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"Cinema captures the mysteriousness of life": An Interview with Filmmaker Louise Botkay

A still from Um filme para Ehuana (2018), dir. Louise Botkay

by Jannik Schaefer

Louise Botkay, thirty-nine, is a French-Brazilian cinematographer and filmmaker. Her short films have received numerous awards, most recently second place at the 2018 International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, which also hosted her first major retrospective this year. The thirteen films on display spanned a period of ten years and were shot in locations as varied as Haiti, Cape Verde, and Brazil. Before the screening of her competition entry Um filme para Ehuana (2018), Botkay gave a rousing speech protesting Western reporting on political conditions in Brazil and the ousting of former president Dilma Rousseff. I had the chance to interview her during the film festival.

JS: Your films often feature children and young characters. Could you talk about your relationship towards age?

LB: I think it’s nice to be older. Time passes and everything becomes better—being in the world, being in this body, relationships with people, accepting who you are, and so on. We have this violent valorization of the young—this idea that it’s nice to be young, have that energy, etc. When people are over sixty they pass over into an invisible place.

Do you film old people?

Not yet. I film a lot of children. I like being around them, listening to them talk. I lived in Haiti for four years. Before that I lived in Cape Verde and in the north of Brazil. I had a nice and open childhood and I am connected with this time. It gives me the energy to go on and finds its way into my films.

You convey nature to the viewer almost as a good friend. Is it your refuge from urban civilization?

Nature makes me feel good and recharges me. I live right by the world’s largest urban forest in Rio. I like to take long walks. For my latest film I went to this huge forest in the north of Brazil. I felt it would be very difficult to film this forest as a whole, so I focused on the people there; the woods appear only a little bit. I would like to have more time to film nature there.

Your latest film stands out against other works in the festival program. It isn’t dramatic or postmodern, but moves between essay and documentary. How would you describe your approach to filmmaking?

I don’t come from a process of thinking about or elaborating my work. I did that at film school and it’s very practical, but nowadays I do my films without a script. I go with the trust in people and in life. When I do fiction, I do it together with the protagonists. I trust that something connects and comes across, also to the people who view the film.

An excerpt from Um filme para Ehuana (2018), dir. Louise Botkay

So some of it’s you, and some of it isn’t. Do you provide a stage for others?

I think more than half of the whole is the others. I love people and most of all I love when people enjoy being filmed. My films are only possible because the people in them want to be filmed, because they accept me and my way of looking at them, watching them in very intimate moments. I film people differently in each different place I go, but they are not the Other to me. They are us.

What drew you to Haiti and the mystical, religious subject of your film Estou Aqui (2014)?

This world of Afro-religion is quite close to me. It also exists in Brazil. I was interested in finding parallels in Haiti. It’s a very beautiful religion because everything is related to nature. All the gods relate to the forest, sea, earth, sky. It’s a beautiful way of explaining life and talking to nature. I’m very attracted to this mysterious, secretive universe. It contains the idea of the goodness of nature, magic thinking, spiritualism.

I have lived in France and for me it’s incredible how people there live almost their entire lives in their brains. A small part of their lives is lived in their bodies, but the spiritual is just nonexistent. In Brazil and in Haiti, living in your body is much more prominent and has been carried through the long history of oppression.

One of your films shows a young boy abandoning his infant brother to play football with his friends. Why does the boy leave the baby?

Because he wants to play and he’s not ready for the responsibility. The mother is out shopping, working, I don’t know. She cares but she needs her children’s help and trusts that everything will be okay. In Brazil it’s common for mothers to have to work even though they have a lot of children, so the older kids have to take care of the little ones. I think we shot for a week and every night we made up our mind what should happen next.

There’s a contrast here with your latest film, where the Yanomami tribe mother is omnipresent, very caring, very close. It’s very different.

Yes, these women are incredible carers. They work a lot—a lot more than the men I suppose. The babies are strapped around their bodies all the time, as they do the fishing or cut wood. It makes you think about how much this contrasts with life in the city, where it’s so complicated to have more than one child, where mothers complain about having to carry their babies.

What is your relationship with your mother?

It’s not always easy, but she’s a superwoman. We’re in a bad moment in Brazil. A lot of my friends have heavy conflicts with their parents about politics. They cut off their relationships. The country is deeply divided. I don’t have this with my mother—we think alike when it comes to politics. She’s a photographer. She never taught me technical things, but she showed me a lot of images and inspired me that way.

Which one of the two versions is the mother you want to have? Which is the one you had?

My mom was very close to me but I think somehow she was also absent. I don’t know where and when—and she would disagree—but we always had people working at the house, taking care of children. This is very common, cheap, and easy in Brazil. The relation to slavery in this regard, even though people are not slaves anymore, is still tangible. This separation of class and color is so strong and almost the same today. Yet I have someone in Rio who helps me with my children. I brought my daughter here the last time I came to Oberhausen but it was impossible to work of course [laughs].

Unlike other filmmakers you gave a few remarks before the screening of your film. You wanted to sensitize people to the political reality in Brazil. How can we distinguish right from wrong here in Europe, when both sides convincingly claim their version of the truth?

It’s so grotesque now. It’s become impossible to be neutral. I see from my grandmother how some European media outlets just repeat Brazilian media outlets. In France they don’t understand [the situation in Brazil]. Here they don’t understand. You trust in justice here. In Brazil they carried out an impeachment—it’s unimaginable. They protect the rich and get away with it.

Why does Lula have to come back? Why can’t it be another person like him?

Brazil right now is like France: the left is busy fighting with itself. It doesn’t have a strong leader. Lula doesn’t even want to lead—he’s old and tired—but he sees the situation and doesn’t have a choice. He’s a hero. The judges don’t even have any evidence to put him in jail. By contrast, all the people in the current Brazilian government have a lot of criminal charges pending. They own islands and banks. The proof is all over the place.

Does it make you feel bad about the world?

When you grow up in a democracy, as I did, when you are part of the bourgeoisie, the left wing, you don’t imagine it could ever get this bad. This is what surprises me, what scares me. At the same time, I feel a sense of renewal, driven by youth movements that fight for feminism, for people of color. It’s as strong as ever before and very beautiful. It will make it harder for the coupists.

Do you have an expectation or desire for your work when you show it to people?

It’s a way of doing poetry for me, and of sharing. A way of touching others. It’s a conversation in another language. I think I chose this form very early. Cinema captures the mysteriousness of life.

You have a retrospective here. You are one of the main subjects at this festival. How does that make you feel?

To watch the films together makes me think about what I did and what I’m going to do next. It’s a nice process. I’ve received a lot of love and smiles and kindness—it gives me a lot of energy. All of my films are self-produced; there is not much money involved. I need money for films, and I would like to get to a point where things are a bit easier financially. I got a small grant for this current film, maybe five thousand euros. Just the plane to get there cost three thousand euros because you have to rent the entire plane.