Copyright by Robert NEWALD / Viennale

By Vladimir Seput

The 64th edition of Oberhausen International Short Film Festival dedicated one of its profile programmes to the work of Portuguese filmmaker and artist Salomé Lamas. After some features and international recognition, she’s still working on short films as well as moving image projects in the gallery context. We sat down with Salomé in Oberhausen to talk about her latest feature Extinction .

Desistfilm: Before we start talking about specific films, can you tell us about your approach to filmmaking, is there a general concept that you are following?

Salomé Lamas: I can’t really tell apart my life from filmmaking, I see my work as a gatherer or a collector, I collect new experiences. Projects come one after another and they can start in a selfish way, as a wish to go to a certain place and then I try to build a project around it. Even if I do research the topics that interest me before hand, I really want to experience it together with the crew when I go there. Maybe that’s why my films are so formal, esoterically rigorous and radical, because, in a way, I can also hold in the structure all the question marks involved in completion of the places of nowhereness.

I think that most of the people who join me on these projects know that the project is serious since films take a lot of money and they are big responsibility, even when you work on a very small scale. So they know that at a certain point everything is going to be planned. At the same time, I am also expecting something that I can truly communicate. People who join me do it for the right reasons. When I say that I mean for the experience, even if that experience sometimes explores the limits, for instance 5000 meters of altitude (Eldorado XXI), traveling to Transnistria without any embassy or diplomatic unit (Extinction) or staying in front of a mercenary for five days (No Man’s Land). There’s usually a character, a territory and a limit. Money for the production is how much time can I buy with the right crew, so that’s is of course part of making films for me as well.

Desistfilm: You’ve been all around the world and you said that the idea of nowhereness attracts you, what do you mean by that?

Salomé Lamas: Those are places that are hard to describe, that are hard to judge, that are hard to address because they’re not only one thing. I am critical of the idea of northern filmmakers going south because there’s a lack of drama on the northern hemisphere. I am not interested in thesis. I’m interested in hypothesis, questions, problems. So the idea comes when I try to address something. I know that those problems and what I’m addressing are much bigger than myself and much bigger than my characters and the things that I’m depicting. We don’t have the understanding of that, we don’t have the key to unveil everything and I would rather rely on an active viewer to be in dialogue with my work and for that dialogue to be a reflexive process. Maybe I also make these things to share with them people, of course. Take No Man’s Land for instance, for me it’s very important not to put myself in other people’s shoes in that sense. I’m not a judge, a lawyer, or a historian.


Desistfilm: Can we now go back to 2014 and talk about the circumstances around the idea for Extinction?

Salomé Lamas: At the time I was at the DAAD residency in Berlin, where they give you a fellowship and an apartment with a lot of freedom. The idea is that you don’t have constraints of dealing with the market so you can devote yourself to your practice. There was some extra money, around 5,000 euros for a project that we could do. That’s how it started. It took a lot to finalize it, from 2014 till now, because of a small production, people were getting underpaid sometimes and some were working pro-bono. Then the producer negotiated the finalization of the film and he was the one who was saying that we should finish the film and try to create conditions for that. We had other projects as well, other projects that were financed, other projects that were built and that didn’t start like this.

Desistfilm: You met the main character Kolja by accident?

Salomé Lamas: I was looking for a character. In a project proposal I had this concept of going to Transnistria to explore the territory and doing that with a help of a character to create a loose narrative. The idea was to make the clash between documentary and fictional, choreographed situations, but due to technical limitations the material was too similar so it wouldn’t create such an opposition. We went there two times and the first time we were staying in a village sleeping at people’s houses, it didn’t seem like a film shooting. Documentary material was quite fragile, people were drinking a lot, most people were unemployed and there was not a lot to do in Transnistria. When we came back second time it looked more like a shooting, there was a plan, no one was allowed to drink and we really had to take it seriously. 

Desistfilm: Is that your general approach to material, to make it spontaneous first time?

