Pedro Costa: Portuguese director who fashioned Gil Scott-Heron's film prayer

With the dreamlike film Horse Money, Costa has returned to his most powerful and enduring subject: the Cape Verdean diaspora who inhabit Lisbon’s shadows. He explains how the project began as a collaboration with the US rapper and poet

In the world of independent film, nothing comes cheaper than talk of going guerrilla, of doing it all outside the system on minimal budgets. But Pedro Costa is one film-maker who can genuinely claim to do things differently. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw once described the Portuguese director as “the Samuel Beckett of cinema” – which certainly honours the austerity of Costa’s vision. But you could also call him cinema’s Vincent van Gogh – an artist who has turned his back on the worldlier ways of film to find an intense, troubling poetry in urban life at its most disadvantaged.

Costa’s new film Horse Money is his latest to feature unemployed members of Lisbon’s Cape Verdean immigrant community, all playing themselves. Neither quite fiction nor documentary, Horse Money most resembles a dream, following the nocturnal wanderings of a man in his 70s, João Tavares Borges, aka Ventura. The film’s title may suggest a racetrack thriller, but a more literal translation of the Portuguese original Cavalo Dinheiro would be A Horse Named Money – Dinheiro being a horse that Ventura owned in his youth on the Cape Verde islands, the former Portuguese colony off north-west Africa. Ventura – a man with an imposing, somewhat priestly demeanour - previously starred in Costa’s Colossal Youth, a similarly poetic work that proved too severe for a large section of the Cannes audience when it played in competition there in 2006. “I’m sure you’ll never see a film like that in Cannes again,” chuckles Costa when he speaks to me on the phone from Lisbon.

Horse Money follows Ventura and other Cape Verdeans as they meet in a hospital’s oddly catacomb-like corridors and recall the dramatic incidents of their lives – fights, bereavements, industrial injury. The words, often delivered in incantatory recitations – or in the case of a woman named Vitalina Varela, in a sepulchral whisper – are entirely the actors’ own. In fact, the film originated as a planned collaboration with one of Costa’s heroes, the pioneering soul poet and precursor of rap Gil Scott-Heron.

Before the musician’s death in 2011, says Costa, he and Scott-Heron had several discussions about the project. “We actually talked a lot about opera, but without instruments, just voices. It came from feeling that, more and more, we’re coming to this extreme situation where we don’t have all the things that people make films with: wardrobe, props, music. We’re working with what’s left, including what’s left of people. (The people in the film) are broken – their personality is broken, their speech is broken, their memories are fading away.” Scott-Heron proposed that the film should be “an oratorio – a one and a half-hour prayer. The result would have been close to what we have now.”

Colossal Youth, made in 2006, was an extended film poem about the people of Fontainhas, a slum district of Lisbon that was then undergoing demolition. Ventura’s role in it was partly as a repository of his community’s memories and defeated dreams; now Horse Money reveals more of the life story of a former construction worker who became an alcoholic after a traumatic knife fight in 1975. His ensuing illness led to enforced retirement in his 20s, followed by years of treatment and a diagnosis of schizophrenia. But Costa’s films have given Ventura a genuinely iconic status, and not just among the director’s cinephile following.

The director recalls showing Colossal Youth in Fontainhas, while the area still existed. “Afterwards, one of the more politically active neighbourhood boys raised his glass and said, ‘Ventura, every day I see you in the ghetto, and you’re dirty or you’re crazy or drunk or half asleep – now I see you up on screen, and you’re all of us.’”

