Introduced by Olivier Marboeuf
16mm/HD video, 15' 15''
A film-poem of an ecology of signs that speaks of colonial history repeating itself. Subalterns become masters, antiques become reproducible dinner sets, exotic birds become luxury currency, exploration becomes extreme-sport-tourism, monuments become geodata. A spherical voyage eastwards and westwards marking cycles of expansion in a struggle to find one’s place, one’s sitting around a table.
The ocean before the continent, the Atlantic before the Occidente. Infinite, vibrant variations of blue, howling, cries of anger, the growl of a world whose history starts in pain and metamorphosis. The Middle Passage comes first here – it all begins where it all usually ends. How can one tell this other story, one that reminds us of the one we once heard, a proud history, a crystal clear order of things, a house with rock-solid foundations, all unceremoniously thrown in the whirlwind of a dark ocean? Yesterday’s impeccably bright lights are turning to petrol blue. Rejoice! The old narrator has drowned, and along with him were lost all the languages that once served to make the finest maps and books drawn on to talk, in all occasions, wherever we were, of any one thing. Locked in their apartments, the masters enjoy a banquet as the decor’s cracks deepen and their most faithful servants have already followed the aquatic world’s call. But they pay no attention to it all, refusing to witness the end of a world and the boisterous establishment of another, the hallucinated carnival of things and creatures they had, until now, patiently organised in their infantile empire, the revenge of the possessed. Rejoice! All is overturned. In the storm, the survivors stand in silence, humble creatures amongst many others, listening to the story of the magnetic fields, of the possessions’ power – the tale of a world told in the language of the objects and the preys. An infernal music that resonates through their bodies and spellbinds them.
Olivier Marboeuf: Perhaps we could start by saying Occidente is a paradoxical film. Firstly, because you’re using cinema to capture a gesture that goes against cinema – or at least against some of its most violent regimes that make it a faithful companion to colonial modernity: it tracks, aims at, and captures. From there, one can understand the desire your films express for a certain cryptic dimension, a fragmented narration based on clues, a kind of opacity as an alternative means of narration – a way tosignify without having to bring it all out into the light. The film thus becomes a stage for a struggle between “Les Lumières” and an ecology of darkness.
Ana Vaz: In zoology, the term cryptic is akin to camouflage, from the greekkruptos, hidden. In the animal world, cryptic camouflage protects an animal from becoming prey. Hence, if ‘to camouflage’ is to hide from predation, then 'to cryptic' is to protect oneself from the Lights, Les Lumières. To camouflage is to speak from within a shield, as you often say, to hide from the hunter's desire to unveil, unravel, capture, master, classify, subjugate, watch from above, place the full and final stop, thus fighting to escape the capturing movement of the hunter, of bounty or flesh.
In the hunt, at nighttime or in the magic hour, the chimera of experience reigns. It is, as you aptly name, a “theatre of forces”, in which prey and predator camouflage and watch, appear and disappear, are visible and invisible, yet indivisible. Cinema is for me a space for this hunt to act itself up, a ritual of camouflaged observance, an experience in thought and action.
You are right to say that modernity found in cinema an “often loyal” ally and envoy, maybe a convoy for ideological battles and propagandist rhyme, for seeding colonial ties and modern prose. However, cinema is also a born trickster, a coyote, if I may. Cinema, the industrial medium, pillar and track of modernity's spells, found another home, a refuge, an incantation for another becoming alongside the magicians - tricksters of experience. Early cinema already proves that the medium carried traces of Derrida'spharmakon, the constant movement of a presence-absence, of faking and telling, of showing and obscuring. Alas the filmmaker-author speaks and tricks through the ghostly medium.
This makes me think that cinema is in itself a paradoxical medium, for it is at once a frame, a perspective into a given phenomenon as well as the creation of another phenomenon altogether. To frame is to speak, to include and exclude, from near or far, in close or long-lens distance. In kinship with the tricksters, we may think a cinema that is closer to a de-colonial praxis of thought: an unlearning of our suspicion to escape from logic, a suspension of our disbelief. Cinema, a route, path, way into an-other world present in this world.
It is with great gratitude to Donna Haraway that I like to say that for me to film is to world and to assemble is to think through this world. Haraway speaks of worlding, the act of making world and cinema is for me a close kin to worlding.
