Joana Pimenta

By José Sarmiento Hinojosa

Joana Pimenta, from Lisbon, is a teacher in the Department of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard and a filmmaker with two titles to her name, the films The Figures Carved into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana Trees and the new and exceptional An Aviation Field, right from her experience in the Harvard Sensory Ethnography Lab. We caught her a day before her trip to Locarno, to premiere Once it was Brasilia, her last work as a cinematographer, and exchanged some words with her. 

Desistfilm: Joana, tell us about your experience in the Harvard Sensory Ethnographic Lab. How did you arrive there, and what was the kind of work done over there?

Joana Pimenta: I have always been in a productive tension with the Sensory Ethnography Lab, which truly shaped and defined my work as a filmmaker. I started at Harvard about eight years ago as a PhD student there and I didn’t come from an ethnographic background or an anthropological background, I come much more from film, from writing and making films. Ethnography thus became the means to think through and explore a possible process for me as a filmmaker. While many of my colleagues there were making films about people and communities, films I really respect and love, at the same time I was making films where humans were not present at all. I embraced the role of a fake ethnographer, took it as a means for a process, took all that was useful to me with little respect for the discipline and its complicated history, and that created for me a space of freedom to make work in, and to allow myself a long time to find my own way through it. How do I position myself in the relationship with ethnography, as someone who doesn’t come from that background? What do I take from that as a process for filmmaking? Those questions became important to me because of the context I was inserted in when I was making work, because there was a space to really debate and discuss them and engage critically with them.

I started making films by going to places I had never been to but that I had a personal or historical relationship with, like the Madeira island where my family is from, Mozambique or Cape Verde. I would go somewhere and really spend time there, with the people there, engaging with the history and with the questionable drive to position myself in regards to that history, even before ever turning the camera on. I would look for ways to negotiate the distance between myself and what I was filming, finding what that distance was and often even how to keep in in place, how close can you get or how far removed you can be to use the means you have to have an encounter with a reality. So, for me ethnography was more like a process; I took it as a process in filmmaking more than as a discipline, and I think that was very important to me, also because the lab is a place where you work with a lot of freedom. The Sensory Ethnography Lab was the only place that for me at the time allowed for that. There’s absolutely no pressure for you (at least there wasn’t for me) to finish a film, or to have a film ready to show outside of the space of those walls, and people work obsessively and seriously on what they are making, on finding their way through their images and sounds.

I started as a student in the Sensory Ethnography class, and I ended up being a teaching assistant for the class with Lucien Castaing-Taylor for two or three years. In September I start teaching at Harvard as visiting faculty, and I’ll be teaching my own course on documentary and fiction, that is kind of bit far away from what Sensory Ethnography is, but where I take a lot of what I learnt there and start a different kind of work with it. I still find it, as a process and as a method, to be the most valuable thing active at Harvard. 

The Figures Carved into the Knife by the Sap of the Banana Trees (2014)

Desistfilm: So that leads us to our second question. You’re now teaching at the department of Visual and Environmental Studies and at the same time you just finished your PhD this last May. Would you say the practice of investigation, academia, and filmmaking, realization, are intrinsically related? How did one influence the other for you?

Joana Pimenta: I try to keep them very separately from each other. I mean, I can’t even do both at the same time: when I’m writing I’m not making films and when I’m making films I’m usually not writing. I think that they both inform each other in the sense that of course I have similar interests in both fields, and I try to research things in my academic work which interest me regardless of what I’m making but I am very resistant to the idea that academic work or critical writing should be an illustration of your practice, and vice versa, that your practice is kind of a continuation of your writing.

And that’s something that we discuss a lot at Harvard because it’s a research university, we’re kind of making films on the fringes of a research university, so I’m continuously trying to negotiate the line between these two things. I think that where they are similar is on the long time they take. I mean, you usually spend two years or three years on your writing process, the same way that you often spend three years doing a film, but in terms of process, I feel that the kind of academic writing that is done in American universities is incredibly different from the kind of films that I want to make. When you’re writing you have a methodology, you are kind of following a method, and when I’m making films I’m kind of mostly trying to get close to a place or a person or a history and to be surprised and transformed by what they offer and hide, or to make a plan and then to my best to have that plan completely turned over and changed and become something else. For me, because I write about film and I make films, I really try to keep them separate from each other.

Desistfilm: We were checking your installation works, like Fogo or Blade I and II, which also deal with the subject of territory and space, and part of these installation works also landed as part of An Aviation Field. Can you talk about your work in installation and how it relates to your second short film?

Joana Pimenta: Yeah, so for instance, in An Aviation Field, it’s a film that I spent about approximately three years making. Not always actively making it but it’s a film that I started when I made a trip to Cape Verde, I spent three weeks in this village, Chã das Caldeiras, that is inside a crater of a volcano. Every day when I woke up there’d be this circular wall around me, and I knew I wanted to make a film there but I didn’t entirely know what I was making. But every day it was really amazing to wake up there, and to see this enormous wall all around, made by the volcano from inside the crater. The village I was in was removed from any other village in that island, they were so removed they had their own co-operative local government, and people live there because the land is very fertile, it’s very warm so it’s good for some forms of agriculture. I stayed with a family but I never felt I could turn a camera at them or make a film about them, I understood very little about what it meant to live in that place, but every day I would wake up and pan my 16mm camera around the black wall of the volcano, and I would take stills with my 35mm camera.

