An interview with Mariana Caló and Francisco Queimadela
by Herb Shellenberger
The Portuguese artist duo Mariana Caló & Francisco Queimadela’s work is accentuated across many different media, from installation and drawing to painting, photography, sculpture, site-specific environments and moving image. The Cypress Dance is their third film, premiering in the UK at BFMAF this year—following on from Luminous Shadow, which was screened in competition at BFMAF 2018—and represents a new path forward in their always unpredictable artistic practice. BFMAF Programmer Herb Shellenberger spoke with Caló & Queimadela over email.
Herb Shellenberger: Hi Mariana and Francisco. I was very excited when I heard earlier this year that you had a new film approaching completion, as I’m a huge fan of your previous films The Mesh & the Circle (2014) and Luminous Shadow (2018) which we selected for the 2018 Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. I feel that while there are hallmarks of your previous films, The Cypress Dance feels new and surprising from what I was expecting. Can you speak first about the early research and pre-production for this project, and whether you were looking to make a departure from the style of your previous two films?
Mariana Caló & Francisco Queimadela: We are very happy to be able to continue showing our films at the BFMAF and also for the festival’s gesture of solidarity when choosing to award the competition monetary prize to all participants.
Perhaps the nature and shape of our films is very much influenced by what we shoot, the object operates in the way we return our gaze on itself. The Cypress Dance focuses on the figure of Mariana Barrote, whom we have known for several years, about which we wanted to film, engaged in drawing, or roaming in nature, in relation to her children and Henrique, the father of the kids. The area where they live is also very familiar to us (part of us: Mariana Caló, comes from there), and we wanted to film that landscape, in particular the area close to the sea with its marine microsystems, which have always enchanted us, and the surrounding fields.
The change in approach has to do with the way we reach the core of the film, the relationship we establish with what we shoot and the way the environment of what we shoot brings to our minds. At the same time, we also like to experiment freely without an obligation to a particular style or practice. Our personal relationship and experience with Mariana B. allowed the directing to be different from previous films, which were more centered on a relational, operative visual research, of animist induction. In this case our desire was to follow our projections in the family, resulting in a film which is, perhaps, less cerebral and more emotional than our previous ones.
Herb: The film operates in a state of semi-lucidity, as a viewer we’re never quite sure what is a dream and what is reality, what is fiction or performance and what is observation or documentation. Speaking personally, this confusion was productive and drew me further into the film. While I know you as highly considerate and precise filmmakers, I’m also wondering what role ambiguity, uncertainty or obtuseness plays within a film like this for you?
Mariana and Francisco: The tangency between the different states, be it lucidity / semi-consciousness, reality / dream, fiction / observational documentation, is something that interests us. It seems to us that one of the powers of artistic practice, in its different domains, is to generate a range of movement in spaces that run along the edges and to prevent the mystery and opacity from disappearing from our imagination. In the film, there are some internal relationships about which we cannot respond in a rational and clear way, our intuition often led the making and editing of the film. This does not mean that the editing was carried out in a fleeting way; on the contrary, it required our greatest involvement and time to understand the way the images operated among themselves.
We cherish the uneasiness of not having an answer for everything, it seems fragile to pass on the idea that we understand something completely. We are interested in the possibility of freeing ourselves from a concrete and physiological relationship with survival. The experiencing of life encompasses these more comprehensive waking states of desire, the desire to be elsewhere, to project, of continuity and discontinuity in others.
Herb: I’m interested to know more about the visual layer of the film, specifically the fact that much of the film is cast in a mixture of sunlight and darkness. At points this feels highly unnaturalistic and just plain strange. How did you conceive of this as a device for the film and could you talk about how you captured this quite uncanny light technically?
Mariana and Francisco: As artists, we are particularly attentive to the pictorial quality of images and the language of color. In this film we were interested in thinking about light and the cycles of light as an allusion to the interior space of the characters, manifesting themselves in phenomena and environments composed in nature. In this way we try to evoke various shades of light, from dusk and dawn, to the midday sun, but also the blackness of the night and submersion, in parallel with different states of wakefulness or consciousness of the characters.
All the scenes of the film were shot outside, with space and freedom to experiment in different places and times of the day. In any case, the color and light work of the different sequences was essentially refined in post production.
Herb: The rocky seaside depicted in the film recalls the ecology of Berwick-upon-Tweed itself. When seeing your beautiful images of starfish and sea anemones, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the great filmmaker of underwater beings, Jean Painlevé. Could you tell me how you planned these beautiful and somewhat mystical interventions with flora, fauna, stone and water, and also relate to us some characteristics of the landscape you filmed in?
