BIEFF.10. Nostalgia as a political tool: a talk with Jorge Jácome

18 November, 2020

Jorge Jácome (b. 1988) is one of the most promising young contemporary experimental filmmakers. An alumn of the prestigious Le Fresnoy film school, Jácome’s recognition in the international film festival ciruit was kickstarted by Flores (2017), which won the New Talent Award at IndieLisboa and then went on an impressive festival cicuit which included names such as San Sebastian and Toronto, followed by Past Perfect (2019), which premiered at Berlinale and also went onto a succesive festival life.

Jorge Jácome’s breakthough short film will be presented next week as a part of BIEFF.10’s anniversary retrospective (having won the festival’s top award in 2018). We took the occasion to sit down with Jácome and discuss his unique style of avantgarde filmmaking, which is radically different in each of his last three films – Fiesta Forever (2016) is a 3-D animation film, while Flores is a fiction-documentary hybrid, and Past Perfect veers into the terrain of abstract figurative cinema – discussing their structure, conceptual apparatus and dreamlike qualities.

Jorge Jácome.
Jorge Jácome.

I’d like to start by discussing the ways in which you bypass traditional narrative structures in your films. Flores is, in a way, a more stabilized film from that point of view, but if you look at Fiesta Forever and Past Perfect you have this very interesting dialogical structure, using these extra-corporeal characters that drive your narrative. How do you conceive these structures when you’re working on your films?

I think I have a difficult relationship with screenwriting, and I think that’s the primary reason for me to try to discover new ways of doing it. So the starting point – when I’m writing a project, I realize I come from a very traditional film school, where you learn to write a “proper” script and a “proper” narrative with characters. And I think I can do that pretty well, it’s easy to write a proper script. But then, when I‘m writing, I always feel that I’m not discovering anything – I don’t really like this word – new, or something that I’m interested to work with.

So, the first phase is always writing a proper script, like a typical cinema script. And then I try to find money with this type of traditional screenplay, and that always lasts for one or two years, the process of trying to finance the films. And then I get bored with the projects that I wrote. And so, I start to destroy these ideas of what a film should be. And even if it’s in the shooting or editing phase, the process is always to destroy the first idea that I had. And from the very beginning until the end, I try to find new ideas from the original one. I think that’s the main structure of my process – destroying everything to find something new for myself.

How do you arrive at this structure that uses dialogue, more specifically? In your films so far, you always have some sort of a couple – the text-over voices in Past Perfect that have a very rhetorical structure, the various people who are talking to each other in Fiesta Forever (aside from the monologues), the two soldiers in Flores. What attracts you to this set-up? It’s a structure that is based on a sort of empathy – the questions that are asked are not inquisitive, they don’t contest anything, but rather they come from a place of caring.

I think it has always been easier for me to write or to imagine dialogues. Even the way in which I think in my day to day life – I don’t create a narrative in an introspective way, but rather it’s always as if I’m talking to someone or explaining something to someone, and so then I have the feedback of the other. So, every time that I’m thinking of one given idea, it’s like I need to have another person or thing questioning it. I think I always do that: always putting an idea that I have under question. If I’m talking about something, it’s easier for me to start presenting that idea, and then someone that I can imagine is answering me back.

I think it’s super interesting because I’m doing exactly this in a new project that I’m writing right now. It should be a monologue, but since it’s very hard for me to write a monologue, I write it as if I’m writing to someone and that someone is writing back to me. Even if in the end it’s going to be a monologue, I prefer to create this structure in which I’m talking to someone. In a way, it’s the feeling of not being alone, you know? As if I would always have someone to talk to me, even if that person or thing doesn’t exist.

And there is this other thing, too, because I was only talking about myself now – although it’s not always true. Sometimes it’s only about the other, about trying to discover the other. And the best way that I know to discover the other is to ask questions. And I think my films always do that, they always ask the images, the Other, the script all sorts of questions – in an attempt to discover the Other. And this Other might be a character, a film, a sound… always trying to discover something that I’d like to know more about.

Still din Flores (2017).
Still from Flores (2017).