This is a tour or a detour to say that in this ‘cryptic worlding’ there are no histories, bodies, situations that are in and of themselves entire, whole, wholesome, entirely truthful or fake. In Occidente, or for that matter in Há Terra! (2016) and A Idade da Pedra (2013), there is a continual refusal to render a final figure, a model's picture, a master's work, a frame or narrative that is Whole. The films are anxious quasi- anthropologic fictions, but nonetheless anthropologic fictions with real beings in them, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them” (Marianne Moore), “an imaginary philosophy with real savages” (Viveiros de Castro). Therein lies the paradoxical space that you mention. At once a strategy and a necessity, for as the dictionary confirms: “cryptic plumage is thought to minimize predation”.
OM: The second paradox, if I may call it so, stems from the first, but it is a more painful one, because it entails rejecting the illusion that would distinguish two separate histories – one Portuguese, and the other Brazilian. In fact, Occidente embodies the impossibility of telling one without telling the other, and one’s obligation to face this intricate reality that blows away all the purist hypotheses of nationalists, both Western and South-American.
AV: There are no distinct histories. Histories are entanglements, muddles, knots, roots that are routes with no fixed contours or pre-determined acts of conduct. If we are to speak of a Portuguese history, we cannot omit its Moorish proto-history, which in itself is an entanglement of Arab and Berber traditions as well as Judeo-Christian affinities and muddles. Brazilian history is in itself another hallucinatory paradigm. Fruit of adventurous speculation and uncertain cartography, the country becomes “one” through the tick of the compass and the shaking of two human hands. And thence begins another very different and painful process of becoming, one which relied and relies on continual ecocide and genocide to feed the wanting tongue of a displaced continent. Yet, unlike what Brazilian educational history as dictated by the military school-books may prey, the hybridized figure of a becoming Brazil comes with a dictum, and here I will cite the apt and sharp title of João Laia’s exhibition which speaks in double edged tongue: hybridize or disappear.
The Americas are a nesting continent of refuge and refugees, of transplantation and migration of myriad seeds, a monstruous and conceived creature shaped from many other already entangled creatures. Despite the tyrannical desire for monocultural stasis, the Americas resist into myriad nature-cultures, it moves in differing movements, it does not abide to the master, it moves in curves only to escape the angle. It is perhaps a critter, the wonderfully reclaimed gift from Donna Haraway, as the critter seems to add the ‘residual to the creature’, the critter escapes ‘taxonomy’ and stands for the living in its messy and nebulous matter and matterings.
So, as you say in ‘this impossibility of pronouncing the one without the other’ lies a necessary refusal of a pure national identity in an environment of amplitude and multitude. “Brazil does not exist”, as would more radically assert Viveiros de Castro, it is rather a multiplicity of ethnos and ethos. This multiplicity operates in an unspoken yet intricate system of social engineering in which a dominant subject, class, race, culture in fine alliance with the most conservative and classist heritages from their monarchic reign rules through an oppressive system of subjugation upon its most vulnerable others. Yet, a carnal imprint remains: anthropophagy.
The anthropophagic rite, be it in its modernist incantation or in the “The Savage Mind”, prays and preys upon the sacred enemy as a necessary becoming, an opening to the Other, the elsewhere and the beyond (thank you Suely Rolnik). Within the anthropophagic rite, after being captured, the enemy-prey can only be eaten after having become like their hunter and their hunter like their enemy; one being vulnerable to the other. Therefore and if you excuse the excess in quoting, I will continue with this passage from Suely Rolnik only to situate a most necessary antidote: Vulnerability is the precondition for the other to cease being a simple object for the projection of pre-established images, in order to become a living presence, with whom we can construct territories of our existence and the changing contours of our subjectivity. Being vulnerable depends on the activation of a specific capacity of the sensible, which has been repressed for many centuries…
An early and very green note for the film:
may 2014an imagist poem,grafts, lifts and isolates pre existing elements,objects, bodies, actions,containmentliving metaphors,the allegorybuilt up from concrete instancesframing and graftingpre-existing realitiesobject oriented vision,(all is object-subject)into a dyslexic paradigmseeing and not seeing,westward movement that moves eastwards,into a shattering of its original
Occidente takes its title and gesture as a response, a heretic adaptation, a feverish antidote contra the violent and nationalistic poem of the same title written by Fernando Pessoa in his epic « Mensagem », a book in which he re-activates and relieves the period of the “great navigations”. In a gesture close to Camões’ “Os Lusíadas”, evoking the figure of two hands, “Act and Destiny”, Pessoa glorifies the Portuguese enterprise which unveiled the Atlantic horizon, the Far West, in messianic prose and drunk with the malaise of the Les Lumières, The Enlightenment.
Cinema, art of light and shade, critter shaped by the technical hand-minds of the Lumières duo, both fruit of the ingenuity of the industrial era. Cinema, to revoke the lights and cast shade.
