Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Rita Ribas

makes mystery documentaries, short time capsules of clues and artefacts that unfold enigmatically through the duration of the films, arriving at the spectres of answers to their own intuitive questions. They’re full of ghosts and and family tales captured on video for posterity. They feel old in the sense that they feel wise, rooted in family history and old painted portraits and maxims from generations past. The films are about religion, ritual and affectionate details of living, death and memories and relations.

Rita’s first film Tia is about her Portugese grandmother, shot in her home as she lays in bed recovering from an unspecified operation, then goes through her house singing, reflecting, telling stories. There’s a sense of wonder in the house and in Tia, as she eats from a box of chocolates named for planets in the solar system or sings about suffering. You get the sense that these details we see and the tales she tells are at the surface of a much deeper pool of memories, and that the house is filled with old and hidden things. Tia opens a secret door and enters a dusty room where a locked case contains her mother’s wedding dress. She takes out the dress as if it’s the answer to the riddle of the film, and holds it to camera - a still portrait that feels more like a painting than a photograph. It has that much more weight.

Both Tia and Being Mother revolve around women in Rita’s family, and both films are composed of interviews and observations. Both films look at the details in the way their subjects live, picking out decorations and crockery, the routine of making tea. Being Mother begins with a wall mounted painting and then Rita’s mother discusses the purpose of her life. She jokes about being constantly busy. Both films are touchingly affectionate, light-hearted even, but at the same time in both there are hints of illness and inescapable reminders that time is passing away. The family dog needed an operation to remove a giant tumour. The father is prescribed pills. Rita’s mother talks about a ritual in which wax replicas are made of a person’s body parts where afflicted by disease or injury, and that the wax models are then kept so that their bearer is healed through faith. She presents a pair of wax hands, but whether these are esoteric curiosities she has come into, or that they belong to herself or her husband, is left open ended and unknown. We get the impressions of stories and of the past through pieces of evidence that speak only for their own existence and their being kept, held on to. Like the wedding dress, the hands feel like an answer, but it’s a subtle and intuitive one that completes the portrait of the film’s subject, and not a central point or big reveal.

The Fire is Rita’s longest film to date at 15 minutes, building on this technique in a much more ambitious way. Through fractured, non-linear footage of a family gathering at a farm in Rita’s Portugal home town, the film tells the story of a huge fire that tragically led to the death of a baby. The film opens again on an object – a lamp that has a small burn hole on its shade. Shots of the generations of the family are again suggestive of painted portraits – in The Fire, some of the family are filmed next to old family paintings (this paralleling of the film screen and canvas is revisited in Rita’s Still Films series of atmospheric landscapes). Photographs and heirlooms are picked out around the house. The rich sense of history lying in the individuals in Tia and Being Mother is multiplied into a whole extended family with pets and children and reminisces. Elderly relatives take turns at telling the story of the fire as children play outside. The film fades to black frequently so that often only their conversation or laughter is heard. The story can only be brought to life when all are assembled here. There is a strong sense of ritual – the family are very religious – in the atmosphere, storytelling and the invocation of the shared memory of that traumatic night. The documentary captures and evokes it perfectly.

Religion and belief are central to Heaven, Rita’s first film not to focus specifically on a single family, although it is equally funny, personal and emotional. It was inspired by the death of her family dog. The film was made in Abney Park cemetery, and is a series of snapshot portraits of dogwalkers and their dogs. The owners speak in voiceover from separately recorded interviews about whether they believe pets go to heaven, how they feel about their dogs. Almost all say they feel like the animals are family members, and their loss would be just as devastating. They meander off into reflections on lost loved ones and life after death, made all the more poignant by the Hackney beauty spot graveyard setting. As with all of Rita’s films there’s a sense of loss, things passing from physical, familial presences into stories, memories and video.

THE PICTURES: What drew you to filmmaking, and documentary filmmaking in particular? Would you say you have any strong influences?

RITA RIBAS: My earliest connection to filmmaking were my father's home-movies and slideshows. Whenever we went on holiday he would make these strange films that were more like experimental/art videos - they always focused on random details, and didn't make much narrative sense - but managed to capture the moments, that often go unnoticed, in a very special way. I guess this is where I started to form my appreciation for observing the world around me and understanding the camera's power to capture the sensations of atmosphere and memory.
Other influences: Werner Herzog (his choice of subjects and approach to documentary), Ulrich Seidl (his juxtaposition of real-life comedy and horror), Errol Morris (specially 'Gates of Heaven' and 'Vernon, Florida') and David Lynch (what would a documentary look like in his hands?). And one film that's recently stuck in my mind is Nikolaus Geyrhalter's documentary 'Our Daily Bread' (for its hypnotic depiction of industrial food production and surreal Kubrick-esque cinematography).

TP: How do you choose the subjects for your films? Do you have a concept in mind and then find a subject, or is it more organic than that?

RR: The film itself is rarely clear in my mind when I'm starting out. It's always a process of feeling in the dark. It starts with an interest in a subject, place or person (things I come across in my everyday, on travels or on the internet), and expands through observation and interaction. Often I only start to make out where the film is going and how it will be shaped after I start interviewing people. So in a way its a bit of a scary process but also very rewarding - I like feeling like a detective, connecting bits and pieces together to make a story - and learning along the way. There is a good quote by Errol Morris; "If you know exactly what you're going to say before you say it, why bother?"

TP: There's a lot of humour in your films, as well as a lot of quite touching elements. They're a lot more emotional, in a very personal way, than a lot of documentary films can be. Where do you think that comes from? Would you say that personal element is really important to your work?

RR: My films explore subjects that are close to me and represent my own perception of the world. I am less concerned with creating an accurate representation and more with evoking the subtleties of lived experience - the sensations and emotions - so this is quite a personal take on documentary and sometimes means 'reality' is treated in a malleable way. I think there's a lot that documentary can learn from fiction. The process of filmmaking is also very personal - discovering new places, meeting people and observing different ways of life - this is what I enjoy the most about making documentaries and I think it shows in the type of films I make.

TP: Your films started off quite small (i don't mean this in a negative way at all) and intimate and have expanded in scope. Was this your intention? Do you find it comes naturally? Where do you hope to take things in future?

RR: My work has definitely evolved - previously I made films that only involved my family, but now I've been engaging with other people - people I don't know. There is so much you can get away with when you're working with family - you know they'll forgive you! Those earlier films were almost like my 'training ground' - I felt safe to experiment with ideas and now I'm ready to go out into the world. But I don't want to loose that sense of intimacy - its something you have to work harder at when you don't initially know someone, but I think its something that comes across when you really care about your subject.

TP:What are you working on at the moment?

RR: I've just received funding from IdeasTap to make a short documentary in my hometown in Portugal. It's about people's devotion to a 'saint' that is not officially recognised by the Catholic church. I will be spending a lot of time in the small shrine where the saint's body is displayed and where people go to pray and to give offerings. Amongst many other things the shrine has received over 6,000 wedding dresses donated by people praying for happy marriages. I'm interested in why they feel the need to pray to the saint and what they get out of it, and I'm also interested in the atmosphere of the shrine.

From The Pictures #4

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