At a time when race, immigration and women's issues are hot topics of the day, it is a happy coincidence we had decided quite some time ago to create a focus on a new filmmaker whose filmography, directly and indirectly, embodies many of these subjects. And as if that was not enough, she does so through quite subliminal paths. We are delighted to turn on the lights on one of Portugal's most impressive new film voices, who in 2016 caught the attention of a film scene that is going through one of its most successful period in history. This February our Filmmaker of the Month is the young Portuguese director Cristèle Alves Meira.
Rummaging through the draws of your grandmothers furniture can be both a hazardous and inspirational occupation. You may find yourself discovering much more then loose pieces of your family's personal history. Just ask Cristèle Alves Meira, a Portuguese young filmmaker whose curiosity about the world and her own family's history inspired her to embark on a journey that would eventually take her on a huge leap into a film career that is now beyond promising.
A somewhat typical example of the gigantic Portuguese community in France, estimated at well over one million strong, Cristèle was certainly not immune to her surroundings, combining her personal experiences in a multicultural society with a healthy curiosity about her own roots, which ironically were both connected through the swampy tracks of history. "I always had a fascination for Africa. I grew up in the outskirts of Paris, near an African neighborhood. When I was a kid my best friends in school were Africans."
After a first trip to Africa, in Cabo Verde, to work on Jean Genet's play "the Blacks", she managed to develop her interest in racial identity, which eventually led her to Angola. "It was the first time the color of my skin had such a strong influence in my social relationships. I lived in a shantytown filled with extraordinary Angolans but I also felt the chilling intrinsic racist nature within Portuguese history. So when I decided to go to Angola to make a film I had a very clear objective: to cut the taboo of Angola which existed in my own family. I could never see beyond the strange tattoo in my uncle's arm, traces of the Portuguese colonial war. (1961-1974). And then one day i was taken over by complete shock: I found a picture in my grandmother's draw of my uncle in an army uniform, smiling with a mountain of infant corpses behind him. The sense of revolt in me was enormous and it filled me with a desire to go discover what is Angola. Everything that is a secret and it is hidden deserves to be filmed".
The result of this process was "Born in Luanda", a short film selected at FEST-New Directors 2014, a portray "of a young man living in the streets trying to leave a life of delinquency behind to follow his dream of becoming a professional footballer", as she herself puts it. Shooting in such a context is no easy task. "We went to Angola in 2008, during the first free elections after 35 years of civil war. When we arrived in Luanda (the capital of Angola) we found ourselves locked in a rich people's house where we were unable to take the streets outside of a car with the windows shut. It was impossible to make a film in these conditions. Luck led us to find an artist that helped us find a house in a shantytown. I wanted to tell the story of a middle class youth but in 2008 Luanda was in the process of being rebuilt. The middle class lived in shantytowns, without proper roads or a sewage system. So we moved to Chicala 2, in the middle of the trash, in a brick house with electricity but no running water. Everything was very expensive. Even if the political and social context angered me I decided to make a film that distanced itself from the historical and political framework. Getting a license to film was much harder. 15 days after we arrived we had nothing to show for it, only a French production company expecting a 52 minutes film to be broadcasted on TV. I eventually got a meeting with the mayor of Luanda and by a struck of luck he happened to dream about being a movie actor. After a chat about cinema he gave us the authorization without wanting to find anything about our film itself, a contradictory salvation!"
"Born in Luanda" traveled through the festival circuit with considerable success, but nothing compared to what was to follow. In May 2016 her name jumped on the Portuguese scene when her latest short film, "Campo de Viboras", got selected for Cannes' Critics' Week. Such hype is often undeserved but in this case it could hardly be any more different. With many impressive elements that create quite a unique atmosphere so rare in Portuguese cinema, the film takes us into an eerie and foggy small rural community in Trás-os–Montes, the Northeastern corner of Portugal. The protagonist, Lurdes (beautifully portrayed by the actress Ana Padrão), is a 45 year old women "imprisoned" in her village in order to take care of her demanding sick mother. Her stunning physical appearance and the fact she is single makes her an easy prey to the local men and to the inevitable gossip. Her immense need to escape her life of sacrifice materializes itself eventually on a strange new year's eve night, reclaiming for herself a new beginning.
"Campo de Viboras "(a rough translation would be "Field of Snakes") is the real name of a nearby village to where I come from. Since I was a little girl I was curious about this name and I heard lots of stories and myths about it. I wanted to do a striking Fait Diver and this vision of a rural woman with a broken existence was inspired in my own aunt and other women within my village. Their stories inspire me. They are the true authors of the film!"
Following the experience in Cannes, "Campo das Viboras" has begun an unstoppable run in the festival circuit, winning major awards in events such as Indie Lisboa, the CineEuphoria awards and Caminhos do Cinema Português. "I'm delighted that my work is being shown in Portugal. It was not easy. My first short, "Sol Branco" was never screened in the country, and "Born in Luanda" was only selected in FEST."
Now that she has reclaimed her well-deserved spot she is not taking anything for granted. "Everything is uncertain and fragile. I've no idea how it will go with my feature film. I feel an immense curiosity, an inner sparkle, but being an artist is to understand that we must always be ready to learn everything again. We must take risks, without them there is nothing. There must always be a question of life and death otherwise there is no space for magic. Sometimes I feel myself close to bliss. To be inspired is like a feverish state".
Cristèle Alves Meira is currently working on her debut feature, "Alma Viva". When asked about the process of jumping from the short to the feature format she is cautious. "I decided to adopt the same attitude. I'm currently working on the script and I know this will be an endless changing process, up until the last day of the shot. Much like a sculptor works endlessly on his piece. You must portray something that is essential for you in order to feel that sense of urgency. It is a great adventure. To me it feels like I'm climbing the Himalayas barefoot, the effort is so immense that i feel an indescribable euphoria. All the details and clues I can share about it at this stage are in the title: "Alma Viva" (Living Soul).