A scene from O Sangue (The Blood) in Portuguese

Costa, 56, is aware of the contradictions of his becoming the public voice of Lisbon’s dispossessed. Whenever objections have been raised, he says, “My response was always: ‘I’m not from Cape Verde, I’m a white middle-class guy from Lisbon. I just found a way and place to work, to do what I couldn’t do before. I did three or four films in the normal system and I couldn’t find my voice.” The director is somewhat disparaging about his early work, despite the magnificence of works like his debut The Blood (1989), a family drama in haunting black-and-white. In 1994, he went to shoot in Cape Verde and found himself returning with a bag full of letters that locals had asked him to give their relatives in Fontainhas. “I never knew what the letters contained, I only saw those faces reading the letters, so I imagined things. And that for me was the origin of the films I could make.”

The decisive moment came when shooting his third feature Ossos (Bones) in Fontainhas. “It was a big crew of 50 or 60 people. I had no time to think, everything was going too fast or too slow. There was a lot more going on behind me, and that was the neighbourhood – in front of the camera, I had the same old thing. I decided, no more.” One of that film’s performers, a heroin addict named Vanda Duarte, invited Costa to stick around and really discover the district. He ended up filming her at home over a year – just him and a video camera. The resulting feature, In Vanda’s Room, was a mesmerisingly claustrophobic study.

The beauty of Costa’s recent films is all the astonishing in that they are essentially hand-crafted. Horse Money was shot on a mini-DV camera with a crew of only three or four, at Costa’s own pace. One scene alone took four months to shoot – partly because the actor playing a talking statue could only wear his metallic body paint for an hour at a time. “Time has become an enemy of cinema,” says Costa. “We don’t have that - we don’t have deadlines, we don’t serve any market or agents or producers.” It’s a demandingly pragmatic way to work. “I’m so occupied with the production side – the phone calls, the sandwiches, the cars, everything – that I don’t have time to think about the artistic side of things.” He’s joking, he adds, but points out that Brecht used to say exactly the same.

His films, Costa says, are barely seen in Portugal, but that doesn’t matter to him. “My colleagues always say to me, ‘Why don’t you do something different?’ I don’t have the means or the money, but more important than that, I don’t want the money. Cinema is very deceitful, it needs so many tricks. These people I work with are very cheated – so I can’t cheat them with more tricks.”

Costa speaks fluent English, in slightly solemn tones, but with dry, self-deprecating humour too. He says he is too far out of the loop to comment on his country’s filmic output, but he clearly belongs to a Portuguese screen tradition that has often done things idiosyncratically – whether in the philosophical fictions of the late maestro Manoel de Oliveira, or in the work of Miguel Gomes, whose six-hour Arabian Nights uses the Scheherezade tales to frame an imaginative response to Portugal’s economic crisis.

Pedro Costa: ‘Time has become an enemy of cinema.’
Pedro Costa: ‘Time has become an enemy of cinema.’ Photograph: Stefania D'Alessandro/Getty Images

Political concerns certainly drive Costa’s work. Horse Money suggests that Portugal’s Carnation Revolution of 1974, which ended a long period of dictatorship, was not entirely untraumatic for the country’s immigrants, especially given the attempted counter-coup the following year. “Ventura came in ’71 and lived the same amazing, beautiful revolution that I experienced in 74 – but in 75, when the revolution started to collapse, his mind went.”

Costa began to discover cinema – especially classic Hollywood – in the 70s, just as Portugal was undergoing its turbulent changes. “I was discovering politics in the street when I was 15 – then one year later, I was listening to punk rock, mixing Wire and the Sex Pistols with John Ford.” His cinematic heroes, along with the hyper-rigorous French duo Straub and Huillet, are classicists such as Ford, Fritz Lang, Ozu and Mizoguchi. “The great names are the ones who saw the smallest things. In Ozu, someone peels an apple and you can see the end of the world.”

As for music, Costa has long nursed the ambition to make a film inspired by Stevie Wonder’s classic 1973 album of soul realism, Innervisions. “Once I took a bet with some friends that you shouldn’t adapt novels, you should adapt records. The Innervisions dream is still there, I could do it with Ventura or Vitalina, it’s their lives – and it’s still my favourite record.”

Jonathan Romney

The GuardianTramp

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