TIFF 2023 | Daughters of Fire (Pedro Costa, Portugal) — Wavelengths

By Giovanni Marchini Camia

Published in Cinema Scope #95 (Summer 2023)

Among the pantheon of directors whom Pedro Costa habitually invokes when speaking about cinema (Godard, Straub, Ford), the youngest I’ve heard him include, and certainly the only one to have emerged in the 21st century, is Wang Bing. It therefore felt appropriate that Cannes would program the premiere of their respective new films, both relatively short works, as a double bill, with Costa’s eight-minute Daughters of Fire followed by Wang’s 57-minute Man in Black. (The former film was also paired, in a second screening, with Godard’s posthumous Film annonce du film qui n’existera jamais: “Drôles de guerres”, suggesting that the festival was keen to please Costa.)

As formal experiments with music, the two films represent forays into territory thus far unexplored by either director. (In Costa’s own words, his 2009 documentary Ne change rien “had a lot of music in it, but it wasn’t a musical film.”) Its widescreen image split in three, Daughters of Fire is a triptych, with each panel framing a different woman filmed in a single take. The first (Elizabeth Pinard) is pictured in a medium shot, walking past a seemingly never-ending, presumably rear-projected black wall speckled with incandescent patches of lava. In a full shot, the second (Alice Costa) lies, then stands, near the mouth of a volcano that is lit from below with a glow at once ominous and divine. The third (Karyna Gomes), in a tight close-up, gazes directly into the camera from behind a door frame, the flickering illumination on her face intimating an unseen conflagration. 

Continuing in the ever-darker visual trajectory of his previous films, in Daughters of Fire Costa pushes even further towards an obsidian palette as he crafts three painterly portraits of exquisite and haunting beauty. Their configuration, and Costa’s typically ethereal lighting, confers a religious aura to the apocalyptic tableaux that is complemented by the accompanying music. Over a string quartet rendition of 17th-century violinist and composer Biagio Marini’s Passacaglia (Op. 22), the three women, all professional singers, intone a hymn-like song whose lyrics speak of solitude and suffering, toil and exhaustion, and fortitude in the face of neglect. Given that the women are Black and singing in Creole, and that the themes they invoke are familiar from Costa’s films about Cape Verdean immigrants, it’s a surprise to learn from the end credits that the lyrics belong to a traditional Ukrainian lullaby. Although such a timely (and potentially incidental) allusion to the ongoing war in Ukraine is an anomaly within Costa’s cinema, which usually excludes reference to contemporary global events, it resonates with the assertion he makes in the interview below about his films’ universal expression of empathy for the oppressed. 

At the Cannes premiere, Costa told the audience that Daughters of Fire was a test in preparation for a feature, which may or may not bear the same title. It’s a title that situates the films within Costa’s career-long project: the original Portuguese—As filhas do fogo—plays on the name of Ilha do Fogo, the island in Cape Verde where he shot his second feature, Casa de Lava (1994). It also evokes the montage that opens that earlier film, whose images are reimagined in the short: erupting volcanoes juxtaposed with stark portraits of women from the island. The short’s link to Casa de Lava, which marked the beginning of Costa’s personal and artistic association with the immigrant community from Portugal’s former colony, is rendered explicit in its final minute. In a silent coda, the digital cinematography gives way to 16mm archival footage of Ilha do Fogo’s landscapes, shot in 1951 by the geographer Orlando Ribeiro, which concludes with an image of a house built from volcanic rock. 

Man in Black also links back to Wang’s previous films, in particular Fengming, a Chinese Memoir (2007) and Dead Souls (2018). Like these predecessors, Man in Black is a portrait, doubling as a homage, of a survivor of state persecution during Mao’s rule. However, the new film represents a significant departure not only from the extended running times and fixed-camera interview format of those aforementioned titles, but also from the raw aesthetic that has characterized Wang’s filmography to date. Wang, who always made his dissident films outside of China’s state-sanctioned system, moved to Paris in 2017; Man in Black sees him working with a French crew for the first time—including DP Caroline Champetier and editor Claire Atherton, taking on roles that the director usually handled himself—which brings a level of stylization and polish that is unprecedented in his oeuvre. (Wang expects the tripartite Youth, shot between 2014 and 2019, to be the last film that he will shoot in his native country; the first chapter, Spring, premiered in the Cannes Competition.) 

