Pedro Costa by Michael Guarneri

Documentary, realism, and life on the margins.

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Ventura in Horse Money, 2014, directed by Pedro Costa. Courtesy of OPTEC-Sociedade Óptica Técnica Lda.

As a teenager in Lisbon, Pedro Costa lived through the Carnation Revolution—the coup d’état initiated by young, low-ranking, Left-wing army officers on April 25, 1974. The military putsch awoke Portugal from a forty-eight-year period of fascist dictatorship and contributed to the end of centuries of Portuguese colonial rule in Africa. As seen in documentaries like Thomas Harlan’s Torre Bela (1975) and Robert Kramer’s Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal (1977), the aim of the Marxist-Leninist “captains of April” was to empower Portuguese factory workers and farmers to wipe out “the exploitation of man by man” and build a just society. Soon enough, however, military threats and sanctions from NATO, and the multinational economic interests it represented, managed to disarm the “Reds” and return the country to the open arms of Western capitalism.

Costa’s latest feature, Horse Money (2014), shows how his friend Ventura—the Cape Verdean bricklayer whose nightmarish past and bleak future were depicted so poetically in Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006)—lived through Portugal’s revolutionary period. While teenage Costa joined parades in the streets of Lisbon shouting that “the people united will never be defeated,” twenty-year-old Ventura, and hundreds of African immigrants like him, hid in the dark corners of the capital, scared to death by the rallies and afraid of being tortured or murdered by the soldiers.

If Costa and Ventura could translate their memories and worldview into words, they wouldn’t have made this film. Costa finds it difficult to articulate the feelings that fed Horse Money, let alone make any kind of definitive statement about the meaning of the film. In some ways, it is a poem to the people and world of Fontainhas, the now-demolished, multiethnic Lisbon slum where Costa’s Ossos (1997) and In Vanda’s Room (2000) were shot, and where Ventura spent most of his life. The laconic, somewhat hermetic, official synopsis for the movie states: “While the young captains lead the revolution in the streets, the people of Fontainhas search for Ventura, lost in the woods.” But in other words—Costa’s own—his cinema is “a door that closes and leaves us guessing.”

However mysterious the film, the origin of Horse Money is something very tangible and concrete—a series of photographs. First of all, there is the photo of Gil Scott-Heron, the American poet-musician that Costa saw years ago, immediately noting an extraordinary physical resemblance between the singer and Ventura. Costa reached out to Scott-Heron and the two started to work on a cinematic “rap-lament.” Unfortunately, Scott-Heron‘s death in 2011 halted that collaboration, and the filmmaker resorted to using the song “Alto Cutelo,” by Cape Verdean band Os Tubarões, on the soundtrack of Horse Money.

Then there are photographs from 1970s newspapers reporting on the Carnation Revolution and its aftermath: “In all those photographs of street demonstrations … there were hundreds of thousands of white faces and not a single black face,” remarks Costa in the appendix of his book Casa de Lava: Scrapbook. Thus, when I met him at the Munich Film Museum, it seemed a good idea to start plumbing the rich darkness of Horse Money by discussing its preoccupation with photography.

Michael Guarneri Horse Money begins with a montage of photographs by Jacob Riis taken in the slums of New York in the late-nineteenth century. When and where did you discover Riis’s photographic work?

Pedro Costa Certainly in the early 1980s, when I was beginning to look at photography and films in a more serious way. At that time I had a group of friends who, among many other things, were interested in photography. We even founded a photography fanzine in Lisbon, which was very inspired by the graphic movements of 1977. Eventually, only one in our “gang” would later become a photographer, and quite a great one at that: Paulo Nozolino. Paulo, myself and the whole “gang” used to gravitate around a new photography bookshop that had just opened in Lisbon—a place called OP, owned by another close friend of ours. We spent a lot of time there looking at books and magazines. I guess I first saw Riis’s photographs there.