Speaking of image and space, you have this very interesting relationship to space in your films, even though there’s a different kind of relationship to the cinematic, visual space in each of your films. Sometimes it’s more abstract, other times it’s more directly connected to the soundscape or the conceptual sphere of the film. These are what I would call queer images, or at least a very clear queer sensibility – they’re not the images that one would intuitively picture, in most cases. How do you construct the visual sides of the projects? In Flores, you are there with the characters, of course, but in Fiesta Forever and Past Perfect, it’s much more strange, tactile.

That’s amazing, actually – the idea of making queer images is very interesting. If we think of queer as new ways of living or new ways of thinking – for example, the idea of a queer time, or a queer landscape – it’s always about not thinking in a normative way. And yes, I always go about a project in that sense, thinking about it in a non-normative way… I often think about why I do this, and I believe that it’s related to the fact that I’m never comfortable during shootings, for example, when I have a camera – it’s not a natural process for me. I always have doubts in regards to the image that I’m creating. And the more realistic the image, the less I have a relation to it. So every time that I’m doing a super realistic image, on digital or film, I feel like I’ve seen this image before, and I can’t relate with this sensation of realness.

So, I’m always thinking of how I can do different images, different from the images that I always see in my daily life. It’s the same thing with the scripts. I’m always thinking about stories or narratives that are not completely related to my daily life, but rather to a new way of thinking, to a possibility of life.

The images have a very dreamlike, oneiric quality. In Flores, you have the hydrangeas that engulf the landscape, which is a natural phenomenon in reality, but the script presents them like a plague. In Past Perfect you have these blurry images that remind me of the first images you see when you wake up, these small and up-close details. Fiesta Forever is a dreamscape where there is no one and you’re simply floating around in space, breaking the laws of objective reality. Are dreams an inspiration for you?

For me, there is a clear relationship between the act of watching a movie and the act of sleeping and dreaming. I think cinema always inspired that type of relation, because most of the time, when you watch a film, it’s dark, you have a different type of mood, and your body temperature goes down. And so the connection between watching a film and dreaming while you’re asleep is very clear.

It’s not something that I’m always thinking of, this idea of working with dreams or with the act of sleeping, but it’s something that is always in my projects. So it’s not something rational, but rather it’s something that is always there. I’m not thinking of making a film about a dream, I’m making a film about something else, but in the end, it naturally comes to me that it needs to look like I’m dreaming, or that I’m remembering an image or a story that happened. What is interesting to me, when it comes to dreams, is their relationship with time, because it’s not related to the present. It can be related to the past, but it’s always a different type of possibility. And it’s not the future either. It’s another type of time altogether.

Still din Fiesta Forever (2016).
Still from Fiesta Forever (2016).

Since you mentioned the past – you summarize this approach pretty well with a phrase in Past Perfect: “nostalgia as a political tool”. There is always this relationship with this utopic past in your films, but it’s a past that becomes utopic only when it’s remembered, even though it wasn’t utopic in the moment it was present; the act of remembering is the one that grants it perfection, in a way. What is your relationship to the concept of the past in your cinema?

In Past Perfect it’s very obvious, because it’s in the text itself, just as you said. But I think that in my films sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between nostalgia and melancholia. I think that melancholia is stronger than nostalgia, in my projects. In Past Perfect, what I do with nostalgia is the fact that I question whether it’s a good thing. Because I think it can be very dangerous, in fact. While melancholia, as I say in the film, is just a feeling that is hard to translate, hard to express – because the feeling can be very different from one person to another, from one time to another. I think I’m more interested in melancholia than nostalgia, but I understand that the difference between them is very narrow.

And since, as we said, cinema has this relationship with time – it’s also something that remains. It’s something that you know was shot in the past, but you see it in the present. And I think that this relationship between time and cinema is more interesting when it comes to the medium itself, because it’s quite difficult to understand it. Again, it’s like a dream.

You also explore these concepts in a very linguistic sense – there is this sequence towards the end of Past Perfect where you pinpoint all these untranslatable words that describe a similar sensation, but which in fact mean something else: like saudade, dor, Sehnsucht. They overlap, but not really – could you tell us more about this exploration of approximate feelings and language?