Champetier’s hand is apparent from the first minutes, which recall the opening of Leos Carax’s Holy Motors (2012). An old man, naked and alone, makes his way across the balcony of a gloomy, seemingly abandoned theatre. (The location is the historic Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord in Paris’ 10th arrondissement, which dates back to the Belle Époque and has maintained its dilapidated grandeur after it was saved from demolition in the early ’70s.) Having identified the man in the opening credits as Wang Xilin, the noted Chinese composer, the film stages a kind of biography. Once the artist descends to the stage, the camera calmly circles around him, moving now closer, now further away. While we observe the many traces of physical trauma on his body—marks on his back, a mesh of scars across his knees and shins, damaged toenails—he strikes unnaturally crouched poses, stretches his arms behind his back and throws himself on the floor numerous times, enacting a pantomime of forceful restraint and torture. At intervals, the soundtrack flares up with bursts of thunderous orchestral music.

Following a piano recital and an unexpected comic interlude in which the camera waits outside while Wang Xilin goes to take a leak, the composer sits in the front row of the theatre and begins to tell his life story, verbalizing what had so far been evoked by his music and performance. While his recollections of joining the People’s Liberation Army in 1949 as a young teenager, and later suffering brutal oppression during the Anti-Rightist Campaigns and the Cultural Revolution, echo the accounts of He Fengming and the numerous subjects of Dead Souls, unlike most of them he was not a committed supporter of the Communist Party—he grew disillusioned early, and for decades used his music to speak truth to power. Throughout his fiery monologue, the film illustrates the descriptions of scenes and historical events that inspired him with relevant passages from his symphonies, often drowning out his speech, which continues only as subtitles. Wang Bing’s affinity with this fellow rebel artist, palpable throughout, is further emphasized by the closing revelation that Wang Xilin also left China in 2017, and now lives in exile in Germany. 

Cinema Scope: At yesterday’s premiere, Wang Xilin denounced the cruelty of the political system in China and called for its eradication. His speech underlined the role of injustice as a motivating force in both your filmmaking. Would you describe your work as a cinema of protest?

Wang Bing: When we speak of protest, we also speak of resistance, of class conflict, and this kind of struggle was ubiquitous throughout the history of the last century. If you look at it this way, the Chinese people have engaged in protest for a hundred years. Even though we’re under totalitarianism in China, if we’re going to get out of all this control, we need culture. We need to adjust through culture and find the right path.

Pedro Costa: I don’t think that protest is the intention that drives our work. It’s not about being against, but for: for people who are very, very low in their heads, who are weak in this world. My idea, with music, is to give, to bring back music for these people. They were removed from any kind of culture: writing…thinking, even. These people cannot think, they don’t have the time. So my mission is to give them cinema, music, and all the things they miss and that are necessary for them.

Scope: You’re talking about the Cape Verdean immigrants in Portugal?

Costa: It’s a metaphor. It could be peasants from China. It could be people in Africa, in South America, in the south of the US. All the people who no longer have time and space in their heads to dream, to write, to think.

Wang: Wang Xilin was repressed in his life. He left China when he was in his eighties. Some people in Europe respect him, of course, but most people don’t know who he is. I’ve known him for more than ten years. Personally, I also wanted to give this gift to Wang Xilin, and that’s why I chose to make a kind of video art rather than a regular film—because if we manage to get this piece in different museums, it will be a comfort to Wang Xilin’s life. Maybe one day people will go looking for him, will look into his past life, and they can find this artwork in a museum. Because I don’t know what else I can do. My only capacity is my filmmaking. If I don’t make these films, nobody will shoot a film for these people.

Costa: “Gift” I think is a better word than “protest.” It’s more necessary to give than to protest. When you give something, you have to work. You have to make it the most beautiful gift, so you have to work a lot.

Scope: Can you elaborate on this notion of beauty and the work that goes into achieving it?

Costa: My head is always in cinema, it’s not in reality. Much of the history of film is in my head, and, of course, the history of film is the history of our humanity. But even working the way I have done—alone, by myself, with a small camera, in front of real people—it’s always cinema, it’s always a construction. It’s working with shots, with movements, heights, angles. I’m not saying that all this comes first, but it comes at the same time as the thing we are filming: the subject, or the story.

That’s always the confusion between documentary and fiction. I mean, West of the Tracks (2002) will always stay with me, like the films of Ford or Dovzhenko—this kind of super-fiction, it’s a magnifying of reality. All the best, and all the worst of reality is there; it’s breathing. It’s not a question of beautiful or ugly. Rather, I think everybody has the right to be filmed seriously. We know there’s lots of bad, bad filming. But if the approach is right, if the eyes and the heart are there, then the form will follow. When I do it alone, it’s very instinctive. I move quickly. It takes me a long time to prepare, to see, to watch, to choose, but then, shooting goes quickly.

Scope: Here you’re both working with music that already exists. In the case of Man in Black, the subject is also the man who wrote the music. How did you conceive and build the form of your respective films from these pre-existing elements?

