– Summer 2010

Realism, not Reality: Pedro Costa’s Digital Testimonies

Volker Pantenburg

Pedro Costa, Casa de Lava, 1995, colour 35mm film, 110min, still. © Pedro Costa

Pedro Costa, Casa de Lava, 1995, colour 35mm film, 110min, still. © Pedro Costa


In the last ten years, the Portuguese director Pedro Costa has established himself firmly in the international film-festival circuit. His films have been shown to critical acclaim in Canada, the USA, Japan and Europe, and a recent retrospective at Tate Modern (in autumn 2009) has given his name further resonance in contemporary art contexts. Those who do not care much about cinema or contemporary art but follow Jacques Rancière's writings have had the chance to come across the director's name on more than one occasion. In Rancière's theoretical framework, Costa plays the role of an upright counterpart to the political endeavours of those artists associated with Relational Aesthetics, a movement that, according to Rancière, lacks integrity and shows how 'the attempt to overcome the inherent tension of a politics of art leads straight to its opposite'.1 In No Quarto da Vanda (In Vanda's Room, 2000), on the contrary, Rancière identifies a force 'that lies in the tensions between the settings of a miserable life and its inherent aesthetic possibilities'.2

At first glance, it seems difficult to reconcile what has become known as the Fontainhas trilogy - Ossos (Bones, 1997), No Quarto da Vanda and Juventude em Marcha (Colossal Youth, 2006), all of them set in the poor Lisbon neighbourhood of Fontainhas - with Costa's beginnings as a director. (The Criterion Collection has recently released this trilogy in a DVD box set titled 'Letters from Fontainhas'.) In terms of production, the turning point in his career comes with Vanda. After Vanda, all of his films, including the documentary on Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet (Où gît votre sourire enfoui?, or Where Does

  1. Jacques Rancière, 'Die Politik der Kunst und ihre Paradoxien', (trans. Maria Muhle), Die Aufteilung des Sinnlichen, Berlin: B-Books 2006, p.96. English Translation the author's.

  2. Ibid., p.98.

  3. See Helmut Färber's meticulous study of D.W. Griffith's film in Helmut Färber, A Corner in Wheat von D.W. Griffith: Eine Kritik, Munich and Paris: Verlag Helmut Färber, 1992.

  4. Costa even tried to hire Stanley Cortez, the director of photography of Charles Laughton's classic The Night of the Hunter (1955) for O Sangue. He wrote him a letter without knowing that Cortez was already dead at the time. See Mark Peranson, 'Pedro Costa: An Introduction', Cinema Scope, issue 27, Summer 2006, p.9.

  5. Johanna Bedeau and Mariani Diphy, Passeur du réel: Pedro Costa, radio feature, France Culture 2008 (author's translation). Letters have been a prominent, almost allegorical element in Costa's films since Casa de Lava. In Colossal Youth a letter from the earlier film resurfaces and becomes a central relay connecting the different temporal layers. Rancière has devoted a beautiful essay to Ventura and his letter. See Jacques Rancière, 'La lettre de Ventura', Trafic, issue 61, Spring 2007, pp.7-9.

  6. Costa has talked at length about his particular (if somewhat counterintuitive) understanding of 'documentary' on the occasion of a seminar at the Tokyo Film School. The transcript has been published online by Rouge. See Pedro Costa, 'A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing', Rouge, issue 10, 2007, http://www.rouge.com.au/10/costa_seminar.html (last accessed on 11 March 2010).

  7. Excerpts from Costa's notebook, mostly collages of texts and images, are to be found in the extras of the French DVD of Casa de Lava.

  8. Jonathan Rosenbaum, 'A Few Eruptions in the House of Lava', 25 June 2008, http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=8094 (last accessed on 11 March 2010).

  9. The expression 'without a script' by no means implies that Costa didn't develop scenes and acting routines with Vanda and the other locals of the neighbourhood. As Costa explains in the illuminating conversation with Cyril Neyrat, the process usually began with an observation of some everyday gesture, dialogue or interaction that Costa would ask Vanda, Zita and the others to repeat several times. See Cyril Neyrat (ed.), No Quarto da Vanda. Conversation with Pedro Costa [DVD and book], Nantes: Capricci, 2008, pp.63-73 (especially the chapter 'Le texte et la répétition').

  10. Costa shot In Vanda's Room and Colossal Youth with a digital camera but transferred the footage onto 35mm film for the final print.

  11. Tom Gunning has recently made an interesting suggestion to reconsider cinematic indexicality in terms of movement rather than in terms of photographic referentiality. See Tom Gunning, 'Moving Away from the Index: Cinema and the Impression of Reality', differences, vol.18, 2007, pp.29-52. See also Philip Rosen, 'Old and New: Image, Indexicality, and Historicity in the Digital Utopia', Change Mummified: Cinema, Historicity, Theory, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001, pp.301-49.

  12. See A.O. Scott, 'Neo-Neo-Realism', The New York Times, 17 March 2009 and Richard Brody, 'About Neo-Neo-Realism', The New Yorker, 20 March 2009. Scott discusses Kelly Reichardt's Wendy and Lucy (2008) and Ramin Bahrani's films Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007) and Goodbye Solo (2008); he tries to relate them each to Italian neorealism and a somewhat idiosyncratic choice of what he understands as other historical examples of neorealism.

  13. Roland Barthes, 'The Reality Effect', The Rustle of Language (trans. Richard Howard), Oxford: Blackwell, 1986. p. 148.

  14. See Benning's clarification in the comment section of the 'Rotterdam Film Festival 2010 Diary: Part III', http://www.littlewhitelies.co.uk/blog/rotterdam-2010-part-iii/ (last accessed on 11 March 2010).

  15. J. Bedeau and M. Diphy, Passeur du réel: Pedro Costa, op. cit. Translation the author's.

  16. In the film we never get to know the surnames of most of the people/actors.

  17. 'From black box to white cube', round-table discussion with Pedro Costa, Catherine David and Chris Dercon (moderator), Jan van Eyck Video Weekend, 26 May 2007, http://www.janvaneyck.nl/0_4_6_text_files/David_Dercon_Costa.html (last accessed on 11 March 2010).

  18. T. Gunning, 'Moving Away from the Index', op. cit., p.44.

  19. P. Costa, 'A Closed Door That Leaves Us Guessing', op. cit.