Salomé Lamas: Never. I don’t want to do location scouting too much, that’s another thing, but when you ask a person second time you arrive to do the same thing, it won’t work, it will be fake, so I usually want to rely on the first impact of reality. I do have an idea of what I will find and I have a lot of plans in order to come up with something that I can call a film. I don’t record randomly, the camera goes out of the bag when there is something that has a place within the film.

I’m never looking for the film in the editing, there are people who work like that, but I can’t, it would mean that something failed in the previous stages. When I say that it’s beautiful to dive into reality and when I say in a very cheesy way that I’m looking for a magic moment that I can really communicate, maybe such shot will happen and filmmaking is an act of faith, but that doesn’t make the film and it might not happen and you might be the only person that recognizes that magic moment that you’re looking for. So usually I’m very brainy, and there’s a structure in the film, everything is very well planned.

Desistfilm: You have to be quite rational and organized about it?

Salomé Lamas: Yes, but there is a gap, or a cushion and I know that I can play with that. Over the years you start to get better at controlling that. In the beginning you’re always afraid, because you have to be responsible and you know that it’s risky to go somewhere and to be open to the unexpected. 

No man’s land

Desistfilm: What is this gap you are talking about?

Salomé Lamas: The gap is something that you use to protect yourself. Sometimes I’m waiting for something and I start to run out of time. I know that there’s another plan or something else that I can look for that is easier, that will have the same place and that will fit in the micro-structure of the film. What is the aim of the projection that you’re doing? What is the end point? Of course, within the process you will discover a lot of things that will maybe take you away from the end point, but it won’t be far away. I know that I have to come from one point to another and that’s what I am trying to reach. On the second shooting of Extinction we framed the film, but then some things didn’t work the way we maybe thought, like the actors. I knew that if I was going to go there, and if I was going to work with actors that I have never seen, then I wanted them to say these monologues, so that they don’t really have to act. You learn how to control the situations.

Desistfilm: You had an idea to include actors from the beginning?

Salomé Lamas: From the second shooting. There are parts of the book Imperium by Ryszard Kapuscinski that I wanted to include in the film that actors would declaim. I liked Kapuscinski’s style and his way of addressing issues and I have no problems with this approach to reality or his romanticizing. I feel that when you read it, it seems highly cinematic. He’s a great storyteller but his work is also very visual. He deals with three issues: what is history and the way we take it and also understand it as a creative writing process, what it is to be a storyteller and what does it mean to remember? I think that all the work that I do has a connection with those three things as well. They are not so different from each other and they don’t translate so differently, and I think that creates an interesting play between a fact and a fiction, and how this border is something that can dissolve very easily.

Desistfilm: It’s a construction in a way?

Salomé Lamas: As all borders are. So I selected some chapters from Kapuscinski about former Soviet Union that were descriptive without being didactic and I decided to pick the actors, they were from National Theatre in Moldova, and I used them as puppets sort of speak, while Kolja is wondering around the territory. The film is very grounded in these check points, those borders that we were crossing every day. It was often a guerilla style shooting without any money, I didn’t get a cent from the film, nor the producer, everything went to people who worked with us and they were still underpaid.

ElDorado XXI

Desistfilm: Were there any issues during your time in Peru for Eldorado XXI filming, being a filmmaker who comes from abroad?  

Salomé Lamas: No, because when I go there, I try to be humble and honest. Again, when you deal with non-fiction film it’s dirty even if you try to find a balance, even if you try to play the good girl, come on, what is that? For me, the fairest way to do it and at the end of the day is up to you. It’s how you relate to people and the world around you. It’s a transaction, you’re turning private into public, you’re exposing people and sometimes people aren’t aware of that, so it’s important that you’re responsible for your audience and the things that you’re representing. And then it’s up to your morals and your consciousness.