Mariana and Francisco: Jean Painlevé’s films are beautiful and inspiring, thanks for bringing them to light. The beach of “Canto Marinho”, where these shootings took place, is for us a space of wonderment, a contrasting landscape, marked by the strength of the sea and the hardness of the dark rugged rock and the soft colourful marine beings that inhabit it. It is a beach that has a vast expanse of rock where, in the low tide, we like to wander and discover different marine microsystems populated by sea urchins, anemones, starfish, fish, mussels, etc. We were interested in establishing a continuation between the characters and those little worlds populated by a huge variety of life forms. We thought of some of these passages as a game of mirrors, in which Mariana dialogues with her intimate space through the surface of the sea. Through the montage, we associate a sea anemone, that Mariana touches in intimacy, to the figure of Henrique, who in this sequence appears to us as Mariana’s doppelgänger.
Herb: The Cypress Dance is the film in which you’ve worked the most with actors. Could you tell me about the four people we see in the film, how their performances were conceived and what type of direction you gave them most generally?
Mariana and Francisco: As we mentioned before, these four people form a family nucleus, although Mariana and Henrique are no longer a couple. We felt the impulse to film this family because we found them curious and pictorially beautiful. Henrique reminded us of a Pasolinian and Dionysiac figure, he is very much dedicated to his vineyard and his unusual presence surprised us many times. Artur and Rafael were fun kids, just like fauns, playing often in nature with face paints and funny costumes made by their mother. Mariana was always inspiring to us for her dedication to drawing, painting and the way she cared and transported her reveries into her daily life.
Mariana started by sharing with us some dreams and visions she had written down, as well as some literary and visual references, such as paintings and drawings. These materials influenced the film and were articulated with other references of ours that we were interested in introducing to the film. Over the course of two years we were meeting sporadically, proposing some interactions with the environment in scenarios that interested us, or discovering—simply by being together—situations of presence and neutrality. There was a lot of space and freedom to experience distinct places, explore different relations, film Mariana painting and drawing in several contexts, etc.
It was from these collected images and experiences that the sequences emerged and from where the global vision of the filmic structure was born. It is a product of an attempt at portraying the inner universe of the dreamer, a space of projections, phantasmagoria, lucid dreams, desires and enchantments.
Herb: While I am taken by the film as a supremely cinematic (and narrative) work, it does function essayistically in some sense, with different materials and textures colliding together. How do the different pieces of the puzzle fit together when crafting a film of this kind? And could you break down some of the elements that make up its construction: the baroque music, the texts by Paul Valéry and Georges Bataille, and the art practice of Mariana Barrote, among others.
Mariana and Francisco: The ecosystem of this film grew in a truly organic way, perhaps because the production was extensive and dispersed over time, which allowed us to establish a gradually deeper relationship with the images we were filming and with the ideas that were emerging throughout that process. During this period we were handling these images, rehearsing sequences and cuts that became the structural blocks of the film and allowed us to clarify the key ideas for the orientation of the narrative. In a way, the different pieces of the puzzle also reflect the very process of crafting the film, and the way life led us during that process.
As for the elements you mention, in addition to formal questions about the quality of Mariana’s drawing and gesture that attract us, we were interested in the way in which her practice is a continuation of her way of being, strongly influenced by reveries and drifts from her imagination. From the beginning, we were interested in exploring these intersections between situations lived, dreamed or imagined in the film. Paul Valéry’s text was one of the readings that Mariana shared with us and that seemed to echo the imaginary we were looking for and that in a way also reflected some traces of Mariana herself, both as a woman enticed by the quest for pleasure and as an artist whose sensuality informs her practice. The text from Bataille’s book Eroticism was a reference that accompanied us since the beginning of the project and produces a beautiful synthesis of ideas that we pursue throughout the film, about the continuity of being and the ephemerality of life.
Regarding the Baroque music, it is an original composition by Eyvind Kang and Jessika Kenney, two fantastic artists with whom we had the privilege of being able to collaborate in this film. This song, which we hear at the beginning and the end of the film, was composed for a sonnet entitled “Astrophil and Stella” from the XIVth century author Philip Sidney, which follows Astophil’s musings about platonic love and the charming powers of beauty. For us this music draws interesting parallels with the content of the film, evoking the mythic web of life and love, and poetical visions of intangible connections between inanimate, sentient and non sentient beings.
Herb: What can we expect from you next? Your work—whether in film or across different media—is always challenging and inspiring, and I’m thankful for The Cypress Dance and eager for what will come sooner and later.
Mariana and Francisco: Thank you very much, we are very happy and encouraged to continue. We were parents again very recently, we are experiencing a very special period, and we are tuning to a delicate pace. We still don’t know if we can envision making a film in the near future, these are very intense and challenging processes, but we hope so.
At this moment we have an exhibition, called ‘Corpo Radial’, curated by Susana Ventura, taking place until November 1st in Lisbon at the Boavista gallery, which we would like you to visit, it gave us great pleasure to develop. We are also running an installation with several projections at CIAJG in Guimarães, integrated in the exhibition Caos e Ritmo, curated by Nuno Faria until February 2021.
We are also very happy for the vinyl we edited with the original songs composed by Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang for The Cypress Dance, they are excellent musicians and it was a huge privilege to be able to work with them in this film. We have some exhibitions scheduled for the coming times, in Portugal, Berlin, Barcelona and we will also be taking part in the São Paulo Biennial which was postponed to 2021.