Spanish filmmaker Chico Pereira on his first feature, Pablo's Winter, its eponymous star, and the challenges of documentary film.
It’s pretty heady stuff to have your Master’s thesis film project make its North American début at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Spanish director Chico Pereira’s first feature, Pablo’s Winter (??El invierno de Pablo??), will be opening this year’s prestigious Documentary Fortnight—MoMA's 12th Annual International Festival of Nonfiction Film and Media, February 15th to March 4th. Not a bad start to what looks to be a bright and very promising career.
Already a prize winner this past year at both Germany’s DOK Leipzig and the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, the nonfiction feature is set in the director’s hometown of Almadén, Spain, a small place that held the world’s largest productively-mined underground mercury deposits. Fifteen years ago, all the mines in Almadén were shut down. Pablo, now in his 70s, belongs to the last living generation of these miners.
In Pablo, Pereira found a pure movie star whom the camera most definitely loves. And Pablo loves it back. Delivering both a contained and passionate performance, we witness the daily life of this man in his twilight years in a town experiencing its own twilight, as well as a re-birth.
I met Chico, and first caught a glimpse of his elegiac black-and-white film, a couple of years ago at the Edinburgh Pitch Forum in Scotland where Pereira was earning his degree at the Screen Academy Scotland: A Skillset Film and Media Academy. He showed a full rough-cut to a small group of industry professionals, as well as his mentors and executive producers, Noé Mendelle, Sonja Henrici and Finlay Pretsell. The three award-winning filmmakers run the Scottish Documentary Institute (SDI), a research center at Edinburgh College of Art dedicated to production, distribution and training in documentary. Their track record for supporting challenging, artful nonfiction is quite impressive.
Recently, I spoke via Skype to Chico at his family’s home in Almadén, shortly before he was to leave for New York City. An articulate, excitable man full of humor and loads of human kindness, Pereira speaks rapidly in an accent that is part Spanish, part Scottish—a strange, but charming, combination.
Pamela Cohn Tell me about the genesis of this film.
Chico Pereira Well, as you know, it was my Master’s project at Screen Academy Scotland. I had to fight a bit with the university, in fact, because I wanted to do a feature-length film, and up until then, no one there had done that successfully. The features that got made were decent enough, but the school wasn’t really happy with them. So they were hesitant to let me do something this long.
My initial inspiration for the way I approached crafting this film was from fiction. Lisandro Alonso was a huge influence on me. He made a film called La libertad, which is amazing: the director is working with real people, using traditional film techniques in a real-world situation, pushing the limits between the naturalness that non-actors give you, but not pushing too far so that they become bad actors.
I was also inspired by documentary directors with the patience to do the work to really build a relationship with their subject, go to their house, have a coffee without cameras, and spend time with them. We wanted to build up a sustainable shooting schedule over the course of seven weeks—creating the story together as we went along. It was challenging for a university to commission this kind of thing since we wanted so much time. In order for us to do it, they did have to agree and “greenlight” the project, to commit to something that really didn’t have a clear story or a clear character at the beginning, or a clear outcome. But at the end of the day they gave us this freedom since it was my Master’s project, so the risk was pretty much all mine.
I also had the freedom of a whole year to research creating narratives using real people, meeting someone several times, getting to know them intimately, how they think, what they do, how their life goes from day to day. Then you go home and push these routine, mundane things into some kind of minimum fictional narrative. Then, you go back to them and create something together based on the raw material they give you.
PC So how did you explain this kind of method to Pablo or some of the other individuals you approached about making a film about their lives? Was it difficult to convince Pablo to be in your film, to convince him to be a collaborator in the making of it?
CP I was here in Almadén a month and a half before we started principal photography. I interviewed many miners, trying to build a bit of a profile of their lives, to learn who these men were. But I didn’t find anyone who had enough power in front of the camera to represent this. I was running out of time. I thought I had found someone and I went to meet him, but when I took this person into a social event, the guy turned out to be kind of an ass. (laughter) I thought to myself, I don’t want to represent the miners through this guy.
So I had a week and a half before I had to return to Scotland and pull everything together for the shoot. Four days before I had to leave, I found Pablo. He has this kind of cave in his garden that I wanted to photograph; we were just looking for locations and poking around for interesting things. He opened the door and spoke to me. I liked his voice so much. He took us out to the cave and as I was photographing the cave, I took a photograph of him. I turned the photo into black and white and there was this profile with so much character. He asked if I wanted to stay for a beer, and he started smoking. I wanted someone that smoked to represent some kind of simple conflict that many people can relate to, particularly smokers that have tried and tried to quit smoking.