I must say that, at that time, I made no distinction between photography, cinema, and certain rock bands. None of us did. My friends and I were watching, listening, experiencing, and living all these things at the same time. John Ford, and Straub, and Jacob Riis, and Wire, and Public Image Ltd, and Godard. They all worked in the same way for us. They were interchangeable. People like Riis, Walker Evans, and Eugene Smith went a bit beyond photography—“the art of photography,” I mean. Not only were they skilled technicians and great visual artists, they were also reporters, essayists, writers, researchers, historians, and anthropologists. Why couldn’t they be filmmakers, too? Take “Country Doctor” or “Nurse Midwife,” two photographic essays that Eugene Smith did for LIFE Magazine. For “Country Doctor,” Smith spent months with this doctor in small-town America, following him as he visited the sick people in his community. He did the same thing for “Nurse Midwife,” following a nurse every day during her round of visits. For me, these photographic essays were—and they still are—as magnificent and as moving as any motion picture by John Ford or Jean Renoir. So I really made no distinction between photography, film, and music back in the 1980s. What I couldn’t get from films, I’d get from photography, from music, from Edgar P. Jacobs’s comic book series Blake & Mortimer. Luckily, I always managed to find something to fulfill my needs, my desires.

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An image from W. Eugene Smith’s photo-essay “Country Doctor,” 1948.

MG What were these needs, these desires?

PC As I said, people like Riis, Evans, and Smith went beyond photography. They made a montage of still images, something a bit close to filmmaking. Moreover, they wrote texts around the pictures. Sometimes they would express feelings and voice their opinions in a very articulate way, and sometimes they would simply provide little pieces of information. I am particularly fond of the latter case. For instance, I have always been amazed by what Walker Evans and James Agee did in their book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. In that book, they included an inventory of all the objects to be found in the house of the sharecroppers they were reporting on. This kind of pure, simple, plain information was very touching to me in the 1980s and the early 1990s, because, at that time, films were quite catastrophically terrible. All around Europe there was this very dull, metaphorical, symbolic “art” cinema. It lacked the sensuality of pure information, the kind of sensuality that I could get from photography and newspapers. I needed this kind of concrete reality back then, and, in a way, I still do. Sometimes it is all I need: three guys on a street corner and a rich, precise account of that. Riis, who excelled at these kind of reports, has always been very dear to me, because he sort of frustrates the high-art world: “He’s not a photographer, he’s just a reporter. He’s not an artist, he’s just a documentarian. He can’t write poetry, and kills the art.” I have heard all these things said about him. Or they say his militant perspective spoils everything. He was a protester, and he campaigned for improving the living conditions of the poor immigrants in New York.

MG Riis made his photographs while working as a journalist. For him, they were documents; he never considered them art. What are Riis’s pictures for you? Art, documents, or what?

PC I don’t care what they are called. I never cared about those kind of things—not for one second. I just think Riis created at least ten of the best images ever made, and these images simply transcend categories. They are very powerful as documents, and they are very delicately, very sensitively made. While showing a concrete reality, they transport you away from it, opening up your imagination. And, of equal importance, is the fact that these images were made by someone who never let go. As his body of work proves, Riis never lost his reason and focus. He went straight to the bottom of the problem. He dug and went deeper down in the darkness with his camera and the flash.

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“Under the dump, Rivington Street, about 1890” from Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives.

He took a lot of chances in his framing, in his lighting, in his composition. His images are very bold, very audacious. Of course, we are talking about a pioneer, and a pioneer has the absolute privilege of being there first and seeing things for the first time. There really was no readymade framing yet. There was no such thing as the full shot, medium shot, and close-up. Everything was wider, completely open. So every time we see a photograph by Riis or a film by the Lumière Brothers, we are doing our own framing, picking things inside the frame—a flower, that car, these two children playing. We are doing our own “selection.” Everything was very free, and that is the condition of the pioneer. They didn’t have all the absurd dramatic parameters that we now have. It is very, very difficult to have that freedom today.

MG What does Ventura think about Riis’s photographs?

PC Ventura saw them in our film, but he didn’t make any comment about them. You see, Riis is for me: he is part of my research work, a piece in my construction plan, and a protective presence that I like to have around. It was the same feeling with Robert Desnos during the making of Colossal Youth: Ventura doesn’t need to know much about Robert Desnos, his books, or the history of the surrealist movement. What’s important is the moment in which a letter by Desnos, translated from French to Creole, meets a letter written by Ventura: these two letters come together in one text/poem/letter, and it becomes a meeting of famous men. That’s what Evans and Agee meant by calling their book about sharecroppers Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and by including the inventory I mentioned: for them, it was a matter of bringing together what we sometimes call “art” and what we sometimes don’t call “art.” A brick wall built by Ventura can trigger the same aesthetic emotion as a painting, novel, photograph, film, or sculpture. The object—a cultural thing—might change, but the emotion can be of the same order: what you feel in front of Picasso or Giotto is probably the same rapture that Ventura feels in front of the walls he built with his own hands. So we should perhaps relativize the value of certain “epiphanies.”