Wang: Since Wang Xilin left China, I was thinking that if I were to shoot him in France, or in Germany, it would be very different, strange. I didn’t know what to do. When I first went to the theatre and I looked down from the balcony, it reminded me of one of the tombs of the Chinese emperors, those tourist attractions that you can visit outside of Beijing. I decided I had to shoot the film in that theatre; wherever else I chose would not be his natural living environment. 

The other decision was to show his body: I wanted to show people his flesh. It seems to me that in a lifetime, regardless of whether you’re just walking around or whether people abuse you, you go to war, whatever—everything you experience leaves a physical mark on your body. So I wanted to use his body as one of the mouthpieces: his body without clothes. To see the reality of his body. 

It wasn’t until we started editing that we started thinking about how to use his music, which is his second voice, so to speak, after his body. Eventually, we decided on using three of his pieces: the 3rd Symphony, the 4th Symphony, and the Piano Concerto. He’s one generation ahead of me, he’s older than my parents, so he has a different conception of art. Although he’s not my teacher and I don’t have to learn from him or study with him, I respect his view of art. These are his works, they bear his marks, they carry his imprint, his personality. So I definitely didn’t want to change anything in his music or the way he wanted to present it. But the film, that’s my work. There is a potential for friction between the two, but, as far as I possibly could, I wanted to preserve his way of presenting his music within the framework of my film.

Costa: The music I’m using for this film is ancient music, Western baroque. For the longer film, I think I will use ancient European music as well as popular folk music, mainly from Cape Verde. Baroque music in Europe came at a moment when there was a big change in our civilization, from a very dogmatic spirituality—you see it in painting, in music—to a more prosaic, profane way of looking at things. The paintings I prefer are those of the Dutch Golden Age, which are very documentary. The Dutch painters started painting people at work—Vermeer, Rembrandt, they all began painting regular, everyday life. This baroque music is related to that change as well. It seems useful for me, because that’s what I will try to do. 

What I aim to do is to get into the interior of these small lives. It’s a way of bringing out their intimacy. That’s the core of cinema for me: everything very intimate. In Man in Black, it goes to an extreme. Because the contradiction of cinema is that it’s all about interior, about intimacy, and then we put it on a super-big screen. In Wang’s film, it’s very obvious: he’s exposing this completely naked man to the world. I’m trying to deal with these small people, this community, with simple gestures and simple lives. I think the music will help them.

Scope: The issue that Wang brought up, of his subject’s displacement and the responsibilities that come with it, do you feel it applies to your work as well?

Costa: No, not in the same way. He’s much more in the position of an exile. On the contrary, for a long time, this community that I’ve been filming, that I will probably film in this next feature, was colonized by my country. We made them slaves of our market, our society, our ideas. I made a film in Cape Verde a long time ago, for a lot of reasons: sentimental, aesthetic, historical. I decided to stay with them, back in my country, to follow them in their exile, to follow the story of their immigration. The fiction I have in my head is that when I shot this film in Cape Verde, they passed me a kind of imaginary screenplay, saying, “You’re a filmmaker, so now make films about us…forever.” 

So now I have this heavy weight on me. In some things I try and more or less succeed, in some things I fail completely. But it’s a discussion, it’s a dialogue. I don’t know if it’s the same; Wang Bing is much more courageous than I am. That’s what I’ve always loved about him. I would need his courage, because I’m in a much more comfortable position.

Actually, we discussed this one night in Paris at his house. His new situation can be tricky and dangerous: being so far away, being in Paris, confined more or less, maybe not being able to move. But that’s also my feeling. I told you about colonization: I’m very afraid of Paris. They are the biggest colonizers when it comes to cinema. I mean, just look around—we’re in the belly of the beast! There’s a danger for filmmakers like we are. We have to keep this freedom of making a film or not making a film. Nowadays we see it in younger filmmakers, they have to make films. There was a famous comedian in Germany in the ’30s called Karl Valentin, around the time of Brecht, who had this very funny monologue titled “Compulsory Theatre”: everybody must go to the theatre. And now you have to make films. Sales agents tell you, “You have to make your next film this spring.” And worse: “You have to choose this actor…” That’s not his and my problem, but we still live in this world. I’ve always kept this critical position, because, of course, very few people see our films. It’s an illusion. We are here in Cannes, but we are very, very marginal.