OM: This reminds me of Françoise Vergès’s observation as she searched the collections of the Louvre for paintings representing slavery. As she struggled to find many significant works on this subject – in particular, depictions of colonial life, recurrences of the figure of the slave and its domesticated variants – she became interested in domestic scenes where were consumed sugar and tobacco – a consumption, incidentally, totally associated with gender: sugar is for women, whilst tobacco is restricted to men. In these banal paintings, she found the colonial scenes she had been looking for, except that the plantation negro was present only in a spectral manner, by means of these exotic products that mark his presence. It is this same regime that is at work in your film Occidente, one of phantasmal and animistic representation, in this case used to depict a production method where all violence is pushed to the periphery of our perception, out of the frame. This hors-champ acts like a counterform to the Western world, drawing out its contours as it points to the place where violence materialises, where it becomes visible – the mixed-race waitress that glances at the camera as though she was hesitant, unsure of her place in this image she disrupts, that she troubles with her look, a glance that, for good, extracts her from the scene, from the space where the story takes place, in which she is intruding from the margins. It seems to me the disjointed soundtrack for the film feeds this very sensation of a world cut off from its conditions of apparition and existence, expelled for good out of our sight. A here pretending to ignore the elsewhere that feeds it – but that devours it in response.
AV: In Occidente, there is an effort to reforest the salon. To reforest perhaps carries a heritage from the latin foris meaning foreign, outside. Thus to reforest would mean to bring the outside inside, the foreign to the reign, to render the salon a forest, only to avoid the tropicalizing syndrome.Occidente does not tropicalise, it rather fights to reforest the salon.
It is perhaps an anthropology of the salon, yet here the salon cannot exist alone, it cannot be dissociated from its furniture, its past, its present, its sources and resources. The furnitures come to live, the tables begin to dance: fish, plants, working hands, plates, forks, knifes and flesh. Spectral figures awaken impeding the compelling dream of sovereignty and independence.
And in communion with these figures, we may start to think. To think through improbable relationships in which a degree of probability might confirm itself: the tiger in the maid, the cacti in the hands, thin spikes to protect from predation, domestication. An experience in thought: in-probabilities rather than improbabilities – animistic and imagistic. And sound, many sounds, to make things speak an unspoken language. Sounds as animating forces, awakening improbable connections, in play and jest, a spear, a spade.
The arrow is yet a gaze that vibrates at the center of the film, the out of frame becomes the frame. The film finds its force through the unexpected, the likely unlikely, the hors-champs, the off-cut becomes the persisting cut.
In Occidente, all seems peripheral and yet central, absolute and total. The Maid’s gaze becomes an ally and a position from which to see and to be seen. The eye-body that films, my own, does not sit at the table, it circles and moves around the seemingly nonchalant characters sitting at the table. I often remember our conversation about where the center can be and who determines it. There is periphery only if we establish a centre.
The colonial portraits of Debris and Rugendas paint fields and salons, where natives and slaves serve as indexes, props, exotic postcards of this “other-world”, which they persist in painting as the “same-other-world”, a world painted from a reigning center that looks at, never with. Then, to exotify is to take the point of view of the enemy, to cannibalize is to become with the enemy, to transform both prey and predator, agents whose worlds cannot remain the same after the rite.
These disjunctions are as the night is for the hunter, whence nothing is fixed in one place and yet all places have a place, a position, a cardinal point. At night, the hunter searches for the jaguar as they both camouflage, as in a dance, as in a trance. A “here” and “there” which constantly shift, for the gaze shifts as the body moves. In Occidente, the ‘taboo is totem’, the ‘prey becomes predator’ to quote Oswald de Andrade’s ode to the cannibalistic ritual of devoration and transformation.
OM: I’d like to come back to this question of the counterform, to say a little more about the ocean. Domestication, in your last film Há Terra!formulates as a hypothesis, as a modality of taking control of the narrative – one which is already at work in Occidente. Nature becomes a decor, landscape an image at hand, and the rest of living things turn into a vast collection of interchangeable artefacts. The ocean is constructed as a space for leisure and consumption, far from the historical and narrative territory imagined by Paul Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, in which he attempts to prove the singularity of the deported peoples’ experience, and criticizes both the tale of the African roots and that of the American invention to put forth the trauma of the crossing as a founding element of a “transformed” people. The experience of the ocean literally disrupts discourse; it cuts out the resort to language. Here again, in Occidente, only the sound seems keen to work on a new language, born from a rupture and a reinvention of traditions.