It’s important to say that in Past Perfect the text that I’m using is based on a piece by Pedro Penim. I appropriated the text into the film, which was the first time that I worked with someone else’s text, because when I first read it, I felt that it could be me the one who wrote it, but this was better. So, the connection between the text and the film was that I felt very close to it. And that part regarding the different uses of words that are the same, but at the same time not the same… was really a way to talk about everything that we discussed. That I’m looking for something very unique, but at the same time it’s part of ourselves as a collective.

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about my own work, because it’s very easy to turn it into a talk between me and my psychiatrist, who understands what’s inside me – and I think it can sometimes be very dangerous for me to understand everything that I’m doing. Every time that I go into a project, I don’t want to know everything about it, and about myself. It’s something that I discover in the process, during shootings and editing. This is also part of the reason why I’m the editor of my films. Because, in the end, that’s how I discover what I’ve been doing. And that’s the hardest part about it – to start a project and keep on discovering it until the very end, to have a path. In a way, it’s easy for me to make connections between all of my films, but it’s also easy to try and relate the projects in order to understand myself.

Still din Past Perfect (2019).
Still from Past Perfect (2019).

There is also a very political tone in Past Perfect, but it’s also latent in the other films. The second-to-last shot in Fiesta Forever is a wall graffitied with the words “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution”, while a character says that between a bright future and an apocalyptic future, they would rather go with the apocalypse. The concept of the military is also very political. What I find interesting is that these notions are always related to a dystopia, in one way or another. Either a strange dreamscape where everything is dilapidated, a planet invaded by very aggressive flowers, a present that destabilizes itself through its knowledge of the past. How do you relate political critique and dystopia?

That character is me, literally. (laughs) It’s my voice that says that. From my point of view, it’s impossible to talk in a personal way without being political. And here we go back to the beginning of our conversation, that it’s impossible to talk about one person, or myself, without talking about my own community or the bigger world that we are living in. For me, it’s impossible to establish that difference. So even if in the early stages of a project I’m talking about something very personal for me, during the process I discover that I’m not talking just about myself.

For example, the topic of militarism: there I’m talking about myself because my father is a military man and what is said at the beginning of the film is true – I was in the Azores for the first time because of my father – and so the narrative starts with a very personal story, but it’s impossible to see an image of the military without having all the consequences of everything that militarism implies. In Fiesta Forever, this idea of dancing and revolution… it’s funny that this meaning is even more powerful these days, because all the clubs in the world are closed, or what’s the meaning of not being able to go dancing and of not being able to be in the community, of being isolated in a house? (In the case of people who do have houses.) A personal question is always the question of a larger community.

The idea of dystopia… it’s funny because, in my daily life, I’m a very optimistic person. And in my films, I think it’s a little bit different. I think I always like to question things that I don’t need to in my daily life. And here I’m talking from a privileged place, because most of the time I don’t need to question a lot of things. Maybe that’s the utility of making films for me, that I can question many more things and possibilities.

As a final question – since you mentioned that you were working on a new project, what can you tell us about it?

It’s insane, because I’m developing a lot of projects at the same time. I don’t have deadlines for the projects that I’m working on, which is a good thing. And so, sometimes I work on one, sometimes on another, and I always end up exchanging ideas between the projects. Maybe it will turn into one big project with everything in it, I don’t know.

But right now, I’m working on a really small project that I started during quarantine, and I think it will be related to everything that we discussed in this talk. It’s about a dream in different states – sometimes it’s liquid, sometimes it’s solid. But since I’m working on it right now, as I said, I don’t have all the answers to what I’m doing, I’m still discovering it. And there is another project that I already shot, on another Portuguese island called Madeira, that I’m starting to edit this week. I still haven’t touched the material, so I’m curious to see what it’s going to be. I know that it’s called Supernatural, and I think that it will question the idea of being natural, of what it means to be natural – a natural body, a natural film, a natural superpower or calamity.

Film critic & journalist. Collaborates with local and international outlets, programs a short film festival - BIEFF, does occasional moderating gigs and is working on a PhD thesis about home movies. At Films in Frame, she writes the monthly editorial - The State of Cinema and is the magazine's main festival reporter.