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By Francisco Ferreira
Where do films come from? I won’t fixate too long on this question, as no one is qualified to answer it. There are films that are more unexpected than others, that’s for sure. Sometimes, there are even films that seem to have come from nothing, that sprout up like stalks of wild grass. Such films witness the brittleness of what it is to live, of what it is to shoot. The 56-year-old Portuguese director Joaquim Pinto has made such a film, with the help of his long-time partner Nuno Leonel, and called it What Now? Remind Me (E Agora? Lembre-me). Our thinking begins with this title, which posits that its author has already vanished. The more the film exposes itself, and does so with a bright frankness rarely seen in cinema, the more mysterious it becomes. The enigma starts with the question in the title, a present that calls from the past and projects itself into the future. We will be guided through a logbook, literally the film of one life, but more than that. As we will see, the inexorability of time and the miracle of life will be called on as well. Is cinema a “gift from destiny,” as Serge Daney once said to Jean-Luc Godard in one of his radio interviews? We could start from here.
It’s not easy to start writing about What Now? Remind Me. Once we get into the film, we are glued to it, like a novel we just can’t put down. Pinto gives us some help, presenting himself, in voiceover, in the first minutes: “My name is Joaquim. My life is uneventful. I live with Nuno. We’re married. Together we’ve travelled the world. Or the world has seen us pass by.” He looks at infinity. In front of him, there is a landscape on fire. Shortly after that, he shows us the X-ray of his smile, but we could swear the threat of death is disguised just behind it. Meanwhile, Pinto explains himself. He tells how he unsuccessfully tried all treatments available in Portugal for Hepatitis C, which, in co-infection with HIV—Pinto has been living with both for almost 20 years—has developed into cirrhosis. He tells how he agreed to be a subject for an experimental clinical study in Madrid: “It’s like feeling one’s will disconnected from one’s body.” He also adds that the film we are about to see is a one-year notebook of those studies, a diary of one year of forced stasis where Pinto had the chance to open old boxes, and revisit his life and his memories.
Do we go to the cinema like we go to the doctor to heal our diseases? Can we see a film as if it were a clinical symptom? About these two questions, Pinto doesn’t say a word; they come from my imagination. But I couldn’t stop thinking about them when I saw What Now? Remind Me for the first time. As we see, Pinto starts making his film alone, as Nuno doesn’t want to participate, either in front of the camera, or in its making. Pinto testifies to his constant effort to stay alive. Much later, we’ll come to understand that the role of Nuno has gradually become stronger and stronger, as if the couple’s lives themselves depend on this relationship. Joaquim and Nuno have lived together for two decades since they both became infected. Nevertheless, what I felt from the film is that their relationship is something that is being built up day by day, as if Joaquim the narrator had to “conquer” the character of Nuno little by little to bring him into the film, at last sealing a love story that unites all things.
There are many more stories to tell about What Now? Remind Me, and the richness of the film is in large part due to them. Pinto has led an extraordinary life that deserves some time to be explained. (The film doesn’t start with a long shot of a slug crawling across the screen by accident: it would be useless to rush into a film like this.) Born in 1957, in Oporto (as were Manoel de Oliveira, Paulo Rocha, and António Reis, the three members of the vital axis of modern Portuguese cinema), Pinto belongs to a generation amputated by HIV in the ’80s. A witness of that time, Pinto met the French writer Guy Hocquenghem in New York, as well as the Chilean editor Claudio Martinez (to whom the film is dedicated), Copi (aka Raúl Damonte Botana), an Argentinian actor based in Paris, German writer and actor Kurt Raab (famous for his roles in Fassbinder’s movies), Serge Daney, Derek Jarman, and Manfred Salzgeber, founder and former director of the Berlinale’s Panorama section (who selected Pinto’s two features, about which more later)—all of them Pinto’s friends, all of them to eventually perish from AIDS.
