Catarina Mourao Interview

The Wolf‘s Lair/A toca do lobo screened at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in a section called Spectrum, launching new films of directors who are already established. The documentary is an attempt to retrace the director’s family history, working as an unpredictable journey through the family archives (old photographs, black & white films, as well as an official dossier from the days of Salazar’s dictatorship referring to the director’s grandfather, who was a writer). It’s commented alternately by the relatives who give out their own versions of the past. I’ve asked Catarina Mourão to talk a little bit about the documentaries she made so far and about the potential interpretations and associations provoked by The Wolf’s Lair.


C.M. I started making films in 1997, which was 17 years ago. I did film school, I studied in England & then I came back to Portugal, where there was no culture on documentaries. The things that were shown on TV here had more of a journalistic approach. Myself & many people started to be interested in this idea of creative documentaries, especially since there were no funds for making big-budget films and the thought of working with only a small crew was appealing. I know today you can make fiction films like this, but seventeen years back, there was no digital, we were working with betacam tapes – or film, when you had money to buy it. I started watching documentaries from outside with a group of friends and, slowly, each one of us started developing our own subjects. The common denominator, what was interesting to us all, was showing the present. We were interested in direct cinema, the observational approach, so many of my films are in this vein, even if, one after the other, they become less naïve, more constructed.

I won’t tell you about all my films, but at least three that I think have a connection with “The Wolf’s Lair”, indirectly. My first film was about a lady who was living in a really decadent house. It was shot in Goa, which used to be a Portuguese colony in India, but I wasn’t really interested in the large-scale history of the place, I was focused on this story of this woman. She was 80 and she was taking care of this immense house on her own. What I was recording was her everyday life in the house, trying to preserve it and at the same time showing it to tourists – it was about this conflict between her nostalgia for the past and trying to be pragmatic at the same time, thinking about preserving the house for the future. Also, going deeper into her beliefs, you notice things are shifting – for instance, although she’s catholic, you can see that Hindu culture and civilisation are also very present, it’s a fusion of cultures. The film was called “The Lady of Chandor” and it’s been shown around quite a bit.


I.T.: I can sort of see the connection..

C.M.: Yeah, there’s this idea of people trapped in spaces and becoming isolated (or not). In “The Wolf’s Lair”, my aunt, even if you don’t see her, is sort of in the same situation.


I.T.: The second time I’ve seen the film, it became more obvious that you wanted to get closer to the locked-up house.

C.M.: In “The Lady of Chandor”, what I did was I spent about two-three months with the woman and filmed everything she did. I was interested in the exotic life in Goa, which seems a place trapped in time, it still has all this phantasmagoria about the past but at the same time globalization is taking over and the tourists are always coming in.


I.T.: But they’re not there for the present, it’s almost like they come to Goa to see the past.

C.M.: Of course, they want to be immersed in nostalgia… Anyway, this film was important for me, in its context, because all the documentaries that were being made at the time around colonies were factual and they were explaining this and that. My film was also about history, but from a different angle. It was more organic and more cinematic, I was interested in this idea of time and space and how they revealed themselves to the camera. After that, I made other films much more concerned with the present time, about, for instance, housing estates: I made a film called “On Edge” about kids playing at summer in a housing estate – what do kids do when they have nothing to do? Again, there was this sense of the scenery, the backdrop, and the way it influences the people. I also did this film called “My Village Doesn’t Live Here Anymore”, about a community that was submerged, since they built a dam – the biggest in the Iberian Peninsula – and they built a replica of the village nearby. This meant that people had to leave their space, leave behind the past, there’s an emotional link that was cut. I filmed this old couple that had difficulties moving because they left their trees behind and they wouldn’t have time in the new place to watch another tree growing.


I.T. Did your film document the process of their moving from one place to the next?

C.M. This film was done at the same time when I started a production company with a friend – also called Catarina, who is connected to visual anthropology – and we had a project for this new museum they built in the new village; the idea was to film the daily life of the village for nearly three years, to get a sense of the agricultural cycles, something close to the ethnographic perspective. But when I grabbed the rushes, obviously, I edited something that was my version of it.
I.T. From what you describe it, it seems to have a strong cinematic stake – since, probably, at first, the villages look more similar to us, as spectators, than to the people who lived in the first village and moved to the second. They notice that the trees are different, for one thing.
C.M. You’d have to watch it to tell, I guess. Because I’m partial too, I’ve been living with the villagers for a long time. After this documentary, I’ve made another film with an old woman in a large house…

I.T. You must’ve really liked “Sunset Boulevard”, I guess. (giggles)

