Salute Your Shorts: More of Pedro Costa's Letters from Fontainhas

Movies Features Pedro Costa
Share Tweet Submit Pin

Salute Your Shorts is a weekly column that looks at short films, music videos, commercials or any other short form visual media that generally gets ignored.

Out this week on DVD is the monumental and largely forbidding set of Pedro Costa’s six Fontainhas films, aptly titled Letters from Fontainhas after events in the set’s most-famous picture Colossal Youth. That feature in particular has long been sought out here in the States, but the movie itself is easily misunderstood without the context of the films that preceded it; likewise, the three short films that Costa made after it are difficult to understand without understanding Colossal Youth. Each film builds on the last in a way that’s one of the clearest artistic progressions available, even if it misses out on the projects Costa was working on in the midst of his more than 10-years-long epic.

When Costa finished filming his second feature Casa de Lava in 1994, a sort of loose remake of Jacques Tourneur’s I Walked with a Zombie, he was given a large number of letters and gifts to deliver to people back in Portugal. Costa had shot the film in Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony from which many had left and emigrated to Lisbon. In delivering these letters Costa found himself entering the poverty stricken Fontainhas district of Lisbon, a usually ignored area of town composed of poor people from both Portugal and Cape Verde without any particular dividing lines. It was a shock to Costa and he spent the next few years visiting and practically living in the area while doing research and eventually filming Ossos.

Ossos is a slow, difficult movie shot in the style of classical auteur-driven European cinema. Many critics link it with films by Robert Bresson and not just because its cinematographer worked with Bresson on L’argent, but because of its self-consciously elliptical narrative that removes important scenes from the film. That being said, it’s also the most conventional of Costa’s Fontainhas works, a beautiful work that may well be my personal favorite film by Costa. Its story focuses on a deadbeat dad stealing a baby and trying to sell it. The movie’s stand-out, though, is the Fontainhas actress Vanda Duarte, who plays a friend of the mother and is the only one actively trying to retrieve the child.

While Ossos was critically acclaimed and is in every way a great modernist film, Costa saw its method of filmmaking as a dead end because it required a large crew, invasive lighting and overtaking a neighborhood. In reaction to this, Costa shot his next feature, In Vanda’s Room, on digital video and aside from an occasional assistant to work the sound, did the entire movie himself with no crew or anything. The film is a pseudo-documentary, with Costa asking people to repeat stories they’ve said elsewhere for the camera. It’s still more truthful than any of Werner Herzog’s documentaries, less stylized than Errol Morris’, and technically almost identical to Frederick Wiseman’s films, but I guess if Costa doesn’t want it to be a documentary then it doesn’t have to be. In any case, the movie took his minimalism to a greater extreme with almost no camera movement and almost no plot. The movie’s main action consists of the Fontainhas population sitting around, doing drugs and telling stories.

In essence the last third of Costa’s “Fontainhas Trilogy” of features combines the aesthetics of both of its predecessors. Colossal Youth was shot once more in DV, only this time it has a plot of sorts. At least, it has a protagonist, the imposing Ventura who spends his time visiting the now-evicted ex-residents of Fontainhas, the destruction of which was documented in In Vanda’s Room. The film features the beauty of Ossos with the progressive filmmaking technique used in In Vanda’s Room, creating a film that’s moving due to both its richly developed characters and its truly beautiful shots.

Each of these films had aspects that were similar thematically and they frequently respond to each other, which makes it fitting that the trilogy is collected together. As avant-garde as In Vanda’s Room can be, though, all three are primarily concerned with the people rather than the apparatus of filmmaking, which is much of why Costa threw out the lighting, crew and everything else required for a traditional film for his later features without feeling that he’d lost anything. Oddly, though, his short films from Fontainhas are intrinsically linked with the features that came before them yet focused on something else entirely.