MG You mentioned Riis being a militant—

PC Well, let’s not call him a “militant.” He thought of himself as a “citizen-photographer,” which I think is a wonderful definition not only for him, but also for people like Evans, Smith, Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, and Eugene Richards. And not only for photographers: John Ford was a “citizen-filmmaker.” Straub is a “citizen-filmmaker.” It is their connection to reality that I find very precious and admire.

I know that realism is a harsh, difficult, problematic word these days, but I don’t have a better one, really. This word actually means a very simple thing to me: being a realist means not being able to escape certain limits in which all human beings live and die. It’s not wanting to escape reality and sticking to it until the end of your forces. These guys really looked at the world in front of them, in front of their lenses, and what they got back from the world as a reward was a certain kind of humanity: the weak, the fragile, the underdogs, the working class, the immigrants, the marginal, the fringes of this society.

MG Riis was a Danish immigrant who arrived in New York in 1870, completely broke. He took up odd jobs, saved money, got married and eventually became a police reporter. Seeing what life was in the slums of New York—as an immigrant first, then as a journalist—he decided to do something for the poor by exposing their living conditions in a series of articles and public speeches. He wanted to change things, and he used his camera, his pen, and his voice to convince the wealthy to help “the other half.” Do you aspire to be a social reformer yourself? Do you want to influence the public opinion in your country and have an impact on society?

PC Absolutely not. And I know that what Riis did is not possible anymore. But this doesn’t mean that I quit. I keep on working, and I will keep on insisting. I’d like to be faithful to the people I make films with. We work to make films, and we work to make other people see our films. That’s enough. Like Cesare Pavese wrote: “Something is always missing.”

MG Riis’s solution to the problems of the people living in the slums was to tear down the shacks and the old, crumbling tenements and build “model tenements.” Giving a new house to the poor is exactly the same thing that the city of Lisbon did for the people of Fontainhas, but with disastrous results, as shown in your film Colossal Youth.

PC Moving poor people from slums to apartment blocks is what governments around the world usually do through “social security housing” plans. In the case of Fontainhas, we are talking about a clandestine neighborhood made of bricks and wood, with no water or electricity. The first shacks in Fontainhas were built in the mid-1960s by the rural Portuguese, who emigrated from the poor interior to the capital in search of a decent life. In the late-1960s, immigrants from Portuguese African colonies began to arrive in Lisbon to escape poverty and the ongoing colonial wars, and they built their shacks there too. Fontainhas and all the other slums in Lisbon were demolished very slowly, starting in the 1990s.

It took twenty-five years after the Revolution of April 1974 to deal with that problem. Giving decent housing to the people should have been one of the first preoccupations in the agenda of the post-April-1974 governments. The relocation came late, and it was done in a hasty way. Suddenly, in the mid-1990s, there was this feeling of urgency, or emergency, and, as we know, most of the time urgency is very counter-productive: a hasty decision here, a bad decision there, and the people of Fontainhas began to be separated from each other and given houses that were not suitable for them.

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Still from Colossal Youth, 2006, directed by Pedro Costa.

In Lisbon, the whole process of building new social housing blocks—“the new neighborhoods for the lower classes”—was done without a conscious plan, and without any real commitment. The architects and engineers who designed the new blocks were public officials, bureaucrats who were just going through the motions without much concern for the future residents. It was the same routine work for the bricklayers who built the new houses. Ironically, these bricklayers were the brothers of the poor people who were going to live in those places. So the new houses are very precarious, very damp, and they are already suffering the terrible consequences of time passing. As usual, Ventura said it better: “They made poor houses for the poor. It would have been better to let the poor take care of themselves.”