I’m very critical of things that I see on screen, and then there are also other things that I do believe are fighting against certain trends or the ways to go and the ways our society is heading. We are consuming too much without thinking about the things that we are consuming. It’s our culture, we feel that as makers as well, you get a lot of invitations and sometimes its not about the work, it’s about producing it and putting it out there and people want to consume shows and they jump from one concert to the next, there’s no time to digest. When you already have so many images then you can decide not to show something that is still there. Sometimes I would rather have the absence of images, for instance in No Man’s Land where you just hear the main character talking, and I could show archive footage and talking heads people, but I think that most of us has those images with us already, if not actually about the Portugal’s colonial war and the atrocities committed there, we can still draw from another place, another war, another perpetrator. There’s also an issue for me with displaying certain images that are just shocking, we are getting numb as viewers, so those images become pornography and not something that actually adds anything. I think that the path that I’m trying to build is also a cinema of resistance against the orthopedics of imagery and what can I do with that. 

Desistfilm: You often have longer shots in your films, do they relate to the specific concept of time that your work conveys? 

Salomé Lamas: There has to be a purpose for a specific shot, it’s very clear on Eldorado XXI. What I’m doing has nothing to do with slow cinema, that’s a whole different thing.

There are shots that have an inner time, we could call it dureé, for instance, and you know when to cut because the shot is done, it’s over, and usually you try to respect that in the editing, but also you have to respect the whole film, so sometimes you end up harming the dureé of the shot because you have to use them in another way or it works differently as a unit. There’s also another thing, the orthopedics of the imagery which I already addressed, and how time is linked to history, to memory, to statues that we keep building, to memorials. I think that is all tied together.

When it comes to Eldorado XXI, the image doesn’t move, it has this screen saver effect in which you just start to be taken to another place, and then you are back in the image again. Personally I could have stayed there endlessly, I recorded that shot for two hours and I did it because I was feeling it and I was there and we didn’t go on for longer because it was too cold, it was time to go, it was already enough.

Coup de Grâce

Desistfilm: When you work simultaneously on more than one project, how do you shift from one to another, is it hard for you to work on something else and then go back to the previous work?

Salomé Lamas: Not really. At the moment there are also several projects that I’m developing and working at the moment, it’s always like that, and that’s part of making these kind of films. I also do video installations for art museums and I get those commissions as well but those budgets are completely different, and the system is different. I am working on a feature fiction script as well, it’s actually three of us, a scriptwriter and a journalist. If I was to do just that for the next two years I would be very bored. Even if such a project is financed, it’s not enough for three people and location scouting in Mozambique, it wouldn’t be sustainable for two years. That’s why I teach or collaborate with universities, like the one in Porto and the course that will start in September in San Sebastian. But I don’t want to be fully attached. All the projects are due to my personality being very hyperactive so usually I run them in parallel.

Desistfilm: Can you tell us more about your upcoming projects?

Salomé Lamas: There’s Fatamorgana, which was a play last year and now I am making it as an installation that opens in October in Culturgest do Porto, but it’s going to be an essay film too. I’m doing it site-specific and I think the installation is actually the core of Fatamorgana. The play written by my collaborator Isabel Ramos was for me a way to develop the project, it was an invitation that I took, but I don’t want to do theater again.

Desistfilm: And you might be going to Mozambique to do your fiction feature?

Salomé Lamas: Yes, but that’s maybe in five years, if I am lucky. Fiction is a very long process and now we are still working on the first draft of the script.

Desistfilm: The scriptwriter is someone you already worked with?

Salomé Lamas: It’s Isabel Pettermann who I worked with on Coup de Grâce. She’s very good, someone who know how to deal with formatting and putting things down. She can lead the script and it’s very important that we have a good script till the next step. And there’s also Isabel Ramos that I already mentioned, she’s a journalist who wrote Fatamorgana. The plot is set in the 90’s and it’s a split between Mozambique and Portugal, there are two women who want to break free from their previous situations. But it’s still too early to talk about it more.