At this year’s Visions du Réel Film Festival, “Yellow Bread” sat down with Leonor Teles, the youngest director ever to win the Golden Bear, there for the Rough Cut Lab with a new project. The talk touched upon, among many other subjects, her award-winning short doc, “Batrachian’s Ballad” (Berlinale 2016), frogs, xenophobia, Super 8, her punk and carefree energy, the film industry and short films.
Can you talk about your short film? And, frogs? How did you discover them and why did you choose them as subject for your film?
Leonor Teles: I think I was thirteen or fourteen years old and I was with my mother – we had gone to a cafe and I saw this figurine of a ceramic frog and asked my mother about its meaning. She explained to me that they were there to keep gypsy people away. Then, from that day forward, my mother and I had this running joke where we said that one day we will go to all the places that had frogs and smash them. Ten years later, I told this same story to my producers and they said: “Oh! Perhaps you could make a film out of that!” And, I said: “Oh! No! No! It’s not gonna happen!” But, they insisted and, eventually, I started believing them and began developing the film. That’s how it happened!
Why did you choose to make it in Super 8? If I understand correctly, you are also a cinematographer, you work behind the camera a lot. Does it also have to do with that?
L.T.: Yes, and no. Since the film has so many layers and one is the ironic, the sarcastic side that I think has this powerful visual that is kind of in harmony with the sarcasm and the irony – because it’s very colorful, very rough – there is this comic side that surfaces. Also, because there are a lot of tales and fantasy parts in the film, the visuals of Super 8 sort of reminded me of the stories and tales that my grandmother used to tell me when I was a child. So, when I started to imagine this film, that was the visual image that popped into my head – it was very green, very colorful, very old… And, there is another side that I guess is very good, and it’s when you watch this film, you get the sense of “Oh! This looks like an old story!” because of the look. But, it’s set today and I think that’s very interesting.
But, the footage of the wedding is an old footage, right?
And, in the end, it’s a footage of you…
You flawlessly combined the old and new footage!
L.T.: Thank you!
It may be colorful, but it conveys a very important political, social and cultural statement. Was it like this in your head from the start? Or, it wasn’t your intention to make any statement?
L.T.: It has been an important part of it since the beginning, because the film starts with this simple idea: break frogs because of what they mean. So, of course, it has a political side because when you start with this action of wanting to smash, to break something that belongs to another person, there is the idea to make a statement, to make an affirmation against racism, and you don’t have any choice but for it to become political, because that thing is there to make a statement. When you make this type of film, when you make this kind of affirmation, it’s already a statement to break these frogs. So, yes, of course, I can’t run away from that. But, I also don’t want to be very serious about it, because it’s not a film that is going to change the prejudices against gypsies. It’s not a film that is going to end racism or end with all the frogs across Portugal. However, if people can spend 11 minutes watching the film and if they feel something and think a little bit about that when they leave the cinema, I’ve already won something. And, that’s an amazing thing! Also, if people didn’t know about the frogs, I guess that now, when they leave the cinema – at least in Portugal –, they will begin to realize the amount of frogs that exist all over the country.
I don’t know you a lot but what from what I can see, you have this carefree, edgy, punk energy that we can also see in the film – especially in the aesthetic and the feel, but also in the fact that it’s you smashing the frogs. It’s very personal. Was it always supposed to be like this?
L.T.: I think it’s like this for two reasons. The first, I didn’t picture anyone other than me doing that and I wouldn’t be able to ask anyone to do that even if it were an actor, because for me, it didn’t make sense. In my head, it should only be me. And, the second reason, it’s because I’m half gypsy. My father is gypsy, so for me, the only way it could make sense is the way it is now.
It looks like you had a lot of fun doing it.
L.T.: Yes! We had a lot of fun! A lot of nerves, too! We got very stressed, but in the end, it was really fun. After the first two, it was very difficult, but then once I started, it became really enjoyable.
How many did you break in total?
L.T.: In total… All of the ones that are in the film.
I wouldn’t say it’s a typical documentary.
L.T.: It isn’t. And, for me, that’s an amazing thing, I guess…
So, would you say it kind of defines or will start defining your work in the future, or was it just a one-time thing?