The final tragedy is that in Casal da Boba—the new bairro where the people of Fontainhas now live—everybody says: “I would much rather have my old shack in Fontainhas than live in this deserted, damp, cold, empty, white cube. I prefer a thousand times the rats and the stinking smell, but my house, the house that I built, with my people, my neighbors, my space, my stone.” The architectural organization of the space in Casal da Boba is violent in its core, in its intention. It is a space that was created to confine people, to break the bonds between people, to separate them.

MG Divide et impera. Dividing people to better control them.

PC Exactly, yeah. But it is also a matter of pure incompetence. To the people who designed and built them, these are houses for the poor—that is to say, something not worthy of great care. And then there are issues of corruption and property speculation, as there are everywhere in Southern Europe or Africa: money goes around without going where it should. Casal da Boba is basically a series of five-story buildings with a central deserted piazza. According to the original project, every block should have had an elevator, but only one building in the whole neighborhood has one. That’s the building where Mr. André lives, the guy who gives the tours of the new apartments in Colossal Youth. In real life, he is also a former inhabitant of Fontainhas who began to work with the local mayor on the relocation project. He is a public official, and he has a better position and more money than most of the others. So only his building has the elevator.

MG It seems to me that from Casa de Lava (1994) to Horse Money you have shown a very scientific system of power enacting what Pier Paolo Pasolini called “cultural genocide.”

PC When my Cape Verdean friends talk about their present condition, they say: “We are losing our traditions, our respect.” That’s what they keep repeating these days. Respect for themselves, I think, and respect for others as well, because in Casal da Boba people are becoming more and more violent, more indifferent towards their former dreams and aspirations as well as towards their fellow neighbors. There were even suicides among the people of Fontainhas after the relocation in the new apartment blocks. When we were shooting Colossal Youth, Ventura announced to us more than once: “The Ukrainian jumped yesterday, and that woman from Angola took the pills…” It seemed like we were measuring time in suicides—every week, every month. Of course, Fontainhas used to be a rough place: knives, guns, drug dealing. But suicide appeared in Casal da Boba.

Another thing my Cape Verdean friends say is: “We have no place of our own now.” But this is a story that began a long, long time ago. Five hundred years ago, Cape Verde was just a blank, white page, a sort of lab where racial experiments were made, and the Cape Verdean Creole was invented—a mix of Portuguese sailors and slaves from continental Africa. Then, the newborn Cape Verdean found himself confined to these small islands where he couldn’t survive, because Cape Verde is a very harsh, volcanic land where very little grows. Thus, the Cape Verdeans had to go away, and they were immediately broken up, separated, and divided. This separation has lasted for centuries. Today, not only did the Cape Verdeans lose their native islands, but they also lost their second homeland—the neighborhood of Fontainhas, their shacks in Lisbon. Now they feel that they have nothing left but themselves… and those selves amount to almost nothing: a bunch of broken memories, most of them quite nightmarish. Each man lives with his own past, each one plunged in his own night, in his white apartment or at his bench in the bar. Each day more silent, each day more lost.

Frankly, those who still have memories are the lucky ones, because the younger generations, the teenagers and the kids, are completely a-cultural, neither Cape Verdean nor Portuguese. Surely they are more North American at this point than they are Cape Verdean or Portuguese. It is this international youth that you also have in the borgate of Rome, in the suburbs of Paris, in Taiwan, everywhere. These kids are extremely violent, extremely lonely, and completely cut off from their ancestors—that is what I am beginning to feel. For young people, the idea of going back to Cape Verde is crazy nonsense. There is nothing there for them, it is a wasteland. Basically, Cape Verde is becoming another mediocre resort for low-cost tourism and a handling center for all sorts of commercial traffic.

On the other hand, for the older Cape Verdeans who came to Portugal in the 1970s, it is just too expensive to go back to the islands. I was told a story a long time ago, during my first months in Fontainhas. One night, I was walking in an alley and a guy stopped me: “Watch where you step,” he said. He made it sound very menacing, but also mysterious. Since I wanted to clear this mystery, I asked a friend from the neighborhood, and he told me: “You know, some parts of Fontainhas are sacred land. I won’t tell you more, just be aware that transporting a dead body to Cape Verde costs much more than transporting a living one.”

Now the sacred land of Fontainhas is gone forever. On it there now stands a huge intersection between highways.

