Interview: Sandro Aguilar

The last edition of the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen paid homage to the directorial work of one of the most important Portuguese producers, Sandro Aguilar. The retrospective spanned from his first short Estou perto in 1998 up to his most recent in 2015, Undisclosed Recipients and Bunker. With his production company O Som e a Fúria which Aguilar founded in 1998 he provided a breeding ground for the “Geração Curtas”, a young generation of Portuguese filmmakers developing their experimental style in the short film. Members of this generation include Miguel Gomes (Tabu, Arabian Nights), Ivo Ferreira (Letters from War) and João Nicolau (John From). 

We took the chance to speak with Aguilar about the influence of his work as director and producer and what the short film has to offer in terms of ultimate freedom to experiment.

Sabine Kues: You use little dialogue and not specifically set out to narrate a story – but create more of an atmosphere. Is that what intrigues you most in making films?

Sandro Aguilar: I'm more interested in exploring something mysterious that happens in a specific moment. I'm not very narrative myself and when I try to be, I always find these stories that are elliptical or filled with gaps. In those gaps I find my interest in the characters: it is what I don't tell about them, what they don't do. It is harder to make abstract filmmaking when you are using people, so very often I take people out of the film and that leaves me more space to explore filmmaking in another way that is not narrative.

SK: Is that why you use recurring themes like nature – as empty spaces of humans?

SA: Yes, I tend to objectify. I turn people into objects and objects into conscious creatures. I have a film which is called Voodoo and the name itself is a sort of guideline of most of what I do. Like you have an object and its energy transfers into people and whenever there is an emotional moment in a character I transfer that energy into some kind of manifestation of that emotion in objects.

Very often when you are following a character my film suddenly gives its attention to something else. It is not that it is unrelated to the characters but for me it holds the energy of what we could see happening with the characters. Like with Signs of Stillness you have the girl that approaches the young diver. She obviously wants something of him and then you switch to flowers: everything seems to blossom. It is like a fertility dance of pollen. I'm constantly doing that.

SK: Your filmmaking is very intuitive – you cannot prepare these atmospheres beforehand. It must develop in the process, I'm guessing?

SA: No, a lot of the things are already scripted because they are my triggers to shoot, so in my screenplays I follow the characters but then I often make a lot of small descriptions of the mood or the atmosphere where they are, so I have a sense of that surrounding of the characters. The film has to be mysterious to me. In the end I don't know all the answers, so I don't expect the audience to understand all the answers either. I hint to what I want you to understand but the things that I don't want to be precise about, I'm not. I leave it open for the audience.

As an audience, too, I see films and I like to have that space. I don't like to have things spelled out to me. Very often when things are not said explicitly, people that react to the film say that they didn't understand it. And I don't think that is fair. Not to the film and not to their own experience, because I'm sure they understand something but they are not sure, so they think they didn't understand anything. There is a difference between those two. Not being told or not understanding is very different.

SK: When you set out to make your films, how much importance do you give to sound and how much to the image?

SA: While I'm shooting, of course, I follow the images, that is what I give priority to but actually when I'm structuring the film or even when I'm writing there is a lot of small notes about the sound in the screenplay – like an air-conditioning. When I'm structuring the film, I have to say, it's more important to me the way I build the sound structure, than the image. For instance, when I'm selecting the shots, I normally cut in the moment of sound I find interesting. Sometimes I'm not using the best part of the image just because I like the sound that goes with it. I spend more time editing the sound and trying to discover the mood I want through the sound than with the image.

SK: Remains was produced at a very emotional state in your life after your father died – along with your only feature Uprise, which is made along the same lines of loss. Was it owed to the topic you wanted to make a feature length film?

SA: Yes, Uprise is literally about a father dying in front of a son. I was trying to explore something. I don't believe in miracles in real life – but in film you can use the tools to make it happen. In the film they die and then they sort of rebirth and uprise again. It was a sort of answer to the hopelessness you have before death. You can't do anything about it. You just have to process it in your mind. But through film I can make a character die and – if I want to – play god and make them alive again. The main thing that structures the film is that border of things and very often it is that border between life and death. Like in Remains, I was interested in the moment where a living cell – of course they are jelly fish but in the way I edited it, they are two cells – two helpless creatures connect and then form another being. It struggles to stay alive because it is in the emptiness – in the void. You see these pumping hearts trying to connect to survive somehow. That is a miraculous thing in nature. It starts on a very small level – so sometimes my films occur on that level. In the objects I see things. I see the possibility. When I'm shooting a chair I see the possibility or a presence – not necessarily that of a person or a character, but there is always a presence that any person could fill in and be part of.

SK: Besides the one feature length film, what makes you stay loyal to short film?

SA: I think it is more free. There is a limit of how much space you can leave to an audience. When you do a feature you have to hold that tension for about two hours. I couldn't imagine any of the short films I presented here as a feature film. Of course you could follow the characters more and so on, but that wouldn't be interesting to me. That is why I like the short film. You can push the limits a little bit more than you do with feature film. So, it is freeing in terms of experimenting.

SK: Coming to your work as a producer. In the introduction of the Oberhausen catalogue it said: “Without Sandro Aguilar there would be no present-day Portuguese cinema”. That is quite an honour.

SA: We never know. They would have found their place, those directors. They are strong enough to have emerged without me. But it is true. In the Oberhausen program they showed one of my early films: Estou perto. And even thought I don't like the film that much anymore, in Portugal it was very important, historically. Because it was very inspiring for young filmmakers. It was one of the major releases even in theatres, along a feature film. It had a lot of press and it sort of pointed out the way for a new generation of filmmakers that would have never been able to have had access to filmmaking. We are talking end of 1990s. At the time, before aspiring to be a director and trying to make your own things you would have to go through a long period of working with directors and learn the craft before trying to make your own. But those directors started through short films. Miguel Gomes, before doing his first feature film or João Nicolau or other directors I've worked with, they've made two to four short films and you could clearly see an aesthetic approach to film – very particular, very special. You could see something new coming out. That was very inspiring. Before and after they made their feature film they went back to short film because they also liked the way they started and they understand the potential of making short films in terms of artistic freedom.

In a sense, directly or indirectly I have something to do with what happened in that time and that consistently progressed to the state of cinema today.

SK: Your are currently working on your second feature-length film. Can you say something about it already – or is it too early?

SA: It's not early but it's not easy to articulate. For the moment it is called Mariphasa – which is a very cryptic title – but I don't have any problems with cryptic things, obviously. (laughs) Mariphasa is a fictional flower. Fictional in the sense, that it was invented in the film called Werewolf in London. It is one of the b/w classics about a werewolf. In it there is a fictional flower which blossoms only at night and when you use that flower it works as an antidote for the transformation into a werewolf. So it is a sort of antidote against a human civilized man becoming an animal creature. My film is all about the suspension of that transformation. Not literally. There are no werewolves or something like that. It's that borderline between the civilized man and the animal within us. It started as a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde variation and it got weirder. (laughs)

SK: Why this time a feature-length?

SA: It has to do with the project. I didn't decide: 'Now I have to make a feature'. It is true that my recent short films are getting longer and longer: 25, 30 minutes. So, it is sort of slowly already going towards that feature-length.

21 September 2017, by Sabine Kues