In Vanda's Room
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Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room / No Quarto da Vanda (2000) is the second installment of what has become widely known as the "Fontainhas Trilogy." The other two films are Bones (1997) and Colossal Youth (2006). A quasi-documentary shot on digital video, In Vanda's Room offers a compassionate glimpse into the impoverished Fontainhas district of Lisbon, Portugal. It depicts residents attempting to go about their everyday lives while the city authorities systematically demolish houses around them. At the same time, Costa's film demonstrates an eye for composition and lighting that evokes painters such as Vermeer and Rembrandt.
One of the most acclaimed international directors of recent years, Pedro Costa (b. 1959) studied filmmaking at the Lisbon Theater and Film School under Paulo Rocha, Alberto Seixas Santos and António Reis. Reis in particular proved influential both in Portugal and in Europe generally, thanks to his unique style of "poetic ethnographic" filmmaking. In a way, the concept applies equally to Costa, whose twin documentary and poetic aspects draw upon not only the films of Reis, but also James Agee and Walker Evans' classic book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), the photography of Jacob Riis, and even Charlie Chaplin's depictions of poverty, as Costa has acknowledged.
According to Cyril Neyrat, Costa first discovered Fontainhas while delivering letters on behalf of immigrants from the island country of Cape Verde, a former Portuguese colony, after completing the film Casa de Lava (1994), which was shot on location there. Drawn to the neighborhood, he began to visit Fontainhas regularly. His first Fontainhas film, Bones / Ossos (1997), was more of a conventional narrative feature shot on 35mm with a regular film crew, but using residents of Fontainhas in the cast. For example, Vanda Duarte, the main subject of this film, plays a character named Clotilde in Bones. While the film was well received and is still considered by many to be Costa's best work, afterwards he felt that he needed to return and make a new film with a greater sense of authenticity and fewer of the trappings of conventional feature films, especially the large technical crew. In the commentary track for the Criterion Collection DVD, Costa notes that some residents suggested that he shoot a gangster-type film, while others asked him to show more of their actual lives. Obviously, Costa opted for the latter.
The main subject of the film, Vanda Duarte, helps her family sell produce and spends much of her spare time smoking heroin in her bedroom with her sister. The Duarte family came to Fontainhas in the 1960s from the north of Portugal. Long after the father abandoned the household the rest of the family remained, earning a meager living through their produce business. The film also depicts a group of male heroin addicts who, unlike Vanda and her sister, use needles and have only tenuous relationships with their families.
In terms of production techniques, Costa pushed the limits of what is possible with standard definition digital video, shooting scenes in silhouette, by candlelight, or by sunlight coming through a window. He shot the footage by himself with a Panasonic DV camera, using no additional equipment except for a bounce card and (later) a microphone on a tripod since the built-in microphone of the video camera proved inadequate. In a 2008 interview with Michael Guillen for Green Cine, Costa stated, "[T]his freedom or lightness in the way I work doesn't mean that it's all completely improvisational or that it's a vacation with a video camera. Not at all. I try to impose, almost, the same discipline and the same consciousness as working with a 35mm camera; but I feel that everything is really more risky. Technically, because we have to be as good as with a 35mm camera, which is nearly impossible." Over time he accumulated some 180 hours of footage, which he and his editor Dominique Auvray shaped in to the nearly three-hour film.
However, while Costa strove for a sense of authenticity throughout, this does not mean that he presented the footage untouched or that he avoided introducing any of his own creative touches. Due to problems with some of the originally recorded sound, he and his sound crew used extensive redubbing and post-sync sound. For example, some of Vanda's laughing and coughing were recorded after the fact. In addition, one of his sound editors, who had worked with the famed Egyptian director Youssef Chahine, brought with him recordings of construction sounds from Cairo that were used in the film. He further admitted in a 2010 interview with Eugene Kotlarenko for Art in America that the music by the British art punk band Wire playing in the background in one scene was his personal choice, though he claimed that afterwards residents asked for a copy of the CD.
In the same Art in America interview, Costa noted his continued involvement with Fontainhas: "I'm an honorary member of the neighborhood association. My friend who does the sound was appointed a councilor of the new housing bloc. [...] I go to community meetings, discussions every weekend, and I'm only away from there when I'm shooting or promoting something else." He also acknowledged that he was acutely aware of the ethical questions behind his approach: "Even if I'm just filming a composition of Vanda or Ventura alone or in bed, drinking or smoking, I know that she will be judged, he will be judged, as representations of the community." In Vanda's Room proved a major turning point in Costa's career--not just thematically, but stylistically. His most recent film, Ne Change Rien (2009), radically shifts focus to the French singer and actress Jeanne Balibar, but continues his ongoing obsession with long takes, low camera angles and minimal lighting as a means to gradually uncover the souls of his subjects.
Producers: Karl Baumgartner, Andres Pfäffli, Elda Guidinetti and Francisco Villa-Lobos
Director: Pedro Costa
Cinematographer: Pedro Costa
Editor: Dominique Auvray
Sound: Philippe Morel, Mathieu Imbert and Stephan Konken
Cast: Vanda Duarte; Zita Duarte; Lena Duarte; Pedro Lanban; António "Pango" Semedo; Paulo Nunes; Paulo Jorge Gonçalves; Manuel Gomes Miranda; Evangelina Nelas; Fernando Paixão; Diogo Miranda.
by James Steffen