The first of these films, “Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female,” was an installation piece that was actually released in 2005 before Costa finished making Colossal Youth. The short is a split-screen in which the left side of the feature is exterior spaces in Fontainhas and the right is interiors. All of the shots are in fact taken from the shoots of In Vanda’s Room and Colossal Youth, so there are moments that are readily identifiable to fans of Costa. The film ends up emphasizing the amount of energy and life that was a part of the Fontainhas neighborhood, but that’s more the focus of Costa’s earlier works. The movie’s actual focus is on the process of editing and the way shots are chosen. Common criticism of Costa’s movies is that the shots are chosen at random and the moments aren’t meaningful, they’re just a collection of moments that don’t form a cohesive whole. Here, Costa offers viewers the chance to mentally edit a film on their own out of 35 minutes of dialogue-free Fontainhas life.

That may sound somewhat boring, but there does end up being something entrancing about these shots he chose (and since the film was originally a museum installation there's the assumption that you won't spend more than a few minutes watching). The sheer number of people and activities that happen in these random corridors and spaces is fascinating and there’s a sense that despite the work done on the short’s sound this is in fact true documentary, giving you an exact sense of what it felt and looked like in the area when this was shot. There’s a definite relationship between this work and Andy Warhol’s, who was a big influence on Costa, but the idea of making your own movie out of these shots is definitely a more 21st century notion of filmmaking. Costa’s commentary here is about the choices required from even the most simple type of filmmaking and a reassertion of what he did as an artistic enterprise—good luck turning these clips into anything as cohesive as even In Vanda’s Room.

This was an odd project for Costa and remains his only work of truly non-narrative filmmaking. But the issue of authorial choice was clearly something he was still grappling with and after completing Colossal Youth he released two shorts in separate anthology films during 2007 that took a different route of examination.

I’m not certain which came first between “Tarrafal” and “The Rabbit Hunters,” but since they were shot at the same time and seem to have been edited back-to-back it makes little difference. In the first half of “Tarrafal” we listen to a conversation between several ex-Fontainhas residents about the world of Cape Verde. The pair focuses on locations and what may still be around, but eventually the topic somehow turns to a vampire story from the area about a vampire who would give letters to people and then hunt down and suck the blood of their recipients at night, though never killing their victims. Their blood was gone, but not their lives. The second half of the short seems barely related until eventually we learn that one of the characters is going to be deported, having been sent a letter from the vampiric state of Portugal that won’t kill him but will suck out something of his life. This is matched with the film’s title, “Tarrafal,” which was the location of a concentration camp in Cape Verde also known as the “Camp of Slow Death.”

The political slant of this short is obvious, but it’s only half of the project. “The Rabbit Hunters” focuses on Ventura from Colossal Youth, who was only briefly around in “Tarrafal,” and instead it is somewhat like a continuation of that earlier film. Again Ventura is wandering amongst his friends and spends his time playing cards and telling stories of the past, only now he’s joined by his friend Alfredo. The pair drift through the film together until with its last nine minutes the short converges with “Tarrafal,” with the same actions taking place and using similar takes. “The Rabbit Hunters” fills in details missing from “Tarrafal” and helps to give a complete story, but while there’s some definite narrative thrust in the deportation it’s really more of a commentary about the way we choose to tell stories. Costa’s statement here is that he can come upon this same material in multiple ways and tell in some sense the same narrative.

There’s always an essential question in Costa’s work about what gets told and who gets to tell it. The Fontainhas trilogy moved from the filmmaker being at an advantage in telling their story to a level of equality with the subject and eventually the subject of a film in some ways overpowering the filmmaker, with Ventura completely taking over Colossal Youth. Costa’s methodology in these shorts suggest that all methods of storytelling and editing should be considered artistically valid, whether they arrive at their observations elliptically as in “The Rabbit Hunters” or more obviously with “Tarrafal.” The only difficulty is that, as shown with “Little Boy Male, Little Girl Female,” you’re unable to tell everything—some of these choices need to be made.

I’m certain that no one is buying the Letters from Fontainhas set for Costa’s short films, especially given the large anticipation that’s been building for the release of Colossal Youth in particular. But they’re not supplements that should be ignored given how much light they shed on Costa’s complicated beliefs as a filmmaker. In its own way, this second trilogy from Fontainhas is just as fascinating and groundbreaking as the first.