It’s august company, and one that Pinto fully earned his place within—in a way, he has been the heart of Portuguese cinema for most of the last 30 years. Already working as a technician at the RTP television station when he was studying at the Lisbon Film School at the end of the ’70s, Pinto entered the world of cinema by doing the sound on Raúl Ruiz’s mythical horror film The Territory (1981) and quickly became a leading sound recordist in the Portuguese film world, while at the same time starting a career as a producer and director. (These two facets of Pinto’s career are crucial to keep in mind when trying to parse What Now? Remind Me.) After creating the G.E.R. production company, Pinto began a passionate and turbulent professional relationship and friendship with João César Monteiro, producing two of the director’s masterpieces, Recollections of the Yellow House (1989) and God’s Comedy (1995), as well as other important Portuguese films in the ’90s, e.g., Teresa Villaverde’s debut Alex (A Idade Maior, 1991).
As a director Pinto has a lesser-known role, despite the great beauty of his two first features, on which he also served as cinematographer: Tall Stories (Uma Pedra no Bolso, 1988) and Where the Sun Beats (Onde Bate o Sol, 1989), both of which had very limited circulation after their world premieres in Berlin; the second never even opened commercially in Portugal. (It’s a pity that, due to rights issues, these two important contributions to Portuguese cinema in the ’80s are virtually invisible nowadays, but after 25 years Pinto is now in the process of reacquiring and rereleasing both films.) Tall Stories follows teenager Miguel, who goes to study for his final high-school exams at his aunt’s modest hotel by the seaside. There he meets an older girl and a local fisherman; both disrupt his peace of mind and deceive him. In Where the Sun Beats, homosexuality is more present in the plot that surrounds Nuno, a boy in his late teens. During a summer vacation, he finds himself involved in a complex and prejudiced web of lies and social issues concerning his bourgeois family, at the same time growing closer to his new friend, a local worker on his eldest sister’s farm. Although set in different contexts, both films are coming-of-age stories about two young men, both are very tense narratives involving issues of identity and sexuality, both start with initiatory journeys from the big city to the countryside, and both are guided by the voiceovers of their main characters—which makes it hardly surprising that Pinto himself takes over this narrational role in What Now? Remind Me.
There’s clearly an emotional and melancholic feel in the film through Pinto’s voiceover, but that melancholy becomes political when he points out during his treatment the shortcomings of a current health service still full of absurd, bureaucratic rules. Avoiding strict social realism and constructing its political message in a much more subtle way, it seems to me that What Now? Remind Me doesn’t have the pretension to speak in the name of a generation, nor does it desire to raise a flag in the fight against AIDS. It is also inconsistent to approach this film as some kind of terminal-care experience, in the manner of such powerful first-person testimonies as Hervé Guibert’s La pudeur ou l’impudeur (1992) or Jarman’s Blue (1993), because Pinto’s point of view is luckily coming from that of a survivor. At the same time, a sense of irony necessarily pops up. One of the funniest moments of the film comes when we see Pinto writing on his laptop, exchanging clinical symptoms and prescriptions by mail with Jo Santos, an old friend based in Paris whom he has not seen for over ten years. (She underwent the same treatment as the director and accompanied him to Locarno, where the film was awarded the Special Jury Prize.) It’s difficult to express the beauty of the fact that one reason Pinto made his movie was to reconnect with a longtime friend, to make him feel less alone in his adventure—I’ll only risk saying that if all films were made like this, surely cinema would not be as miserable as it is today.
Another leap must be made now in this text to avoid betraying the film’s amazing polyphonic structure. (I wonder if this savoir faire may in fact come only from someone who’s very familiar with sound mixing.) A compulsive music lover like none other in Portuguese cinema (except for Monteiro), Pinto finds a very sportive way to articulate all the elements of his film with reality, crossing past and present, sacred and profane, pleasure and pain, the epic and mundane gestures of life with such a natural grace that the film becomes an experience of pure gold. The viewer never feels uncomfortable each time Pinto invites him or her to enter a new door. And there are dozens of doors here to knock on (like dozens of potential soundtracks coming from a mixing table). I’ll try to propose some, keeping in mind a very beautiful thought that I heard from someone in Locarno: “Here’s a film where one might remember every single shot after just one screening.” Must this utopian idea be taken seriously in a 164-minute film? Of course not. However, I strangely felt the same kind of illusion the first time I saw it.