He was very serious but he did say a couple of very funny things in that dry way he has—just as you see in the film. While smoking one cigarette after another, he was telling me about his five heart attacks. I was captivated. We said goodbye and I told him I might come back because I was doing this film about miners that would be kind of a documentary and that I wanted to, perhaps, return and take more photos.
I returned the very next day and took more photos and while doing this, I pressed the video button on my camera and started recording Pablo. I asked him to smoke. I mean, he smoked like the hero in a Western movie, you know? (laughter) So then I told him what I was doing and that maybe it would be a question of three or four days of shooting with him. And Pablo said to me, “I don’t have anything else to do in life. Why not make a film?” I thought, Wow, this is a special man. When I returned to Scotland, I spent the next two weeks writing the film.
PC Had you met his wife as well? Their scenes together are absolutely magnificent. Every time I would see the two of them framed together, I would smile in anticipation of some incredibly funny and touching exchange.
CP I never met José before the shooting started. He’s very passive. She’s the active one. Shooting with him could be a bit monotonous because he really didn’t do much except sit and smoke. So I told my crew to come so we could follow her around—doing the laundry, cooking, meeting with friends. The conflict between their energies and the way they went through their days was great. Here’s a retired man who’s given up and a retired woman who’s fighting to stay in the present and thinking about the future. She told me a few times that she really didn’t have the time, but I convinced her to stay a half an hour or something, just long enough to get an improvised scene with the two of them. We just adapted ourselves to them and what they were doing.
Towards the end of shooting, maybe in the fifth week, Pablo came to me and said, “You know, Chico, these have been the three longest days of my life.” (laughter) Obviously, by that time, we were really hooked, both of us. He and José both took it very naturally, us being in their house, or filming some intimate moments. He loves to have people around; he never felt we were intruding.
Pablo is the best actor I’ve ever worked with. He would continue through difficult moments or something that might be embarrassing, or whatever—good, bad, funny—he understood we were interested in the real thing. I took him to some places that were like something out of an Antonioni film and I wanted to explain to him why I was taking him there. He would tell me, “Chico, don’t explain anything. Just tell me what you want me to do.” And we would just film him smoking a cigarette for ten minutes. Something clicked between him and the camera, and him and me.
And we accomplished something by not going straight for the “gold,” or, filming in any aggressive way. We would dialogue about things only when the camera was off to make sure he knew we weren’t just fishing for things and then going home. We wanted to show him how committed we were.
PC The way in which the village is portrayed, it becomes another character, or protagonist of the film—both the natural landscape and the one that’s been manufactured over the centuries. Would you talk a bit about how you approached this compositionally, the decisions of pacing and timing, as well as this choice of shooting in black and white?
CP I prepared quite a lot. Again, this background of working in fiction forces you to really think about these aesthetic or stylistic choices well before shooting. I like to think about what visual language I will use. In terms of the representation of the mine—when I saw the surface of the village, the low houses, and then saw the mines 600-700 meters below the surface of where the houses sit, I had this notion of portraying this surface and this depth. Narratively, the external story, the surface of the film, which in this case would be Pablo and his relationship with smoking, would be there. And then I had to have this deeper layer, which is the dying village, the end of an era, the desire for rebirth. All of these things helped me build the narrative arc I wanted to have. It’s very simple and basic but it’s something that gives a structure within which to work.
Visually, I like long shots. I wanted to capture moments and then re-frame. The POV and pacing is meant to represent this person at the end of his life. Things are unexciting, slow, quiet. It’s my nod to this neo-realist tradition of capturing the pace of a life lived, with all the ambiguities and all the imperfections, the moments when nothing is happening—no conflict, no drama. I didn’t want to reframe if it wasn’t totally necessary. Let’s wait; let’s just stay still and record them having lunch. Out of that footage, we get our two or three minutes that express something.