AV: There lies the trickster in Occidente. Whilst playing with the animistic prose of Marx's reflection on the fetishism of commodities, the film animates these commodity-fetishes often in disjunction to their functions. Hence, 14th century vases become cocktail glasses, asphyxiated fish become dinner sets, living creatures becomes symbols and agents. The transformation of things into totems, of livelihoods into taxonomies, of bodies in movement into inscribed histories, this is at the heart of the Occidental project: to domesticate, to civilize, to give fixed contour to movement. The more it conquers, the more it captures, the more it destroys, the more it preserves – an exchange of vitality for fatality. The false safety of the silenced book or the encaged animal.
Occidente mutters and mumbles the pre-language of a cosmology of sounds, images, beings and vibrations that are omitted, oppressed and captured underneath Pessoa's poem. Underneath the facades, displays, ornamental objects, botanic gardens, vitrines and groomed hands. A tectonic cry through a peacocks' throat, a perspective shift through a crystal clink - what is watched watches. Sounds as living metaphors.
Vinciane Despret poses an interesting postulate when reflecting upon human's experience when visiting the zoo. Her reflection is that people go to the zoo not to see the animals, but to see themselves, that humans go to zoos to recognize their own humanity face to the presence-actions of the animals they observe. Searching to confirm a sense of exceptionality: Narcissus complex.
Yet the ocean does not reflect a single image. The film opens and closes with an ode to the vibrational blue of trans-Atlantic transit, this in-between space of metamorphosis, of the encounter of two or many irreconcilable worlds. There, a cry and response, a pointing to the traversing, to the becoming of the ‘transformed people’, de-rooted in route, oceanic waves against tentacular possession.
OM: I’d like to come back to this intriguing figure of the housemaid, that to me keeps all of your film in tension. Amongst all the domestication systems that organise the world that the colonial man and his offspring reinvented, an infantile world pacified by violence, the house employees are to my mind a particularly opaque entity. Malcolm X draws a clear line between two worlds: on one side, the field negro, the brute workforce, maintained as an object outside of humanity, and that dreams of nothing more than his master’s death; on the other, the house negro, who for him is a symbol of an insidious submission and collaboration. To me, there is something else beyond the plantation’s political strategy that opposes these two categories. The house negroes have a double regime of intimacy with the masters whose daily lives they witness, and whose objects they manipulate. Thus, whereas the paintings Françoise Vergès studied were overshadowed by the suffering of field negroes, it is these house employees whose heritage is present in Occidente, those who carry glasses, plates and cutlery – the dark heritage of a silent witness who must accept to compromise their principles, and to see their fates tied to those of their masters. To bring us back to where we began, perhaps it is a figure that says, in a very profound manner, our paradoxical relationship with the Western project.
AV: This complicity that the housemaid assumes is representational, historical, bodily and spatial. The subaltern does not speak and cannot speak in this theatre of pre-established forms, codes, norms, etiquette which emanate power in jouissance, ecstasy, delight. The fatality of the housemaid is that she cannot speak and that her body, house, heart and history are bound to be adjacent and invisible to the ‘casa grande’ (the master’s house).
Yet, we cannot consider the house without considering the field. The house is dependent upon the field: furniture, artifact, spice, cutlery, plates, they are intra-dependent and intra-active. Brazilian pau brasil (redwood) holding the epitaphs of European baroque, the gestures of the Portuguese monarchy transformed into the rituals of the Brazilian elite, the “vegetative elites” as would provocatively say Oswald de Andrade (I would say that vegetables are in much more intra-activity).
The figure and agent of the housemaid may encapsulate of our paradoxical relationship to the western project insofar as she becomes symbol and living metaphor to the desire to domesticate which lies at heart of its libidinal engine. The housemaid becomes a domestic apparatus for the encapsulating of the force of another into the ecstasy of a one. Yet, here she is neither metaphor or object, index or symbol, but rather the centre of an anthropologic fiction which looks back at us, sending back an image of ourselves that for Narcissus’ dissatisfaction is no longer as robust as he would think. On the other hand, another image-movement becomes, one in which vulnerability may be strength, in which a hesitation is an affirmation.
A film by: Ana VazImage, sound and montage: Ana VazMusic: Guilherme VazDirect sound and additional images: Louis HendersonMix: Maxence Ciekawy
With: Lis Andrea de Melo, Silvia Caetano, Hugo Costa, Gabriel Abrantes, Alexandre Abrantes, Teresa Paixão, Luciana Pimenta, Emanuel Pimenta, Marianela Mirpuri.