MG I feel that the photographs by Riis that open your film Horse Money are not just an amulet, a benign presence to protect you, but also a sort of poetic manifesto.

PC People like Riis, Evans, or Smith are admirable: they took their time. We were talking about urgency in relocating the people of Fontainhas in the 1990s. Well, you can feel the same sense of urgency in contemporary cinema. The first press statement from any producer or director announcing a new production would be something like: “It’s going to be a race against time, but the film will be there in time for Christmas in a theater near you.” It’s this idea that time is money, and time is our enemy. To me, it’s just baffling that cinema managed to turn time into its enemy. Most films are simply commercial: for a few dollars, they deal in fake emotions and human feelings. On the contrary, what the citizens-photographers showed me was this patience, this vigil full of attention and care, this being there without forcing anyone to do anything. To me, the greatest thing in their work is the idea that you cannot steal anything with an image. Perhaps you cannot give anything, and perhaps you cannot offer much either. But you do not steal anything from the people.

Earlier, you asked me about my films having an impact on society: unfortunately I cannot give anything to the people I film. But I hope that my friends will end up with a good image of themselves, so I listen to their stories, and I try to work with their memories and bring them to the screen. In turn, they give me a lot of things that I need, most importantly their friendship. In cinema, these days, there is very little of this uninterested, generous exchange.

MG Contrary to all the classical Hollywood filmmakers you love (Ford, Jacques Tourneur, Raoul Walsh), you own the means of production; you are your own man. You have your own digital camera, and you can work with your friends in the “neighborhood-studio.” In spite of all the darkness surrounding you, it seems like small utopia made real.

PC Yes, I have been working on this possibility. It is the dream that cinema can be close to life, that working and living can be close, that there could be a dialogue between them. And it’s also a matter of demystifying cinema, of telling people that cinema is not a luxury. Cinema is not a glamorous activity that feeds on luxury. The idea that cinema needs millions of Euros or dollars in order to be made is a perpetual lie, one that is not fought enough. It should be said that cinema is not condemned to inflation, that it can be less expensive. This is also a way of saying that cinema is not removed from the real world. Cinema is inside reality: it’s not just something that happens on some fairy-tale hill in Los Angeles.

You don’t need the big bucks and the big trucks to make a film. Rather, you need what Riis, Evans, and Smith used: patience, time, love, observation, and a few technical skills. And work, work, work. Stay a bit longer in a place. Stay with the person you are filming a bit longer, and refuse the kind of military raid which cinema has transformed itself into: coming to a location, conquering it, shooting it and then running away—that’s how a film crew operates nowadays.

The citizens-photographers were the exact opposite. The freedom that they managed to invent in the relation between themselves and their subjects is priceless, and we can follow, adopt and adapt their ideas and methods today. A van with a lab in the back, and a crew of two or three guys: they could, and they still can, make a film. Think of the Russians in the 1920s: Aleksandr Medvedkin’s “kino train,” or Vertov’s production units. Robert Flaherty, alone or with a minimal crew. And Jean Rouch—the amazing Jean Rouch. Warhol in his Factory. Straub and Godard, of course. The examples are so luminous that they stand out immediately. Utopias maybe, but they’re still here for you. We have Wang Bing, for instance.

MG Just like pioneer Riis bought his own camera to do his investigations in the slums, after shooting Ossos with the big bucks and the big trucks, you bought your own small digital camera to be free to explore Fontainhas on your own.

PC Sticking to photography and to these “heroes” that I keep praising: they were very useful for me at that time, after making Ossos, when I was in the dark. I was a bit lost inside myself, and I couldn’t find my way. The example, the practice, the work of these men was very inspiring. Being in Fontainhas for the first months, with my backpack, my small digital camera, my tripod, I really felt close to them. These guys had this freedom, they did not depend on the usual heavy-duty machine.

But of course, being this free comes at a price: my films, from In Vanda’s Room onward, are not screened and seen where they have a right to be screened and seen. We make films in the suburbs, so they stay in the suburbs. (laughter) But I am also making the films for the community of my friends, in a sense. It’s very rewarding when, after the screenings, my friends get back to me with certain comments or observations—questions, critiques, ideas. So we are also doing the films for us, for our—

MG —family?