The black and white was also a decision from the beginning to express this vision of the past and of the season of the lifeless winter. It all seemed appropriate. There are so many nice and beautiful views in the village. I was afraid using color would make it seem like a series of postcards—too pretty. Director of Photography Julian Schwanitz and I also talked about this idea of the X-ray, the lungs of the village. We knew Pablo would be going to the doctor and he would see the X-ray of his lungs. X-rays are black and white, they are about surface and depth; we can see what’s inside. It was also representative of all the galleries and tunnels of the mines. That’s why many times, we decided to shoot against the light like an X-ray—it’s a reverse relief of what we normally see. This was the way we built this visual language together.
In terms of what happened with José and Pablo, what I realized was that when shooting with the two of them, we needed to have them both in the same shot; the way I wanted to approach scenes with them is what I call the democracy of the shot. Because they were arguing quite a lot, I didn’t want to direct the argument in one person’s favor or another, so the only way to be fair with the argument was to shoot them in the same space, a shared space in the frame. That way, in the edit, I wouldn’t be tempted to put a sentence she says over a shot of him, or vice versa; they will have to defend themselves and their positions on their own. Julian would become very creative with these restrictions I imposed. In certain ways, it was easier for him to set the shot because of these restrictions.
PC These kinds of obstructions you set for yourself and Julian required a lot of confidence in your vision, certainly, but also a confidence in your protagonists, since I’m sure they were aware of where the camera was placed. It also took a lot of patience, I would imagine. These static locked off shots that record “nothing happening” can create very intense intimacy. I suppose it’s a bit counter-intuitive.
CP This is a very interesting reflection on all this and something maybe I haven’t thought enough about, this question of camera positioning, a way of shooting that can create detachment from the subject instead of intimacy. We stepped right into their lives. And in this case, perhaps the detachment, if there is some of that, emphasizes the solitude of these lives. It happens to be the reality of these characters, the world they’re living in. Again, it’s all about the POV—because we are looking in from the outside, but we’re also experiencing Pablo’s perception of things. So, in essence, it’s detachment. But in this case, it imitates the abstraction of his point-of-view and the way he’s experiencing the world.
There was a three-person crew: me, Julian, and our sound recordist, Mark Deas. No one spoke Spanish except me. Sometimes, I just wouldn’t have the time to translate or explain because I had too much else to think about or was concerned with what would have to happen next. Because of these difficulties in communication, we ourselves would be the ones to destroy some moments.
It worked in our favor to not be so sure sometimes, you know? For example: if I started feeling claustrophobic and really sick of staying in this living room filled with cigarette smoke, feeling so much like I needed to get out into the fresh air of the countryside, then that’s what the film needed too. This is what would dictate decisions sometimes, something as simple as needing to change location because it was too close. If I’m sick of being indoors, the film is going to also need fresh air at that time.
You and I were talking about approach at the beginning, so now I want to say how much I love mise-en-scène. It’s something that I need sometimes in documentary. Obviously, the moments are very important, but the way you film those moments is also very important. I feel you also need to be consistent about the way you do things, so I’m not afraid of using mise-en-scène elements. I’m not afraid of provoking some situation or taking my characters out of their comfort zone.
An example is the Valentine’s Day dance scene. The dance took place in a formerly fascist place, a place where these right-wingers would meet, a sort of social club. Pablo is a workingman, more on the left. He didn’t want to go to this place. But it was the only place I could find a band and this dance party, this Valentine’s party. He doesn’t go dancing very often. So there’s a feeling of uneasiness in that they are outside their home, but also that he doesn’t feel at ease in this place. This was important information for me. Does he like this place? Does he like this moment? Does he like these people? How can I make that come across in a way I can use visually?
It wasn’t about the event itself. I was interested in sparking some sort of dynamic between this couple in the context of this event, already being very familiar with the dynamic that existed between them. At home, it was one thing. But at this event, it had to happen in real time. I asked them both to look into one another’s eyes. José became very moved and emotional looking into the eyes of the man she’s married to, but probably hadn’t really looked into his eyes like that in 20 years. And he—well, it turned out he couldn’t hold the look at all.
PC Even though these moments are set up in some fashion, it feels authentic, genuine. There’s such a misconception about how documentary is made, this notion that a filmmaker just pushes record and voilà, there’s a full-blown world happening right before our very eyes and it’s all unmitigated reality.
Are there any films you’ve seen lately that have resonated with you in how you want to continue to make nonfiction?