There’s also where I filmed the two men coming down the volcano, the two men who were wearing red at the beginning of the film. And for a really long time I kept those images and I kept returning to them, I knew there was a film there but I wasn’t entirely sure how to begin working with it. And so I did two installations in that moment, where I tried to work with the same ideas, which could be provokedly contained in an installation form. Installing images as objects in space actually helped me to think a lot about everything and how to move forward with the film, so I made those two installations that were black and white photographs of the volcano and also a three-screen 16mm film.

And then what happened is that I went to live… in Brasilia I started working with this Brazilian filmmaker whose name is Adirley Queiros and lives in Ceilândia, which is about fifty kilometers away from Brasilia and I spent a lot of time shooting there, and I was… those images from Fogo kept coming to my mind and I kept finding a relationship between that and Brasilia where I was filming. I was filming in Brasilia thinking that I was finishing the film I had started a year or two ago. Then I went back to the U.S. and for a year, due to legal visa issues I couldn’t leave the country, so I started remaking in my studio models of everything I had shot, and I’d make this architectural model of something that I had shot in Brasilia and then project the images onto it.

I built all these surfaces of architectural models mostly from memory, from my memory of the places I had been to, not necessarily looking at the images. I’d never done anything like this before, I didn’t know how to make a model, but all of the sudden the idea of borders was important to me, because I couldn’t leave the country, I couldn’t go back to the places I had filmed in, I couldn’t actually go anywhere, and for a year I was inside my studio rebuilding. And as someone who travel is so important for my work, this idea of going somewhere, spending time there and making a film with what you encounter in the place, the removal or the distance what was made me able to start to build the different architectural remakes that the film plays in and also to start constructing this sound, mostly. That was the time where I made all those models, including the ones you’re talking about, that is like this model square, and then I made this little cart for the camera, so the camera would go inside it.

It’s interesting because for me it was like, I never thought about me as someone who would work inside a studio but all of the sudden I had no choice. And it’s like, going somewhere really far away where you’d be with no access to anything you normally have access to, no research materials, no internet, and no electricity even. I only had my 16mm camera, because I wouldn’t be able to charge batteries, and all of the sudden being in a place that was like super comfortable to me, which was the studio, and trying to kind of, negotiate this distance to the site I’ve been filming in. And so installation becomes part of that process of working with different parts of the films I’m constructing and negotiating some of the ideas in them.

An Aviation Field (2016)

Desistfilm: Sounds like a very long and excruciating thing to do.

Joana Pimenta: I like the idea of testing limits in that sense, my own and of the work I make. Making films should be uncomfortable, especially if you’re dealing with reality. No one asked you to bring a camera into their backyard, I should at first hand feel uncomfortable and out of place. One of my biggest problems with documentary is that filmmakers often act as if they have the right to enter into other people’s lives, they don’t even ask if they can go into their home. Cinema doesn’t give anyone the possessive ability to intrude into someone else’s space without asking permission and without having to earn a space or a position in space from which to do so. Pointing a camera at someone is to initiate a power relationship and I’m only happy if that turns into a battle, or at least a fistfight, when we find a way to make clear that we might find each other or only disagree but that we’re finding a space for speaking with, and not for or on behalf of, others. I don’t necessarily look at the map and choose a particular difficult place to work in but the places I’m interested in are places where your body has to have a reaction, where your head needs to get a little confused and lost. Same thing when I work with crews in more controlled environments, where we create the film’s own reality. When everyone starts hallucinating a little, to have strange dreams about the film, then maybe the film begins (I just came from a shoot where every morning, exhausted and in a bad humor, my co-director and the actress talked about the strange dreams with the film we had had the night before…).

Brasilia and Fogo were similar in the reaction they provoked on my body, even though one is a contemporary modernist city and the other is a village in a volcano crater, in the sense that it’s impossible for you not to negotiate your presence within that place, the relation between your body and everything that is mobilized there in terms of ideology, history, geography, the Portuguese colonial past and contemporary politics. I think it’s about like taking a position, wherever you decide to put your camera you’re kind of … it’s a position you’re taking in relationship to all of those things, and that’s what interests me more than anything else.

Desistfilm: There’s a theme in your work which deals with this contrast of “geometry vs. asymmetry”. This figure of the aviation field, flat and rectangular shape, or the models for the city in contrast to the rough terrains of the Fogo volcano… Do you think this idea is related to the necessity of mankind to tame the nature, which always comes undone? 