C.M. “Sunset Boulevard”! I did, actually. That film marked my childhood, I remember watching it when I was very young. (Nostalgic tone:) “I’m ready for my close up now”. This time, in my new documentary, the woman I was filming was an artist and she worked with shadows. The film was observational and not really, because what happened is that she wanted to be in control of the film, she used it as a work of her own. She was a well-known artist in Berlin but, at the age of 45, she retired to her native village and started taking care of her beautiful garden. Later, her art became more and more abstract, she stopped doing paintings – the type of art you can put on your wall – and she became interested in the “theatre of shadows” – these performances with shadows and light. When I met her, she wasn’t doing any of that, which was really disconcerting for me because – although what I expected was pretty conventional –, I thought I would see her make art. She told me “I’m not doing that anymore, my art is my garden”. So it’s a film about how she projects herself and her creativity in that garden. So, that was made in 2010 and it’s called “Through Shadows”. My last film, “The Wolf’s Lair”, was made in 2014. I make films really slowly. (giggles)

I.T. Which brings us back to “The Wolf’s Lair”. How did the project start?

C.M. I was pushed into a PhD after teaching film for a long time and I was initially afraid of being forced to do theoretical, academic work because what I really enjoy is making films. But I discovered I could do a practical PhD and that’s how I started working on this film. My initial proposal was to investigate how to represent dreams in documentaries – in fiction, a lot of films have dreams included and there are many clichés about them. Sure, there are experimental films like Maya Deren’s that create dream imagery, but a lot of narrative films that use dreams are non-imaginative, they’re just a way of pushing the plot forward, not much more. Anyway, I was interested in how dreams can help you, in a way, and how the fact that they’re represented cinematically can make you learn more about yourself and the world around. It was a pretty broad idea, very abstract, too – about a form of cinema representing not only dreams, but also memories.

I did a lot of experiments – I wouldn’t call them short films, because they’re not finished, but experiments with dreams: I filmed a lot of people sleeping and, gradually, I started talking to people about their dreams. I started talking to my mother, who’s a very pragmatic person about anything that’s slightly troublesome. She likes to see herself as an incurable optimist, nothing is really a problem, you have to go straight ahead. She was never interested in digging into her trouble.

I.T. Your film also articulates the flipside to this optimism, though: somebody says that your family never talked as if they had feelings.

C.M. Yeah, it’s true. Maybe because I make films and I use them to question myself, I put more passion into finding out stories and seeing how people relate to each other, the emotions involved.

I.T. What I found interesting about your film was this sort of cognitive exploration of how family stories work. It seemed to me that it’s less about dreams and more about narrative ellipses.

C.M. Of course, that was only the starting point. Afterwards, it’s about trying to understand how families construct their identities, which also means understanding how memory works and how you can trick memory; the link of memory with what actually happened is very fragile. I think if I said that my film is about my grandfather, it would be very reductive, because his character is used to see how everyone relates to each other and how they remember him.

I.T. What struck me when watching your film was the care for visual detail – it’s constructed as a sort of long trek through the family album and every detail is scrutinized. I also wondered if this visual construction that frames your film was constructed first, before interviewing your relatives, or you built it to support what they were saying.

C.M. It started with the visuals. I was really interested in how families construct their image and I think that, after photography was invented, it played an important role. It was my mother who took care of putting together the family album, we didn’t have one before. You have to keep in mind that it was rare at the time, especially in Portugal, for families to have home movies, for instance, even if my family was wealthy enough to afford it. It was through the visuals that I started seeing the film – it might seem redundant, but it’s true. Also, discovering the archive materials with my grandfather was a breakthrough moment – that’s when I said to myself, “Ok, I want to make a film about this”.

I.T. I was also curious to ask about the resemblance between the women in your family – to me, it’s obvious, although I know that it always seems more striking from the outside. It gives a sense of ritualistic repetition to the photographs, since the faces have in common distinguishable features.

C.M. I had this notion because everyone tells us that we look very similar. My sister isn’t in this film, she just appears in a small photograph, but when I saw pictures of my aunt that you think looks a bit like me – she looks exactly like my sister. And in the last scene, when we were opening the package with the pipe bags, I even cut my hair to look more like my mother.

It’s strange because daughters never want to look like their mothers and so, when everyone told me “you look just like my mother!”, I didn’t like it because it made me feel less independent.

I.T. The generation conflict, I guess. There’s another thing that made me wonder, during the film, especially after seeing the archive footage with your grandfather – he presented the pipe pouches (in black and white) and commented on the nuances you’d see if television was in colour. And toward the end of your documentary, you recuperate the bags and actually shoot them in colour. There are many forms of visuals, belonging to different technologies, and it all sort of plays out as a history of image-making.

C.M. You know, these things happen. It wasn’t intended to play out like that, but maybe in a sense I’m questioning it, when my grandfather says that television will never be as big and strong and capable of reproducing reality, the way that the human brain can do it. Also, I’m not sure how this seems outside of Portugal, but that television show with my grandfather now looks so slow and different to what’s happening now. But I really love that slowness, the sense of it being uncut.


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