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Terra nullius, upcoming Punto de Vista IN FOCUS film at the Navarra Film Library
<i>Terra nullius</i>, upcoming Punto de Vista IN FOCUS film at the Navarra Film Library

A new documentary picked by the members of the Punto de Vista team will be screened at the Navarra Film Library. On 5 November, the screening will be dedicated to Terra nullius (No Man’s Land, 2012), by Portuguese director Salomé Lamas, who will be there to take part in a discussion of the film. Terra nullius is a documentary based on the confessions of a Portuguese mercenary who fought in the Dirty Wars in Africa, openly talking about his deads and killings (even the price for each dead target) in the French Basque Country. A film about extreme confessions, but takes us to that no man's land where man expresses with the biggest depth and contradictions. A film about the great paradox of being human.


¿How do you find the filmed character, chance, a personal interest, previous research…?

I initially heard of Paulo from a friend, a sociologist that back then was working with the homeless community. He had just met Paulo and they have become friends.What stroked me first listening to the sociologist’s account was my own interest in storytelling, word games and memory. I.e. the ways the story had been forwarded and retold, as if in the “broken telephone” (game): there is a person who has experienced the story firsthand and tells it to someone else; who then tells the story to another someone, because he has heard it from the person who lived it; and then this third person tells it again because he or she heard it from the person who heard it, from the person who has lived it. Three generations of a same story to which we all add something in order to, perhaps, reinvent reality. Oral history is also linked with the small players, the forgotten, the anonymous, those with no documents.

Those writing history pay too much attention to the so-called events heard throughout the world and they neglect those periods of silence. The way history crystallizes is extremely problematic. It is commonly linked with realpolitik.  Nowadays it is commonly accepted the interchangeability in ideas such as history=creative writing. I was very much interested in these processes that also resonate in documentary filmmaking, in the authority of the documentary, of the factual. – These concerns and the need to be as trustworthy to the spectator as to the characters shaped the film.

¿ Had you ever thought before to film a similar story? 

I either look for circumscribed realities or these realities find me. As I mentioned earlier I have a set of interests and a particular methodology to approach reality. I generally for seek situations where I can trap myself. 

Sometimes, you have said that Paulo wanted to tell his story and you wanted to film it. Was it that simple synergy? Did you have a verbal agreement? With his economic situation, did he asked for something in return to tell his story?

A film is always a transaction between the filmmaker and its subject. Paulo was ready to tell his account upon very precise events. He used to say that he “had nothing to lose”, thought-out the process he kept mentioning - “you make the film and I’ll disappear”. He eventually literally did but that was a mere causality.

Being aware that in non-fiction film power relations should be carefully managed due to ethical issues, my concern is both on how can I turn power into a productive relation and to attempt some sort of equilibrium. The pact was simple Paulo told me he was using me to tell his story against the idea that I’m using him to produce a film. 

For instance in El Sicário by Gianfranco Rossi the subject –a drug cartel sicário in Mexico– says something that goes “they paid me to shot and now you pay me to shot” Paulo wasn’t paid. He never wanted to be paid. In his daily life he rejected society. He lived in total marginalization, not for need, mostly for desire.  

Paulo’s straightforward and radical narrative, calling things by their true names, creates discomfort, as his speech makes us question the comfort and hypocrisy living side-by-side with democracy.

Paulo’s situation is a paradox. His resentment sinks deeper and his outcast state is built precisely in his radical fidelity to an outmoded discourse.

No one gets out unharmed, the Portuguese government or the liberation movements. War and the military service had not only consented on murder but also had it legitimated. Nationalism, left or right wing, communism and fascism hold that same logic. The mercenary is a product of both the economic and the political system; his trade is above regimes and he deals on the threshold of revolutions, coups d’état and political crises, to feed someone else’s power interests.

Paulo tries to suggest that we are all guilty. I didn’t want to forgive the cruelty or mask it up with last-minute morality.

How did you choose the staging?

The film was moved by my need to come to terms with Paulo, understand what sort of subterfuge he would have to tell his story. I wanted this conversation to take place one-on-one, with what I am, with what Paulo is, and adding a third person element– the omnipresent spectator. Paulo’s story deals with a troubled period in History, one with too many ramifications.

It is thus a “dirty” swamp where I have no authority, a dirty war in which power always comes out clean-handed.

I establish that the conversation (in this film) takes place in “no man’s land” i.e. neither in my comfort zone, nor in Paulo de Figueiredo’s. Such premise should generate a feeling of dislocation for both parties.

Initially, the location should be anonymous. Gradually, what is off-screen gains weight and the awareness of a time and a place is established. Nevertheless, it is still difficult to identify where we are.

The film device was set from the start. There is a space in which neither Paulo nor me have any reference: a set and a chair. Someone will speak and someone else will listen.

From the moment Paulo sat on that chair he knew he was going to be judged by the viewer. The chair has multiple meanings: if, (a) it is close to that iconography of the court bench, or the death penalty’s chair; (b) it is the chair that ends up granting Paulo his absolution before the viewer.

The conversation takes place in the present time; the main idea was that the viewer could experience what I was experiencing at that moment. If that happens, the film succeeds. By fixating them in a single image, cinema has the power to unite filmmaker and character. Rather than highlighting their differences what binds us together is that we have created a relationship to be filmed.

