Susana de Sousa Dias uses only twelve minutes of archive footage in her 72-minute archive-based film “Still Life”. The whole process of making the film is a story of carefully selecting and closely examining the images to discover new details and incorporating them into the film in the right way. DOX met her and her producer-husband Ansgar Schäfer at Docs Kingdom.

Susana de Sousa Dias
Susana de Sousa Dias

Still Life (reviewed in DOX#60) is a personal interpretation of the dictatorship in Portugal, like a collection of memories from the period. Susana de Sousa Dias takes up the challenge of showing the reality of the oppressed by using images shot by the oppressors. The 72-minute film has only twelve minutes of archive footage (mostly propaganda) and police photographs of political prisoners, with no words, but an originally composed music score. The archive footage is shown in slow-motion, shots are repeated and other sequences zoom in on details and faces in the images. The scenes are divided by fading into and out of black.

This film is about a period of Portuguese history but you say it is not a historical film, so what is it?

Susana: When I said that, I meant a “historical film” in the traditional sense. I wanted to make a film dealing with historical material, but I didn’t want to explain history. I didn’t want to come up with a speech about history. I didn’t want to work with words, only images. In the Doc’s Kingdom debate, we were discussing ways of approaching a subject; there is always a dilemma: either you “know” or you “see”. If you “know”, you move inside a stable world but you lose the real image; if you “see” without knowing, you lose the stability and find yourself in an uncomfortably open world. From the beginning, I sought to move in the field of ‘to see’. It is the image that opens up themes, the issues I seek to deal with. We see the images without any pressure from the words, without that violence of the speech that commands how we read what we see.

Susana de Sousa Dias in Person

For me, it was not very important that this story happened in Portugal – yet it happened in Portugal and of course, I share that history – but I wanted to raise questions to encourage reflection on our present. The way we see a picture today depends both on memory and on the present because an image is never a fixed point in the course of history. Every image is caught in the movement from past to future. There is no crystallised time. What I also sought to achieve with this film was reverberation across different peoples, different ages, different countries.

Are you allowed to use archive material in this way: taking it out of the context it was made for and manipulating it as you do, using slow motion and inserting it into another context?

Susana: I think yes, one can do this, but it depends on the approach. I have my own ethical attitude as to the images. Right from the start, I established my limits. I have always tried to use the images without subverting them. My intention was never to take them out of their original context. There have been times when people have asked me why didn’t I edit them in a different way, that is, far more concentrated, with far greater emotional impact. I simply couldn’t do that. However, perhaps the greatest question I had to deal with was how could I show the reverse side of the dictatorship through the very images produced by that dictatorship. This proved really difficult, but it was also a challenge.

Ansgar: If you look at the material we use, it is propaganda, but well-produced propaganda. That is why it is so very easy to actually believe the message behind these images. The aim of propaganda is not to show reality but rather what any regime wants its people to believe in. So, the problem was how to show the reality of a dictatorial regime where there is no critical material — the opposition had no means to film, and even if they had, it would probably have been destroyed. So you have to find this counter-image within the propaganda material and this was the particular problem here.

I do think some of the images get the opposite meaning with just being shown like you do, like those from the former colonies, for example, with the soldiers and the boys playing the drums – I don’t know which country it was from.

Ansgar: Angola. It is the repetition of the same image. By zooming in closer and closer, you suddenly discover the faces. If you see the original images and listen to the original narration you simply don’t see their faces. This was actually an issue that was raised when we discussed this project last year at the Lisbon Docs. People asked us why we hadn’t kept the original narration, but if we had done so, nobody would have seen the images. This is the problem faced by any documentary: if you actually listen to the voice-over, you don’t see the image.

I was quite impressed by the quality of the police pictures of the political prisoners.

Susana: I think they are really good photographs and are very high quality. When I first saw them I was really impressed, not because of the quality but because of the faces I saw. I couldn’t get them out of my mind because they left such a strong impression. In fact, these images were the starting point for the whole project.

Ansgar: In the beginning, Susana was looking for certain types of expressions, because in these faces there are some archetypal expressions. You must imagine the situation. On the one hand, there are those who were trained for being captured. You can recognise them immediately in the pride or the strength in their faces. On the other, you have the ordinary people who got picked up off the street by the police for whatever the reason. These people had no idea of what might happen to them and were truly frightened.

To be able to shoot the images of the prisoners, we had to get written authorisation from the persons in the pictures or, if they were dead, from their heirs along with their death certificate. Mostly we didn’t know who they were. Their name was written on the back of the image, however. The archive staff would let us see the images, but they wouldn’t let us turn them over in order to identify and read the names on the back. And it wasn’t even an issue of possibly damaging the photos because they had already been protected. It was a complete Kafkaesque situation. So we had to desperately seek out whatever alternatives we could find. Finally, we ended up asking all our friends and friends of friends, etc., if they knew anybody who had been in prison during the dictatorship. By the end of all of this, we did actually manage to shoot the images we wanted.

It seems from the discussion at Doc’s Kingdom that this is still a sensitive issue in Portugal?

Susana: Oh Yes. We didn’t get any financial support for the film in Portugal. It was financed by French money and by ourselves. We asked for money from the Portuguese film institute (ICAM), and other institutions in Portugal, as well as all TV channels. Everybody refused support. Finally, when the film was finished, the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation provided financial support for its promotion. They really liked it.

The music is very dominant when there are no words, and at times very aggressive. Why did you choose this music?

Susana: One day, when I was trying to write the script for this project, I listened to some music from my brother, a composer, and suddenly the entire film came into my head. It was a very strange experience, the only time such a thing has ever happened to me. Suddenly I saw the film and I found the solution. It is a very special piece because it is very spatial. We listen and feel we are entering rooms. We understand movement. The conceptual structure of the film came after I had listened to this music. It was an eight-minute piece I started with. I edited the images with some bits of my brother’s music. Afterward, I gave all the material to him and he started recomposing in order to finish the complete composition. Then he gave me the latest version and I started to re-edit all the material. Specifically, I again cut the music and changed a whole lot of things. Then, I again sent it off to my brother and back and forth. This process took a whole year.

I originally intended to make a 25-minute film, but my French co-producer Xavier Carniaux suggested making it into an hour, then he would take it to ARTE. The film ended up lasting 72 minutes.

Ansgar: Yes, it is great that they have this slot (La Lucarne) which is not closed like the rest of Arte. Although they kept asking for changes, Susana managed to defend her film. They finally accepted it but it was tough and she had to fight for it. It was a very interesting process.

Modern Times Review