PC Yes, family. Actually, the first, legendary photography exhibition to showcase the works of Smith, Frank, Robert Capa, Roy DeCarava, and a lot of others was called “The Family of Man.” I’m very fond of that title, that idea.

MG The word camera in English refers to an optical device for capturing images. But camera is originally a Latin word meaning room. Is your cinema a house for your family of friends?

PC Well, I don’t know. (laughter) I cannot say. But I can say that one of the reasons why I feel so close to Riis is that this guy was not afraid of confinement. He went deep down in the basements, in the dark, dark rooms. Most of his work is about being locked inside. And I think I am a better filmmaker inside enclosed spaces, corridors, and alleys: I need them in order to think, to work. The community of Fontainhas also taught me this practice. In the end, all the films we have been making together are simply films about housing problems, quests for homes: our lost house, our possible, future, desired home in all its forms, concrete and imaginary. They’re about the fear of losing that house, the roof, our home, the fear of losing this center. You have to have a center in your life. The problem for Cape Verdeans is that they are constantly losing their center, and this forces them to constantly re-balance their existence. It’s really a tough life. So, for me, as a filmmaker, it is a matter of re-balancing my gaze, and my position and relation to them.

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“The man slept in this cellar for four years, about 1890” from Jacob Riis’s How The Other Half Lives.

MG Your mentioning of dark rooms could make me go on with photography analogies forever: Vanda’s room is a dark room and a darkroom, i.e. a camera obscura, and so on. But I will stop. I think that the reason behind my asking about photography in the first place is that I would like to discuss what, in reference to Horse Money, you have called the “everlasting present.” Can you tell me about that idea? Because the first thing I thought while watching Horse Money is André Bazin’s essay “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” where he writes about an insect forever trapped in a drop of amber.

PC I can be a bit extreme and say that those poor, desperate human beings leaning over the tables in Riis’s photographs are still leaning over the tables in Fontainhas and Casal da Boba. They are exactly the same. Very little has changed. Well, the clothes change, the hats, the mustaches, the furniture, but I still recognize that nineteenth century world as mine: it is my reality, the place where I live, the place where I work. It’s most of planet Earth.

There’s something else I see in Riis’s photographs: I see a Danish guy in New York doing the same thing I am doing in Lisbon, with the same concern and inquietude. This Danish guy worked 100 years ago, but I don’t see that these 100 years that have passed. In great films, I don’t see the years passing either: what I see is the tragedy of mankind repeating itself, over and over again. The “human condition,” as we used to say. That is what I see, and unfortunately, this human tragedy is an everlasting present.

MG And in fact, in Horse Money as in the films Trás-Os-Montes (1976) and Rosa de Areia(1989) by your former teacher António Reis and his wife Margarida Cordeiro, people seem to travel from Portugal-today to Portugal-in-the-Middle-Ages, and vice versa. They are perpetually in-between, perpetually caught between the Middle Ages and now.

PC Absolutely.

MG Reis and Cordeiro often used actual, historical documents from the Middle Ages in their films. A good example is the satirical trial scene from Rosa de Areia in which a pig is sentenced to death. In Horse Money you use actual, bureaucratic documents belonging to your Cape Verdean friend Vitalina. Do you see a parallel between the medieval justice system and today’s bureaucracy?

PC Like Luis Buñuel used to say: “Blessed be the Middle Ages, the most spiritual of ages!” (laughter)

I am not sure about what the suffering of Vitalina and of people like her can be compared to. By “suffering,” among many other things, I mean having to walk the endless corridors of offices, departments, divisions and subdivisions—the ordeal of the closed doors, the closed faces, the queues, the documents, the signatures, the questionnaires, the interrogations that Vitalina and the others have to go through almost every day of their life. I don’t know if there’s something worse. But that’s their life, that’s their routine. It’s part of the immigrants’ day. They are being constantly summoned to identify themselves in this or that office, or stopped in the streets by the police. And it is never enough to say your name, to say that you work, that you didn’t rob, that you didn’t kill, that you bought this or that thing with the money you earned with your honest job. You have to show proof, you have to sign certificates, and then re-sign them. I have the feeling that certain departments, certain offices, certain buildings in our towns were created just for that, just to keep this big wheel turning. It is a machine that employs a lot of people and creates nothing. It is a system designed to keep people like Vitalina and Ventura in their place, in order not to let them cross too many bridges and go too far. It is a system that deceives them, that tries to put some temperance in their dreams.