But it’s important to add here another short biographical note. Living together more or less since the director fell ill in the early ’90s, Joaquim and Nuno (who meanwhile kept making short animated films) travelled to Brazil, where they spent some time during that decade, then moved to Santa Maria in the Azores. As mentioned in the film, their return to the Portuguese mainland is relatively recent, due to Joaquim’s health problems. During their Brazilian stay, and then in the Azores, they signed a handful of short documentaries shot in a very direct way that I’d love to highlight: Surfavela (1996), a portrait of a group of teens from a Rio de Janeiro slum learning to surf, and Com cuspe e jeito se bota no cu do sujeito (1997), which observes a transvestite cook making a typical Brazilian plate, feijoada à brasileira. Together, they also directed the very good feature Rabo de Peixe (2003), about the work of the fisherman community of the eponymous small Azorean town, situated in the north of São Miguel Island.
Why have these smaller films become so important now? Because they are the germs of a cinema practice based in a documentary effect that Joaquim resumes at a certain point in What Now? Remind Me, after confessing: “Filming became just one more activity in our daily lives.” At no point does Pinto sacralize the act of shooting; rather, he embraces everything reality has to give, like a beautiful moment where Nuno talks with their old neighbour Deolinda about youth nowadays. Pinto trusts each one of his images to stand as evidence of a moment being lived, and trusted himself to discover a film in the editing room, where everything except the voiceover was essentially improvised. The organization of these images releases a thousand stories that takes us often back and forth in time—the point is that there is no hierarchical order between these various eras. Pinto measures his personal ghosts, his deepest thoughts about humankind, the life of his four dogs, and the movement of a bee that flies into the frame to share his hamburger, exactly at the same level, creating with this gesture something that’s rare: an autobiographical movie that completely detaches from self-centredness.
There is a book in the movie, a fabulous and mystical one, illustrated by one of the most important figures of the Renaissance in Portugal, Francisco de Holanda (1517-1585). Housed in the National Library in Madrid, De Aetatibus Mundi Imagenes (The Illustrated Ages of the World) tells us the story of the world in images, and its importance in the organization of the film is crucial. When Pinto, loaded with pills and interferon, remembers his time in East Germany (where he met a certain “activist” named Angela Merkel while living in Leipzig), when he leaves a car with Nuno, extinguisher on hand, to fight a fire, or approaches a pack of dogs abandoned by their owners, when Pinto has sex with his partner, goes down the Castro da Columbeira caves, questions the Neanderthals, and quotes, like Monteiro, the Portuguese poet Ruy Belo, Saint Augustine, or the Gospel According to Mark, there’s something chimeric that comes from the Francisco de Holanda book that acts like a contagion in the film’s structure, changing our perception of reality. As Pinto said to me, What Now? Remind Me “is a combat movie: by exposing itself, it invites the exposition of those who see it.”
How small are we in this world? How fair are we with ourselves and our own lives? Freed from problems of ego and willing to touch the cosmos, What Now? Remind Me nobly finds multiple ways to ask us these kinds of questions before leaving us with a long look at a truck full of turkeys on their way to holiday slaughter—one more shot that fell from destiny. This image functions as a coda for an everyday life that has become fantastic, a life experience that has become unmeasured. It recalls a moment in the Instituto de Medicina Molecular in Lisbon where Pinto says he would loved to have filmed the life of a virus, but due to this impossibility, he filmed work: in other words, a film has to search for what is microscopic to reach the absolute. There’s something precious to learn from this gesture: to never give up. That’s all What Now? Remind Me is about. Is it out of line to talk about transcendence in a film that thanks the Holy Father and waves farewell with a wish of Merry Christmas?