Representation becomes a game to the viewer, who tries to figure out who is fabricating what and at the same time trying to project himself into the frame.

Therefore cinema confronts the filmed “enemy” with something that belongs to the viewer’s intimacy. If the filmmaker succeeds, the viewer is left with doubts and fears. This mirror effect was one of the film’s aspirations.

This is why it is impossible for this to be an historical document. Anyway that is not at all my take on Film.

How Is the visual proposal of this film in comparison with the rest of your works? 

Each film is a film looking for the adequate structure and duré to translate reality.

Usually the way I film departs from defining a perimeter around a certain reality, time or geography can set the border. Then it is a matter of diving into the delimited unknown – known territory. Create traps and wait. To be there, it is a pretty physical cinema that is first born in the occupation. I become a strange body and vice versa.

In your staging you just use minimum elements to tell your story, the most important changing frame size according to what is talking Paulo about. How did you work photography, framing ...? Why that low angle-shot?

Yes, I was interest in the absence - in empting the frame. Violence is more effective in the absence. Our brain is an amazing storage of images. When you empty you also underline the details, the breathing, the breaks, the gestures, etc.

It is not the first time someone points out the existence of a low angle-shot, I shall say that that remark is a suggested illusion. The camera has always been straight. 

In your film, you ask Paulo to tll just the truth.  You've probably talked alot bout what is real and what is false in this film. Do you relly want to know it or  the public?

I had many doubts during the development of the film, but the Question is: who is Paulo de Figueiredo? It remains unanswered or I’ve found my own private answer. The question to the public is implicitly also “do you buy it or not?”

Facts are always false. Is truth an illusion, or an illusion truth? Or are both the same thing?

I wanted to explore the boundaries between story telling, remembering and history itself. I have tried to draw a distinction between reporting, with facts, and literature, with the imagination, without making that distinction very clear. What is in fact authentic is the act of Paulo telling a story, which is happening right “here” and right “now” in front of the camera, between gasps, gestures, and the mise-en-scène. It is in this gasp that this documentary is created, and it is in this meeting point that the viewer feels that he’s tearing down the borders between fact and fiction.

There is an intrinsic authority to non-fiction. We believe in documentaries because they are built upon reality remove one or two fictional bricks of this wall and the wall will collapse. We need the fictional bricks. This is also where ethics steps in. We are turning private matters into public discussion, but what is being shown on screen deserves to be seen and discussed. That doesn’t mean, however, that fidelity equals responsibility. There are two dimensions when speaking about documentary ethics. The first deals with the filmmaker’s action regarding the outside world; the second aspect has to do with the filmmaker’s actions behind the camera such as editing, voice-over, and his intentions. 

Have you been inspired by other Films? Basilio Martín Patino filmed the oficial executioners with Franco. The Act of killing is very famous… It seems to be a trend documentary portraying the monster. What did it mean morally for you this work?

I’m aware of some reference works dealing with “the enemy” (?), the perpetrator, although it is a term I reject, with history.

How can one represent the trauma something that is simultaneously unmemorable and unforgettable? And isn’t history an original container of trauma? The work of memory, and it’s memorial processes of transformation of time and space, of the politic, of the public and the private, of the nation and the family isn’t it a process of desire?

Let’s just say it was a demanding, tiring and hard process.

That "no man's land" title could be impunity, but can also be bad conscience ... What does look for or what really wins a mercenary to confess and be filmed?

I strongly believe that is a question to the audience or to Paulo itself. Above all comes also the fact that Terra de Ninguém is a film about the human complexity.  

It is striking that your film has neveer been premiered by the Basque area, where the GAL used to work. Why? How has been the reception in places mentioned by Paulo?

It is always hard to predict the audience reaction to a film especially when it has travelled to many locations on the globe. I’ll highlight a couple of examples I could have focus on others.

After the film premiered in Portugal it caught the attention of the former military, people would comment on internet blogs that it is a must see film, that Paulo tackles the colonial war in a radical inedited way until now, some would go on arguing if such and such description was completely accurate in its details, but one argument was unanimous “the essence/the feeling” is the most pure truth. In Portuguese society the colonial war is a fainting tabu in most households. Once I received an email from a spectator thanking the film for disclosing his father’s speech on the colonial war.

When the film came out in Spain, we received some attention from the press, dangerously its take was political, while it is very clear within its structure, that Terra de Ninguém is a Film about paradoxes, contradictions, the need for documents…the film flirts with Parafiction, plausibility, make believe all the time. The Spanish distributor attempt to release the film commercially also in the Basque Country, theaters contested that the people where too upset with the ETA Case already. The film was screened in Bilbao at Guggenheim Museum and the public was very receptive.

It is very clear in the film my position I’m there not to judge in order to leave the judgment to the viewer. I’m neither a judge, a journalist nor I’m an historian. I’m a filmmaker. I can cast light, stimulate reflection; open the doors for the experts, but it would have been very pretentious and stupid “to go on someone else’s shoes”.

In Egypt the people talk the entire film, they clap at certain moments, they laugh, they freeze and on Q&A’s they are mostly interested creating a parallel to Arab events. There are innumerous reactions to the film.


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