Portugal’s Filmmaking Wonder Child Is Pushing the Boundaries of Art
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Bcause she’s drawn to the difficult.
When filmmaker Salomé Lamas calls her creations “hybrid,” she isn’t talking Toyotas. Whether she’s shooting desperate fortune-seekers heading into La Rinconada, the world’s highest-altitude mine, in Eldorado XXI (2016), a documentary that feels at once primitive and postapocalyptic, or hovering between reality and fictionalized memory in No Man’s Land (2013), a profile of a bloodthirsty Portuguese special forces soldier turned gun for hire, she is, in her own words, going “where they can’t put labels on you.” Except that this 29-year-old has already acquired a number of labels — director, installation artist, documentarian, author, theoretician — while becoming one of the most exhibited, awarded, granted and prolific citizens of Portugal, boldly roving across the terrain of contemporary media to reclaim and redefine her home nation’s penchant for global exploration.
I don’t have a romantic vision of filmmaking. I find ‘creativity’ and ‘talent’ meaningless words.
Talking to this slight, soft-spoken figure with mournful, monkish features beneath severe bangs — Joan of Arc as modern-day hipster — it seems astonishing that she has already logged some 25 film-based projects on her résumé. She has also earned fellowships from Harvard, the Rockefeller Foundation and Berlin’s DAAD; participated in numerous museum shows and workshops; and presented at international conferences, and she holds degrees from schools in Prague, Amsterdam and her hometown of Lisbon.
Ask Lamas for the source of her drive and inspiration, however, and she pauses from sipping mint tea purchased from one of the city’s open-air kiosks. She credits her artistic, workaholic parents, who she says led her around the world’s museums and took her to art films — Marguerite Duras’ India Song was a favorite, along with Star Wars — so that she always “felt older than my contemporaries, included in a larger adult world.” She studied cinema and art, along with large doses of history and philosophy, but was never motivated by mainstream commercial success in a nation where, she points out, “there has luckily never been much of a movie industry.”
Lamas is very much a product of Lisbon, a capital on Europe’s periphery that’s been embraced by young bohemian types, along with vacationing tourists. The risk, she says, is letting loose the reins so the city turns into a “new Disneyland,” but Lisbon has for years been a multicultural hotbed of avant-garde experimentation that pulses through a network of underground spaces, Afro-Brazilian cultural centers and antiquarian bookshops. As much as she draws from Portugal’s artistic traditions — the melancholy surrealism of turn-of-the-century poet Fernando Pessoa, Paulo Rego’s dark and mildly sinister portraits, singers of tragic fado ballads — Lamas is also eager to smash stereotypes. “I don’t have a romantic vision of filmmaking,” she said in an interview last year. “I find ‘creativity’ and ‘talent’ meaningless words.” Instead she likens her work to that of a cobbler, a steady, focused — and decidedly unsentimental — honing of skills.
It’s the kind of contrary, exacting approach that has drawn the attention of people like Nuno Crespo, dean at the School of Arts at Portuguese Catholic University. Noting her “particular sensitivity” and ability to transform the world into images, Crespo says Lamas “has been able to develop a work that despite its format — short films, feature films or video installations — always has the capacity to become a pertinent meditation on the human, its limits and its presence on earth.”
Indeed, Lamas’ cinematic meditations take varied forms and attach to a surprising range of subjects — her first staged work, Fatamorgana, is a political parody set in a wax museum on the outskirts of Beirut. Throughout, however, the director says that she is driven by an “out-of-control curiosity.” Curiosity that has landed her in extreme and dangerous conditions, like filming at 18,000 feet in the Andean mountains, being interrogated by the KGB in Moldova and enduring a three-week solo hike in the jungles of Borneo. Her next work-in-progress will be no different; in her first foray into fiction, Lamas will be shooting in poverty-stricken Mozambique. By way of explanation, the director says, “I’m drawn to situations where I am trapped because I find the actual shooting so painful.”
And so she travels to the ends of the earth, to document life lived at the margins, in order to connect audiences sitting comfortably at home with people and places at the fringes of existence. Her goal, she gamely summarizes, is to slow the harried pace of modern life, “to achieve an active dialogue with the viewers, forcing them to be patient and reflect … and confront subjects that are full of questions.”
Lamas’ dogged insistence on mining those liminal spaces and states of being is what makes her work unique. Luis Urbano, who runs O Som E A Fúria production company and has worked with a number of leading Portuguese directors, tells OZY: “Working with her as a producer, I am very interested in her cinematographic approach blurring the boundaries between documentary and fiction. The way she connects memory, history and fiction in her films makes her absolutely singular.”
Still, the ethics of presenting a remote piece of the world through passing, subjective glances and the voyeuristic nature of technological advances remain at the heart of Lamas’ concerns as an artist. “Turning private into public makes nonfiction filmmaking a dirty business,” she concedes. But for someone still honing her craft, cobbling together a career, she is aware that “there just aren’t any guidelines out there, any rule books to help you.”
Driven to perfection as much as the outer margins of existence, this creative wunderkind tends to work on several “parallel projects” at once. But the reason, Lamas explains before rushing off into the Lisbon night, isn’t merely to sustain grants. “I’m never happy with a film when it’s done, so the best way to escape is starting a new one.”