Wang: Marginal or not, I always tell myself, “Never mind how other people see me, at least I don’t want to feel like I’m wasting my time.” I’m concerned about using the time I’ve got and the opportunities I have to make films, because my experience in the past has been of people trying to prevent me from making films. Pedro’s environment and mine are different, our backgrounds are different. In China, they prevent you from filming by not giving you money. And if you have money, they find other ways of restraining you. After all, making films is something I want to do—it’s my activity, it’s part of my life. That’s my challenge. In that sense, it’s true that there is a kind of pressure from within, in that I want to shoot more and more.

Scope: Having now shot a film with a French crew, within the French system, do you recognize any of the external pressures that Pedro is describing?

Wang: I didn’t feel that kind of pressure while making Man in Black. Of course, there were other kinds: time pressure, for example. I had a very short window to shoot in the theatre, though I’m quite happy with how it turned out. But I don’t have any other experience shooting films in Europe. With Youth, we still have a couple of parts that have to come out; the editing is almost complete. What comes after that, I can’t say.

Scope: The result, at 57 minutes, is an unusually short film for you. Ahead of the screening, Pedro, you said that “making short films is extremely difficult.”

Costa: It’s difficult because it’s a way of concentrating—not reducing, but concentrating—everything to the minimum possible: ideas, form…Even with the feature, I’m thinking a lot about that, because it will be a musical film, with a lot of music. In this sense, this experience was serendipitous. Music was this idea of concentrating things. I think music does it better than film. The pop song is a good example, or the folk song, which is a way of concentrating big stories, sagas…Music helps with this concentration, even in terms of the work. I felt it while working with the singers and violinists and the conductor—the work was a hundred thousand times more serious. The film crew was always very impressed with the musical crew, because in music you cannot fake; in cinema, you’re always faking. Again, just look around us!

I’m not saying cinema is an illusion, I’m saying that in music, notes are not there: you just play the wrong notes. Whereas in film, you can edit and you’ll never be right or wrong: you will be nice or bad, long or short, yes or no. It all comes down to a point of vagueness that amounts to taste: “Oh, it’s okay, it’s nice.” With music, you have to be more serious. It will help me in my effort to concentrate and be very, very tight. This is something you feel in the music of his composer; it’s something you feel in Beethoven, Bach, or a folk song. You have to make it compact. A musical piece about the Cultural Revolution! I mean, to compress into a piece of music the whole recent history of China, that takes a lot of work. It’s serious.

Wang: Some of the things Pedro is saying are definitely familiar to me—for example, regarding the role of the music vis-à-vis the story. When I was watching my film yesterday, it seemed to me that the music was contributing towards making the film more narratively linear. But the whole film is 57 minutes long, so it’s a lot longer than Pedro’s film. On the other hand, it’s extremely short compared to Wang Xilin’s life, which is more or less crammed into that time. 

Actually, with Claire Atherton I cut a first version of 64 minutes. Then we let some time pass, thought about it seriously, and I realized that it couldn’t be any longer than it is now. Something like Youth you can let run three or four minutes longer—even ten minutes—and it wouldn’t make any difference. Here, we thought there was something funny about the length, somehow. We spent another week working on it, cutting out some dead wood, and ended up with 57 minutes. When I make a film like this, sometimes I feel a loss of self-confidence. I would tell myself, “I promised Wang Xilin that I will make this movie and if I don’t deliver, I will feel very bad.”

Costa: Wang Bing, your loyalty to reality will always save you. You don’t need to worry, your loyalty towards the real things is so strong. I’m reminded of a letter that the composer Arnold Schoenberg wrote to his friend Anton Webern, another musician who composed very short, tight, tense pieces that were sometimes aggressive, very brutal. Schoenberg, who was his teacher, told him, “Don’t worry, a sigh can become a novel.” I know that feeling. Sometimes I’m shooting someone and I notice something, a trembling, and I say, “I need two years to do this shot!” It’s very frightening, but we are loyal to reality.

Wang: This loyalty that you mention, I think that in art it’s the most elementary requirement, the most basic standard to meet. But at the same time, it’s the highest possible standard. You know that the film is going to be a public thing, but if there’s any flaw or problem, you’re always going to blame yourself. While I’m shooting, during the process of actually making the film, these ideas come to the surface, but I soon brush them away. They’re irrelevant. Honestly, I think that whatever you shoot, you have to own the result. 

There are two things I must achieve when making a film. First, I have to express my personal, sincere position. Second, I have to faithfully record what I see outside myself: people and their virtue. When I say finding the good in people, I don’t mean some kind of transcendental, feel-good interpretation. It’s about capturing the beauty and the goodness projected by the people I’m filming. There’s a kind of communication between us, and there’s two standards I want to meet: one is a standard towards myself, the other is a standard towards them and how they are seen. For me, making a film is those two things added together. Nothing else.

gmc@cinema-scope.com Marchini Camia Giovanni