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“Why Make It Simple?” Pedro Costa on The Daughters of Fire

The Daughters of Fire

In 1951, a volcano erupted on Fogo, one of the Cape Verde islands. That incident is the starting point for The Daughters of Fire, an experimental short by the Portuguese director Pedro Costa. 

Costa splits the screen into panels portraying three women—Adelaide, Clotilde, and Irodina—singing over an arrangement of Biagio Marini’s “Passacaglia (Opus 22).” The film ends with footage from A Erupcao do vulcao da ilha do Fogo, a 1951 documentary by ethnologist Orlando Ribeiro.

The films are part of Canción de Pedro Costa, a museum exhibition currently touring Europe. In museums the films are projected separately in three different rooms. Costa chose to combine them in The Daughters of Fire as a sort of “proof of concept” for a planned feature film.

Costa spoke by phone with Filmmaker.

Filmmaker: What is the best way to view The Daughters of Fire? I had to watch a screening link.

Pedro Costa: I’m the guy who once said Bresson looks very good on an iPhone, so I have no problem with how you see it. Of course I saw it on a big screen in Vienna, and it looks great. But I like to go to the Louvre or the Prado just to buy some postcards of paintings I like in the gift shops. It doesn’t matter.

Filmmaker: How did you originally intend to screen this?

Costa: It was a test. I was working with the singers, thinking about the feature film we’re trying to make next year. We went into a small—not even a studio, a garage, where we rehearsed the songs. Actually we did three tests with the three singers, then we were editing in our office and just by mere curiosity put the three of them side-by-side in a split screen. It’s easy to do that today, it takes like 30 seconds.

The music is a 17th-century song, a Baroque composition that employs counterpoint. So, there’s a sort of dialogue, a question and answer in song, that the singers seem to respond to. So we thought, why not do a little miniature? They were called enluminare, medieval miniatures. The final film won’t look like this, it will concentrate more on sound and music than this particular form.

Filmmaker: You’re showing them separately in museums?

Costa: Yes, but they weren’t conceived for the exhibition. As I said, they were a kind of test for a feature. We screened them in our office on separate walls, and they worked quite well. So when a friend of mine in Spain asked if I would like to show them in separate rooms, I thought it might be interesting to see them in a three-projector setup.

Filmmaker: How long did it take to film?

Costa: It took one day to shoot each singer. Actually two days for Adelaide, because she walks and that was complicated. For opera singers, it’s very difficult to act and sing at the same time. It was very difficult technically for Adelaide to sing and walk at the same time.

Filmmaker: Wait a minute, you were recording live sound?

Costa: Of course.

Filmmaker: And they were performing before back-projected footage? That must have made it even harder for you.

Costa: Why make it simple? We did it the old-fashioned way. I shot a stone wall in the countryside, we manipulated the color by grading, then I added some fire elements. That’s it. It’s rear projection like those Hollywood films. It’s almost a lost art now that 35mm is falling out of use. I think it’s much more difficult to do digitally. It was easier with film stock. I mean the rear projection part—with CGI everything’s so simple that it’s not fun anymore. So, we had a real screen and projector behind each singer. I have the time and the patience and the passion, but not the money, so why not do it complicated?

Filmmaker: How did you synchronize the performances?

Costa: We’ve been working on that for three days here in Spain, and it’s still not there yet. It’s complicated. When we recorded the performances, they were singing to a recorded orchestral track they heard through earpieces. Then we mixed the sound. When you’re projecting them separately there’s always a delay, and the delay becomes longer the more they are separated.

Filmmaker: But even in their individual performances you have to account for different inflections, different intensities.

Costa: Yes. This is a bit experimental. It was just to see how the rear projection worked. The singers had to get used to the words, the music, the camera, to myself. It was a bit new to me because now I’m working with musicians. I’m used to days and days of takes and reshoots and adjusting my actors, who are usually non-actors. But singers can’t do 40 takes, you know? So, I have to be a bit more economic. This film is just an approach to what we will be shooting next year, which will be much more controlled, much less experimental.

Filmmaker: So the feature won’t use three panels?

Costa: I don’t think so. The split will occur in the sound, if you can imagine that. One singer in the image, and the other two respond in the sound. Technically, I can’t compete with Batman films. I mean, I want to, but I think our game is something else.

Filmmaker: When you’re working with three panels, how do you determine where the viewer’s eyes will land?

Costa: I didn’t really think about that. When we were filming I was very focused on the individual shots. So, I’m thinking, this woman walks down this road, this woman is lying down. Of course there is a rhythm, a dynamic to each shot and to the singers. 

I hope the eye travels with the words. I’m not sure how to say it. There are questions and answers, there are recitations, whispers, cries. I hope the viewer follows the sound and not the image.

In some films in the past, you follow what is sung and said. I was curious what would happen here because of the format. You tend to follow the woman who sings, right? But you first have to pass this shock of an unusual format with extravagant settings. Slowly you concentrate on the music, then the voice, then the meaning of the lyrics. 

You may be late, it may take you three or four minutes to be with all three singers. I hope this fusion of screens and images will occur so that you merge all three settings, the mountain and house and road, into just one setting in your imagination.

Filmmaker: You make it a little bit easier on yourself because Clotilde is immobile for the opening two minutes.

Costa: I don’t know if I agree with that. We had a lot of work to do with the rear projection, the piano, the lights, the microphone. A lot to get done before thinking about how one singer would respond to another in which minute and second and microsecond. That part escapes me. It always escapes me. And thank God, because I can’t be thinking about things like that all the time. I have too much more to do. We were lucky with this film because the triptych wins. The music wins.

When you work with music in a film, it immediately elevates what you’re doing to another plane. It’s a different game. Everything is exaggerated, more passionate. The tools are different, the mindsets are different, my energy and the energy of my crew are different. It’s almost an enchantment. It’s almost easier in a way.

The films I’ve been doing, and I think that all filmmakers are doing, you need to be on all the time. You have to keep the fire burning every day, every morning, every scene. But when they start singing …

Filmmaker: The music does a lot of the work?

Costa: That’s why they have so much music in bad films. Well, no, I praise those composers. When I was in Vienna, I went to the Arnold Schoenberg Studio. He was a bit too strange or strict or something for Hollywood, but a lot of his pupils really sweated in Hollywood—Hanns Eisler, Erich Korngold. Their music supplied a lot of emotion to movies, emotion that sometimes wouldn’t be there otherwise.

For the feature we’ll be using music from the Baroque to today, if I can clear the rights. 

Filmmaker: Can you talk about the documentary footage at the end of the film?

Costa: Orlando Ribeiro was one of the great minds in Portugal. He was an ethnologist, a friend of the filmmaker Jean Rouch, and my teacher in college. He was a progressive Catholic and a cinephile who wrote about cinema for magazines. Because he was my teacher, I began to fall in love with cinema. I read his texts on Playtime by Tati and Voyage to Italy, and I got to know him a little better. He told me that he shot 16mm footage of the Fogo volcano, which he screened for me. His widow, Suzanne Daveau, gave me access to the footage. We used the morning after the eruption in 1951.

In the last shot you see this house made of stone, people coming outside. Some are naked, others in rags. They are amazed, bewildered, shocked. Every time I turn the TV on today, something like that is going on. Gaza has the same feeling for me. They are astonished, stunned. It’s like, “What happened?” Now I would go a bit further and say, “What did we do to ourselves?” I’m very touched by this last shot. It explains a lot about what the women are singing. When they ask, “What happened?” How can we know? Will we know? Why? Why? Just this question of “Why?”

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