prestridge spoke to director Bárbara Paz about her documentary and the life of Héctor Babenco.

Q: Before his passing, Héctor said: ‘I have already lived my death and now all that is left is to make a film about it.’ Was it a straightforward decision for you to take on this challenge and make a film about Hector?

A: This desire came from me. A wish to make this man eternal. And he wanted to leave it registered before he passed some of his thoughts about cinema, about living and dying…

Q: For those who are only familiar with his filmography, what does ‘Babenco: Tell Me When I Die’ reveal about Hector as an artist and a person?

A: It revels a thinker, above all…a poet. A man who struggle to survive. And it was filmmaking that saved him.

Q: The voices in the film include your own, Fernanda Torres, Willem Dafoe, and others. How did you find the process of selecting and gathering voices for the film?

A: It isn’t exactly a selection of voices, but scenes we shot and I chose to leave it just as voiceovers. We had a lot of materials and choices in a documentary are difficult. My wish was to keep everything, but the film’s thread ended up winning over. Cinema that mixed up with life. Life that mixed up with cinema; a thread yarn. This is the film.

Q: Are there any standout stories you were told about Hector while gathering footage for the film?

A: Yes, many stories, about his arrest in Spain. That’s why he made so many films about prison. About him making so many films while he was ill without anyone from the crew knowing about it… Héctor was a great storyteller. Together with the film I am launching a book, where I dive deeper into the stories he used to tell.

Why did you decide to make the film in black and white? And also why did you choose a lyrical tone rather than a journalistic one?

A: To make the film in black & white was a decision we made together when he was still alive. I always wanted to make a black and white film and Héctor used to say that his memory was in black and white. His major film references were black and white films, as one of the first cinematic images he saw and that marked him forever: Jules And Jim. Again, black and white comes to narrate this story like the big cinematic tale that was his life.

Lyrical, not journalistic, because he wanted to speak for himself, he didn’t want anyone speaking about him. And, yes, he was alive wanting to film until the very end. The lyricism came when he was gone.

Q: What are your first memories of meeting Hector and the impression he left on you?

A: We first met at FLIP (International Literary Festival of Paraty). He was around friends, telling his stories, about when he was an extra, when he was arrested… all of which you will see in the film. I feel in love with that man, a storyteller, smoking a cigar and drinking his wine. This is how I tried to eternalise him in this film. With this same portrait, the same of when I met Hector.

Q: Do you feel your understanding or appreciation of Hector has changed over the process of making this film?

A: I feel that I always knew who he was. I wanted to perpetuate this man through my eyes. Closely. Without masks. Him entirely.

Q: This is such a personal subject for your first documentary feature. How did you find the overall journey of making this film?

A: It is a very sensitive film because is really personal, but that was what he wanted. He had urgency. He wanted the woman who was loving him, who was following him closely and from inside, being responsible for his last scene, his last cinematic breath. He passed his passport on to me, and if he could he would have filmed until his eyes shut at last.

Q: What are your hopes for the film and Hector’s legacy?

A: I only have one desire. That everyone may know the man I met. The life, the man, the work, the poetry of Babenco. Now they belong to the world. 

Q: What does it mean for you to screen ‘Babenco: Tell Me When I Die’ at the 2019 Venice Film Festival?

A: Venice was our last trip together. Somehow, he came to say goodbye to this land he loved so much. Venice Film Festival was one of the festivals he liked the most. I think the film is born here. Because this film dialogues with this festival. A film about love, a film so never to die.

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