CP Well, as I mentioned before, I like films that have some formal rigor, where you see that the director has an approach, a visual and conceptual approach. Lately, there have been a couple of Chilean documentaries, one of which is called The Lifeguard [directed by Maite Alberdi, 2011]. It’s a profile of a lifeguard on a crowded beach. But it’s a view of a beach that you haven’t seen before, a view of something familiar through fresh eyes. The only time you see the sea is in the very last shot—not one glimpse of it before. I talked to the filmmakers and you know, they decided that this would be a restriction for them from the very beginning of shooting, not to show the sea. Because then they would be so tempted to pace the film against this element, use it as some kind of metaphor, or whatever. This is what inspires me. It’s filmed as a film—not a documentary or fiction—but a film. There’s a language being used there, a fresh language to tell a story. There’s also a film called The Last Station [directed by Catalina Vergara and Cristian Soto; Chile, Germany, 2012]. I don’t know if you’ve seen it.
PC I have. It was in competition at CPH:DOX and it’s absolutely beautiful.
CP You can have your opinion about the various dramas going on in this old-age home and whatnot, but the use of mise-en-scène with the characters is just so inspiring.
PC I think of Sofia’s Last Ambulance, as we’re talking. What a use of mise-en-scène! The locked-off frame and never showing the patients at all. . .
CP Yes, another one that’s really wonderful in this way.
PC In documentary, I feel it’s almost vital to the success of a film that some limitations are set from the beginning. But that’s also to say that you don’t necessarily want your audience to notice, “Oh hey, they used this restriction of never showing the patient, or not moving the camera and shooting in one long take; or those two characters are always framed in a two-shot.” Please tell me you’re planning on continuing to make nonfiction.
So, getting back to Pablo: I wanted to ask you about the experience of showing him the finished film for the first time. What was that like?
CP It was a terrible screening in his house on a horrible TV; the sound was terrible. I was nervous. His whole family was there—wife, son, daughter, nephews, nieces, everyone was there. Everyone talked all the time. But it wasn’t the idea to be too precious about the quality of the sound, image or projection. José laughed a lot, constantly.
Pablo told me he was surprised that the moments we were most interested in were the moments when they were just eating, or doing nothing. He thought that the big moment when he talked about the mine was to be the main thing. He was surprised, but also impressed. He told me, “You know what? That’s my life and that’s the way I am.” That moved me that he realized that my goal was to represent him the way he is. He liked that because I didn’t portray him as coming across all the time as a nice guy. It’s strange because he’s so likable.
CP Yeah, but he’s also passive. His wife has to do everything for him. He complains about everything; he does fuck-all. But he also says that he should have died two years ago so what he has now, in his view, is this extra time. His reflections sometimes are quite deep. He’s a grumpy man but he does have something going on in his head.
The only thing we never could manage was to get him inside the supermarket. I saw this scene with him with the shopping trolley in a supermarket with that funny music they play to put you in a relaxing mood to shop. We created this kind of challenging shopping list because we wanted him to interact with some of the clerks there or the shop assistant to help him find things. He said, absolutely not. And I realized this no was really a no. He said, “I’ve never been in a supermarket, ever. I don’t know how to do it. I wait outside and smoke. I take José there; she goes in and does the shopping. I put the bags in the car and we go home. I’m not going in.”
PC I would guess that this village, this place, has many characters like this. They might seem quite passive, but they have strong boundaries and opinions, likes and dislikes. They also have a lot of time on their hands.
CP Again, this neo-realist reference was very important for me in this correlation between the character and the village. Almost from the beginning, for me, Pablo represented the village; he was the village. The transformation of the village reflected his own transformation from something dying to some new kind of life or re-birth—the old mining culture turning into something else. I really studied and paid attention to how to relate character and landscape, and to keep the presence of the mine, as well, getting closer and closer to it. There’s a lack of very obvious conflict. You have to extract it. You can see a pattern emerge. Pablo moves from someone passive, to active, to . . . where? Ozu used this notion of patterns for scriptwriting and it’s very open. It always forces you to think about where you are in the story. This helped me very much with the writing of this film.
PC It’s such a creative mystery as to how to reflect real life authentically—it’s not something neat and geometric like a circle, beginnings and endings. Anyway, you accomplished that beautifully in this film, I think. And now your film’s a piece of modern art. Imagine.
For more on Chico Pereira and Pablo's Winter, visit the film's website. The film will open this year's Documentary Fortnight: MoMA's International Festival of Nonfiction Film on February 15, 2013.
Pamela Cohn is a Berlin-based film producer, curator, freelance programmer and arts journalist.