Berlinale 2020: Director Catarina Vasconcelos Talks Family And Loss In ‘The Metamorphosis Of Birds’

Director Catarina Vasconcelos joins us on Close-up Culture to talk about her debut feature, The Metamorphosis Of Birds (A Metamorfose Dos Pássaros).

The film will have its world premiere at the 2020 Berlin International Film Festival later this month (28 February).

Q: How excited are you to be bringing ‘The Metamorphosis Of Birds’ to the 70th Internationale Filmfestspiele Berlin? 

A: I’m completely thrilled with having The Metamorphosis Of Birds at the Berlinale. It still feels a bit of a dream, actually. But I feel extremely honoured and very enthusiastic with this opportunity to share the film in such an extraordinary environment along with such wonderful films and filmmakers.

Q: I understand the film looks at family and loss. Can you tell us more about the film and what it explores?

A: The Metamorphosis of Birds is a film about a man and a woman who meet in the late 1940s, get married and start a family. The man, Henrique, was a naval officer and spent long periods at sea. The woman, Beatriz, took great care of their six children. The oldest of their children, Jacinto, is my father. One day Beatriz dies suddenly, and the family are broken apart. 

My mother died as well. It wasn’t sudden but it was too early. In that day, my father and me met in the absence of the word “mother”.

The Metamorphosis of Birds explores how such an absence shapes a family. It questions: how can a family continue after such a loss? Who do we become after losing a mother? And where do the dead go when they die? All of these questions have been haunting me for quite a long time. This film portrays these questions, the disquiet they provoke and a sort of pursuit of solace and resilience. 

Q: I’ve seen a still of of the film which reminded me of Rebecca Horn’s work. What role does nature play in ‘The Metamorphosis Of Birds’?

A: Nature plays quite a big role in the film: nature as a metaphor and nature as the place where the dead might live in. Beatriz, my grandmother, had an immense love for plants. I believe that she saw something in nature that brought her some sort of appeasement. The film’s narrative is often crossed by references to the natural world; by a juxtaposition of the way we grow with the way nature grows. Birds, trees, plants and the landscape are also characters in this film. 

On a more personal level, when my grandfather was at sea, he and my grandmother Beatriz would write to each other. In many of those letters there were photographs. In one of these photos, there is a portrait of my father. There, my grandmother wrote that his oldest child would like to become a gardener. I was very intrigued by this description. It made me think that the way Beatriz nurtured her plants had everything to do with the way she nurtured her kids: with deep roots and with the verticality of trees. 

Q: Where did the journey to make this documentary begin for you?

A: I started to work on The Metamorphosis of Birds in 2014. I had just premiered my first short film (Metaphor Or Sadness Inside Out) and I was living in London. While there I had a phone call with my father who told me about how life was going in Lisbon and told me about a specific wish my grandfather had: the desire to burn all the letters that he and my grandmother Beatriz sent to each other during decades. I had never met Beatriz – my grandmother died two years before I was born. I was quite shocked by this request, and tried to convince my father to not do it.

After hearing me for a long time (I felt that I was talking for hours!) my father said: “Well Catarina, I understand you, but this is the correspondence of a man and a woman who happen to be your great grandparents. It is their intimacy and no one should enter there.” Although I didn’t get to have the letters, I was invaded by this wish to know more about Beatriz. The film was born from this believe that the dead shouldn’t die twice.

Q: What did you learn about yourself and your family from making this documentary?

A: This film was quite a dive in my family and its stories. My father and uncles were of great generosity: they shared intimate stories with me, their vision of their mother and an idea of who and how they were when they were young. But in the midst of everything they told me, many things were not said. They are part of what I learned to call “the mystery of families”.

I felt that there were blank spaces that I would have to fill. These blank spaces gave me the possibility to rethink my family and even to invent it – “what if it had been like this?” For this recreation and invention I counted on the generous gift of my cousins. My cousins gave their bodies, faces and spirits to this film. Together we recreated the family in the 1950s and 1960s. And then, with my older cousins and my brother, we recreated the family in the 1970s and 1980s. It was a collective saga.

Although it may sound bizarre, it took me a bit to understand how the story of my father and uncles’ loss of their mother met my own loss of my mother. This moment was a trigger for the whole film, changing its structure and the way the story would be told. The saga lived inside and outside the film.

Q: This is your first feature film. Can you tell us about your background and why you followed down the filmmaking path?

A: I come from a Fine Arts background. I didn’t study cinema or filmmaking. I studied at the fine arts academy of Lisbon and then studied at the Royal College of Art in London. It was at the Royal College of Art that I made my first short film (Metaphor Or Sadness Inside Out) as my final project for my MA. 

I believe that filmmaking came at a time when I couldn’t find a lot of answers for a lot of disquiet – I had all of these questions together with a bunch of things that I was experimenting with. And all of this, the questions and the experimentation of the time, came together once I did Metaphor Or Sadness Inside Out. So, I like to think that disquiet brought me to filmmaking. And, although filmmaking didn’t give me answers, it did bring me to a place where I feel that restlessness can find solace.

Q: What do you hope to get out of the Berlinale experience?

A: I’m looking forward to sharing The Metamorphosis of Birds at the Berlinale with a wide range of people that come from other countries, cultures and backgrounds. It is quite exciting to think of how the film will be received and how will people see it. It is the last step of the film: to be seen with eyes and hearts that don’t know this family or me.

Although this film departs from such a personal story, it speaks about something that is not at all unique to my family: it is about how we deal with death, absence and where we find the strength to keep on going. And I believe those are issues that concern all of us. 

Q: And what are your hopes for ‘The Metamorphosis Of Birds’?

A: May it have a beautiful long flight over our heads.

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