Joana Pimenta: In An Aviation Field I was, it’s kind of a cliché, but I was reading the Levi-Strauss book “Tristes Tropiques”… At some point in my negotiation with the Sensory Ethnography Lab, my negotiation with the idea of sensory ethnography, I asked Lucien to give me all the seminal ethnographic books, because I wanted to read them and know what this was all about from my outsider position. So I read the Malinowskis, the Margaret Meads, the Levi-Strauss… And I was interested in this idea of going somewhere then finding your process in that geographical space. So that was the processual idea that interested me more than anything: the idea of how ethnographers did their work. And so, when I was reading the Levi-Strauss he said something like “An aviation field in an unknown suburb, avenues of tree lined streets, there I find myself, time traveller, space archeologist, trying to rebuild exoticism out of wrecks and remainders”.

I was thinking a little bit about that sentence (that I am sure I’m totally misquoting), in all its complication and conflict it kept echoing in my head, more than a relationship with nature, I was thinking about this idea of Fogo being this volcano crater, a village that kept being erased every time the volcano erupted, and of a few months later being in Brasilia, a city that was built on top of a desert ground. There was this idea of this modernist utopia that kept being dismantled by its soil, by its past … when it rains in Brasilia, it’s really interesting because there’s also this red earth that starts emerging, so it’s like the soil always threatening to the concrete ground built on top of it… I was also working in Ceilândia, which is a periphery city that was started nearby Brasilia, that was built for the removal of the construction workers who had built the capital, and I was making a film and working as a cinematographer for someone for whom the ideological architectural narrative is something he always works with, Adirley Queiros, and so I had on my mind this continuous ongoing negotiation between both geographical distance and historical distance.

And also the sounds… some of the sounds you can hear in the film are some of the deepest sounds that were ever recorded in the bottom of the sea and some are sounds from outer space, so we had the deepest sound that was ever recorded next to sounds from the National Space Agency Archives, so we had this kind of a span of geographical space and distance that I was very interested in…  That’s a really long-winded answer to your question (laughs).

Desistfilm: Something that we are seeing in these past years is the emergence of this subject of post-colonialism and territory that is very present in some contemporary experimental filmmakers. Watching films like Ana Vaz’ Ha Terra! or films like yours that also deal with this subject. Do you find this revisit of these post-colonialist ideas a result of this phenomenon which is happening right now in Europe, where displaced human beings are returning to seek shelter in this kind of constant transit, and where also you have a new generation that is mobilizing more to new frontiers? 

Joana Pimenta:  Yeah, maybe for this new generation there’s finally a bit more visibly conflictious relationship, that will hopefully become louder and louder… I mean, I cannot speak for Ana Vaz because she’s Brazilian, so I’m going to speak as a Portuguese, and in particular from my own experience.

In Portugal, the social, political and institutional relationship to colonial history is still, in my view, completely and conveniently self-censored. Every time I hear people saying that there’s no racism in Portugal, or that there is no conflicted relation towards colonialism, I want to kick and scream. Portuguese society is profoundly racist and simultaneously profoundly denying of its own racism, and maybe that starts historically, with a self-censored historical relationship towards colonialism, with the refusal to discuss it (publicly, socially, institutionally, politically), to discuss the brutality of what was perpetrated, and how its ideology still resonates in so many ways in contemporary Portuguese society. And so yes, I think there is a lot of rage in a new generation of Portuguese people regarding how the country has dealt with its own history, with the historical debt it carries, and how that pervades contemporary society.

For instance, and this is just an emblematic example of a much larger and more important social and political issue, a few weeks ago a statue was raised to Padre António Vieira in one of the main squares in Lisbon. It shows him with his arm raised, preaching and evangelizing, and surrounded by three indigenous children, belonging to the peoples that were themselves decimated also by Portuguese evangelization. The ideology behind placing those three children at his feet cannot have a place. This was just a few weeks ago. The statue needs to be taken down, and a serious debate around the violence that is embedded in its construction needs to be put in its place.

Once it was Brasilia (Adirley Queirós, 2017)

Desistfilm: One final question. Can you tell us in which projects are you involved now?

Joana Pimenta: I just finished (we’re premiering in Locarno, I’m traveling there tomorrow actually) a film called Once it was Brasilia, directed by Adirley Queirós. Adirley was the director, and I was the director of photography. It’s a film that tells the story of an intergalactic agent that in 1959 left his planet to kill the president Juscelino Kubitschek and prevent the construction of Brasilia, but he got lost in the time-continuum and he landed in Ceilândia, in the middle of a political coup. So now he has to negotiate the political absurdity of Brazil today. We were working with ex-convicts who were dealing with this idea of Ceilândia being a prison city, where a lot of the people we work with have been through jail.

And then, Adirley and I are co-directing a feature film, Mato Seco em Chamas, which is a film with crew and non-actors (in contrast to the films I was making all by myself.) Here we’re working with five women who are going to find oil in Ceilândia and start a war with Brazil. They’re going to nationalize the oil for the periphery (Laughs). We’re also filming a short film in Portugal, Rádio Coração, that we’re making with our oldest friends, mine and his, that communicate with each other from França in Bragança and Ceilândia via an amateur radio and gigantic antenna constructions left behind from the wars, so yeah, there’s a little bit still on the works.