L.T.: I don’t know! I think this particular film needed this particular way of making it – this particular form, this particular aesthetics, and I think it is a very particular film. And, to work on this kind of subject – the prejudice against gypsies – it really asks for a very particular thing. But, I don’t know. I think it’s impossible to now make all the films like that. I don’t think it will define me as a filmmaker or as a cinematographer, as you say, but I really like those kind of hybrid films. I think that’s a thing that I’ll perhaps try to explore more in the future.
Your first short, “Rhoma Acans,” had a gypsy thematic as well. Would you say that with these two films you might become a voice for the gypsy community in Portugal, and by extension, in the world?
L.T.: I don’t know… I don’t think so… I don’t think I can say that. In those two films, I only talk about things that I know, about things that happen in Portugal. I don’t think it can be that universal. I think that when you talk about something very particular, very local, in a way, it becomes very universal because there are always dots that connect people. But, I don’t think I can be a voice for the gypsies because I don’t want to restrict myself only to making films about gypsies. I want to do other things. And, for now, the gypsy chapter is closed. I want to explore other things.
It’s impossible not to talk about last year’s Berlinale…
L.T.: It is!
Can you talk about that experience and, obviously, how it feels to be the youngest director ever to win a Golden Bear?
L.T.: It was amazing, of course! It was an amazing experience, especially because more than the Bear itself, the fact that it premiered at the Berlinale, which is a very big festival in the world. For me, it was very special because the sessions were sold-out and the film was very well-received. To me, that was very important. And, then the Bear… It was even greater and even more incredible, because it allowed the film to have a theatrical release in Portugal and it went to a lot of places in the world. So, it was pretty amazing! But, I don’t see myself as a director even though I am one… It was great, but now things are back to normal, which is OK…
How do you feel about short films?
L.T.: I love short films. I really do.
For a lot people, it’s just a way of showing their talent before making feature films. Personally, I don’t see it that way, but it’s a general idea… What is your opinion on that?
L.T.: I definitely agree because for me, short films should have their own space and not be considered just as a step towards a feature film. There are short films that can only be short films. One example is my film, “Batrachian’s Ballad,” that could only survive as a short; it could absolutely not survive as a feature. So, I think short films should have their own space and people should start looking at them as a genre in itself because they’re also Cinema. Short films are amazing, because in a very short time, you can say a lot, and you can reach people as much as you can in 90 minutes. That’s very powerful! And, that’s why I love short films.
Who’s your inspiration?
L.T.: In directing, I don’t have many references. But, I really love Wong Kar-wai – he’s one of my favorite directors – and I love his D.o.P., Christopher Doyle. I also love Andrea Arnold and Lucrecia Martel. I like when the films get emotional and when people can really portray their characters and when they try to say something that really makes you feel something. For me, it’s really about feeling and being emotional.
How is it to be an up-and-coming female director in Portugal?
L.T.: It is very challenging. But, I think that in Portugal everything is challenging. Everything is difficult. No so much because of the female part, but more because of the youth part as it’s very difficult for young people to have a place in cinema and start working in Cinema. I think things are changing little by little, and people my age are starting to do their own things and are saying: “If we don’t get an opportunity, we create one.” And, I think that’s a very important statement. And, also, there’s this kind of discrimination against women sometimes, because people say: “Oh! It’s young woman, she can’t be a cinematographer!” or “The only thing she can do in the field of film is to be an assistant.” I think things are starting to change, because women don’t care. If they want to be cinematographers, they will become whatever they want to be, even if men might not like it. And, it’s the same for directors. There is this men world and it’s about positions – the less prestigious ones are for women, but that is changing. And, that’s a very good thing, because women know how to make things even better than men.
Would your thoughts apply then on the situation of women in the film industry in general?
L.T.: Sure, why not?! Obviously, I just pointed out two female directors who are amazing and I don’t see anyone filming the way they do, and they can reach anyone and anything.
You’re here for the Rough Cut Lab with your first feature documentary, “Upstream.” Can you talk about it? Is there anything else in the pipeline for you or are you just focusing on that?
L.T.: Right now, it’s just that. It’s just too much. It’s based in Portugal, in my hometown, and it’s about a fisherman.
And, it has nothing to do with frogs?
L.T.: No! Or gypsies!