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Vitalina on the set of Horse Money, 2014, directed by Pedro Costa. Photo by Marta Mateus.

Everything that is happening now—this awful lie, the politics of austerity that we have in Portugal, that you have in Italy, that they have in Greece—is nothing but an instrument of control: austerity is mostly designed to touch the weaker, and that’s a way of pushing these people lower and lower, making them even more wasted and exhausted. Bureaucracy is definitely one of the best ways of exhausting human beings.

MG One of the last chapters in Riis’s book How the Other Half Lives is called “The Man With the Knife,” and a man with a knife is what we see in the last shot in Horse Money. Was that an intentional reference to Riis?

PC No, but you have a good point.

MG Riis’s text is about a poor man from the slums who tries to kill a random guy in the crowd downtown as a desperate gesture of rebellion against an inhuman system. Horse Money and your short films Tarrafal (2007), The Rabbit Hunters (2007), and Our Man (2010) all end with a shot of a knife. What does this object embody for you, and for the people of Fontainhas?

PC I cannot tell you what it means, but I can tell you how it got into Horse Money. We were shooting “Ventura’s Sunday,” that is to say, some moments of Ventura strolling in Lisbon in the 1970s. On Sundays—his day off from bricklaying—he would go to the park, or he would go for a drink downtown with his colleagues and friends, or he would go dance with girls, or he would go buy a shirt, boots, a knife, a radio transistor. We shot some of these moments. One of the shots I had in the “Ventura’s Sunday” folder was the shop window with all the knives lined up, and Ventura walking towards the shop window and looking at the knives. He always had a knife when he was young. Every immigrant used to have a small knife in his back pocket: to clean the nails, to peel an apple, to cut the bread, et cetera. It was very common back then, so shops existed for those needs.

As we were finishing the editing of Horse Money, we knew that the last shot of the film would be Ventura checking out of the hospital. It was a simple way of closing the film: he would come out of the hospital with a doctor or a nurse bidding him farewell, and he’d probably be cured. The end.

But I never gave directions. I believe that Ventura thought about his “discharge from hospital” all by himself, because the way he walks out of the hospital is very different from the way he walks during the rest of the film. He walks with a very steady, solid walk when he leaves the building. He looks young, like he’s almost strutting. He seems very determined as he walks away. There is a line from Blake & Mortimer: “He was walking towards an horizon that only he knew.” That’s exactly how Ventura walked. “Here’s a man who has made a decision,” I thought when I was editing the last part of the film, and as I watched and re-watched Ventura’s walk, I realized that there was something missing. The film couldn’t simply end with Ventura leaving the hospital. Not with that kind of walk. So I kept delaying the closing of the film, and let it rest a little.

One day, I opened the “Ventura’s Sunday” folder, and I saw the knives in the shop window, and there it was: Ventura found his purpose. Somehow, the three steps that he takes coming closer to the knives in the shop window reassured me. I could breathe again with this last shot: I knew that he would be safe, that he would be protected. I don’t know what the knife means, though. People have been telling me about M (1931) by Mr. Fritz Lang.

MG I am more inclined to think of From the Clouds to the Resistance (1979) by Straub and Huillet.

PC There is indeed a box of knives in that, and one knife ends up in the pocket of a young rebel. Yeah, young rebels need knives: youth is bloodthirsty. (laughter)

MG Since Horse Money started as a collaboration with Gil Scott-Heron, I must ask you: is it possible that someday Ventura will use his knife to start an actual revolution, a revolution in which his people “will be in the street looking for a brighter day?”

PC I wish he would. (laughter) It would be a very gentle revolution, however, if Ventura was the leader. It would be so gentle. But I am afraid it will not happen… I am afraid not. (Smiles and makes a gesture of sewing his lips)

Horse Money opens Friday, July 24, 2015 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York City, following a comprehensive retrospective “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: The Films of Pedro Costa,” running July 17 through 23.

Michael Guarneri is a freelance writer and occasional filmmaker.

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Miguel Gomes by Giovanni Marchini Camia
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