“I didn’t try to incorporate anything that wasn’t spontaneous, everything was very immediate”: An interview with Serpentarius director Carlos Conceição
Serpentário is director Carlos Conceição’s allegorical film based, to some degree, around his own life. The movie follows a teenage boy journeying back to Angola after the death of his mother, in the hope of finding a bird she has left in his care. We sat down with Conceição during the Berlinale Festival, where Serpentário was debuted, to talk about the film, its influences and social resonances.
Hello Carlos, thank you for speaking to us today. So, how do you feel about your film?
Of course, it can change from person to person, but in my opinion, I only show something when I feel good about it. It took quite a while because it was a film produced outside of any production system or institution. Everything was done by me with a couple of collaborators. It’s just a tiny little collaboration by very few people.
What resonances are there in the opening titles?
Well, the opening titles are factual, that was the trigger of the film, which I think is a metaphor for something that is almost documentary driven. So the flashbacks refer to certain facts and of course there are certain moments when the facts are replaced by allegories, but, nevertheless, the resonances are absolutely true.
What informed your decision to film in Angola?
It wasn’t a choice, I was born and grew up in Angola, and my mother still lives there and all my family always lived there, so it was not really a choice.
And what were the ethical considerations that had to be taken into account when filming there, especially in the sense of how you were interacting with the space, with the people, given that there is this colonial subtext displayed in the film.
Well, that’s the same in every place, I think, there’s a factual side to this colonisation background. I myself have inherited it, I am descended from these colonialists, my family has been in Angola for three generations. My grandparents were born there, my parents were born there, I was born there. I think that the colonialist past, in terms of my direct inheritance of it, has been somehow blurred and shaded. Colonialism happened many centuries ago, I’m not in particular personally to blame for being a direct descendant from colonialism, and of course the ethical side, I mean, it was not a question because the facts are the facts.
So this “blurring”, was that something that you tried to incorporate into the film itself? Is that something that affected the way you shot?
I don’t think that that was a deliberation, everything was very organic and fluid. This story is a metaphor that mixes fact and the possibility of an allegory for the future and I think that I didn’t try to incorporate anything that wasn’t spontaneous, everything was very immediate.
And do you think that your relationship to the landscape, to the place, changed through the process of filming or as a result of filming?
I think the landscape is just an accident in this film. I think the landscape means a lot of other things, the landscape itself is beautiful even when it’s trashed, it could be the same in every single place. You know, I’m deeply against the tendency to exoticise Africa. I think we have to run away from the cliché of the zebras and the giraffes because Africa is not that. I think my film plays on the irony of that prejudice, that European prejudice – maybe I would say it’s a prejudice of the “white world”, but specifically European.
Where is your irony most apparent, and when were you really leaning into it in the film?
I think that should change from person to person. When I’m working, I’m almost always in that state of irony but it doesn’t necessarily mean that I really have the [need] that everyone will identify exactly where I’m talking “chic”, you know. Yesterday someone wrote about the film that it was very esoteric. [laughs] That’s a really interesting take, I wouldn’t really think of the film in that sense but ok.
I noticed that the framing changed throughout the film, you used a 4:3 at one point, why?
Not just the frame rate but the texture of the image and the temperature of colour, and the formats, and the archive images ripped from VHS – everything takes us to different time periods and ways of observing.
What are the links between framing and antiquity?
There are links, all the flashbacks are 4:3 and all the other parts are 16:9.
I was trying to contemplate genre with regards to this film, I’m not sure it’s a very fruitful pursuit, but would you identify it with any particular genre?
I thought of that because one has to at a certain moment, but everything was kind of spontaneous. At a point, it was kind of compulsory to place the film somewhere, and I think I identify particularly with the fact that it can be a science fiction film. On the other hand there is this little Western part, because from what I hear about stories from the foundations of cities in Angola, everything was pretty much like the far West, so there is this kind of cinematic sense to this memory in particular.
What about the montage? What were you trying to achieve? Was it the breakage between different temporalities?
It was a way to bring the 20th century to the film. It’s a sort of summary of the 20th century, not all of it, but the pieces that actually related to the idea of this film.
Can you tell me something about the bird?
Well that’s my mother’s bird. That’s what actually gave me the idea for the film, the fact that she wanted a parrot and because these [birds] live so long she wanted to ask me if she should get it, because she was not going to adopt a bird that would outlive her if I wasn’t willing to take care of it after she died – when she dies, which I hope will never happen. We all hope our mothers are eternal.
Is that a hope that exists in the bird itself at the end of the film?
Well the fact that these animals actually speak with their owner’s voice is very interesting because if you die it’s almost like there is a ghost, your ghost is there somehow.
Serpentarius (Serpentário) does not have a UK release date yet. Read our review here.
Read more reviews from our Berlin Film Festival 2019 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Berlin Film Festival website here.