15 mai 2007

Youth on the March: The Politics of Colossal Youth

"The past is fraternal, utopian, romantic... The present is resigned, unfortunate, mediocre." - Pedro Costa

Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth / Juventude em Marcha has been rightly praised by English-language cinephiles as a work of uncommon poetic spirit. Costa's mix of documentary and fiction storytelling - going back at least as far as 1997's Ossos - places people in the actual settings of their (marginalized, poverty-stricken) lives, performing a fictional version of their lives. His static camera creates a near-oppressive frame; his actors/nonactors are at once more naturalistic and less expressive than those of Bresson. Costa elides action in favor of repercussion, and uses duration to focus attention; what could be boring forces one to look closer, asking the viewer's eyes to do the work of Bresson's montage and the viewer's thoughts to decode what's been left unsaid.
"[S]ometimes in the cinema, it's just as important not to see, to hide, as it is to show. The cinema is perhaps more a question of concentrating our gaze, our vision of things."1
Most of what I've read on Costa in English focuses on these formal aspects. Some writers have alluded to Colossal Youth as a political film, but they see it as a politics of stasis and of social oppression, a social-realist portrait of the Portuguese immigrant underclass. This is certainly one aspect of Costa's work, but there is a much deeper level of politics to this film.

Portugal's Estado Novo was an authoritarian regime based on Italian fascism and the heir to the Ditadura Nacional, the product of a conservative military coup in 1926. Beginning in the early 1960's, Portugal's African colonies began their battles for independence. The Portuguese Colonial War began in 1961 with the struggle for Angola, and within 3 years included Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Mozambique - all of Portugal's colonies in Africa. "War," singular, because these national liberation movements were fought by Marxist political parties who linked their struggle (see: Conference of Nationalist Organizations of the Portuguese Colonies). The Cape Verdean revolutionary group, PAIGC, was founded by Amílcar Cabral.2

By the late 60's the Estado Novo faced resistance at home as well as abroad. As the war continued, student unrest provided the ideological underpinning for acts of sabotage: Armed Revolutionary Action (a branch of the Portuguese Communist Party) and the Revolutionary Brigades bombed and sabotaged military targets. Discontent within the army surged as they found themselves attacked by guerrillas in a desperate, unwinnable war. On April 25, 1974, a leftist military coup led by the Movimento das Forças Armadas brought down the Estado Novo. Thousands joined the insurgent soldiers in the streets of Lisbon offering them flowers to place in their guns - this was the Carnation Revolution. The MFA promised 3 D's: Democratisation, Decolonisation and Development.3

Two songs were used to code orders for revolutionary action at the launch of the coup. The first, "E depois do adeus" by Paulo de Carvalho, alerted the rebel captains and soldiers to begin the coup. The second was Zeca Afonso's "Grândola, Vila Morena," a song forbidden on Portuguese radio at the time, which signalled the start of the MFA's takeover and announced the start of the revolution.

At first glance, Colossal Youth gives the appearance of being almost atemporal, with no clearly delineated narrative, a series of scenes that take place in ambiguously defined present. Though there is some blurring of memory and past/present, the setting of the film is both specific and specifically political. As Costa himself said, "there are two parts to this film, a past and a present of the Fontaínhas, that coincide also with the before and the afterwards of the 25 of April."4 The "before" scenes are those of Ventura and Lento in the work shed. They fearfully shut themselves in the shed during the April 25th Revolution. Why would they be afraid of a coup that ends the military dictatorship? Costa:
"I realized that the 25 of April, which for me was an enthusiasm, had been for Ventura a nightmare. He arrives to Portugal in 1972, finds well-paid work, gets a contract. Thinks that he is going to escape. Afterwards comes the Revolution and he tells me the secret history of the Cape Verdean immigrants in Lisbon after April 25th, the history that nobody has yet told. They had a lot fear of being expelled or of ending up in prison. They barricaded themselves. At that time I was in the street, I was an adolescent. During shooting, we found an album of pictures of the demonstrations of the 1st of May with thousands of people celebrating, and it’s incredible: you don’t see one black person. Where were they? Ventura told me that they were all together, paralyzed by fear, hidden in the Jardim da Estrela, afraid for the future. He told me that the military police, in full euphoria, went off at night to the shantytowns to "hunt blacks". It seems that they tied them to the trees to amuse themselves."5
The present-day scenes - during and after the destruction of Fontainhas - make up the bulk of the film. The neighborhood's destruction leads Ventura to a new apartment, with room for his children (in spite of the fact that there's no mention of children in his file). Does he ever find them? The "children" of Ventura's never seem to materialize, though some accept their role as surrogate children. Costa has said that Ventura's (missing) children are the "children" of April 25th:
Juventude em marcha is also a film about the failure of the 25 of April, because if the Revolution had succeeded, neither Ventura nor the others would have continued in the same abandonment and in the same unhappiness for the last 30 years. I am not going to bring up the irony of the film’s title, but neither is it possible for me to forget that all the "children" of Ventura are children of April 25th. Filming these things the way I did does not put much faith in democracy. People like Ventura built the museums, the theaters, the condominiums of the middle-class. The banks and the schools. As still happens today. And that which they helped to build was what defeated them. There are two parts to this film, a past and a present of the Fontaínhas, that coincide also with the before and the afterwards of the 25 of April. The past is fraternal, utopian, romantic. In this time is the story of the love-letter that Ventura repeats. The present is resigned, unfortunate, mediocre."6
"Colossal Youth" comments on the passage of time and the weight of memory. "Juventude em marcha" carries this meaning as well, but also implies the failure of past radicalism. "Juventude em marcha," literally "Youth on the march," is a revolutionary slogan implying the change of the old order. Ventura is an old man, though, long since left behind by this march. This is a story of the aftermath of revolution as well as the aftermath of youth, and the way we are haunted by ghosts of our past. Ventura spends much of the film looking for his children, but cannot find them. He also asks after Vanda's mother. She responds: "Ventura, my mother's buried in Amadora Cemetery." Ventura's memory is misdirected, his memories shuffled; his head bandage implies as much. To explain his head wound, he says "I slipped and fell off the scaffold." As we learn later, it was not Ventura that slipped and fell, but Lento - and the fall was fatal. Seeing Lento in the 'present' of the film, Ventura himself is literally haunted by the loss of his younger self's hopes for the future. Also in the film's present, Vanda (a recovering drug addict, supplied with methadone by the state) speaks to Ventura about the problems of drugs and poverty: "When they give us white rooms, we'll stop seeing these things." Whether this is genuinely hopeful or fatalistically resigned because it is so plainly untrue, we can recognize this as a call for revolution.
Ventura's hopes as a young man certainly involved such a revolution. In the film's past, he plays a record for Lento, Labanta Braço by Os Tubarões:

Labanta Braço - Os Tubarões

The lyrics are as follows:
Labanta braço se bô grita bô liberdade (x4)

Grita povo independanti
Grita povo liberdado

Cinco di Julho sinonimo di liberdadi
Cinco di Julho caminho aberta pa flicidadi

Grita "viva Cabral"
Honra combatentes di nos terra

[my English translation:]
Raise your arms up to shout for freedom (x4)

Cry out independent people
Cry out liberated people

The 5th of July, synonym for liberation
The 5th of July, open path to happiness

Cry out "Long live Cabral”
Honor the fighters of our land
As Rui Gardnier pointed out, this is a liberation song, but again the political context is more specific; it is a Cape Verdean liberation song, celebrating newfound independence (the 'Cabral' mentioned is Amílcar Cabral; Cape Verde earned its independence from Portugal on July 5, 1975). That is to say, it's an anti-colonial anthem, being listened to by immigrants from the colonies living in the capital of the (former) Empire. Ventura's unreliable memory adds an even more poignant political dimension to this song at the film's end, when he sings "Grita, grita Cabral." Instead of a celebration of a successful revolution, he cries for change, replacing the 'long live' with another cry. For Ventura as well as for Costa, the film chronicles the need for change, and itself cries out for a revolution that lives up to its ideals. The revolution misremembered itself and left Ventura - and all his children - forgotten.

Special thanks to André Dias at Ainda não começámos a pensar for excerpting that invaluable interview with Pedro Costa, that I wouldn't have otherwise discovered (anyone know where I can get it in full?).
All translations are my own; anyone with a better knowledge of Portuguese than mine is encouraged to offer suggested corrections (especially for the song lyrics, which are in a Cape Verdean criole). I would love to expand this into an article for publication, if there's a venue for it, so any feedback is appreciated. [I'd also like to do an in-depth analysis of the way memory works in the film, but that's a project for another day.]
If you've made it this far, you should watch this trailer for the film:

1 from Pedro Costa's lectures on film at the Tokyo Film School in March of 2004, collected and published in Rouge as A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing.
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2 Amilcar Cabral's political thought and role in the liberation of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde is discussed at some length in Chris Marker's Sans Soleil.
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3 For more, see Scenes from the Class Struggle in Portugal (Robert Kramer and Philip Spinelli, 1977).
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4, 5, 6 My translation of 2 sections of an interview excerpted at Ainda não começámos a pensar, from an original interview with Pedro Costa entitled "Guarda a minha fala para sempre." Interview conducted by Francisco Ferreira, published in the Nov 25, 2006 edition of Expresso-Actual.
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6 commentaires:

Daniel Kasman a dit…

Fascinating! I really had no idea the film had such specific historical grounding. And those scenes with Lento *are* flashbacks! Great article Dave.

Darren a dit…

This is the most useful and illuminating short piece I've read yet on this film. Well done, and thanks!

I'm planning to post a bit about Colossal Youth today or tomorrow, but like you (I suspect) I'm finding that the short, blog format just doesn't do the job for this film. I've already written more than my typical film responses, and it reads like the opening paragraphs of something much longer.

David McDougall a dit…

Daniel and Darren,
Thanks for the praise; I'm happy to add to the understanding of the film however I can.

The short format does have a hard time doing justice to what's contained in Colossal Youth. One problem is that we as writers on film haven't yet come up with a critical shorthand for what it means for a film to be a 'Costa' film. Take, as a counterpoint, Bresson - there is a strong critical shorthand for Bresson, but we create that at the risk of overshadowing the mysteries and power of his cinema. For me, the perfect moment is the one where mystery gives way to illumination, like the end of one of Bresson's films... I hope my criticism can be a part of that process.

David McDougall a dit…

After reading Darren's piece, I'm reminded of the powerful emotion of saudade, a kind of intense longing that underpins the emotions of fado, Portugal's traditional music (which shares the intensity of emotion of flamenco or the blues). Saudade isn't limited to fado, though; it's a theme of many varieties of art from Portugal. Hard to translate, it's an emotion that reflects a deep yearning for something lost, something that can't be regained but that still leaves a flicker of hope... Saudade runs deeply through Colossal Youth.

David McDougall a dit…

Darren thought to look up saudade on Wikipedia, which provides a good introduction.

girish a dit…

Dave, I've been meaning to add to the chorus of praise--a great post!

And I remember researching "saudade" when I first fell in love with Jobim's music years ago...